How to Make a Revolution in the United States

by Peter Camejo on June 11, 2013

The following is the abridged text of a speech delivered by Peter Camejo at an educational conference of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA) in New York on May 3, 1969. It is taken from the May 30, 1969 issue of The Militant.

Revolutionary socialists have been accused for many years of wanting to overthrow the US government by force and violence. When they accuse us of this, what they are really trying to do is to imply that we want to abolish capitalism with a minority, that we want to force the will of the minority on the majority. The opposite is the truth. We believe we can win a majority of the people in this country to support a change in the system. It will be necessary to make a revolution precisely because the ruling powers will not peacefully accept a majority rule which wants a basic change.

How can a revolution involving a majority of the people actually take place in the United States? This is the question I want to discuss today.

First of all, you have to have clear in your mind the meaning of the word “revolution”. Many people have a stereotyped picture of what a revolution is like. They say a revolution is when people come with guns, when they surround a fortress or take over a city. What they do is they confuse revolution with insurrection. Insurrection is just one stage of revolution. Revolution is a lot more. It’s a long process.

In a certain way you can make a parallel between revolution and pregnancy. In the very early stages of pregnancy, if just on empirical evidence you ask whether or not someone is pregnant, the answer will be no. However, with the use of science you can determine whether the person is pregnant very early. Later on it becomes evident for everybody to see.

The same thing is true of social revolution. In the early stages most people don’t see it. You always begin on the assumption that in every society that needs a revolution, the majority of the people don’t think it’s possible. This is most certainly true for the period in American history we are in right now. We’re in the early stages of the third American revolution. I say the third revolution because we’ve had two others — the revolution of 1776 and the civil war.

The Contradictions

Why is it that we are in the early stages of a developing revolutionary situation? The reason is most basically because of the contradiction between the fantastic potential for solving human needs in this society and the existing reality.

Let me explain.

Everything you use, everything you eat or wear, your car, your housing — you didn’t make any of these things. We don’t produce these things as individuals. We produce socially. We have a division of work in the United States, and in the whole world for that matter. People in one part of the world make things which people in another part of the world use.

But, even though we produce socially, through cooperation, we don’t own the means of production socially. And this affects all the basic decisions made in this society about what we produce. These decisions are not made on the basis of what people need, but on the basis of what makes a profit.

Take the question of hunger. There are people going hungry all over the world, and the US government recently reported that there are a lot of people going hungry right here in the United States. And yet, because of the profit system, the US government is now paying some farmers not to farm. Farmers don’t make their decisions by saying: “We need a lot of corn in the US, so I’m going to plant a lot of corn.” They never say that. They say: “How much money am I going to make if I plant corn?” Did you know that if decisions were not made on this basis, then the US alone would have the potential to feed the whole world? The economic potential is there.

Take the question of housing. If you took just the money that’s spent on the war in Vietnam, you could build beautiful free homes for every non-white family in the US and for 30 million of the poorest whites. They could wipe out every slum in the next four years. The potential exists, not only in the factories and materials for building, but in the potential to build new machines and factories. Yet, they are not going to solve the housing question because it’s not profitable to build low cost housing.

Did you know that because of the way the system is structured a large percentage of the people do not do any productive work at all? You have the unemployed who are not hired because it’s not profitable to hire them. Then you have the people in the army, not to mention the police, and others who consume a great deal but don’t produce anything. Then you have things like the people in the advertising industry. They don’t do anything really useful or necessary. In addition, you have a mammoth, organised effort to create waste. For instance, if you designed a car for the Ford company that would last 50 years, they wouldn’t use it. Because that would destroy the purpose of making cars, which is to produce profits.

I’ll give you another example of how the potential for meeting human needs is destroyed because of the profit system. Say you are a capitalist, and you’re about to build a factory. Do you say: “I’ll build it where it’s nice, where there are trees and fresh air, and where the workers will have nice homes and will be able to go mountain climbing or hunting or swimming?” No, that’s not the way you think. You say: “Well, where’s my market, where are my raw materials coming in, how can I make the most profit?” And this means you might build the factory where you will pump even more poison into the air.

Smog is another example of a problem which stems directly from this system. Remember when they first discovered smog. They said: “Hey, look, there’s smog.” And they warned that if the smog increased to a certain point it would be dangerous. But, when they got past that point, they changed the danger level. And the smog is still getting worse. And now they tell us that all the rivers are polluted. In other words, it’s not that they just can’t meet the problem that exists. Things are getting worse.

Third World

But, it is in the underdeveloped world — in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Arab countries — where the contradictions of this system are the most clear. To really understand what this system means for third world people, consider this one fact: When a worker finishes working a full day in the colonial world, he produces as much as an average American worker does in 22 minutes. There is no way of solving the tremendous problems, the hunger and the poverty, that exist in the third world unless that figure is raised. In order to raise this figure, you have to industrialise, you have to mechanise, you have to invest.

Well, what happens is that instead of getting help from the industrialised sections of the world, instead of getting capital, third world countries are drained of their wealth by the imperialist countries. More important, the third world countries are blocked from industrialising simply because the advanced capitalist countries will not permit the competition which would result from it. In fact, in terms of the effect such exploitation is having on the world, in terms of people actually dying, starving and suffering, and their whole lives being destroyed by poverty, this is one of capitalism’s greatest crimes.

Capitalism doesn’t just have general long-range problems like the ones I’ve just mentioned. It has other contradictions — big crises, like depressions and wars. And specifically in this period, when the colonial world is trying to break out of capitalism, the wars are directed against the colonial world.

How do we go about changing this situation? How do we make it so that we can really fulfil our potential as human beings?

First, it is necessary to realise that in the United States we have a ruling class. And it’s very important that everyone should get to know and recognise their ruling class. The ruling class in the United States is very small. In fact, I think, proportionately, it is the smallest ruling class in the history of any society. Even defined broadly, there are only about 30,000 of them. There are a lot of people who think they belong to the ruling class, but only about 30,000 who have the real power.

Now, there are certain ways you can go about finding out just who these people are. One example is when you pick up your local newspaper and you look at the society page. You can see their children. The newspapers go to their parties and take pictures of the sons and daughters of the ruling class.

