Ed Kilgore takes the occasion of today’s anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact to reflect on its effect on left-wing politics in the U.S.:
The Pact caught the Western Allies off guard, and made Hitlerâ€™s 1939 and 1940 victories immensely easier. It also produced a psychological crisis among Communists outside the USSR, who were suddenly expected after years of warning about the dangers of fascism to treat the war against Hitler as an â€œimperialist struggleâ€ in which no genuine progressive should participate.
Critics of the great folk singer Pete Seeger often point to his (and the Almanac Singersâ€™) 1941 antiwar album, Songs for John Doe, as the primary evidence of his subservience to Soviet foreign policy, particularly since copies of the album were suppressed after Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Seeger never hid the fact that he (and Woody Guthrie) â€œflip-floppedâ€ on the war, and Iâ€™m sure he would have argued that it was the strategic situation, not just the Party Line, that changed his mind
Actually, no. Seeger spoke at the Town Hall meeting in support of Solidarity on February 6, 1982. (A meeting made famous by Susan Sontag’s speech in which she asked about the long moral blindness of parts of the left.) As it happened, I was there. I can find no record of Seeger’s remarks, so what follows is thirty-year-old memory, but the memory is clear.
Seeger started by rehearsing his own political journey. In the 1930s, he supported racial equality and an anti-fascist foreign policy. Those were the positions of the Communist Party. (He did not add: And not of either the Democrats or the Republicans, nor of the labor movement.) Seeger became a Communist. And, he said, he remained a Communist even as Party loyalty required him to support one morally repugnant Soviet action after another. I don’t recall whether he mentioned opposing American entry into WWII, but he certainly mentioned East Berlin in 1953, Hungary in 1956, and Czechoslovakia in 1968. Poland, he said, was the last straw. He didn’t say it was worse than the others, just that he’d finally had enough.
So no, I don’t think Seeger would claim that his shift on the war after Hitler invaded Russia had to do with “the strategic situation.”
I grew up an anti-Communist and have seen no reason to change my views. But it’s not hard to see how the calculus could have looked different in 1937, or even in 1960, at a time when the Communists were supporting Martin Luther King while Democrats and Republicans alike were supporting J. Edgar Hoover. (No, King wasn’t a Communist. But yes, he had important Communist support, when white support was otherwise fairly scarce on the ground.)
The best pro-Communist argument – not nearly good enough, in my view, but potent nonetheless – has always been the anti-Communist Republican right wing, from McCarthy and Buckley right up through Cheney and the neo-cons, and the collection of creeps, crooks, tyrants, and torturers they supported around the world, from Franco, Chaiang, and the Shah right up through D’Aubuisson, Pinochet, Savimbi, and Mobutu.
So I’ll live and die a liberal republican egalitarian and an American patriot; I no more regard Stalin as having been merely “misguided” than I do Hitler. Seeger and his fellow misguided Stalin-worshippers, on the other hand, strike me as having been profoundly wrong, but by no means on all fours morally with the America Firsters with whom they were so briefly and disgracefully allied, or even with the neo-cons. If Seeger ever enjoyed thinking about the suffering of his political opponents, he didn’t let it show. Decency matters.
Anyway, Jeane Kirkpatrick couldn’t play the banjo for sour apples: