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Ron Radosh

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.

Sunkara, whose publication has been featured in the New York Times as a great socialist vehicle, actually writes, if you can believe it, the following:

It’s not that Seeger did a lot of good despite his longtime ties to the Communist Party; he did a lot of good because he was a Communist.

At least Sunkara is honest. Unlike the apologists, who want to have their Seeger clean although they think much of what he fought for was morally reprehensible, Sunkara comes up with a new apology. He acknowledges communism in practice was awful, but out of power, and in America, it only did good.

Someone giving out The Daily Worker in the Bronx in 1938, he writes, “shouldn’t be conflated with the nomenklatura that oversaw labor camps an ocean away.” Doesn’t he know that the comrades in the CPUSA were at the same time justifying and rationalizing and lying about every crime committed by Stalin’s regime in the USSR? Doesn’t he know that the issue of the paper they were giving out had articles not only about labor struggles at home, but about how Stalin was creating paradise in the gulag and liberating prisoners through work?

In reality, these same American Reds were trying to teach the workers whose fights they supported that they should look to the USSR as an example of what could be built in the United States. It was more honest when William Z. Foster titled one of his early books Toward Soviet America. The party’s strategy changed, but not its goals.

Sunkara says the Communists and Seeger were “on the right side of history.” Really? Was Seeger on the right side of history when he and the Almanac Singers called FDR a warmonger and urged alongside America First “no intervention in a foreign war,” and when he attacked the U.S. as fascist, Britain as imperialist, and declared Nazi Germany a benign power that meant no harm to the world? As Pete sang and played: “Franklin D. Franklin D, You ain’t gonna send me across the sea.”

Then Sunkara gives us the usual line about how right the Eastern bloc was in leading the anti-colonial struggle in Asia and Africa. Think of the outcome had the USSR lasted and been able to turn South Africa into a replica of the Soviet Union, which well might have happened had the ANC — controlled by the South African Communist Party — succeeded in toppling the apartheid regime in the early ’60s.

What does Sunkara think about the totalitarian and Sovietized regime of Mengistu in Ethiopia, one of the most brutal communist “liberation” governments in that era?

Sunkara too seems to have little knowledge of American Communist history. He too should read Haynes and Klehr, in particular their volumes on American Communism. He cites Communist Party novelist Michael Gold, black author Richard Wright, and critic Granville Hicks as examples of Communism’s best. Anyone who thinks that Mike Gold had knowledge about anything of value, does not realize that Richard Wright became an anti-Communist, or knows nothing about how and why Granville Hicks changed, and attributes these people in particular with pushing FDR and the New Deal to the left, reveals only his own ignorance of history.

It is not surprising Sunkara likes Gold, since he is the man who called Seeger “the Karl Marx of the teenagers.”

So Sunkara praises American Communists for playing a “largely positive role in American politics and culture.” Largely positive, like when they said the fight for civil rights had to be abandoned during WWII because everything had to be put aside to support the Soviet Union and defeat Hitler? Or that strikes should be abandoned and a no-strike pledge instituted in the factories, and that anyone opposing their policies in the labor movement should be indicted? This is precisely what the U.S. government did when it indicted and tried the Trotskyists under the Smith Act. The Communist Party provided the government lawyers with material to be used by the prosecution.

Pete supported that. But of course, when the Communists were indicted under the same Smith Act in 1948, the party proclaimed that an example of the Truman administration’s “fascist” policies.

Indeed, “The Hammer Song,” known by most as “If I Had a Hammer,” was written by Lee Hays (not Seeger) as a song to be used in defense of the indicted Communists, and not as a clarion call for brotherhood. Sunkara’s belief that the American Communists were “creative and dynamic” is so far off the mark one can only laugh at his ignorance.