In some cities, the people in the ruling class register themselves. Of course, some ruling class people don’t make the register, and there are some people who will slip in who aren’t from the ruling class. But basically the social registers are a good indication of who these people are. In addition you can read the many books put out on this question. Books like The Rich and the Super-Rich. They spell it out.

How It’s Done

Now, how does the ruling class do it? Here, you’ve got some 30,000 people running a society of 200 million and most of the people in the society don’t even know it. In the past, ruling classes were proud of their role. They would walk around with feathers in their hats, or big robes and things, and when they went down the street, people would say: “Hey, there goes one of our ruling class.” Nowadays, they don’t do that. Now, they can slip on the campus where you are, and somebody in the ruling class could walk right by, and you wouldn’t even know it. They dress just like you. They’re incognito.

Rockefeller would never come to your campus and say: “Hi, how’re you doing? Are you studying hard, getting your degrees so you can come to work for me and make me richer?” No, they don’t do that. They go around saying that there aren’t classes in America, that everybody’s middle-class, only that some are a little more middle-class than others. In other words, they are ashamed of their own existence. They have to hide it. And there are good reasons for that. One of their problems, of course, is that they’re so small. Why, there are more than 30,000 people on just one or two campuses.

Now, how do they maintain their rule? To find this out you can try an experiment. Get all dressed up, put on a jacket and tie, and walk into some corporation and say: “Hello, I’m a sociologist, I’m here to do a study. Could I just walk around and talk to people?” And then you walk up to somebody and say: “Who’s your supervisor?” And he’ll point to someplace, and you find someone with a little name plate, and it’s a supervisor. And you ask him: “Who’s your supervisor?” And he’ll point to a different place, and you walk in and there’ll be a rug. And you say to him: “Who’s your supervisor?” And he’ll point to a different floor, and you’ll find it gets harder and harder to get in the doors. There’s more and more secretaries, and phones, and the rug gets thicker and thicker. Eventually you have to make appointments. And then you hit the sound barrier. Here is where you switch from the people who carry out decisions to people who make the decisions. And that’s your local ruling class.

The Structure

By the way, if you test out any institution in our society, you’ll find they are structured in the same way. A pyramid from the top going down. That’s the way all institutions are structured in this democratic country. This goes for government, for the political parties, the army, the churches, the universities, for every basic institution. And when you get to the very top of these structures, to the most powerful people, you will invariably find people who own big property.

Now, how do they keep the structure going? It’s a very subtle thing. In the United States, we have freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and other democratic rights. So, say you go to your job one day and test it. Wear a big button that says, “Vote Socialist”. And watch how fast you get promoted. Watch how you are treated. Formally you have the right to have any political view you want. But, the truth is that in all these institutions there is a very worked out, institutionalised way of going up. And on the way up, you sell your individuality, you commit yourself to the values of the system.

And you learn very fast that in return for full commitment to the system — for personal discipline, for showing up every morning wearing the right clothes, keeping your hair short, and the rest — in return, you get privileges. It’s done on the basis of privileges. That is what holds the society together.

When was the last time you heard someone say: “Capitalism’s a great society”? When did you hear anyone say: “Just think what our 30,000 ruling class has done for us. We should give them our full support.” They never say that. They don’t try to build up an ideological support for capitalism in the sense of telling you the full truth.

All the institutions under capitalism are ideological institutions in the sense that all of them maintain and demand support for the system. So it should be no surprise to you that the higher you go in a corporation, the higher you go in the university structure, the higher you go in the army, the people get more and more reactionary. They get more and more consciously pro the system; they are more and more for whatever crimes the system has to commit. They simply wouldn’t be there if they weren’t. This is why you can never capture the existing apparatus and use it for making a basic change.

Workers’ Power

Today the smallness of the ruling class means that other classes have more power in comparison. We have a working-class army, for example, that has a great deal of actual and potential power. Take the basic production of all goods and services. Have you ever thought what a general strike would be like in New York City? Workers can take over this city in a matter of hours. Because workers run everything — the subways, the trucks that bring food, gas, light, heat — everything.

So you have to ask yourself, why is this power never realised politically? Why don’t they just kick the 30,000 out? The reason is simple. The mass of people are under illusions. Now let me repeat this because the whole strategy of making a revolution in the US is crucially dependent on understanding this. The 30,000 can ride only through maintaining illusions.

You see, if tomorrow, President Nixon called a press conference and said: “Okay, I’m going to let you in on it; there’s 30,000 of us who are running this country. We’re cancelling all elections. We’re cancelling freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and so on. So go back to work, back to the campus — and if there is any disturbance we’ll throw you all into concentration camps.” How long do you think the ruling class would stay in power? They couldn’t do it. Their power is already limited by a certain consciousness that exists in the mass of the people. Their power is limited by the fact that the mass of the people believe in free speech, in free assembly and in democracy.

And this, by the way, is the thing that is least understood by the student movement. Many students believe that the ruling class has unlimited power. They think fascism and concentration camps are around the corner. Of course, we cannot be naive about the ruling class. They will suppress opposition to them insofar as they can get away with it. And they will use the most brutal means available if it suits their needs. But they will try to keep the repression in the bounds of what they can get away with without waking up the mass of the people, without destroying the illusions. Because, if the mass begins to wake up, that’s a big danger.

Two Sides to Democracy

There are two sides to democracy in this country, and if you don’t understand both sides, you go wrong. One side is that it’s phony. There is no real democracy in the sense that we don’t run this country. The elections are totally phony. The ruling class simply gets up and picks two people, or three, and they say: “Okay, everybody, we’re having elections. Now you can vote for Humphrey, or for Wallace, or for Nixon.”

Then they have their candidates have a debate. But the debate isn’t entirely phony. The debate often represents a real living struggle between different positions within the ruling class. The ruling class resolves many of the smaller tactical differences they have among themselves through means of elections.

Obviously, such elections do not in any way mean that the people have a voice in ruling this country. At the same time, the masses of people believe in democracy. And this belief in democracy is something that actually weakens the rulers. And it is something that gives us real power.

There is a power relationship between the masses and the ruling class based on the potential power of the working class. Because of this power relationship, you can do many things. It gives us what we call free speech. It gives us free assembly. It gives us the right to organise the YSA legally. Take for example the underground press. The underground press isn’t really underground. These papers are published legally even though they attack the system. They don’t suppress these newspapers because they know that the minute they start suppressing papers, it’s going to wake people up and bring a reaction.

The only hope the ruling class has is if it can isolate the revolutionaries completely from the rest of the people. That is why the number-one task of all revolutionaries who really want to change the system is to know how to reach the people.

This is one of the biggest problems existing in the student movement at this point. The average student radical does not identify with the American people. In fact, he’s hostile to them.

He says: “The American people, ugh, they’re against the Vietnamese, they’re racist, they’re this and that.” But you know something? That hate for the American people was taught to the student before he became a radical.

Middle-Class Prejudice

When you go to school, the whole concept you are taught is that anyone that works with his hands is below you. The average Joe Shmoe is a stupid fool. And they justify the fact that some people have more privileges by saying that it’s because they’re more qualified.

Everything you learn in the university is calculated to give you that superiority feeling. And when you become a radical, you just turn around and invert it in a way. You keep the same prejudice in your mind and you continue to say: “How stupid the average American worker is.” He’s no stupider than you were before you became a radical.

Black people used to imitate white people, right? But, with the radicalisation, one of the first things that started happening was that black people stopped imitating the people who oppressed them. It’s the same thing with white workers. The thing that white workers do today is they imitate the people they regard as above therm. They try to be like them. They vote for their parties. They support their ideas. But when they wake up this is one of the first things that will change.

Now let me explain something about mass awakening. There’s no way that we radicals can by ourselves wake up the American people. Just forget about that. There is no special leaflet that we could write so articulately and carefully that when you hand it to a worker, he will pick it up and say: “That’s it — I’m with you.” If that were how we could do it, we’d have done it a long time ago.

There is only one way it will happen. Capitalism does it for us. The system creates the situation in which people wake up. Let me give you a few examples. Think about why it is that black people are moving today. Weren’t they black in 1920? Weren’t they actually worse off, if you want to look at objective conditions, in 1910, 1920 and 1930?

Role of Africa

You know that at the beginning of the century, and after that, one of the biggest put-downs they had for black people was to call them Africans. Then came the revolutions in Africa and other parts of the third world. And black people started identifying with Africa, saying: “We’re all Africans.” And the ruling class began to say: “No, you’re Americans.”

At the same time more and more black people were moving to the cities because of the industrialisation of the South. And this concentration of black people living in the cities — this begins to give them a sense of power and is one of the reasons you have the rise of black nationalism today. That is another example of how capitalism creates the basis for radicalisation.

I’ll give you one other example. For those people who were unemployed in the 1930s during the depression, their goal in life was to have a job, to have some stability. If you took a man who was unemployed or who had a lousy job and you gave him a job with fairly good pay, with the perspective of getting continuous increases — that to him was Nirvana. From what he had experienced in life, that was happiness.

But then what happened? His kids grew up. And many of them didn’t have the constant image of the unemployed. There would always be food on the table. They could look forward to going to college. And all of a sudden the perspective of doing what their parents did, getting a job, working 40 hours a week wasn’t so inviting. Consciousness is related to what you have lived. And what you expect.

Anybody would have told you that the many years of prosperity would have completely conservatised the youth. But just the opposite has happened. They grew up totally dissatisfied, to the point that it’s becoming a mass rebellion of youth.

The rebellion takes place on all levels. For instance, they start growing their hair long, just because it’s supposed to be short. They’re trying to do everything that they’re not supposed to do, because what they’re expressing, unconsciously, is that they’re totally aware that there’s a potential to have an entirely different kind of life. They become aware of it by the very fact of how they live their first 21 years. They go to the university with other young people. And they want to do something creative. They want to be free. And they realise this is possible. They don’t want to just go to work for Standard Oil, which for their parents was a great thing.

Radicalising Process

So, all of a sudden, you have an increase in consciousness, an awareness about the problems of society, created by the capitalists. And this awareness can become much more intensified if you have a crisis — if you have a major war, or a downturn in the economic situation. Right now we have opposition, we have a radicalisation, but even this is nothing compared to what can develop in the future.

Now you can have all this spontaneous radicalisation, you can even have uprisings of sorts, but that will never result in a change of the system, unless it’s organised, unless there is a concept of how to struggle. Because, the masses of people, when they first radicalise, they don’t understand the general problems. They don’t understand how to change society. Very few individuals come to this consciousness completely on their own.

Think about the ideas — some of them very complex ideas — which have been a by-product of the accumulation of thought and experience over the long history of revolutionary struggle. It’s this thought, this experience which is embodied in what we call the vanguard — organisations like the Young Socialist Alliance and the Socialist Workers Party.

Now, the ruling class has also had experiences, from which they have gained knowledge. They’ve been running the United States without even any major political opposition for over 70 years now. They know how, when an opposition develops, to try to repress its vanguard, to knock it down, while at the same time how to manoeuvre and absorb it and buy it off. Eugene McCarthy’s campaign was an excellent example of this.

Without a conscious vanguard with a revolutionary perspective it is hard to deal effectively with these ruling-class manoeuvres. It is difficult to do the right thing.

An example of this was the attitude of the early student antiwar movement toward the GIs. When the antiwar movement first began, the students’ immediate reaction was to hate GIs, to think of them as killers. I remember in Berkeley they even put up a picture of a GI portraying him as being the same thing as a cop.

Saw Ahead

At the same time, the YSA opposed this. We could predict, because of the mass opposition to the war and the fact that young people in general were radicalising, that the GIs would radicalise. So way ahead, before signs of the GI radicalisation could be seen concretely, we urged the antiwar movement to go out and leaflet GIs, and to begin to relate to them.

That’s what Marxism is all about. That’s what revolutionary politics is all about. It’s what has been learned from 100 years of struggle against the system. During this time there have been plenty of examples of how armies radicalise and under what conditions they radicalise.

There is something else the YSA sees, which we have learned from experiences in the struggle. And that is that you mustn’t be sectarian. You should try to get everybody who is against the war to work together. The YSA understands that the best way to end this war, and to weaken the ruling class, is to get massive consciousness against the war — and to break the concept that the people against the war are a minority.

