The Right Coast

Editor: Thomas A. Smith
University of San Diego
School of Law

Monday, September 3, 2007

Pete Seeger's Epiphany
Maimon Schwarzschild

Glenn Reynolds has it right about Pete Seeger and Communist tyranny.

When I was a freshman at Columbia - long, long ago - my father once came to New York for the day, and since there was a Pete Seeger concert at Barnard that night, I bought tickets for us both, thinking my father would enjoy the old-leftiness of it all.  Old Left my father was, but Seeger's very first number was "a folk song of the Jewish people in Birobidjan in the Soviet Union".  (You have to imagine that oddly canting, yet upper class voice of Seeger's, announcing this.)   My father was furious, loudly said "What kind of Stalinist crap is this??", stood up, and insisted that we both walk out immediately.  Which we did.

Over the course of the twentieth century, there were certainly a very few Socialists and others on the Left, including the far Left, who weren't shills and cheerleaders for the Soviet and other Communist regimes - as Seeger perennially was.  Yet as Reynolds says, Pete Seeger may now acknowledge a bit more about the reality of Communism than many on today's Left can yet bring themselves to do.   Very few among the Left's leaders, and fewer still among the rank-and-file believers, have ever made a reckoning, in any intellectual or emotional depth, with the horrors of twentieth century Communism - or indeed with the disasters of "post-Liberation" Third Worldism.

By "serious reckoning", I don't mean verbal self-protection like "Of course Stalin was terrible.  But..."  As in, "But weren't we wonderful to bring an end to the Vietnam war?" - i.e. to ensure Communist victory there.  Or, "And wouldn't it be awesome if we could do the same (mutatis) in Iraq?"

P.S.  Birobidzhan was Stalin's black-humour "homeland" for the Jews: a tiny, isolated, desolate tract on the Manchurian border in the Soviet far east.  It might have become Stalin's Auschwitz, if the plans to "deport" all the Jews there had come to pass.  But Stalin died - or was bumped off by his nervous comrades-in-arms - just as the post-war anti-semitic campaign in the USSR was coming to a head in 1953.

UPDATE: In the comments section, "Bleepless" and "Punditarian" point out something I hadn't known - but should have figured: when World War II began in Europe, Party-liner that he was, Pete Seeger sang songs against America fighting the Nazis.  With the Hitler-Stalin Pact, this was perfectly consistent with Communist pro-Nazi policy worldwide.  These ditties of Seeger's were withdrawn, of course, when Hitler betrayed his ally and invaded the USSR.  Here is the text of one of Seeger's songs, from March 1941:

Franklin D., listen to me,
You ain't a-gonna send me 'cross the sea,
'Cross the sea, 'cross the sea, You ain't a-gonna send me 'cross the sea.

You may say it's for defense,
But that kinda talk that I'm against.
I'm against, I'm against,
That kinda talk ain't got no sense.

Lafayette, we are here, we're gonna stay right over here...

Marcantonio is the best, but I wouldn't give a nickel for all the rest...

J. P. Morgan's big and plump, eighty-four inches around the rump...

Wendell Wilkie and Franklin D., seems to me they both agree,
Both agreed, both agreed,
Both agree on killin' me.

You might want to take a long, hot shower now.

https://rightcoast.typepad.com/rightcoast/2007/09/glenn-reynolds-.html

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Comments

It's sad but true that even today people are willing to say things like "[s]tudents, journalists, political scientists, and historians still speak of Khrushchev's "revelations", "exposure", etc. of Stalin's "crimes" in this speech. How many know that every single so-called "revelation" Khrushchev uttered in this speech was false? Not "some," or "most"—but every single one? I've spent a good part of the last few years documenting this fact."

Highly unnerving, and reason to be pleased at Seeger's recent remarks.

On the other hand, it's always fun to read statements like "[p]eople who are devoted to something—Trotskyism, anti-communism, capitalism, anarchism, social democracy—that means more to them than objectivity. They aren't going to change their minds merely because the evidence says they should." There's a certain brazenness on display there that the absence of true Marxist, USSR-defending believers would deprive us of; I like them for the same reason I keep a copy of the Little Red Book around.