So that is why he likes Pete Seeger, whom he calls “one of the last surviving links to this great legacy.” Moreover, he actually writes that there was “an undeniable charm to the Communist Party.” Read that again — “an undeniable charm.” Is this man simply nuts? If Sunkara really believes this, he is more than ignorant. He simply does not know the truth, and responds to what Paul Berman accurately describes as Seeger’s appeal:

If you can persuade crowds of people that simple morality and a childlike vision of right and wrong can be summed up in a few phrases, there is nothing you cannot achieve, and some of what you might achieve could turn out to be disastrous in the extreme — e.g., Stalin’s idea of dividing up the world with Hitler.

I imagine that if Sunkara had been alive and heard Pete singing the songs on the “John Doe” album, he would have quickly run to the White House picketing against the idea of defense spending and war against Hitler.

Did Seeger eventually “regret the illusions he held about the Soviet Union,” as Sunkara says? Not really, despite his letters to me and his writing — half a century too late — his little ditty about Joe Stalin.

Indeed, speaking to theNew York Times, after that paper wrote an article about Seeger’s controversial exchanges with me, Seeger said, referring to me and my books and article about the crimes of communism: “I’m sure there are more constructive things he could do with his life.”

I know Pete would not have said that if I had been writing books about fascism.

More than likely, he would have praised my doing so. Pete, like so many others on the Left, simply failed to realize that communism is fascism’s twin.

Some also take umbrage, as does Graham, with calling Seeger anti-American. In his Mother Jones article, David Hajdu, who spent time with Seeger before writing the article, called him “devoted to a few simple ideas, a nostalgist whose worldview often seems frozen in the era of his own coming-of-age.” He adds: “A strain of anti-Americanism has always run through Seeger’s work.”

If you don’t think that is the case, listen to the Smithsonian Folkways CD “Pete Seeger Sing-a-Long,” recorded at the Sanders Theater in Cambridge, Mass., in 1980. In an impromptu remark, Seeger makes a comment about how if the people had guns, you better watch out, because you don’t know whom the people would use the guns against. The comment receives huge cheers. That is to be expected of from an audience in the People’s Republic of Cambridge.

Sunkara is right about one thing. He quotes Bruce Springsteen, who wrote that Seeger showed how song could “nudge history along.” Seeger did indeed help make communism more fashionable, and that is a tragedy, not something for which Pete Seeger should ever have received praise.

Comments are closed.

Top Rated Comments   
"...he did a lot of good because he was a Communist."

Spoken like a true useful idiot. Fellow traveller. Tool.

What good Seeger did (and he did do some) he did because he was a good man at heart, not because he was a Communist. I think he loved people, loved children, loved the environment. He loved music. I don't think he loved America per se, but he loved certain Americans - the "folk," the "workers," the "people," - in the naive, idealistic, patronizing way that leftists tend to love anything.

And I think that he believed - God only knows why - that Communism was based on love. "Love between my brothers and my sisters, all over this land." When Christians think of Love, they think of Jesus. When Seeger thought of Love, he evidently thought of Marx and Lenin - and even, possibly, Stalin. If he thought of Jesus at all, he probably though the Lord and Lenin were sympatico. Jesus was a Communist, he just didn't know it. (Progressives are really good at co-opting everything good that ever happened in history, convincing themselves that all the time it was all leading up to...themselves.)

No, I don't understand it either.

Today, some angry young men convert to Islam, sometimes the most primitive, militant forms of Islam, because it seems to offer them something. Not sure what, but there they are. Maybe it was the same with Seeger and Communism.

It's about psychology - or the mysteries of the human heart, if you want to think of it that way. It's hard to tell why people make certain connections in their minds. I guess it's idealism in its purest form. Believing in the propaganda and the promises rather than the actual thing. The principles are good and true, even if the implementation is imperfect. We just have to keep marching forward. We'll get it right someday.

Interesting that Pete and his fellow Communists saw America's warts very clearly, but saw none of the Soviet Union's.

Honestly, I'm not sure how the man's mind worked. He was like a religious believer. Even if the human side of Communism was flawed, I think he believed that if he clung to the "spiritual" side he could achieve salvation. Something like that, anyway.

