Commentary Magazine

Pete Seeger and the Judgment of History

How do you separate musical icons from the politics that either ennobled or besmirched their reputations? The answer is that you can’t. And there’s no better example of this than singer/songwriter Pete Seeger, who died yesterday at the age of 94. Seeger is being lionized in the mainstream liberal media as the troubadour of social activism whose songs were the soundtrack of the struggle for civil rights, social equality, and against the Vietnam War. Seeger had, by the time he died, ascended to the status of a secular saint and was considered great not just because of his music but because of his left-wing politics and his struggles during the McCarthy period, when he was blacklisted.

In this retelling of his story, Seeger’s actual beliefs were beside the point. Any criticism of his actions and affiliations was branded as intolerant or worse, a revival of anti-Communist fear-mongering. It is this Pete Seeger that America celebrated in recent decades. Though he could often be seen at left-wing demonstrations, even showing up at the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011, the man who sang at Barack Obama’s first inaugural with Bruce Springsteen was no longer controversial. If he was not quite the Rosa Parks of folk song, he had become something fairly close.

But the complete truth about Seeger is not as simple as that. Seeger wasn’t merely affiliated with left-wing groups in his youth. He was an active member of the Communist Party (CP) and a loyal Stalinist who put his talent in the service of that conspiratorial and murderous movement.

So who was Pete Seeger? Was he the hero or the villain? The answer is that he was both. Or more to the point, he was a great musician who sometimes put himself on the right side of history and sometimes on the wrong one. Which is why the unalloyed tributes to Seeger being broadcast today on the networks and published in the mainstream media have it wrong. But the same judgment applies to some on the right who can’t see past his sins.

It should be understood that his youthful infatuation with Stalinism was neither superficial nor a passing fancy. To his shame, he toured the country singing protest songs from 1939 to 1941. But he was not protesting the Nazis nor did he support those fighting them. Rather, he was part of the CP campaign conducted at Moscow’s behest that sought to combat any effort to involve the United States in World War Two. The Hitler-Stalin Pact had made the Soviets Germany’s ally until the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union brought them into the war. Seeger remained a party member until the 1950s and even long after he abandoned it, he continued to refer to himself as a communist with a small “c” rather than an upper-case one.

To many liberals as well as the stalwarts of the old left, this is nothing for which he should apologize. Liberal revisionism has transformed the vicious Communism of this era from an anti-American and anti-democratic conspiracy into a romantic expression of support for human rights. As such, Seeger and many of his comrades were able to bask in the applause of subsequent generations rather than having to atone for having been a proud apologist for one of the worst criminals in history as well as for the mass murder and anti-Semitism that was integral to Soviet communism. While isolationists like Charles Lindberg and other apologists for Hitler never lived down that association, Stalinists like Seeger had a rough time in the 1950s but were ultimately honored for their disgraceful behavior.

That is infuriating, and for many conservatives like Pajama Media’s Ed Driscoll, unforgivable. The honors showered on the elderly Seeger serve only to deepen the bitterness of those who not unreasonably believe the adamant refusal to tell the truth about this chapter of Seeger’s life—both in the news media and in documentary films about him—undermines our ability to take a full measure of the man, and is an insult to all those who take seriously the eternal struggle against the enemies of freedom.

And yet there is more to Seeger than these two inconsistent narratives. As historian Ron Radosh, a former banjo student of the singer as well as an indispensable chronicler of Communism, movingly wrote in 2007 in the New York Sun, Seeger had, by the end of his life, finally understood the magnitude of some of his earlier errors. As Radosh wrote, Seeger admitted that he was wrong never to have protested Stalin’s tyranny and atoned in part by belatedly writing a song denouncing the gulag.

Ultimately, as with all artists of every stripe, history will judge Seeger more for the quality of his music than his politics. As Paul Berman wrote today in the New Republic, songs like If I Had a Hammer or Where Have All the Flowers Gone, not to mention We Shall Overcome, will deserve to be sung a hundred years from now no matter what Seeger believed about communism. His legacy is far messier than most of the tributes will admit. But to listen to his vintage recordings or those of the groundbreaking folk group “The Weavers” to which he lent his tenor voice and banjo is to hear a great artist and a genuine voice of American culture. It is that Pete Seeger, and the not the sanitized liberal icon or the Stalinist front man, who will be remembered.

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