[Marxism] Seth Sandronsky review of "North Star"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Jul 23 08:00:34 MDT 2010

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 
ssandronsky at yahoo.com.

 From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2010

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