(quotes from http://www.redcritique.org/WinterSpring2006/uncriticalreadingandthediscourseofanticommunism.htm)

Posted by: Sarah | Sep 3, 2007 7:07:56 PM

Lots of people remember Seeger, though they don't remember his communist father and mother, but may remember his Soviet agitprop initiatives. No one actually remembers the Jewish Far East colony which Seeger supported. True believer, 'useful idiot'( Lenin), 'little fellow traveler'(Trotsky - 'Sputnik' in Russki) he's been going on about his 'honorable, activist' life for decades, and touring among those who don't quite know who he really is, and who and what he supported, back in the day. Nor do they probably care, being so careless.
His life reminds me of Alger Hiss's, a gigantic failure, a man of no attributes. G]

Posted by: Gerry | Sep 3, 2007 7:11:40 PM

Seeger's politics were flawed. On the other hand, even Socialists sing folk songs, so it's hard to fault Seeger for including them. And Seeger is man enough to admit mistakes, once he understands he has made one.

It's worth noting that Seeger's politics were shaped at least in part by his blacklisting by McCarthy and the FBI. Anyone who has a problem with his leftist leanings should remember that it was the right that drove him even further left years ago. In fact, after the blacklisting, even the left-leaning Unions wanted nothing to do with him. All that was left for the man was to go to the fringes.

Walk a mile in those shoes.

http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/50s/seeger-bio-2.html

Posted by: Mister Snitch! | Sep 3, 2007 7:40:49 PM

You're missing the same thing that Prof. Reynolds and everyone else does. Seeger does not regret being a supporter of Communism. Not for one second. He, like so many other defenders of Communism, Marxism, Socialism, etc., always sings the same refrain: Communism is still great; it was just abused by a bad leader. That's always the case, no exception. Every single time, it's just a few bad apples ruining a beautiful ideology for everyone.

Pete Seeger eventually realized that Stalin was pretty bad. Nothing whatsoever to do with Communism, in his mind. He does not deserve the credit you give him.

Posted by: David Preiser | Sep 3, 2007 7:59:01 PM

"It's worth noting that Seeger's politics were shaped at least in part by his blacklisting by McCarthy and the FBI."

Well, that was inevitable. To leftists everywhere, it is always America's fault.

Posted by: tyree | Sep 3, 2007 8:03:26 PM

Pete Seeger's politics were not shaped by anticommunism; his blacklisting was shaped by his communism.

"The Big Joe Blues" is a lame attempt at reconsideration, anyway.

"He had a chance to make / A brand new start for the human race / Instead he set it back / Right in the same nasty place"

Wrong.

The Tsar never sent condemned men to the Kolyma. The Tsar never murdered millions with deliberately caused famines. The Tsar never murdered millions in the Gulag. Stalin did not have a chance to make a brand new start for the human race, unless it was a brand new horror, and he didn't set Russia back in the same nasty place, he moved Russian society into a new and awful hell from which it has not even now emerged.

By the way, The Birobidzhan Jewish Autonomous Oblast still exists. It's current Jewish population is between 1% and 16% depending on who you believe. The Wikipedia seems like a good start in learning more about its bizarre history.

Posted by: Punditarian | Sep 3, 2007 8:07:21 PM

Thank you, David Preiser. You are absolutely right. Whenever you point out to a communist that a particular realization of the communist ideal is an infernal hellhole, you get that same answer; yes, but that isn't "real" communism. Invariably. "The historical peculiarities of Russian history caused the deformation in the trajectory of the people's revolution after Kronstadt" or "the Chinese never had freedom" or this one or that one was an evil dictator.

Get over it. They were all evil dictators, and the communist ideal, wherever and whenever enacted by a government, is an infernal hellhole. Not only Stalin, but Lenin and above all Marx were totalitarian, megalomaniac thugs.

Incidentally, you get essentially the same answer with regard to another totalitarian ideology that is becoming more and more popular on the left nowadays.

Posted by: Punditarian | Sep 3, 2007 8:13:30 PM

I don't know why it isn't self-evident that once government takes away the economic incentive to be productive, the only incentive left is the threat of violence. In a market economy, ill-fitting employees are fired. Under Communism, ill-fitting citizens can't be fired, so they are imprisoned or executed.

