BOOKS/Seth Sandronsky

North Star

North Star: A Memoir by Peter Camejo (Haymarket, May 2010)

Peter Camejo stayed politically active but independent of Democrats and Republicans for a half-century. How? He did not do it alone but with family, foes and friends. Camejo, who died in 2008 at age 68, engaged in collective struggles: antiwar, civil, economic and electoral rights, the core of his posthumous memoir. In it, he details the ebbs and flows of those involvements. It’s a stirring story.

Camejo’s early experiences drove him to oppose injustice. One stands out. As a lad, he sees construction workers living in slums after building luxury structures in Venezuela for his father. Camejo promises to help change such class inequality. That sentiment propels him to seek out socialism in practice and theory.

As a teen and young adult, he gravitates towards radical politics, eventually joining the Socialist Workers Party Youth after enrolling at MIT. The SWP opposed the Democratic and Republican parties for their foreign and domestic policies. That militant stance matched Malcom X’s. In matters of peace and war, class and race, he and the SWP agreed that both parties offered no alternative to the status quo for the vast mass of the American public. How and why that stalemate has prevailed despite many attempts to change it from the grassroots runs a red line throughout Camejo’s autobiography. Changing this political straitjacket was his life’s work, and his was a critical view of the process.

To this end, Camejo shares his years of activism in Berkeley: mobilizing for peace, free speech and minority rights, beginning in 1965. In a telling passage, he recounts a humorous approach to public speaking while giving talks against the US war in Vietnam. “When casualties are reported every night you will notice that on one side they say a nationality, the United States; on the other they say an ideology, communists. For instance they will say 20 Americans were killed, but they killed 1,500 communists. If they were consistent and gave an ideological breakdown, it would be something like 30 conservatives, 42 liberals, 155 socialists, and 250 apoliticals were killed and 4 existentialists were missing.” This critique puts me in mind of the late George Carlin.

Camejo’s account of the rise and demise of independent Latino political groups in the Southwest during the 1970s is illuminating. For them and dissident groups before and after, breaking free of the Democratic Party is a steep mountain to climb. Camejo admits that he briefly lost sight of this trend in the 1980s emergence of the Rainbow Coalition, which steered progressives into the Democratic Party. He faults the winner-take-all US political system that stifles independent party formation. Camejo details the proof from his experiences running for political office (governor in California, for the US Senate from Massachusetts, president and vice-president as an independent candidate from 1970 to 2004). His narrative speaks volumes about this pathology in the US political economy.

Abroad, Camejo learned much about communicating with people. He recalled a young man speak publicly in Nicaragua after its revolution. This speaker connected with his audience by using simple words about their past and current lives. Camejo adopted that same approach, rooting it in US history, especially the pivotal Civil War and Reconstruction eras. Thus his book’s title, North Star, the same name of the abolitionist paper that Frederick Douglas founded nearly two decades before he and others labored to overthrow slavery in the US. Running as Ralph Nader’s vice president in 2004, Camejo drew upon this antebellum period to inform and inspire audiences.

In his spare time he launched socially responsible investing. This chapter of his life is a bit under-developed in terms of Camejo’s thoughts as a radical on entering the financial services industry in the 1980s. Since then, this industry has swelled as a part of the US economy, marked increasingly by income and wealth inequality that Camejo fought.

His book’s 21 chapters are jargon-free. There are no serpentine sentences and sectarian phrases. Four appendixes wrap things up. The last lays bare the economic base of the US’s two-party system of electoral politics before and after the Civil War. Readers hungry to understand and change the economy and polity of the US in 2010 and beyond won’t lack sustenance with Camejo’s new book.

Seth Sandronsky lives in Sacramento, Calif. Email

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2010

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