Peter Camejo on Liberalism, Ultraleftism and Mass Action

Jeremy Gong
Oct 6, 2017 · 11 min read

Below are excerpts from Peter Camejo’s June, 1970 speech, entitled “Liberalism, ultraleftism or mass action”. You can find a link to the text of that speech here. At the time of this speech, Camejo was a leading member of the Trotskyist organization, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), and active in the antiwar movement. In this speech to the SWP’s youth section, the Young Socialist Alliance, Camejo responds to what he thinks are certain delusional and counterproductive tendencies within the antiwar movement among liberals and ultraleftists, two labels which he explains in the speech.

While I don’t agree entirely with everything he says, I found very helpful his distinction between elite-oriented politics (ultraleft-liberals) on the one hand, and mass-oriented politics on the other. In 2016, millions of people voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Primary, and Sanders message of a moral economy, like Corbyn’s of a society for the many and not the few, is even more popular today. In this context, I think Camejo’s instruction that the Left orient towards the masses in motion are a great starting point for activists.

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The purpose of this meeting is to have a discussion about the present political conjuncture in this country following the May events [student strikes across the US], how we have to relate to what is happening, and what we have to do to build the antiwar movement and the revolutionary movement.

The main questions I want to deal with are some of the arguments being raised within the radical movement against the orientation projected by the Socialist Workers Party and the Young Socialist Alliance. I want to try to deal with these arguments in a theoretical way. That is, deal with what is basically behind the differences that now exist in the radical movement and what they represent in terms of the problems before the left in the United States.

[…]

The real explanation [for why the US government is pulling out of Cambodia] is that the masses of people in this country have become a force that enters into the balance on a world scale. There is a change taking place in the consciousness of the people of the United States, and this change is altering the relationship of forces. An understanding of this fact is crucial for deciding our strategy and tactics. You can’t work out tactics for how to affect the course of the war unless you understand what is affecting it at this very moment.

Failure to understand this leads to all types of dreams, schemes and fantasies which I’m going to discuss.

But first let’s consider why this is true. Why is it that the antiwar consciousness of the masses of people can be such a powerful force affecting what the government can do? The reason is very simply this: contrary to what many people in the radical movement say, the masses of people have different interests than the ruling class and they have independent power.

The ruling class can, of course, influence the working class — through the leadership of the trade unions for instance. But the potential power of the working class, that independent power which was concretely reflected in the postal workers strike and the GE strike, is a power which is so strong that the ruling class has to seriously reckon with it in figuring out its strategy.

The working class in this country, if it so chose, could physically end the war in Vietnam. That’s a pretty fantastic power. Students cannot end it by themselves. Soldiers could conceivably end it, but you can’t consider the GIs in isolation from the rest of society.

There’s a general shift taking place in which masses of workers are becoming more and more sympathetic to appeals to stop the war.

[…]

You see, you can take 200 or 300, or even a few thousand people and fight in the streets, throwing rocks at windows, and putting on a big show. You can play revolution, not make revolution. But when you’re talking about 15 million workers who control basic industry in this country, you don’t play games. Because they don’t run around throwing things at windows. They do things like stop production, period.

[The postal workers, who carried out a massive wildcat strike in March 1970 which forced Nixon to call in the National Guard to carry mail], for instance — all they had to do to tie up the economy was to go home. That’s all. Just go home. That’s power.

A question that’s very important in this relationship of forces I’ve been speaking of is who has got the majority, Nixon or the antiwar movement. The polls are going wild trying to establish this or that, and there are demonstrations and claims and counterclaims back and forth.

But what the liberals and the ultralefts don’t understand is that what the majority thinks can be decisive. Such things as where the troops can be sent and whether bullets can be fired or not, can be determined by what the mass of the people think. Because their ability to resist, and the potential, the danger of their resistance, is dependent on what they think.

[…]

Then came the general student strike of May, and the massive increase in conscious hostility towards the war in Vietnam, and the invasion of Cambodia.