And we know from experience that you have to use the most carefully thought-out actions in order to produce that result. And in many cases, such actions are the so-called stupid, peaceful, mass antiwar demonstrations that some people are sick of — and of which we’ve now had eleven. And after each one of these mass demonstrations the YSA has said: “Okay, let’s do it again now.” And the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) leaders say: “Are you guys crazy? What do you want to do that again for?” They look at it subjectively. They are tired of demonstrations themselves and they forget that demonstrations help other broader layers of people to radicalise. They forget about the impact which the demonstrations have on the GIs, on the average person. They forget that the demonstrations are what helped the students to radicalise in the first place.

Now, we’ve got a double problem in the antiwar movement and in the radical movement in general, and both sides of this double problem are closely interrelated. One is that some people think they are going to solve the problems of society by supporting some liberal.

Let me explain what a liberal is. A liberal is someone who doesn’t like what capitalism does, but likes capitalism. They try to solve the problems created by the system by supporting the system. Now, many students do that too. When they supported McCarthy they did that. What they were looking for was a shortcut. They were trying to change the system from within. They hoped a McCarthy victory would be a substitute for building an independent political movement of the working people, the black people and the students on a mass level, independently and against the ruling class.

On the other side you have the ultraleftists who do the exact same thing — try to bypass building a mass movement. In California we have a bad rash: people walking around saying: “Everybody get guns.” And there is a lot of applauding about guns at rallies.

And then there are those who believe in confrontation as the only method of struggle. By this I mean that the success of an action for them is not measured by how many people are influenced and won over. Their criterion is: “We’ve got to fight the police in the street. Otherwise we aren’t revolutionary.”

What they are looking for is a shortcut. Some are naive about what the cops can and will do to them. They think that if the present vanguard arms itself and takes on the power structure, then they can change society. But they’re not going to change it by themselves. You can’t change it without the American people. And you certainly can’t change it against them.

What is happening is that the ultraleftists are merely expressing frustration. Just like those who supported McCarthy, they don’t have the patience and the understanding of the need to mobilise the people, to win them over, to involve them in the struggle through mass movements.

This is a working-class country. Black people in their great majority are working class. And there are the other oppressed minorities — Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, etc. What you have is an overwhelming mass of people who have objectively no interest in this system. They have to be won over, and our whole strategy, everything we do, has got to be directed at winning them.

French Example

Now, how exactly can the American revolution come about? What kind of movements and strategy will allow us to take power? To make this clear, let me tell you what happened in France in May-June of 1968. I said that you need two things to make a revolution — a vanguard and an objective situation in which there is a crisis and a mass radicalisation. Well, in France you had that objective situation — but you had no revolutionary vanguard. Let me show you how, if there had been a strong vanguard, revolutionaries in France would have led a struggle to take power from the ruling class.

In France you had 10 million workers on strike. You had another two million farmers supporting them. Plus the 600,000 students. Now, since the total population of the country is 50 million, this means that the overwhelming majority of families had at least one if not two people involved in the strike. It was clear that the majority of the people in France were out on strike, making certain demands. You had a majority. There was no need to negotiate with anyone.

What would a Marxist vanguard do in such a situation? First of all, we would fight for the formation of a strike council of the whole country which could simply say: “Well, it’s clear we have a majority, so we are going to have free elections to decide all the questions under demand here. And these elections are going to be run by the strike council because the government has shown itself to be undemocratic.”

Remember, at the time of the crisis, De Gaulle had no real power, except in the sense that there was a vacuum which he filled. Do you know that when De Gaulle wanted to hold a referendum during the strike, it was so unpopular that he couldn’t get any workers in all of France to print the ballots? He had to go to Belgium, to ask the Belgian workers to print the ballots, and they refused too! He had no strength.

One might ask what about the army? But he had no army with him. Maybe the officers, but the soldiers — who were the soldiers in France? They were the sons and brothers of the strikers.

The first thing a strike council would do would be to immediately hold elections in the army barracks for new officers, and any officer that didn’t accept this would be thrown out. And then you would go to the barracks and ask the soldiers to share their guns. The guns would be used to help form militias of the people. Then you would dissolve the police force and have the workers out on the streets patrolling. That could have been done in a number of days under the conditions that existed in France. Just to start with, you had hundreds of thousands of students who would have been immediately willing to participate in the militias and to arm themselves.

Then elections would be held in the factories, and other institutions, and delegates representing the rank-and-file workers in the factories, the students, the soldiers in the army and people in all the various institutions would come together in a central council. And you would put on the floor of this body, which would be the most democratically chosen body in the history of the country, the motion that all industries are nationalised. We would simply pass that, along with other programs which would meet the people’s needs.

When you stop to think about it, what would the ruling class have done? Bombed their own cities?

When you think about it, every step I’ve outlined, every demand, is based on democratic ideas. The word “socialist” hasn’t even been used. Because what socialism means is not simply that socialists come to power, but that a class — the masses of the working people — come to power. That could have happened in France. The objective conditions were there, the radicalisation among the masses. What was missing? There was no sufficiently strong Marxist vanguard. The working class in France was led by a party which supports capitalism, called the Communist Party. So the big problem in France, in order to make a revolution, is to depose the Communist Party from the leadership of the working class.

In the United States, things are going to happen in a similar way to what happened in France. Not the same, but similar. Look what’s happening on campus — it’s spontaneous; on campus after campus you see radical actions. The same thing is going to take place in the working class. It is already happening with the masses of black people. As these movements develop, the vanguard at first is small, and can play only a limited role. But, out of these actions come young people who begin to understand that you need to think out the whole question.

They learn from experience. Maybe they get busted and they start thinking how to be effective. And someone sits down with them and explains how you make a revolution, how you form a vanguard and slowly build up and participate in mass struggles, how you get an interrelationship between the mass movements and the vanguard, and how you reach a situation where a crisis will develop and the vanguard will be able to lead the masses to take power.

