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Ron Radosh

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The Worst Tribute Articles to Pete Seeger

January 30th, 2014 - 12:59 pm

A few years ago, on these very pages, I wrote a column titled: “My Final Words on Pete Seeger.” Alas, it was not to be. My final words will actually appear tomorrow, in the pages of the Weekly Standard. And since I wrote the PJM column in 2009, I think I ended up writing at least three, perhaps more, pieces about Seeger. Each time he opened his mouth to endorse yet another horrendous political cause, such as the BDS movement, I found I could not keep silent.

And now, The New Republic’s Paul Berman has laid out a challenge I simply could not ignore. Let me simply give you his own words:

Did he ever fully come to grips with the grotesqueries of his Communist past? I look forward to reading my friend Ron Radosh, the ex-Communist, currently right-wing Republican, ex-banjo-player on this question — Radosh, with whom I agree 10 percent of the time, but who remained, I know, somehow in contact with Seeger, even into recent times. I expect Ron to denounce Pete. I am sorry to remind Pete’s fans that denunciations by Ron Radosh are Pete’s fate.

Sorry, Paul, I’m a conservative — but definitely not a “right-wing Republican,” whatever that pejorative is supposed to mean.

I cannot disappoint Paul Berman. But what more could I do, without repeating anything appearing in the Standard article? One thing occurred to me. Each day brings perhaps at least ten new articles about Pete Seeger, from publications throughout the world, from Israel to Australia to numerous European countries. Anyone doubting his influence and impact should try to compile them all. By now, they can easily make up a new book all by themselves. There are so many I could not even hope to give you the links.

So I have decided to address those that deal with Pete Seeger and communism, and the question of how much impact should one give to that issue in assessing whether or not he was a great artist and musician. Reading all the Seeger tributes, I thought I could come up with what are perhaps the two worst ones written in tribute to Pete Seeger.

The prize for the second-worst article goes to writer David A. Graham.

Graham tries to square the circle in The Atlantic: he acknowledges all the moral obtuseness of Seeger’s Stalinism, and writes that Seeger took “distressing and dangerous positions,” and had some “horrifying ideas.” But, says Graham, despite all this … Seeger meant well!

That’s it — his Stalinism can be excused, because he had good intentions. As Graham sees things: “In Seeger’s eyes, the ideas the Communist Party stood for were quintessentially American.” Because Seeger supposedly thought that a Stalinist state in America would be good, that makes it excusable?

He cites Earl Browder’s war years slogan “Communism is 20th Century Americanism,” without realizing that the slogan was quickly abandoned because Stalin ordered it withdrawn as soon as he heard it.

I somehow don’t remember Pete Seeger coming to the defense of Hollywood writer Albert Maltz in 1945, when the comrades took him to task for saying maybe the slogan “art is a weapon” was misguided. Maltz was pilloried by the comrades and forced to grovel and beg forgiveness for his apostasy. Of course Seeger wouldn’t come to his defense — he often said he believed that was the very mission of his own art.

Indeed, Graham believes that the American Reds imbued a “patriotic leftism.” This shows, of course, how little Graham knows about the history of the American Communist Party. Maybe I should gift him the collected works of Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes; he might learn something from them.

Graham also seems to know little about the Spanish Civil War, since he tells us Pete had “friends who died fighting with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.” If Graham knew anything, he would first realize that it was a battalion, and not a brigade — a name purposefully inflated by the comrades to make them appear a bigger force than they actually were. Moreover, he does not realize that this Comintern army fought the battle not for liberty, but for Stalin’s foreign policy aims, as I once wrote about my own uncle who died in that battalion. The article, which appeared in the Washington Post, was called “My Uncle Died in Vain Fighting ‘the good fight.’” I suggest Graham look it up in LexisNexis, or get hold of the book I co-authored, Spain Betrayed: The Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War.

Graham even attributes to Seeger the authorship of “We Shall Overcome,” which any folklorist knows was an old gospel hymn transformed into a labor organizing song that Seeger later learned at the leftist Highlander Folk School. He and Guy Carawan wrote some new words, and yes, made it familiar, and transformed it into the civil rights anthem it became. But that phrase is something that Seeger can take no credit whatsoever for writing.

Graham’s article, however, is nothing compared to the single worst article about Seeger. That prize goes to … Bhaskar Sunkara, founding editor of Jacobin and senior editor of socialist weekly In These Times. Sunkara’s column appears, perhaps appropriately, in the pages of Aljazeera America, a source I know everyone regularly reads. The title is — ready for this? — “In Defense of Pete Seeger: American Communist.