This strike swept the United States like an ocean wave. It was clear that this time the student-based protest reflected the thinking of millions and millions of Americans, including huge sections of the working class. This time when the students came out, they all came out. When virtually 98 per cent of the student body is striking in many schools and three-quarters of them are showing up for the mass strike meetings, you know that the movement reflects moods prevalent in the entire population. They are being expressed visually by the student layer.

What was the response of the ruling class to this upsurge? The number one point which they understood perfectly was that decisive power does not lie within the student movement, but that the student movement is a direct danger because it can act as a catalyst, spreading ideas and setting other forces into motion.

If you were to look at the students in isolation, you would say they don’t have any real power. But put the students into the actual network of society — the interrelationship with their parents, the interrelationship with society as a whole, the interrelationship between each university and other universities and schools and the community around it — and the ruling class can see an immediate threat.

[…]

Now, keeping this whole framework of the relationship of forces in mind, let’s look at the various orientations that are being presented to us for what to do next. There are basically three of them. One is what I call liberalism. Another one is ultraleftism. The third one is what I call independent mass action.

[…]

1. The Liberal:

So then you ask the liberal who is protecting his civil liberties? He will say, “Well, it’s because our system allows it. Our system works to a certain degree.” Since they have confidence that the system basically works, the only problem is to find members of the ruling class who are responsive and will help protect civil liberties, and get them in power. They continuously look for a more liberal wing within the ruling class to support.

They don’t at all see that the way to change society or affect the course of events is to go to the masses. On the contrary, they accept the general bourgeois ideology of deep cynicism toward the masses. The average person in the street according to them is stupid. He can be easily manipulated. “Look, the average person in the street believes the politicians are corrupt, yet he votes for them every year. Isn’t that true? Haw, haw, haw,” he says.

[…]

2. The Ultraleftist:

Now basically an ultraleft is a liberal that has gone through an evolution. What happens is this. They start out as liberals, and suddenly the war in Vietnam comes along. Now, what does a liberal believe? He believes that the ruling class is basically responsive to his needs. So he demonstrates.

[…]

Now, since they had no confidence in the masses as an independent force that could stop the ruling class, since they had no confidence that the stupid worker was actually a force protecting their civil liberties, they said, “Wait a minute. If the government is being run by wild maniacs and butchers, what is stopping them from killing me tomorrow?”

[…]

Sometimes a liberal becomes frustrated not getting the ear of the ruling class, and he concludes that he’ has been using the wrong tactics. So he adopts a lot of radical rhetoric. He says this ruling class is apparently so thickheaded that what we’ve got to do is really let loose a temper tantrum to get its attention. The politicians won’t listen to peaceful things, but if we go out and break windows then Kennedy will say, “Oh, I guess there is a problem in this society. I didn’t realize it when they were just demonstrating peacefully. I thought everything was OK because they were in the system, but now they’re going outside the system, they’re breaking windows, so we’ve got to hold back.”

These liberal-ultraleftists think that’s what moves the ruling class. Actually they come close to a correct theory when they say that if people start leaving the system the ruling class will respond. But they don’t believe that the masses can be won. They think it is enough for them to leave the system themselves, small groups of people carrying out direct confrontations.

[…]

This is another thing that these ultraleft-upside-down-liberals have: the panic button. Since they don’t see any countervailing force, they think at any moment the whole country could just go BANG! At any moment the ruling class can make a move to the right, and they don’t see any way to stop it, so they throw in the towel, they just panic. The ad says: “If you’re reading this — don’t kid yourself any longer. Big Brother is making his list. And you’re on it. Can we stop 1984? It’s 11:59 p.m. now. The clock is ticking loudly. What in hell are we going to do about it?”

Well, what solution do these ultralefts have? What do they project should be done to stop imminent fascism? In this ad they have a five-point program.

Number one, sit in at your congressman’s office. With just one minute until 1984! Really effective! I guess their reasoning is that if you’re in your congressman’s office when 1984 arrives at least maybe they’ll be a little more lenient with you!

