One hates to dampen the feelings of national euphoria that have taken hold over the past few days, but there’s one moment from the week’s festivities that still sticks in my craw: the worshipful attention heaped upon Pete Seeger, icon of American folk music and lapsed Stalinist.
Seeger was a prominent campaigner in the struggle for African-American civil rights, and his legacy there ought be applauded. But racial equality was not the only cause to which Seeger committed himself. International communism, and in particular its Stalinist variant, was an equal, if not more, significant cause in Seeger’s public life. He was “Stalin’s songbird,” as David Boaz describes, writing about how Seeger zigged and zagged, with the rest of American communists in the 1930’s and 1940’s, in blind obedience to orders from Moscow. Seeger’s vaunted opposition to American “militarism” has persuaded him to oppose U.S. military intervention wherever and whenever it has occurred, including, for instance, the mission to displace the Taliban.
Fresh off his participation in Sunday’s “We Are One” concert comes a campaign, endorsed by the likes of CodePinker Medea Benjamin, Bonnie Raitt, and Cindy Sheehan to pressure the Nobel Prize Committee to bestow its award for Peace upon Seeger. I came across this effort on the Nation magazine’s “Act Now!” blog, late of endorsing such other worthy causes such as a website that publishes the results of chemical tests on children’s toys and a letter writing campaign “to major toy marketers urging them to target parents, not children, with their millions of dollars in advertising lucre.”
“Seeger has been an inimitable ambassador for peace, social justice and the best kind of patriotism over the course of a remarkable lifetime,” the magazine’s associate publisher Peter Rothberg gushes. One can understand how the folks over at the Nation would consider membership in the Communist Party and subsequent fellow-traveling with a variety of anti-American despots “the best kind of patriotism,” given that publication’s role in trying to redefine “patriotism” so as to include knee-jerk anti-Americanism and support for illiberal thugs and tyrants spanning the past century and up to the present day. Genuine patriotism, however, the kind felt by non-Nation-reading Americans, infers nothing more complicated than a love of one’s country and its fundamental values of liberty and individual rights, something that’s hard to glean in the pages of the Nation. Reminiscent of the way in which the old Left perverted language during the Cold War, the activist Peter Dreier writes on the Huffington Post that Seeger is “the world’s preeminent troubadour for peace and justice.” Like Seeger and communists before him, Dreier uses the words “peace and justice” to obscure the Soviet Union’s real agenda: slavery and murder.
Unsurprisingly, Seeger’s fellow-traveling appears nowhere in the recent encomia written in his honor (much attention has been given to his being blacklisted, without explaining why). As Ron Radosh, the great historian of American communism and a former banjo student of Seeger, recounted two years ago:
In the “John Doe” album, Mr. Seeger accused FDR of being a warmongering fascist working for J.P. Morgan. He sang, “I hate war, and so does Eleanor, and we won’t be safe till everybody’s dead.” Another song, to the tune of “Cripple Creek” and the sound of Mr. Seeger’s galloping banjo, said, “Franklin D., Franklin D., You ain’t a-gonna send us across the sea,” and “Wendell Willkie and Franklin D., both agree on killing me.”
For years, Mr. Seeger used to sing a song with a Yiddish group called “Hey Zhankoye,” which helped spread the fiction that Stalin’s USSR freed the Russian Jews by establishing Jewish collective farms in the Crimea. Singing such a song at the same time as Stalin was planning the obliteration of Soviet Jewry was disgraceful. It is now decades later. Why doesn’t Mr. Seeger talk about this and offer an apology?
A few months after this article was written, Seeger wrote a letter to Radosh, in which he acknowledged, “I should have asked to see the gulags when I was in [the] USSR.” Gee, ya think?
In that letter Seeger attached the lyrics for a song he had dashed off limply denouncing Stalin. So over 50 years after Nikita Khrushchev’s “secret speech” detailing Stalin’s crimes, Seeger finally came around to realizing that Uncle Joe was not the benevolent man about whom he rhapsodized. But however welcome his belated acknowledgment (and a private letter to an individual is hardly the most honest way by which one repents for decades of public support for totalitarianism) of Stalin’s various and sundry monstrosities may be, Seeger has never sufficiently recounted or apologized for his support of the Soviet Union. To be sure, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to the likes of Yasser Arafat and Jimmy Carter, men whose contributions to the cause of “peace” were nonexistent, and Pete Seeger would fit well within this rogue’s gallery. And admitting, however late, that one’s earlier political passions were mistaken is better than no acknowledgment at all. But whatever importance one may wish to attribute to his long overdue reckonings about Joseph Stalin, Seeger was for most of his life a conscious supporter of a global conspiracy to destroy free society. It may be difficult to comprehend this given the man’s warm and fuzzy exterior, but Pete Seeger is not, and never has been, a sincere proponent of “peace.”