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About one week ago, the left-wing webzine Salon published an article by one Fred Jerome titled “Let’s Nationalize Fox News.” Jerome’s article, it turns out, is excerpted from a new book published by HarperCollins, Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA. It is important for what it reveals about the old communist mentality, still alive in Jerome’s mind.

The Salon site does not provide any information about the author. The book says only that he is a journalist and author of a few books, who was subpoenaed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the ’60s.

So it’s left to me to provide a more accurate appraisal of Mr. Jerome. As readers of my memoir might recall, I knew Freddy Jerome as one of the leaders of the NYC young communist movement during my high school years. I recalled the last time I had contact with him. When I was in the city during vacation while in college, Freddy met me to discuss putting together a trip to Cuba. He demanded that I first join the new Marxist-Leninist group he was forming. When I refused, he turned and said, as he went on his way, “I have nothing to do with enemies of the working class.”

Fred Jerome came from major communist stock. He was the son of the late cultural commissar of the CPUSA, V.J. Jerome, the man most well-known for trying to keep the Hollywood Reds in line. Fred Jerome broke with the CPUSA in the ’60s, and was one of the founders of the Maoist “Progressive Labor Party.” If ever the cliché “like father, like son” rings true, it is the case with Fred Jerome. In this brief excerpt, Jerome reveals how news organizations would function in a “socialist” America — except, it is indistinguishable from how they actually functioned in the old Soviet Union, or how they function in communist Cuba today.

Indeed, Jerome’s article could be taken as a model for the old Soviet Pravda [truth] or Izvestia. We all know the old joke, “There’s no truth in Pravda and no news in Izvestia.” That was an old Russians saying, a response to the masthead which actually said, “Proletarians of the world, unite.” After reading Jerome’s prescriptions for the press, one could put that on the masthead of his would-be newspaper before it is even written.

Jerome writes:

So news (and views) in a socialist society will be brought to you by a plethora of noncommercial sponsors. The government media will report on and discuss, for example, the major government plans for production, how to improve education, and more. But other media—newspapers, TV and radio stations, and Web sites sponsored by workers’ organizations, cultural organizations, youth groups, sports teams, and neighborhood groups will report on issues specific to their interests.

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We’ve known for some time that Nelson Mandela was a member of the South African Communist Party. It was hard for fawning liberals to acknowledge the meaning of his membership, so they came up with a narrative explaining it. Their story went something like this: He only briefly joined to get the benefit of their organizational talent, and his membership was rather symbolic, and hardly meaningful. What is important is his steadfast commitment to non-violence, his adherence to political democracy, and the role he played after emerging from prison in the waning days of apartheid.

But with each passing day, more has come out to put Mandela’s allegiance to communism in more perspective. Writing in the British Spectator, the courageous South African journalist Rian Malan tells the entire story. Malan tells the tale of what Professor Stephen Ellis found in the online Mandela archives.

What Ellis found is none other than the lost Mandela manuscript – the original draft of what became his 1994 autobiography (and now a movie) Long Walk to Freedom. After reading the book, Malan writes the following:

Everyone thought Mandela was a known entity, but he turns out to have led a double life, at least for a time. By day, he was or pretended to be a moderate democrat, fighting to free his people in the name of values all humans held sacred. But by night he donned the cloak and dagger and became a leader of a fanatical sect known for its attachment to the totalitarian Soviet ideal.

Malan and Professor Ellis found new insights into how Mandela’s image has been manipulated for propaganda purposes through the decades. Having decided to use Mandela as what Malan calls “the anti-apartheid movement’s official poster boy,” since he was a “tall, clean-limbed tribal prince, luminously charismatic, and…reduced by cruel circumstance to living martyrdom on a prison island,” the ANC and its supporters knew they had to “cleanse him of the communist taint.”

So they got a ghost writer for his book, a New York journalist named Rick Stengel, who of course refused to return Malan’s calls for a comment. Stengel, working from the original, left out all of Mandela’s passages that revealed the way he thought, and actually changed the meaning of much of what Mandela wrote. Here are some passages that were expunged:

I hate all forms of imperialism, and I consider the US brand to be the most loathsome and contemptible.

To a nationalist fighting oppression, dialectical materialism is like a rifle, bomb or missile. Once I understood the principle of dialectical materialism, I embraced it without hesitation.

Unquestionably, my sympathies lay with Cuba [during the 1962 missile crisis]. The ability of a small state to defend its independence demonstrates in no uncertain terms the superiority of socialism over capitalism.