The key to victory is moving the masses. Any concept, any struggle that eliminates this will only end in disaster. Unfortunately, the ultraleft idea that you can go around the masses, or make the revolution without them, is one that is creeping into the thinking of many students and young people today. But there will be a reaction to this. One of the troubles with ultraleftism is, of course, that when people react against it, they sometimes react against militancy in general, and flip over to become opportunists. In fact, you’re going to see people who were opportunists yesterday going over to being ultraleft today, and the ultralefts of today flipping over to become opportunists. Because all of them are looking for the same thing — a shortcut. And there is no shortcut to change the system.

It takes a long time. You have to have a perspective of fighting for 10, 20 or even more years. Just like the Vietnamese say they will fight 10, 20, or 40 years — whatever is necessary. You can’t walk into the YSA and say: “I want a guarantee that the revolution will happen in five years because after that I have other plans.” The revolution doesn’t work that way.

So, to end, I want to say this. The ruling class is never going to solve its problems through the capitalist system. Therefore, the objective conditions for revolution are going to rise up over and again. We don’t create these conditions, but there is one thing we can do. That is, we can create the subjective factor — the vanguard. By entering the YSA, by building a revolutionary party, by understanding and participating in the revolutionary process, we can make victory possible.

Are we going to be able to do it? Other generations have failed to do it. Are we going to be able to build a revolutionary socialist vanguard that can lead a mass movement to overthrow the system? That’s the great challenge to this young generation. And the answer of the YSA is yes, we’re going to do it.

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{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Arthur June 11, 2013 at 7:22 pm

The first part of the article is quite a good positive timeless statement of what should be understood as a broad left position. Note that it accuses capitalism of holding things back and focuses on private ownership by a ruling class as the obstacle to a vastly improved situation and action by a majority of the people as the way to win. The references to the environment are merely a subordinate part of that. This is in stark contrast to the dominant pseudoleft themes of gloom and doom with hatred, contempt and despair towards the people.

Later parts of the article advocate specific tactics and strategy from the perspective of a particular tendency at a particular time and place so distant that a critique would not be useful. I’ll just note that the extraordinarily naive picture of a French revolution goes together with advocacy for both stodgy tactics and a vanguard in a way that cannot be entirely disintentangled from the subsequent degeneration of sects related to that tendency.

But the weakness of the later parts only highlights how widely held was the consensus views in the first part about a broadly PROGRESSIVE conception of what it means to be “left”.

That outlook needs to be developed as well as reaffirmed in sharply breaking from the pseudoleft that forms a reactionary opposition to progress while pretending to be left.

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Pham Binh June 11, 2013 at 10:13 pm

Where in your view is the end of the first part of the article?

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Arthur June 12, 2013 at 1:39 am

No sharp transition, but the stuff that reflected a general consensus on what broadly left politics involves was mainly before the sub-head “Saw Ahead” and the more tendentious stuff, including promotion of YSA was mainly after it.

There were also some things I don’t agree with earlier, including eg this example of idealism:

” The mass of people are under illusions. Now let me repeat this because the whole strategy of making a revolution in the US is crucially dependent on understanding this. The 30,000 can ride only through maintaining illusions.”

That over simplifies the nature of social relationships, and how to change them them but is consistent with widely held views that were still “left”.

Probably some things I agee with later too, but that’s about where he began spruiking for the YSA instead of just outlining a broadly leftist world outlook.

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Jon Hoch June 12, 2013 at 6:47 am

No updates for a week and then we get a 40 year old speech? Definitely not blaming Pham, but where are all the writers at?

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Jon Hoch June 12, 2013 at 7:22 am

Re the actual article. A big part of this website seems to be about de-jargon-ifying the left. Should we drop the rhetorical focus on the “the working class?” The marxist conception of “working class” is a lot different and a lot broader than the popular understanding in the United States which defines “working class” as the lowest paid, blue collar workers. So when socialists say stuff like “All power to the working class,” most people just don’t get it. They rightfully ask why a group, however exploited it might presently be, that is probably a numerical minority should run the country. You know, most people, whatever the reality of their economic situation might be, I think identify as “middle class.” Shouldn’t we be speaking the peoples’ language rather than trying to convert them to ours?

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Jon Hoch June 12, 2013 at 7:31 am

So I actually skimmed through Camejo’s article, which I had read before but a while ago, and it looks like I’m attacking a bit of a straw man here, haha. It looks like he uses the popular understanding of class. But I think my criticism could apply to a lot of other socialist publications.

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Red Blob June 12, 2013 at 9:00 am

I see 3 types of possible revolution
One is the spontaneous worker self organization with a Vanguard party pulling it all together, much like Peter Camejo describes. This is a Russian revolution model and doesn’t seem unbelievable despite the lack of replication over the past century. Looking up some Workers Liberty documents they estimate that the Bolshevik party in 1905 had 8,000 members. At the beginning of 1917 it was 23,000 and at the time of insurrection in 1917 it was 400,00 members.
There are plenty of Communist Parties outside of the USSR that have achieved the first 2 numbers. Here in Australia the CPA peaked at about 30,000 just after ww2. Building such a party might not be impossible just damn difficult.
The second way I see revolution as happening is the pre ww1 model where a socialist party gains power through an election and then has to rely on an armed working class to defend it. Very similar to the Allende experience in Chile but instead of allowing the military to search factories for weapons a government could arm workers militias for self defense.
The third type of revolution is the guerrilla warfare type where peasant armies surround the cities. There are a couple of these underway as we speak in Nepal and India.
Just on the Camejo article, his comments about the third world are now really dated as this area that was once starved of Capital is now swimming in the stuff. The world system is progressing, all the time more and more people are having their subsistence peasant status exchanged for low paid worker status. Capitalism is fulfilling its promise of industrializing the world.
Camejo flirts with the idea that we are struggling with false consciousness and if he is I think that he is wrong. If unemployment stands at 20% that means that 80% have jobs and 100% need to put food on the table not have pie in the sky revolution. There are a certain small percentage of people who will get worked up about injustice and want to spend time organizing around issues. The other X% are right not to give a toss until revolution will put food on the table or until they become comfortable enough to take up activity that would in normal circumstances be far too risky.

