In an era of online radicalization, Peter Camejo’s analysis is more relevant than ever.
In June of 1970, as the radical energy of the ‘60s began to dissipate but before the looming darkness of neoliberal backlash had properly coalesced, a socialist activist named Peter Camejo gave a speech to a small Trotskyist youth group in New York City. Later titled “Liberalism, Ultraleftism, or Mass Action,” Camejo’s speech outlined what he saw as the three possible “orientations” of the contemporary Left and made an impassioned case for the power of mass action over the passivity of liberalism or the pessimism of ultraleftism.
In the decades since its original publication, Camejo’s speech has grown in both relevance and popularity, continually drawing in new generations of radicals eager to learn the best way to transform their ideals into reality. Indeed, for all the countless attempts to diagnose the problems that ail the contemporary leftist movement — constantly blaming our weakness on immaterial cultural signifiers like “identity politics,” “white chauvinism,” etc. — none has had the incisiveness or staying power of Camejo’s tripartite analysis. For all its seemingly timeless wisdom, however, “Liberalism, Ultraleftism, or Mass Action” is definitely a product of its time, filled with references to the specific protests and political disagreements of the early ‘70s. To those unfamiliar with such history, Camejo’s constant references can weigh down and obfuscate his important points, making his speech inaccessible to those who need it most, such as young socialists and new organizers. In an endeavor to open up Camejo’s critically important analysis to an even broader audience of socialists, this essay will rearticulate Camejo’s core ideas using 21st-century examples.
At the core of Camejo’s speech is his theory of the three possible “orientations” of the modern Left: liberalism, ultraleftism, and mass action. These orientations are not ideologies, with specific goals, demands, and political beliefs; rather, they are logics of how power operates in society, of how change occurs.
For liberals, power is vested entirely in the elites, and making change is simply a matter of putting the right people into the elite class. Liberals believe that the “system,” whether that’s capitalism, the US government, etc., fundamentally works to the advantage of everyone, and any issues such as poverty, repression, etc. are simply mistakes to be corrected with the proper policy. The liberal elite theory of change is not limited to just government: in the private sphere, many liberals champion initiatives pushing to diversify corporate boards of directors, believing that if just the right identity was in power that exploitation would cease. Liberalism currently dominates most of the American political landscape: regardless of ideology, American politicos’ only goal is to get certain elites elected and to enact certain policies.
Some liberals have grown disillusioned, however, as the years have dragged on and the promised top-down progress has never arrived. They called their representative, marched in the Women’s March, and may have even worn their “I Voted” sticker longer than a day — and still, nothing really changed. The elites weren’t listening. This is where the second orientation, ultraleftism, originates: “a liberal that has gone through an evolution.”
Like the liberal, the ultraleftist believes that the elite have all the power, but instead of them usually using it for good purposes and sometimes making mistakes, they believe the elites are maniacally evil and constantly plotting to create the worst possible outcome. Where the liberal sees opportunities to make change by putting new people into power, the ultraleftist sees everything as hopelessly rigged and stacked against them.
Since they believe that the evil ruling class has all the power and that the masses have none, the ultraleftist is driven to theories of change that center around small minorities of radicals taking drastic action to force the elite’s hand. Riots, armed revolution, and autonomous zones at the edge of civilization are some of the core ultraleftist tactics, as they turn away from the masses and focus on either destroying the elites or retreating from society entirely. “The actions they propose are not aimed at the American people,” Camejo argues, “they’re aimed at those who have already radicalized. They know beforehand that masses of people won’t respond to the tactics they propose.”
This disbelief in the power of the masses also leads them to denounce many mass-strategies as “insufficiently radical,” claiming that they have been co-opted and are actually tools of the elites. As Camejo says, ultraleftists represent a small portion of the broader left, but make up a significant proportion of those who consider themselves radicals or socialists. They are extremely common on the Internet, as thousands of newly disillusioned liberals have taken up radical aesthetics over the past few years and joined communities of like-minded ultraleftists who encourage each other’s increasing immersion in the subculture — thus increasing their distance from the real state of society outside their bubble.
A Logic, Not an Ideology
Not all ultraleftists share the same aesthetic or ideology, however. As emphasized earlier, Camejo’s orientations are logics, not ideologies themselves, allowing for ultraleftists to carry the banner of anarchism, Maoism, Trotskyism, or whatever other dead tendency they have revived to try and “play revolution, because they have no hope.” Ultraleftists can even appear to be remarkably liberal: take for example the case of the Movement for A People’s Party, or any of the great number of attempts at a progressive third party in recent years. While seemingly liberal in their goals (elect a new set of politicians who will be properly “progressive”), the actual tactics and theory of change behind such parties are distinctly ultraleftist: they ignore the masses and preemptively create a minority party of radicals who can instigate performative disturbances in order to force the elites to change (e.g. “Forcing the Vote” on a bill that has no chance of passing). This points to a fundamental truth about ultraleftism that none admit: for all their loud denouncements of “liberals” and “liberalism,” the ultraleftist and liberal logics are ultimately mirror images of each other, differentiated only by whether they believe the ruling class to be kind or cruel, whether the system is efficient or oppressive. It is no wonder that when you cut through all the rhetoric and get down to their actual “organizing,” liberals and ultraleftists both prioritize the same ineffective strategies of endless protests, obscure reading groups, and intra-left conflict.
Camejo’s third orientation, mass action, rejects the fundamentals of both the liberal and ultraleftist logic, asserting that power does not lay entirely in the hands of the elites, but rather is a constant struggle between the ruling class and the masses. This is a dialectical, class-struggle-centered analysis that understands change as the product of conflict instead of just the decision-making of elites.
Where liberalism and ultraleftism have minority theories of change, either focused on putting in new elites or leading a small super-radical sect, mass action focuses entirely on the working class. Liberals/ultraleftists orient themselves entirely around the capitalist class; mass action organizers orient themselves only toward the working class. Mass action is not somehow “in between” liberalism and ultraleftism, but is actually completely separate from them in how it analyzes power in society.
A liberal calls their congressperson; an ultraleftist tweets about a #GeneralStrike; a mass-action oriented socialist is meeting workers where they are and mobilizing them in struggle. As Camejo says, “This is the way to not only play, but make, a revolution.”
What are the main trends on the U.S. Left? YDSA members: we want to hear from you! Find out how to submit articles to The Activist here.
Want to support The Activist and help build a mass working-class movement by and for student socialists? Become a YDSA member today!