[…]

We’re not opposed to sit-ins per se; many of us in the SWP and YSA have participated in sit-ins, such as during the early stages of the civil rights movement. We’re not opposed to any specific tactic. But we look at the whole political context, the relationship of forces, what is possible, what potential exists for mass action, and we decide on that basis what tactics we should use at the moment.

[…]

3. Independent Mass Action:

Let me go on to the third choice: independent mass action. What I mean here is a general strategy of trying to build movements which reach out and bring masses into motion on issues where they are willing to struggle against policies of the ruling class, and through their involvement in action, deepen their understanding of those issues. This is the fundamental strategy we’re after.

We’re not interested in moving 20 or 200 or several hundred community organizers to engage in some sort of civil disobedience, window trashing, or whatever. We say that is a dead end, because it doesn’t relate to the power that can stop the war — the masses. You can’t ask the 15 million trade unionists to sit in at a congressman’s office. There just isn’t enough room. Of course, the ultralefts know that 15 million workers aren’t going to do that, so that call is clearly not aimed at involving workers.

This is the key thing to understand about the ultraleftists. The actions they propose are not aimed at the American people; they’re aimed at those who have already radicalized. They know beforehand that masses of people won’t respond to the tactics they propose.

They have not only given up on the masses but really have contempt for them. Because on top of all this do you know what else the ultralefts propose? They call for a general strike! They get up and say, “General Strike.” Only they don’t have the slightest hope whatsoever that it will come off.

Every last one of them who raises his hand to vote for a general strike knows it’s not going to happen. So what the hell do they raise their hands for? Because it’s part of the game. They play games, they play revolution, because they have no hope. Just during the month of May the New Mobe called not one but two general strikes. One for GIs and one for workers.

That is the big difference between the perspective of the ultralefts and our perspective, because we do want a general strike. We do want a real strike. We do believe you can win the workers, so therefore we don’t just raise our hands in games, we raise our hands for what really can be done, for what can begin to move masses of people.

[…]

Now, what is the best way we can implement this orientation at this point? We follow a general organizational type strategy which is simply this. You get the issues around which people are moving against the government and create a unified movement around them, in order to maximize the numbers that will come into motion.

[…]

Our concept is to unite people in action around the issues on which they’re moving. Not because we’re single-issue fetishists. Our aim, in fact, is to move people around broader and broader issues, but we’ve got to deal with reality, not with abstractions.

[…]

People don’t suddenly understand everything at once. Think about your own political development. There’s always one issue or another, depending on the objective conditions, which tends to wake a person up. As we’ve said over and over again, at the present stage the most effective weapon to stop the ruling class from moving to the right is to get masses of people in motion. The most effective way to do this, at this stage especially, is mass, peaceful, legal demonstrations in the streets.

[…]

If you have a program of a lot of reforms and abstractions, it means that you can go right back to the liberal wing of the ruling class, because that is just what their program is also. You can go right back to Senator Kennedy, who can get up, as he did in his speech accepting the Democratic Party nomination for Massachusetts senator, and come out against racism, repression, poverty and many other things.

[…]

[T]he depth of the antiwar movement is qualitatively greater [in 1970] than it was in ’66 or ’68. Deep mass antiwar sentiment exists, and it offers the possibility, even during an election period, of building mass independent actions against the war, and therefore actually holding back the war effort.

What’s happening right now is that the involvement of people in mass actions is radicalizing them on other issues as well. The antiwar movement, for example, has helped lay the basis for the tremendous growth of the women’s liberation movement and it has created a greater responsiveness to certain aspects of the Black struggle. The Black struggle itself helped to inspire the antiwar movement.

[…]

Our campaigns speak for the full program necessary to mobilize people in struggle to do away with war, poverty, racial oppression and the oppression of women. They point the way to the goal of our struggle: socialism.

But at the same time we will unite on any issue around which people are willing to struggle against the ruling class, no matter what their level of understanding of this society. This is the way to move masses in this country, to build a revolutionary party, and not only play, but make, a revolution.

Jeremy Gong

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