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PatrickSMcNally June 12, 2013 at 1:15 pm

I think that false consciousness has to come up whenever we see working people cast a vote for Ronald Reagan. It’s not that workers would suddenly run out and cast a vote for the revolutionary Bolshevik-Leninist proletarian vanguard party if only they gave up their false consciousness. Most blacks in the USA have a relatively truer consciousness, comparitively speaking, and yet they regularly cast votes for Democrats because they don’t see any likely gain to be made from voting for a small party which has a more coherently Leftist stance. But anyone who votes for Reagan, without first checking on the millions in their bank account to make sure they’re still there, is clearly a victim of false consciousness.

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Red Blob June 12, 2013 at 10:37 pm

PatrickS If false consciousness does exist that would mean that billions of people are not much more than zombies. Luckily for them there are a handful of superior people who have true consciousness. Seeing that I have true consciousness and you disagree with me that must mean you have false consciousness because if you had true consciousness you would agree with me. Just lucky for you that I don’t wield any power (yet) because my guidance of those without true consciousness would not be that gentle.
Sort of reminds me of the 1930’s USSR show trials where people were condemned for being unconscious agents of enemies of the Soviet Union

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PatrickSMcNally June 13, 2013 at 4:41 am

Actually, the show trials fabricated extensive charges of massive underground Nazi networks which never existed. The secret police was charged with uncovering such a network that did not exist and so set to work fabricating trumped up charges. That is very different from simply recognizing that a worker who identifies their interests with an out-and-out champion of the rich such as Reagan was does indeed have false consciousness.

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Red Blob June 13, 2013 at 11:42 pm

PatrickS I think that the term false consciousness is offensive to working people. It portraits people who don’t know what is in their own good.
Take your example of working people voting for a right wing politician.
False consciousness would indicate that these people cant think through issues but maybe just maybe the problem lies with people of the left rather than with the people.
Maybe the right made arguments about personal liberty, about personal responsibility, about getting big government off your back, about ending welfare dependancy, about being a strong nation, about being the ones who really understand how the Capitalist system works best rather than those pie in the sky revolutionaries or those weak on crime left liberals. Maybe lots of working people went through the issues and thought that the right won the argument and that the left lost the struggle over ideas.
Maybe false consciousness does exist but its in the minds of the left who dont say hey look we are loosing the battle of ideas but instead say look workers have a false consciousness.

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PatrickSMcNally June 14, 2013 at 5:08 am

“Maybe the right made arguments about personal liberty”

Clearly they did make such arguments many times. The dishonesty in such arguments has been shown many times. People like Chomsky & Herman made a practice out of just exposing the falsehoods in Reagan’s talk about liberty many times over, and there really is no excuse for people in the 1970s or ’80s to have been unaware of such things.

Again, you’re dishonestly skewering the issue by making this into something about the failings of the Left. The relevant issue on this specific matter is not about why didn’t more workers rush to place themselves at the feet of Bob Avakian, Jim Robinson or someone else in the mélange of little Leftist cults. The issue is over how on earth could any honest person who works every day for a living not come to the conclusion that James Carter or Walter Mondale would be a slightly lesser evil than Reagan, the Bushes et al?

I don’t lambast someone who cast a vote for the Democrats as automatically an example of false consciousness. The Left would have to have something better on offer before I could do that. But quite definitely any worker who has voted for any Republican after Richard Nixon is a clear example of false consciousness at work and that is not something to be bullshitted over. Anyone who considers themselves to be not just a socialist but even simply an honest liberal open to pursuing the types of liberal reforms which Richard Nixon’s terms involved should be unequivocal in castigating the level of retardation that could cause any worker to vote for Reagan or any of his successors.

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PatrickSMcNally June 12, 2013 at 8:31 am

While socialists should avoid constantly using 19th century phrases when speaking to the public, the term “middle class” is so far overextended in its current use that that should not be mirrored by anyone on the Left. Getting back to “working class” as a more common term would be better, insofar as terminology matters. In the USA anyone who is clearly above a low poverty line is automatically registered as “middle class.” That’s absurd.

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Jon Hoch June 12, 2013 at 12:25 pm

I’m not really confident when it comes to strategy and theory stuff, or pretty much anything, haha. I’m easily swayed by the arguments of other lefties if they present them in a common sense way. So don’t be surprised if I totally reverse my ideas about this or something else. But I guess it just seems to me that we have such an uphill battle to fight already, why are we speaking in a language that no one understands? You know, in the popular understanding socialism=stalinism, working class=blue collar, etc. If we’re going to be fighting linguistic battles don’t we kind of have to choose our fights? Is there really THAT much harm in calling teachers or journalists or healthcare workers some variation of middle class, lower middle class, and upper middle class depending on their situation? Shouldn’t we put a priority on being understood? I mean I read Socialist Worker early in college for a year or so and had no idea that when they were talking about “working class” they were actually talking about the overwhelming majority of the population? It was only when I came back to it in the last few years or so that I realized their definition is a lot more expansive than the word is popularly understood to mean.

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Robert Gahtan June 12, 2013 at 5:43 pm

I knew and admired Peter immensely and still grieve at this untimely departure. Thank you for reprinting this. I assume that you are printing this to move things forward. Here are some of my thought on this.

A Wiki For Social Change

Wikis, can be preferable to books because writers can contribute, and collaborate in real time from the entire planet.

If the following makes sense to you, please let me know so we can discuss it further.
I hope to connect with those who believe that progressive social change is possible, particularly if activists have access to what has been learned from past struggles.

My thinking:

While some movements have succeeded in achieving their objectives, most have not. Their successes are well documented. and I do not understand why each new movement has to re-invent the wheel.

Google any of the following and you will be amazed at the plethora of information that is written on Social Movements (SM).

Critique of SM sociology, Hand book for SM activists, SM that succeeded, Time line of SM , Who is interested in social change, Google Books Research Topic: SM Theory, SM theory and research an annotated bibliography guide, Is there an idea exchange for SM, Granting agencies” for social change, How do SM begin, Activist’s Handbook

Of course, in addition to this, there is a vast literature by long-time activists that has not found it’s way into Google. Unfortunately the information tends to be movement specific, it is not global, comprehensive, up to date and tends to mix opinion with fact and theories..

An even greater failing is that many of these articles fail to take sides, but affect objectivity.. I maintain that so-called objectivity in political matters is sheer sophistry. Either you are for the oppressed or for the oppressor..