That's the eternal blindness of the left -- the fact that communism can only be sustained by violence.

Posted by: jms | Sep 3, 2007 8:27:15 PM

Not to lower the tone of this interesting commentary, but I cannot resist reciting the Yale Political Union Party of the Right version of that perennial favorite often sung by Mr. Seeger (though more often, granted, by Mr. Guthrie):

This land is my land
It isn't your land
If you don't get off
I'll blow your head off!
I've got a shotgun
And you ain't g-ought one!
This land was made for only me!

Posted by: tom smith | Sep 3, 2007 9:03:30 PM

"Pete Seeger's politics were not shaped by anticommunism; his blacklisting was shaped by his communism."

Ah. So... Seeger had it coming. Blacklisting is actually OK, so long as the right folks are blacklisted. Got it.

"Well, that was inevitable. To leftists everywhere, it is always America's fault."

So... McCarthy was NOT America's fault. Got it.

"You're missing the same thing that Prof. Reynolds and everyone else does."

No, I didn't miss how Seeger felt/feels about Communism at all. Wasn't mentioned, and it wasn't my point, either, which you seem to have missed. But to address YOUR point: So Seeger still believes Communism can work? Well, he's probably wrong. Are you wrong about anything in your beliefs? Does that make you wrong about everything? Is it possible to tolerate someone who is earnest but probably wrong, or should we bring back McCarthy? 'Cause the other guys don't think he was really all that BAD, y'know...

"This land is my land It isn't your land..."

Song was by Woody Guthrie. It's probably one of the most famous folk songs of all time, so Seeger includes it in his repertoire. I understand how it could be seen as a 'Communist Manifesto' - if you're determined to see it that way. However, the spirit of the thing has nothing to do with stripping owners of their property rights, but rather in America being a special, beloved place of opportunity for everyone. In fact, the song originally went: "God Blessed America for Me". Versions of the same song are sung about Sweden, Canada, Ireland, India and Scotland.

However, if you insist that the song is about property rights, consider THIS version, written for Native Americans:

This land is your land, it once was my land,
Before I sold you Manhattan Island;
You banished my nation, to the reservation,
This land was stolen by you from me.

Yessir, this country was built on the principle of respect for property rights.

And by the way, the "Yale Version" you're so proud of is a CHILDREN'S refrain. It's not a product of precious Yalie wit. Although... well, never mind.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/This_Land_Is_Your_Land#Modern_usage

Thanks, gang. Congratulations on demonstrating that the right can be just as rude, bigoted, wrong-headed and intolerant as the left.

Posted by: Mister Snitch! | Sep 3, 2007 10:48:26 PM

"Blacklisting is actually OK, so long as the right folks are blacklisted. Got it."

Yep, nothing worse than being blacklisted. That's why no one has heard of Mr. Seeger, his music, or any of his comments about anything.

Posted by: Mark Flacy | Sep 3, 2007 11:09:03 PM

I'm dreaming of a new Blacklist--
Hmmm....
Right now Brian de Palma comes up #1.
Oh and a few 'actors' would be good to stand on the unemployment line, too. Danny Glover??
OK, I was just daydreaming.

Posted by: Stan T. | Sep 3, 2007 11:18:54 PM

"'Well, that was inevitable. To leftists everywhere, it is always America's fault.'

So... McCarthy was NOT America's fault. Got it."

McCarthy had nothing to do with blacklisting, that was done by the House, not the Senate. McCarthy was after high ranking government employees that were Soviet symathizers and spies.

Don't talk about McCarthy when you don't know what he was about, you twit.

Posted by: SP_Immortal | Sep 4, 2007 12:13:01 AM

Blacklisting is only a problem if it involves those brave artists who spoke truth to power in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Sometimes it's for the good, i.e. those right-wing Republicans who want to work in academia must never be given a position, or tenure. Not only should they never be given a chance to corrupt our youth, but even those working on graduate degrees should be cut down before they get too big.

