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.