In addition, tactics and strategies between movements are rarely shared although they face many problems in common. A good example of this is the failure of the Occupy and several other movements to discuss Joe Freeman’s essay on “the Tyranny of Structurelessness”.

By comparison, a very, very few people have written books along the lines of Saul Alinsky’s Reveille for Radicals, Randy Shaw’s The Activist’s Handbook, Marshall Ganz’s Why David Sometimes Wins, Lenin’s What is to be Done, Gene Sharp’s From Dictatorship to Democracy, Aiden Ricketts’s The Activist’s Handbook, Prokosch and Laura Raymond’s, The Global Activist’s Manual. or the recently published: Playbook for progressives by Eric Mann

My focus on movements comes from the realization that SM can have a very significant impact on the future.

Just think where we would be today if it were not for the Anti-war movement, Chicano movement, Civil rights movement, Conservation movement, Cooperative movement, Disability rights movement, Environmental movement, Fair trade movement, Human rights movement, Labor movement, LGBT movement, Non-violence movement, Occupy movement, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United Movement, and the Women’s Liberation movement

I think that SM arise when the gap between what people experience in their everyday life and what they perceive to be just, fair, equitable, and possible has grown too large to be tolerated.

I also think that we may well be rapidly approaching such a period now.

I think that to be an effective activist, or movement group, you should have detailed knowledge and positions on the following topics as a minimum:
Agent provocateur, the army, backlash, boycotts, civil disobedience, coalitions, coming out, communism, consciousness raising, cooperatives, counter-revolution, cults, debates, defensive formulations, democracy, democratic centralism, direct action, electoral arena, expulsions, international, internet, liberalism, local, Maoism, marches, membership, non violent direct action, occupations, organization, outings, outreach, pacifism, police, press, popular front, program, recruitment, reformers, referendums, reformist, sectarianism, single issue, sit-ins, socialism, Stalinism, teach-ins, third parties, Trotskyism, ultra-leftism, united front, utopias, and violence.

Most of these issues have been debated at length. Many of them reached conclusions that have been clearly decided, empirically, by history. Others have not. But, to my knowledge, there is no school, book, class, tutorial that does the job of compiling those conclusions.

This leaves activists to begin their education by trial and error.

I know of no craft, profession, trade, activity that is approached in such a tortuous way. Should you want to become a chef, concert artist or surgeon, there are schools, books, classes, internships, mentors, coaches and apprenticeships that are available. There is no such support for the person who becomes an activist.

This is a great shame and leads those who struggle to bring about humane, positive change, to be less effective than they could be and leaves them to become demoralized, disengaged or burned out. Actually, failure is far worse as it can lead to imprisonment, torture, death and counter-revolution or backlash.

There are many movements that have succeeded. Their history is fairly well documented. I do not understand why each new SM has to re-invent the wheel.

The same goes for the person who changes from observer to activist. No one is born an activist. One becomes an activist through a process that goes through many stages.

Most, if not almost all of the relevant guidelines, strategies, tips, and tactics are there to be organized and condensed.

If you know someone with the interest and skills to put together such a wiki, please pass this on to them. If this endeavor makes sense to you, email me at [email protected] Robert Gahtan

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Jon Hoch June 12, 2013 at 7:56 pm

“I think that to be an effective activist, or movement group, you should have detailed knowledge and positions on the following topics as a minimum:
Agent provocateur, the army, backlash, boycotts, civil disobedience, coalitions, coming out, communism, consciousness raising, cooperatives, counter-revolution, cults, debates, defensive formulations, democracy, democratic centralism, direct action, electoral arena, expulsions, international, internet, liberalism, local, Maoism, marches, membership, non violent direct action, occupations, organization, outings, outreach, pacifism, police, press, popular front, program, recruitment, reformers, referendums, reformist, sectarianism, single issue, sit-ins, socialism, Stalinism, teach-ins, third parties, Trotskyism, ultra-leftism, united front, utopias, and violence.”

Respectfully disagree. I think the idea that you have to be some kind of massive book worm with a Chomsky-like, encyclopedia knowledge and position on everything to take part in struggle is going to leave you with you with a very, very, very small tent. We don’t have to pretend to have all the answers. We don’t have to know all about democratic centralism, surplus value, blah blah blah. Our analysis can be as simple as “Capitalism is fucked up. It’s unfair. Let’s change it.” I don’t mean this as some sort of anti-intellectualism. I just totally disagree that you HAVE to be massively educated to be a socialist. Most folks just don’t have the time for that, even if they wanted to. It doesn’t matter to me whether someone gets to their class consciousness through reading Karl Marx’s Capital or listening to Dolly Parton’s epically awesome “9 to 5.”

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Jon Hoch June 12, 2013 at 8:17 pm

I guess Parton’s music is pretty dated at this point and niche. It’s just what I have been listening to lately. But you know what I mean.

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Mark Connery June 14, 2013 at 12:32 am

The problem many of us face is friggin LONGING for a 9 to 5. But, yes, the sentiment is right. The anthem of my political generation was Public Enemy’s Fight The Power.

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JB June 14, 2013 at 7:58 am

I don’t think Robert is making the argument that you need to read all these books and have an informed opinion on all these topics in order to take part in struggle, but simply that if people did take the time to learn these things then struggles would be more effective. I’ve read only a few of them myself, but I agree with the general sentiment that there are few examples of truly successful movements and struggles, and at least some people in current movements should take the time to extract whatever clear and relatively undisputable lessons there are from those successes. However, I think that the idea that there are clear and relatively undisputable lessons to be found in history is a questionable idea. No moment in history is like any other, and we can gain some wisdom and some guidance and more importantly some awareness and sense of direction from history, but history cannot provide any definite answers to questions of strategy and tactics because the world back then is not the world now. I actually agree more strongly with his list of topics. I think that, although it’s not necessary to explore all these things right away to engage in struggle, they are all things that are going to come up in your life as an activist. If they haven’t yet, they will. And when they do, it would be nice to have recourse to a wiki or book or some other good compilation of what others have already said on these topics. For example: utopias. This is a common critique of socialism, that it is utopian. Having a good answer to this will help you make the argument to peope indoctrinated with standard red baiting talking points. Trotskyism: the minute the ISO or some other Trotskyist group starts showing up at your events, you need to know something about this. Stalinism: everyone in America has a strong opinion about Stalinism, and it’s supposed to be a good reason why socialism leads to evilness. Having a good grasp of that history certainly can’t hurt for talking to people outside the fold. Questions about violence, co-ops, sectarianism, reformism, pacifism, direct action and many more of those terms were at the heart of the most contentious and important debates in Occupy. It’s a good list. I hope Robert has success in pulling together the sort of Wiki he describes. I know I’d get sucked in and spend a fair amount of time on it, and hopefully learn a few useful things :-)

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David Berger (RED DAVE) June 12, 2013 at 8:12 pm

I met Peter on many occasions, and while he was a very attractive and, to use that much abused word “charismatic” person, there is one quality that he lacked: the ability to admit that he was wrong, that things could go other than swimmingly.