Malan asks a strange question, and giving him the benefit of the doubt, perhaps it is with tongue in cheek. He writes, citing Barack Obama’s words at the Mandela memorial service that Mandela fought for “your freedom, your democracy,” that “one wonders if Barack Obama would have said that if he’d known his hero batted for the opposition during the Cold War.” Obviously, Malan is quite familiar with Mandela’s past, but knows very little about Obama’s. He does not know about Obama’s childhood mentor, Frank Marshall Davis, the Chicago/Hawaii Communist apparatchik, or about his own mother’s overt leftism and that of his acquaintances in the Chicago area who were close to the American Communist Party.

At any rate, the unauthorized complete autobiography was completely purged of the elements that Malan says are nothing more than a “pro-communist harangue.” What Stengel then did is clean up Mandela’s work in three major ways, as I’ll show on the next page.

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Thursday’s New Republic features a major article by John B. Judis, “Seeds of Doubt: Harry Truman’s concerns about Israel and Palestinians were prescient-and forgotten,” which pulls together material from his new book. My review of his book will appear in a forthcoming issue of The Jewish Review of Books, so I will only briefly comment on this article.

Both in this essay and in his book, Judis joins writers like Max Blumenthal and the BDS movement in attacking Israel and questioning its right to exist. Nevertheless, Judis makes assertions in the TNR excerpt that deserve attention, because they show how he uses history not to learn from the past, but for current political purposes. In this case, he uses history to bolster his belief that U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East should tilt towards the Arabs rather than Israel, and that Israel itself was created “against the opposition of its neighbors” and hence plays a “destabilizing” role — and is “a threat to America’s standing in the region.”

Judis argues that Harry S. Truman, who recognized Israel upon its creation in May 1948, not only opposed the creation of a Jewish state, but even after he recognized it, privately expressed regret and blamed his actions on the Zionist lobby in the United States. Judis has disdain for the “Zionist lobby,” which he seems to equate with the vast majority of American Jews and non-Jewish Americans who overwhelmingly supported the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine at the end of World War II.

Judis dismisses evidence that Truman was a Christian Zionist influenced by his religious upbringing and study of the Bible. Not so, says Judis: Truman’s supposed love for the Bible was  “based on his flawed eyesight. The family Bible, with its extra large print, was one of the few books at home the young Truman could read.”

Even if this was the case, large print or not, Truman read the Bible many times, studied it profusely, and knew much of it by heart. From it, he developed a sympathetic view of Palestine as the eternal homeland of the Jews, to which they would someday return.   When he suddenly became president after FDR’s death, he assigned other areas of foreign policy to the State Department, but felt competent to handle the issue of Palestine from the White House. Visitors were amazed when he took out a well-worn map of the area and was familiar with its geography and history.

Judis, however, claims that Truman “had little knowledge of Palestine.”

Most importantly, Judis gives far too much importance to Truman’s supposed endorsement of the Morrison-Grady Plan. (I cover this in detail in my forthcoming review.) He attributes its defeat, once again, to the “Zionist lobby.” Judis barely acknowledges that the Arab League and its representatives were just as opposed to the plan as the Palestinian Jews in the Yishuv – and omits that its members refused to even sit down to discuss it in London if there were any Jews who would be participating.

Judis repeats the widely held charge that Truman eventually supported the creation of Israel because of the Democratic Party’s need to obtain Jewish votes. He ignores that public opinion polls at the time established that the American public overwhelmingly favored support for a Jewish state, including states in which no or hardly any Jews lived. British Ambassador to the U.S. Lord Inverchapel was amazed to hear a speech by Democratic Senator Edwin Johnson — the British supposed that support for the creation of a Jewish state was confined to areas of the U.S. where a lot of Jews lived, yet Johnson was from Colorado, which, as Inverchapel reported home to the prime minister, did not “contain any appreciable Jewish population.”

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The expulsion of journalist-historian David Satter from Vladimir Putin’s Russia is indeed — as Satter himself puts it in today’s Wall Street Journal – “an admission that the system under President Vladimir Putin cannot tolerate free speech, even in the case of foreign correspondents.”

Satter was in Russia as an investigative reporter for Radio Liberty’s Russian service, the successor station of the old Soviet-era Radio Free Europe.

No one is better equipped to cover today’s Russia, over which Putin presides as a tin-horn replica of Joe Stalin. Satter’s book Age of Delirium, which he subsequently made into a documentary film, reveals in poignant interviews what it was really like to live in the Soviet Union in its post-Stalin days. His most recent book, It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past, explores how Russia’s failure to understand and investigate what the decades of the Soviet experiment meant for their people’s lives permitted another authoritarian regime to develop under Putin.

