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.”