Peter Miguel Camejo — 1939-2008

Issue 

Supporters of social justice around the world were devastated to receive the news that renowned US socialist and fighter for a better world Peter Camejo had succumbed to cancer and passed away on September 13.

Camejo, of Venezuelan descent, spent much of his childhood in that country and in 1960 represented Venezuela in the Rome Olympics. He studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California, Berkeley.

As a student he joined the Young Socialist Alliance and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), becoming a leader of both.

He was a leader of the US anti-war movement, and in 1967 was suspended by Berkeley campus authorities for "unauthorised use of a megaphone". Then-governor Ronald Reagan listed him as one of the 10 "most dangerous" people in California.

He ran for president for the SWP in 1976. An interview he gave during that campaign can be found at socialist e-journal Links, http://www.links.org.au.

However, by the late 1970s, the SWP under its central leader Jack Barnes was taking an increasingly sectarian turn, insisting that only struggles led by the industrial working class were of significance and refusing to participate in the existing struggles tainted by "petty bourgeois" leadership. This turn was accompanied by an increasingly undemocratic internal regime.

Camejo was one of many "dissidents" expelled and he wrote a devastating critique of the direction of the SWP in a 1983 piece entitled "Against Sectarianism", which argued against a retreat from the outward looking orientation based on seeking to unite with and mobilise the greatest numbers of people in struggle — a perspective that had allowed the SWP to play a central role in the movement against the Vietnam War.

In the 1980s and early '90s, he travelled to Australia and spoke around the country in tours organised by the socialist youth organisation Resistance and the Socialist Workers Party (now the Democratic Socialist Perspective), the organisations that launched and still help sustain Green Left Weekly.

Camejo ran at the Greens' candidate for governor of California in 2002, in the 2003 recall vote and in 2006. He was Ralph Nader's vice-presidential candidate in the 2004 election on an independent ticket after failing to win a battle with more right-wing pro-Democrat Greens leaders about the need for the Greens to endorse Nader as they had in 2000.

In an interview with Canadian socialist Ernest Tate published in GLW #602, Camejo responded to the accusations in the 2004 race that Nader was "stealing votes" from the pro-war Democrat candidate John Kerry, and therefore a "vote for Nader is a vote for Bush" by pointing out that all of Bush's hated policies of war and attacks on civil liberties that Kerry had supported, Nader opposed.

He turned the argument on its head: "We think a vote for Kerry is a vote for Bush; a vote for Bush is a vote for Bush, so we think it's really Bush versus Nader … In reality, Kerry is stealing all of Nader's votes."

Camejo's legacy outlives him. His brilliant pamphlet, How to Make a Revolution in the United States — a combination of two speeches given in 1969 and 1970 — is published by Resistance Books in Australia and is used by Resistance activists as a popular introduction into how social change can be achieved. The text has been published at Links.

In his many talks, Camejo's sharp wit cut to the heart of the corporate system, exposing its hypocrisy and injustice with a healthy sense of the ludicrous.

He had the rare knack of taking seemingly complex concepts and making them simple.

In a September 14 post on the Marxmail e-list, Tom O'Lincoln, who belonged to a rival US socialist organisation, recalled watching Camejo explain the concept of social class in a speech to students around 1970: "Want to know what social class you're in? Simple. Take a six-month vacation in resorts in the Carribean and pay with a cheque. If the cheque bounces, you're a member of the working class."

Understanding, as he repeatedly argued, that all progressive change is won through the actions of ordinary people, Camejo constantly advocated the need to take advantage of, and searched tirelessly for, political openings that enabled radicals to reach out to working people and involve them in the struggle for a better world.

To the end, Camejo remained a powerful proponent both for the rights of the oppressed but also for the need, in order to advance those rights, to break with the corporate two-party system and create a political force that serves ordinary people.

As the Rudd Labor government continues the policies of the former Howard government in its essentials, the same lessons apply for us here.

Below is an abridged message entitled "In honour of Peter Miguel Camejo" issued on September 13 by Ralph Nader, currently running for president as an independent.

* * *

Peter Miguel Camejo, a civil rights leader, socially responsible investment pioneer, and magnanimo caballero for third party politics in the US, peacefully passed away early Saturday morning, September 13, at his home in Folsom, California with his wife Morella at his side — only days after completing his autobiography.

Peter was a student leader, civil rights advocate, leader in the socially responsible investment industry with his own investment firm, Progressive Asset Management, Inc., and author of books including Racism, Revolution, Reaction, 1861-1877: The Rise and Fall of Radical Reconstruction, California Under Corporate Rule, and his recent book, The SRI Advantage: Why Socially Responsible Investing Has Outperformed Financially.

Peter used his eloquence, sharp wit, and barnstorming bravado to blaze a trail for 21st century third party politics in the US. He was a third party candidate for state and national office, making three gubernatorial runs in California as a Green, including one in the 2002 election when he earned 5.3% of the vote.

In the 2003 recall election, he debated Arnold Schwarzenegger and Gray Davis, and in the 2004 presidential election, he was my running mate.

Among the many causes Peter forcefully championed were a living wage, health care for all, and making the US the world leader in renewable energy.

He was also a passionate advocate for electoral reform, pressing for proportional representation and instant run-off voting (allows voters to rank their top choices) in an effort to overturn the "200-year-old dysfunctional money-dominated winner take-all system that disrespects the will of the people".

Peter was a friend, colleague and politically courageous champion of the downtrodden and mistreated of the entire Western Hemisphere. Everyone who met, talked, worked or argued with Peter will miss the passing of a great American.

When his autobiography (with the working title Northstar) is published, we will all be able to get a vivid sense of the great measure of Peter Camejo as a sentinel force for civil rights and civil liberties, and expander of democracy.

His lifework will inspire the political and economic future for a long time.

[Stuart Munckton is a member of the Democratic Socialist Perspective national executive and co-editor of Green Left Weekly.]