So when the Russian authorities learned that David Satter was now going to reside in Moscow as the base for his reporting gig, they could not have been happy. Satter’s months there coincided with the planning of the forthcoming Sochi Olympics and the renewal of terrorism said to be from Chechen Muslims. It is also a period for investigating what Satter calls “unanswered questions from the past,” such as who was responsible for the 2004 massacre at the Beslan school, who bore responsibility for the murder in London of major Putin political opponent Alexander Litvinenko, and who murdered crusading journalists Anna Politkovskaya and Natalya Estemirova.

Of course Putin’s Russia is not the old Stalinist Soviet Union, but there are great similarities. Putin and his cronies, as Satter says, hold total political power and also control the country’s most valuable economic assets. Rather than create socialism in one country, as Stalin would have it, Putin has created crony capitalism, in which one set of approved leaders gets it all for themselves. The country is on the verge of economic collapse, held aloft only by artificially high prices for oil and gas. (Satter covered all this in Darkness at Dawn:The Rise of the Russian Criminal State.)

Clearly, in this precarious time for Russia and as Putin stakes his reputation on an unsullied Olympics, his security forces do not want a man of character such as David Satter reporting. New terrorist attacks have been taking place, and Satter is the man who provided evidence that past terrorism acts, such as the 2007 apartment bombings which the Kremlin blamed on the Chechens, were really carried out by the FSB, the successor agency of the old KGB.

Satter provides more information about his expulsion on his own website. There is only one conclusion as to why he was expelled, not even given permission to gather his belongings from his Moscow apartment and to retrieve his journalistic notes: “The real reason for my refusal,” Satter writes, “was the one given by Alexei Gruby in Kiev. I was expelled from the country at the demand of the security services.”

This is indeed “an ominous precedent for all journalists,” as well as for free speech in Putin’s Russia.

How will the journalistic community respond? Will they take their credentials and just cover the Olympics — which would give much-welcome propaganda via publicity as determined by Putin’s controlled news apparatus — or will they protest Satter’s expulsion and threaten to report independently once in Russia?

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The African-American poet Amiri Baraka (born Everett Leroi Jones) died yesterday. Already, the press is whitewashing — or should I say, in deference to the deranged late race hater, blackwashing — his real record of obscenity.

Leading the charge, naturally, is NPR, whose obituary tells us that he was “controversial,” and that he “co-founded the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. His literary legacy is as complicated as the times he lived through, from his childhood — where he recalled not being allowed to enter a segregated library — to the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. His poem about that attack, ‘Somebody Blew Up America,’ quickly became infamous.”

“Controversial” and “complicated” may be satisfactory to some of the network’s listeners, but even they could not ignore his most recent infamy — his poem after the attack on the United States on 9-11. NPR tells us Baraka “hurls indictments at forces of oppression throughout history,” and then prints some of the verses which indicate that what Baraka did was something else — indict the United States for being the real terrorist nation.

He was, in other words, a black Noam Chomsky who expressed in verse similar ideas as the noted radical linguist.

The following verse exemplified his belief that Jews knew in advance of the attack, and told their fellow religionists, and Israelis, to stay away:

Who knew the World Trade Center was gonna get bombed Who told 4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers To stay home that day
Why did Sharon stay away?

Who? Who? Who?

That was too much for the state of New Jersey, which quickly removed his title as poet laureate of New Jersey — which they gladly handed him when he wrote even more offensive verses throughout his career.

The plaudits and prizes he received, indeed, show something deeply sick about American culture, as well as the American academy. He was a full professor at Stony Brook — SUNY, and had grants from the National Endowment for the Arts as well as the Guggenheim Foundation. No wonder NPR’s obit tells us his work was “achingly beautiful.”

Turning to the New York Times obituary, we learn that his Black Arts movement “ought to duplicate in fiction, poetry, drama and other mediums the aims of the black power movement in the political arena.” We also learn that “critical opinion” about Baraka was “divided,” which is one way of putting it. We also find out that “Mr. Baraka spent his early career as a beatnik, his middle years as a black nationalist and his later ones as a Marxist. His shifting stance was seen as either an accurate mirror of the changing times or an accurate barometer of his own quicksilver mien.”

Whatever he called himself — and he certainly blended black nationalism with Marxism — one thing was constant. He was a bitter, vile and open anti-Semite, who hated Jews over and above anything else he believed. The Times, of course, says only that his works “were periodically accused of being anti-Semitic, misogynist, homophobic, racist, isolationist and dangerously militant.”