Posted by: Craig | Sep 4, 2007 12:41:28 AM

"Thanks, gang. Congratulations on demonstrating that the right can be just as rude, bigoted, wrong-headed and intolerant as the left."

I don't think that anybody here criticized Mr. Seeger for being rude, bigoted, or intolerant. The issue is, he has been a life-long apologist for an ideology (communism) and a dictator (Stalin) responsible for mass murder and mass misery. He devoted his life to facilitating the implementation of the communist ideology in the United States. Why should he be above criticism for that?

In Truman's and Eisenhower's America, a few intellectuals and performers had their careers interrupted because they were determined to have introduced communist ideas and ideals into their creations. In Stalin's Russia, millions of people were murdered in cold blood for criticizing the government, its ideology, or just for being in the way. The Hollywood blacklist was intended to prevent that from happening here.

Posted by: Punditarian | Sep 4, 2007 2:57:48 AM

"It's worth noting that Seeger's politics were shaped at least in part by his blacklisting by McCarthy and the FBI..."

Two early Seeger songs were "Plow Under" and "Ruben James," both anti-war (WW2, that is) songs dating to the days when Germany and the Soviet Union were allies. It seems unlikely that he was supporting Germany.

Note that this was long before McCarthy and *almost* long before the FBI.

Posted by: PersonFromPorlock | Sep 4, 2007 5:24:49 AM

Ah yes.

"...blacklisting by McCarthy" drove Pete into Stalin's arms.

Er, right. That's like saying that the bombing of Dresden caused the Shoah (or caused the invasion of Norway for that matter). You are reversing cause and effect. McCarthy was on Seeger's back because Seeger actually was loyal to a hostile nation. McCarthy and Seeger each loyally served one side in the war. Seeger served the side that gave hundreds of thousands of innocents sham trials and speedy executions, and that enabled and empowered scores of imitation Stalins to visit similar democide upon their own captive populations.

I suppose you think that Nixon framed Alger Hiss too. Then returned from beyond the grave to slip materials damning Hiss into the KGB archives.

And I also note that some people have noticed Seeger's "Communism wasn't a bad idea, it was badly implemented" dodge.

Yes, you have to agree with Pete. Maybe if Stalin hadn't been such a marshmallow, if Mao hadn't been such a vacillating exponent of half-methods, we'd have the New Soviet Man and Eden on earth even today. If only Enver Hoxha, Nicolae Ceaucescu, Markus Wolf, Beria, Dzerzhinsky and a hundred other infamous names hadn't been such push-overs.

Communism remains today the blackest mark on human history, having murdered more people than fascism (which it resembles closely) and extreme religion (ALL religions) combined. Stalin alone killed more of his people than the Spanish Flu opf 1918 killed in the entire world -- and the 1918 Flu killed more people than World War I. Like the war and the Flu, Stalin selected the young, healthy and promising for his cull. In any human and moral reckoning these people did not deserve to die. By the cruel and perverted lights of "scientific socialism," they did not deserve to live.

I owe Seeger thanks for something -- through his delightful book Henscratches and Flyspecks, I learned to read music, which has given me thirty years of pleasure. I am grateful for that. But to advocate Communism is little different from advocating human sacrifice, from Carthaginian Baal-worship. Either way the babies wind up on the fire.

Posted by: Kevin R.C. 'Hognose' O'Brien | Sep 4, 2007 6:13:20 AM

I've never forgotten that our involvement in Vietnam led directly to the rise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. When the U.S., and the west, and everyone else in the world refused to intervene to stop the Killing Fields, Vietnam's Army poured over the border and drove Pol Pot from power.

Heroes and villains works better at the melodrama than it does in foreign relations. We cannot hang all of our manifold, manifest errors in foreign poicies on the "lefties," especially since they were so soundly and roundly ignored in setting the policies our nation pursued.

Ann Landers' advice may be best here: Wake up and smell the coffee.

U.S. communists were no more at fault for Stalin's grotesque brutalities than Lindbergh and the isolationist Republicans were responsible for Hitler's. The question is, did we learn anything from it, and can we prevent it from happening again?