I don't understand. I don't have a heart full of love and a naive, simplistic view of right and wrong. Things are complicated, and I'm a cynic, not an idealist.
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
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All Comments   (23)
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Communists have never owned up to the horrors of their own beliefs. The only honest Communists were they, such as Radosh and Horowitz, who DID own up to those horrors and promptly acted on what they had learned.

Lifelong Communists are born defective. They get stuck on some notion and just refuse to give it up. Facts and reality mean nothing to them. They lie, cheat, steal and murder and/or condone lying, cheating, theft and murder. Because of this, there is no such thing as an honest lifelong Communist.

The current administration is chuckful of this kind of person, Alger Hisses all, from top to bottom. Sad, infuriating and sick. Not to mention dangerous.
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
Well the communists weren't all bad, they built a great wall in Berlin, had some marvelous purges in the Soviet Union and China, tens of millions killed, can't beat that, destroyed their economies and fostered mass hardship for decades. and had one helluva Gulag system. Why who wouldn't like that, the hope, the promise, the new dawn, the psychiatric hospitals, the murders and torture, hell, if that ain't progress what is?
No wonder the dream lives on today, hope endures. Of course there had to be a name change, what else but Progressivism?
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
my friend's step-mother makes $63 every hour on the internet . She has been out of a job for ten months but last month her paycheck was $20988 just working on the internet for a few hours. go......
W­W­W.T­E­C­3­0.C­O­M
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
Even in the day, like Mr. Radosh, I may not have been too offended by his politics, in the long run, it's his "music" I can't and could never stand. All of that faux folk stuff was nauseating. Thank God for Bob Dylan "going electric".
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
I put that entire oevre in the category Martin Mull called "The Great Folk Music Scare -- that [crap] almost caught on!"
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
"...he did a lot of good because he was a Communist."

Spoken like a true useful idiot. Fellow traveller. Tool.

What good Seeger did (and he did do some) he did because he was a good man at heart, not because he was a Communist. I think he loved people, loved children, loved the environment. He loved music. I don't think he loved America per se, but he loved certain Americans - the "folk," the "workers," the "people," - in the naive, idealistic, patronizing way that leftists tend to love anything.

And I think that he believed - God only knows why - that Communism was based on love. "Love between my brothers and my sisters, all over this land." When Christians think of Love, they think of Jesus. When Seeger thought of Love, he evidently thought of Marx and Lenin - and even, possibly, Stalin. If he thought of Jesus at all, he probably though the Lord and Lenin were sympatico. Jesus was a Communist, he just didn't know it. (Progressives are really good at co-opting everything good that ever happened in history, convincing themselves that all the time it was all leading up to...themselves.)

No, I don't understand it either.

Today, some angry young men convert to Islam, sometimes the most primitive, militant forms of Islam, because it seems to offer them something. Not sure what, but there they are. Maybe it was the same with Seeger and Communism.

It's about psychology - or the mysteries of the human heart, if you want to think of it that way. It's hard to tell why people make certain connections in their minds. I guess it's idealism in its purest form. Believing in the propaganda and the promises rather than the actual thing. The principles are good and true, even if the implementation is imperfect. We just have to keep marching forward. We'll get it right someday.

Interesting that Pete and his fellow Communists saw America's warts very clearly, but saw none of the Soviet Union's.

Honestly, I'm not sure how the man's mind worked. He was like a religious believer. Even if the human side of Communism was flawed, I think he believed that if he clung to the "spiritual" side he could achieve salvation. Something like that, anyway.

I don't understand. I don't have a heart full of love and a naive, simplistic view of right and wrong. Things are complicated, and I'm a cynic, not an idealist.
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
"...It's hard to tell why people make certain connections in their minds."

I'm convinced that for many on the Left, the reason they cling to certain ideas is that those ideas provide them with hopes and consolations, in ways that correspond to what religion provides for many of the rest of us. If you give up regular religion, I think you will still seek after something which you will use to try to fill religion's role to an extent. On a more mundane level, we now see "unchurched" people who seem to approach movies and popular music in an almost worship-service sort of way.