Note that slippery word “accused,” with the implication that of course conservative, white and deluded right-wingers would make such a spurious charge. So they tell us his was a “powerful voice” and that he was a “riveting orator.” I guess the obit writer does not remember Adolf Hitler, about whom the same things could well be said, and who anti-Semitism was admired and equaled by Baraka. At least the obit included the judgment of Stanley Crouch — a black man who, like Baraka, wrote about jazz and blues, but who is the polar opposite of Baraka. Crouch said that his writing was “an incoherent mix of racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, black nationalism, anarchy and ad hominem attacks relying on comic book and horror film characters and images that he has used over and over and over.”

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The new domestic issue of choice for the Left in America is “income inequality.” When New York Mayor Bill de Blasio went to the White House to meet with President Obama, he told the press the topic they discussed was the great gap in income between the wealthy and the rest of America.

It is true that wages have been stagnant, and that the wages of the average worker have not risen as fast as the pay scale of corporation CEOs, and have not kept up with increasing inflation over the years. Yet, it is also true that even the poor are better off than their counterparts were decades ago, and that compared to the poor in other countries, the poor in America seem actually wealthy. We are way past the time period, still existing as LBJ began “the War on Poverty,” when those in rural poverty especially had no roads leading to where they lived, and had no indoor plumbing or electricity.

The question is how one should deal with the issue. The Left and self-proclaimed “progressives” — actually social-democrats, democratic socialists, Marxists, and leftover Communists — have one answer: redistribute the wealth and tax the rich. Of course, those who make that proposal always seem to favor redistributing everyone else’s wealth while not touching their own — especially if it’s private property they own, including their homes.

Every time the New York Times mentions Mayor Bill de Blasio’s home, two row houses worth over $1.1 million each, they refer to it as a modest dwelling. Ira Stoll, writing in Reason, quips that since many Americans can’t even afford one such home, “if de Blasio really wants to ‘put an end’ to economic inequality, he should sell both houses and distribute the proceeds to everyone else.” Or, perhaps he should invite 20 poor families to take over one of the units, properly collectivizing the units, as was the case in the Soviet Union of the 1920s and 1930s.

The truth is that the mayor and those like him would never consider such a step. After all, whatever they did to make a living allowed them to buy such a property, and they have no intention to let anyone, especially a politician, take it from them. That is why it becomes so important for leftist editors, like those at the Times, to describe the de Blasio units as “modest,” so that people will ignore the price tag and think that only a Donald Trump has truly immodest homes.

Actually, in the old “really-existing socialist regimes” of the past, or ones like Cuba today, the apparatchiks all lived in either newly built or old mansions confiscated from the wealthy. When the Sandinistas beloved by Comrade de Blasio took over Nicaragua in the 1970s, one of the first things Commandante Daniel Ortega did was confiscate a home of a wealthy Managua businessman and move in to the compound with his wife and family and assorted bodyguards. That move alone tells you about the great “option for the poor” the Nicaraguan Marxists believed in. How could you guarantee that the movement’s leaders would stay on course with the revolution unless they got something for their effort, while their countrymen remained steeped in poverty?

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Comrade De Blasio Takes the Helm

January 3rd, 2014 - 12:57 pm

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In the 1940s, the New York City subways and buses were represented — as they still are now — by the Transport Workers Union, whose chief at the time was “Red” Mike Quill. A fiery Communist who left the Party in 1948 but remained firmly on the political Left, Red was famous for his quip: “I’d rather be called a Red by the rats than a rat by the Reds.”

I’m certain that New York City’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, wishes Quill were still alive. He would then have a major ally to work with when the time came for the MTA to negotiate a new union contract with the city. Judging from his inauguration, a parody of a left-wing gala dreamed up at the U.S. desk of the Castro brothers’ Foreign Ministry, de Blasio has taken his big win as a mandate to create social-democracy in one city.

De Blasio has pledged to make his term as mayor the time for implementation of a war against inequality. My colleague Roger L. Simon thinks he and those with him do not believe a word of what they say, that it is all “high comedy” and they “can’t be serious.” I disagree. The rhetoric may be old-fashioned and seem corny, but de Blasio is a certified red diaper baby, he was born and bred in an ideological cocoon of Marxism, and later, by his own word, was inspired by the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and Castro in Cuba.

He chose whom to appoint and who would speak at his inauguration, and if the talk was inflammatory and ideological, it was de Blasio’s intention. He would take the high road and let the words of his apparatchiks and celebrities like Harry Belafonte talk the talk for the true believers who would provide the inspiration. As Slate writer Matt Yglesias quipped on Twitter as he watched the speeches: “Daring of de Blasio to appear on stage with the embalmed corpses of Lenin, Mao, and Ho Chi Minh at his inauguration.”

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