Pete Seeger has been in the vanguard of people calling for an end to totalitarian regimes across the world for more than 40 years. It's time for everyone to get on board that train. Since the 1970s he has worked to organize people to work together to clean up their communities and the Hudson River, and has been a spark for communitarian action that has always been a virtue of Americanism.

Was he wrong once? He learned his lesson. When do the rest of us learn it?

Posted by: Ed Darrell | Sep 4, 2007 6:22:51 AM

Person from Porlock: "Reuben James" was no anti-war song. It was a rallying cry to fight Hitler. Woody Guthrie was aboard a nearby Merchant Marine vessel serving his nation when the Reuben James went down, with many of his friends.

Seeger served, too: A dramatic contrast to our president and vice president.

Posted by: Ed Darrell | Sep 4, 2007 6:25:21 AM

>>I've never forgotten that our involvement in Vietnam led directly to the rise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.

What an odd inversion of history, morality and logic...by that reasoning, I guess the Allied powers in WWI were the ones responsible for the rise of Hitler and the Nazis and, therefore, the Holocaust.

>>When the U.S., and the west, and everyone else in the world refused to intervene to stop the Killing Fields

Wait a minute, I thought that the killing fields were simply CIA propaganda designed to discredit the Viet Cong and their revolutionary allies who had brought peace and justice to Indochina?

>>U.S. communists were no more at fault for Stalin's grotesque brutalities than Lindbergh and the isolationist Republicans were responsible for Hitler's.

Umm...no. The CPUSA and its leaders were directly controlled and financed by the Soviet Union. They were basically agents of Stalin and the Soviet Union who were anti-war during the era of the Soviet-Nazi alliance, who then became staunchly pro-interventionist the second that the Nazis turned on the Soviets. Did the "isolationist Republicans" take their orders from Berlin? Did they adopt policies based upon what was believed to be in the interests of Germany, not the US? Did they conduct espionage on behalf of Germany? Did they make pilgrimages to Berlin to witness and help create the New Aryan Man? Were they dedicated Nazis, who remained committed to the cause for years and even decades after the crimes of the Nazis became common knowledge (despite the best efforts of the New York Times)? If not, your comparison is simply ludicrous.

Posted by: Al | Sep 4, 2007 8:27:21 AM

"I've never forgotten that our involvement in Vietnam led directly to the rise of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. When the U.S., and the west, and everyone else in the world refused to intervene to stop the Killing Fields, Vietnam's Army poured over the border and drove Pol Pot from power."

Oh, please. You can't believe that a) Pol Pot would have come to power had we won in Vietnam, b) Pol Pot did not enjoy the full support of Vietnam prior to his coming to power, or c) that Vietnam invaded for anything like humanitarian reasons.

The Killing Fields happened because we lost. You're going to have a job convincing me any other way.

Posted by: Andrew | Sep 4, 2007 8:28:05 AM

Pete Seeger was a white-trash communist thief. Who cares if he was blacklisted, he gladly stole black South African singer-songwriter Soloman Linda's song Mbube and made money off "Wimoweh." Did Linda get any royalties or credits? American music legends made millions off the work of a Zulu tribesman who died a pauper. Pete Seeger - a punk ripoff artist. Screw him.

Posted by: DirtCrashr | Sep 4, 2007 9:11:14 AM

Woodie Guthrie didn't join the Merchant Marine until 1943 and never knew any of the men on the Reuben James.

Seeger helped him rewrite "Reuben James" in November 1941 and it was an anti-German patriotic song which Seeger was cool with because the Reuben James was sunk in October 1941, four months after Germany invaded the Soviet Union. CPUSA was more than okay with it then.

Posted by: Larry | Sep 4, 2007 11:10:42 AM

"the spirit of the thing [the song 'This Land is Your Land'] has nothing to do with stripping owners of their property rights"

You have conveniently forgotten one verse which is explicitly anti-private property rights. How convenient.

Posted by: pt314 | Sep 4, 2007 11:46:05 AM

"Seeger served, too: A dramatic contrast to our president..."

A lot of Air Force Century-series fighter pilots will be surprised and shocked to find out that they had never served. Likely Marine and Navy fighter veterans, as well.

Posted by: steveH | Sep 4, 2007 11:52:02 AM