When this speech was being given, the SWP/YSA had basically abandoned any notion of working class organizing. You may notice that the word “union” is never used. They were more-or-less entirely focused on the student movement, and, more specifically, on the antiwar movement. When the antiwar movement began to fade, after the end of the draft and war began to wind down, the SWP/YSA had no strategy. In addition, the organization was fast degenerating into a personal dictatorship

The reason I began with Peter’s lack of ability to admit he was wrong, is that on those occasions when I ran into him in the 70s, when the rot had fully set in to his organization, and it was apparent to all what was going on, he would never admit it. Two years after he gave the speech above, in 1971, I heard him give the plenary speech at the YSA convention. It was a funny and entertaining address. I noticed however that he failed even once to utter the phrase, “the working class.”

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Robert Gahtan June 13, 2013 at 8:40 am

Dear John,
I really regret that my comments were mis-interpreted. I should have expanded on: “I think that to be an effective activist, or movement group…” MOVEMENT GROUP. To suggest that the group should not have that knowledge is to argue for ignorance. I am certain that this was not your intent. Another reason that I inserted such a list of topics, was to challenge the reader as to what they did and did not know. Your equating that with being “massive book worm” is just plain silly.

It may interest you to know, that I showed the bibliography included in the article
to many (8-10) of the participants at the Left Forum that was held in NYC last weekend. Only ONE ! had read three of the books on the list. TWO had read two books, and the rest had only read one (lenin’s WITBD). I light of my comments, I hope that you will re-consider yours.

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Jon Hoch June 13, 2013 at 9:39 am

I guess I still respectfully disagree. Obviously more knowledge is preferable than less knowledge, but I think to demand that every group, never mind every individual, have detailed positions on when the Chinese, Russian or Cuban revolutions went wrong, blah blah blah, to take part in struggle is just silly. Not only that, I think by placing such high importance on academic esoterica you’re kind of asking for sectarianism. Shouldn’t we be getting away from the idea that being a socialist means belonging to some kind of masturbatory historical debate club? Shouldn’t we spend a little less time fighting other leftists and a little more time fighting the right wing?

And for the record I’ve read exactly NONE of the books on your list. But I still think I’ve been able to make my own humble contributions to the struggle. I’ve written for Socialist Worker, Industrial Worker, Z Magazine, Counterpunch and others. I’ve interviewed Noam Chomsky, Bernardine Dohrn and others. I was active in OWS and spent a couple days in jail for my participation. I’ve filed charges against my employer for union busting and plan on giving a portion of my winnings to a socialist group. Blah, blah, blah. I just think we have to get away from the idea that at a minimum you need to be some kind of amateur academic to make contributions to the struggle. Again, having intellectuals like Noam Chomsky and stuff is important, but there’s a place for a broad range of people with a broad range of skill sets.

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Pham Binh June 13, 2013 at 9:55 am

“I’ve never read Marx’s Capital, but I have the marks of capital all over me.” — Big Bill Haywood

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Robert Gahtan June 15, 2013 at 6:13 pm

John: Thank you for your thoughtful reply. I am pleased that we are in agreement “Obviously more knowledge is preferable than less knowledge”,

However, nowhere do I “demand that every group, never mind every individual, have detailed positions on when the Chinese, Russian or Cuban revolutions went wrong, blah blah blah, to take part in struggle is just silly”.

I fully admire your contributions to the struggle and acknowledge your perseverence. But I think you underestimate your own evoluti0n and do not see the necessity to contribute to the evolution of others. Permit me in my amateurish way to point out that we need to engage MILLIONS, and that we have to contribute to their evolution.

The current struggles differ from those of the past in that humanity’s survival is at stake.

I see the evolution going forward as follows:
Once past the stage of toddler-hood, children become socialized and acculturated. During that process they begin to develop expectations about the world. At a later age, they start to see small discrepancies between their life and what their expectations are. As they grow older, they begin to ignore those discrepancies.

More living brings on a wider range of experiences and it becomes more difficult to ignore the gap that exists between their expectations and what they see, hear and experience. The idea that there is something wrong with what one sees about them occurs with greater frequency.

Rationalization then comes to the rescue. At the social or political level, the amount of pain, irrationality and injustice in the world is explained by what “they” are doing or what “we” are failing to do. At the personal level they may think that they are not working hard enough, or just having some bad luck, or that things will get better or that things are just fated to be that way.

As more time passes, the gap increases and leads them to channel their complaints in any one of many ways: They may feel that nothing can be done and get interested in sports, gossip, celebrities, crime, TV, etc.; or they may become cynical, or perhaps make a lifestyle change.

On the other hand, they may take a different road by being proactive and getting educated through discussion, reading, etc. This may lead them to attend, at some point, a conference, a demonstration, teach-in, sit-in, or lecture. It may also lead them to become a pacifist, a liberal, or a reformist. This, in turn, may prompt them to join the Democratic Party or a left wing intellectual group.

Alternatively, they may join a movement, become a participant and eventually become a an activist then morph into a dedicated activist.

Please do not tell me I am patronizing. I get told that all the time

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Jon Hoch June 18, 2013 at 9:51 am

was trying to share this on facebook, but when i type in the link, all the button that pops up says is:

“http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=8927”

No title, no short description, no image or anything. Anyway to make it more FB friendly?

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