And Leftism offers a certain feeling of moral superiority to its adherents, many of whom lead deeply disordered and otherwise flawed lives. Also, I can't psychoanalyze Seeger, but I know that he grew up in an atmosphere filled with far-left teachings.

I've known some Marxists for a few decades now who are intelligent people. In the face of massive evidence against Marxism, though, they still cling to their old certainties. I think that in their case they feel deep down, and maybe not quite consciously, that if they finally give up those old certainties it will destroy them. They almost seem like people who have been involved in a cult for several years, and while they now have the opportunity to leave the cult, they still run back to The Master's teachings.
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
There is an allure to the "spirit" of socialism, especially for the young. Lord knows, it attracted me in my youth. How anyone could remain in the fold, however, especially with what we know about the excesses of Stalin et al, is beyond me. Again, especially since the term "useful idiots" was coined to describe exactly what and who Seeger and fellow travelers in the west were being. There are none so blind ...
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
This is an excellent and well said comment. You nail it! Ron
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
Thanks. You knew the guy, so that means a lot.
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
The tunes are okay, but the lyrics need work. Let's see, maybe I can help out...

"If I had a hammer and sickle..."
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
Seeger and his "work" was a result of self-promotion and low-information teenagers knowing nothing about his anti-American views. Charlatan
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
"It’s not that Seeger did a lot of good despite his longtime ties to the Communist Party; he did a lot of good because he was a Communist." and
“an undeniable charm to the Communist Party.”

Good = promoting the Communist cause.
Charm = lying in order to deceive and doing so with a smile (like Obama).

I'm convinced that in 2014 ... it would be a reatively simple task for Ron (with his experience of Communism); to ascertain and verify exactly which members of Congress, the Executive and the Judicial branches our government are bonafide members of CPUSA or any other names for that same organisation that they care to use. Every governor and every member of every state legislature should get the same treatment. THEN ... the miscreant anti- Americans should be called out for what they are: TRAITORS.

Thanks for doggedly pursuing Seeger's career in Communism and esposing what the Left would otherwise totally whitewash. Go Ron go!!!!!!!
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
AT LEAST SEEGER CAME OUT AS A COMMIE -- WHICH IS MORE THAN I CAN SAY ABOUT OBAMA.
I first heard Pete Seeger about '64 in his "We Shall Overcome" Carnegie Hall concert. I didn't know anything about anything then, some may say I still don't. But I loved the music. Still do. I didn't know Seeger was a Communist until I saw the PBS program about him rather recently. However, I remember the Vietnam War and how Pete Seeger seemed to turn against protest and turned towards environmentalism -- something extremely positive and something needed at the time -- by cleaning up the Hudson River with the bold idea of a Tall Ship. Sloop John B, anyone? I applaud his work as I equally hate the hidden agenda of our Liar-in-Chief.
Ultimately, I believe, Seeger left a legacy of love -- for song, for music, for the beautiful Hudson Valley of his youth. And ultimately, I believe, Mr. Obama is leaving a legacy of hate, of division and of mistrust. I definitely like the openness and the talent of Pete Seeger. It's far superior to our hidden-agenda President who is doing damage to foreign policy, to the economy, to the Constitution and to the youth of America that will last far longer than his presidency. As I've said many times: I don't dislike Obama because he's Black. I dislike him because he's Red. Seeger was much more than political. Obama is much less.
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
Well said, Really Mike. I agree with you about the contrasting legacies of Seeger and Obama. While I strongly disagree with Seeger's political beliefs, I respect his openness and talent. Obama has neither openness nor talent nor good sense.
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
I was hanging with a folk singer in '75 and we played along the Hudson near Albany on a cold rainy October day. There were a handful of people in the crowd. But Seeger was singing his songs.
Just a bit of a story to share.
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
"I attend all the Pete Seeger concerts. He sure gets me singing those songs."
LOVE ME, I'M A LIBERAL, Phil Ochs

And I love Phil Ochs because he reminds me what it is to be young.
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
Young and dumb
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
Or as Dylan put it: "I was so much older then. I'm younger than that now."
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
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