Sunday, December 7, 2014

Book Review: North Star

Peter Camejo's (1939 - 2008) memoir, North Star, was published after his death. I knew Peter (I will dispense with the formal Mr. Camejo) when we were both comrades in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). He was the SWP's candidate for president in 1976. I was his chauffeur during his campaign trips to Chicago and Milwaukee. I certainly recall that, but I was on my way out of the Party by that time. I must have driven Peter around on several earlier occasions in the early 70s.

I remember him well. I wrote to him near the end of his life confessing my Republican sympathies. He returned with a very nice letter, admitting that he didn't remember me, stating that he was dying from cancer, and jokingly hoping that none of the candidates I supported would win any election. It is that fundamental civility and good-nature that I admired in him then and now.

Those traits permeate his memoir. He never misses a chance to say nice things about people, whatever their politics. He speaks kindly of Teddy Kennedy, despite the fact that he was a Democrat. He's very appreciative of help he got from the Bill Simon, a Republican. He has nice words for Jerry Rubin, yet another political opponent. This innate charity served him well, and made him much more influential than other Trotskyists, who insisted on using insulting terms such as class enemies or opponents.

As a comrade I was completely unaware of the jealousy and fear that he inspired in the SWP leadership. Jack Barnes, Barry Sheppard, Gus Horowitz, and others did what they could to sabotage his presidential campaign. They arranged to kick him out of the Party shortly afterwards. And no wonder--Peter was an enormously talented politico. He vastly outshone the mediocrities who fancied themselves as leaders. Left unhindered, Peter would have become the leader of the organization. So they had to get rid of him.

Peter fancied himself as a principled political leader--unbought and unbowed. I think that's probably a fair statement, but it's surprising that he never explicitly states what those principles were. So putting it in my own words, they reduce to

  1. Fighting for socialism, which he defined as democratic control of the economy;
  2. Uncompromising hatred of the Democratic Party, which he thought of as an unprincipled coalition supporting corporate power and imperialist war.
Peter came by his socialism early. While born in New York City, he was the child of an elite, Venezuelan family, growing up in that country. His father founded the Venezuelan tourist industry, building several beach resorts. On vacations Peter would take his current girlfriend and they'd go yachting off the coast of Venezuela. He had enormous respect and affection for his dad, but at the same time wondered about all the construction workers and hotel maids who went home to shantytowns at the end of the day. It was that experience that converted him to socialism.

Peter's adult life may be divided into three parts. In his early years, while still a student at MIT, he joined the SWP. His attraction to Trotskyism is no surprise, given that his principles overlapped theirs. He quickly became a leader of the affiliated Young Socialist Alliance (YSA), and became a leader of the antiwar movement in Berkeley, California. This was before I joined the movement, but it is clear that he was only loosely under the supervision of the New York office. He did things that my comrades and I would have regarded as ultraleft.

He was very successful at building the antiwar movement, and I'll let him tell that tale. I relate here some of my responses to his account.

First, he has fond memories about how he out-smarted then-Governor Ronald Reagan. And no doubt in some narrow tactical sense he occasionally did. But in the larger sense he didn't. Quite the contrary--Reagan leveraged his way to the presidency using the threat of unrest promised by the antiwar movement. It was Reagan who rolled Camejo, not the other way round. I don't think Peter ever realized that.

Second, even as he wrote his memoir he regarded the Vietnam war as a conflict between white hats and black hats. The white hats were the Vietnamese people heroically resisting the black hats in the form of U.S. imperialism. He never acknowledges any ambiguity. Peter doesn't mention the aftermath of the war--the killing fields or the boat people. The SWP supported not only the Vietcong, but also the Khmer Rouge during the entire war. Those groups were not democrats. If democratic control of the economy was Peter's goal, he was backing the wrong hats.

Finally, Peter's account of the FBI's efforts to infiltrate, disrupt and discredit the antiwar movement is painful to read. It is so easy for law enforcement to think they're above the law, and the temptation to use extra-constitutional means seems compelling. J. Edgar Hoover was not a friend of American democracy.

The second third of Peter's life began after he was expelled from the Party. He needed a job, and after a false start or two, a friend suggested that he become a salesman for Merrill Lynch. He suffered some pangs of conscience, but it turned out to be a perfect fit for him. He became very good at the job, and soon founded his own investment firm, Progressive Assets Management (PAM). The goal was to seek investments in companies that furthered progressive causes. The larger label was socially responsible investing (SRI).

Peter championed SRI, even writing a book on the topic. He claims it's a better investment than the stock market at large--a statement I find impossible to believe. Nevertheless, he had some successes. He was astonished to find that large environmental organizations had endowments invested in ExxonMobil and the like. Peter was able to convert them to SRI.

While he offers no details, there is no doubt that his investment efforts earned him a good living. During this time he married Morella, a distant relative from Venezuela. They remained married to the end of his life. He adopted her children and grandchildren as his own. None of them wanted for money.

The final episode in Peter's life was his affiliation with the Green Party. He fought two battles within that Party. First and most important, to prevent the organization from throwing support to Democratic candidates. And second, to expand the mission of the Party to include socialism generally, rather than just narrow environmental issues. He worked closely with two Trotskyist offshoots of the SWP, the International Socialist Organization and Solidarity.

He ran for governor of California three times: in 2002 against Gray Davis and Bill Simon. He got 5.3% of the vote. Peter was very proud of that campaign. When Davis was recalled in 2003 he ran again, coming in fourth in a field of 135. He felt partially betrayed by Arianna Huffington, whom he initially regarded as an ally. His last try was in 2006 against Arnold Schwarzenegger and Phil Angelides, the least successful attempt.

I would have thought that his 2004 Green Party run for vice-president (with Ralph Nader) was the highlight of his political life. But he didn't see it that way. He was bitterly disappointed by the "capitulators," i.e., people who refused to support him because they felt compelled to vote for the "lesser-evil" Democratic Party. He is especially upset with Michael Moore and Howard Zinn, but his book contains a long list of famous progressive names. He wonders how you can oppose the war (now in Iraq, and again completely clueless), and then support warmongers among the Democrats. He even calls John Kerry a "murderer" because of what he did in Vietnam.

Peter considered the 2004 race to be a failure.

Peter had intelligence, charm, charisma, and courage. He really was unbought and unbowed. I agree with him on many things. The Democratic Party really is an unprincipled coalition of special interests. We do need to legalize the status of immigrants already in the US. Some reform of our law enforcement agencies looks overdue.

But on the bigger issues he's just plain wrong. Socialism--especially the utopian variant he championed--is both impossible and undesirable. Look at Peter's native Venezuela for the most recent example of socialism's abysmal failure. 

No doubt there is ambiguity aplenty in our wars in Vietnam and Iraq. In both cases one can legitimately ask if we should've gotten involved in the first place. But given our involvement, it would have been much better for all concerned if we had won those wars. Vietnam would today be a wealthy country if we had. Iraq would surely be better off than it is now. Peter refused to see any ambiguity. Despite his personal charity, he was incapable of seeing any good or humanitarian potential in our war efforts.

Peter's book is charming and sentimental. I appeals to people like me, who have a personal connection with him. I doubt somebody without that connection will find it as interesting. Even I found it a tad too long--I skipped over parts.

It's a good book, but not an important one.

Further Reading:


  1. You're right the SWP leadership, especially Jack Barnes, feared and resented Peter Camejo's influence within the party, but I doubt that Gus Horowitz had anything to do with his separation from it. By 1980, he himself had left the organization, nor had he been a leader for some time.

  2. Horowitz spoke at Peter's memorial meeting. His blog: