Pete Seeger, Stalinism, and decency

Reflections on the anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

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 Hitler’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 “imperialist struggle” in which no genuine progressive should participate.

Critics of the great folk singer Pete Seeger often point to his (and the Almanac Singers’) 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) “flip-flopped” on the war, and I’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:

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

27 thoughts on “Pete Seeger, Stalinism, and decency”

  1. Mark,
    I think that “anti-communist” is a term of art, referring to people who had some alignment with McCarthy. Your post expresses sentiments that are more commonly known as anti-anti-communist. Which I suppose means that you are an anti-anti-communist anticommunist. Which is an honorable position on the American spectrum.
    From where I come from, I can’t understand why anybody would be pro-Soviet after 1939, although I can understand a sympathy for communism that might persist until about 1956 or maybe even 1970. That being said, soft Commie sympathizers are often good folks, whereas fascist sympathizers–soft or hard–always give me the creeps.

    1. It is hard for us in the age of television to relate clearly to the era of newsprint, and perhaps we judge the leftists of the 1930s by standards we would find difficult to uphold. Our screens, full of images of dead children gassed by the Syrian regime, leave us no room to say that we have no way of knowing what is being done on orders from Damascus.

      There were numerous reports of the Ukrainian famine arriving in the West in 1933, and by 1934 there was abundant confirmation of a major state-sponsored atrocity in progress, but without an abundance of images broadcast to every home in the West, Stalin could still manage to get away with the Big Lie in many places. It requires no diligence for us to comprehend what a nerve gas attack on civilians does to the human body. To discern the truth in the 1930s required a degree of effort which Pete Seeger seems not to have been willing to expend. Well before 1936, let alone 1939, there was enough eyewitness testimony arriving outside the USSR to make Stalin’s propaganda machine squeak rather badly.

      People like Sidney and Beatrice Webb had the means to know and chose to abet the Big Lie. Betcha they sucked at playing the banjo also. An opprobrium rightly attaches to them which it would be uncharitable to apply to Pete Seeger and his friends.

      Ebenezer is correct about who gives off creepy vibrations, but I never met Walter Duranty and suspect that he would have emitted some macabre vibes.

  2. Pete Seeger is an interesting character. David Dunaway’s biography is worth reading. It’s pretty amazing that Seeger is still hanging in there after all those years.

    One of my favorite Seeger anecdotes occurs shortly after Pearl Harbor, when Seeger mentions to one of his brothers that he’s thinking of getting married. His brother made what we’d now describe as a snarky reply, needling Pete for his disregard for WASP social prejudices: “You’re getting married? She’s got to be either Jewish or Negro — which is she?” Pete’s reply: “She’s Japanese”.

    Toshi Ohta Seeger’s family lived on the East coast, so they weren’t interned during the war, but the FBI did visit her father’s home and confiscate his binoculars, camera, and bread knife. Takahashi Ohta’s father (Toshi’s grandfather) had been a prominent leftist in prewar Japan, translating Marx into Japanese. When his father was sentenced to exile, Takahashi volunteered to go in his stead, and traveled around the world before ending up in New York.

    Toshi Ohta Seeger died just last month, age 91. The NYT has a good obituary here, accompanied by this charming photo of Toshi and Pete.

  3. Stalin got lucky on his timing. Just when left-wing Western intellectuals might have noticed the Ukraine famine, Hitler came to power in Germany, and he was noisy in his crimes up to the Holocaust. Similarly the Spanish Civil War distracted attention from the purges. Until then, the Comintern was a highly effective organisation run by brilliant Central Europeans, many of them Jews, who were mostly shot by Stalin.
    Seeger had a very thick skin to stay a Communist after Hungary.

    1. Well, its not like “left-wing Western intellectuals” noticed the famine right after Hitler. It took them a while. And even then…for many it was “Stalinism”, not Communism, that was the culprit. Being opposed to only Strom Thurmond isn’t enough. You gotta go further (assuming you catch the analogy).

      1. Please note that under that argument one either opposes the GOP or supports slavery, segregation and Jim Crow.

  4. Brings back fifty year old memories of a wonderful Pete Seeger singing “May the Circle be Unbroken” in a free concert after the Berkeley Folk Festival–with a few hundred students holding hands in a circle around him in the Eucalyptus Grove on the Cal campus. I can smell the eucalyptus now.

    And also brought back memories of the terrific book: “Woodie, Cisco and me” which sheds a lot of light on the WW II era and the CP/anti-fascist front as well as being a great read about the merchant marine, Woodie Guthrie and Cisco Houston. Did you know that Woodie’s guitar was inscribed: “This machine kills fascists”?

    1. Pete Seeger is a very complex character. David King Dunaway, Seeger’s biographer, notes that Seeger drifted away from the party in the post-war years. What Seeger did not do was publicly repudiate the communist party. Dunaway notes the 1992 Town Hall benefit as Seeger’s first public repudiation of Communism. But if it was a repudiation, it was weak. In a New York Times interview in the mid 1990s, Seeger said he still called himself a communist, “because communism is no more what Russia made of it than Christianity is what the churches have made of it.” He went on to comment that if Communism had somehow caught on, he would have been on the first people rounded up.

      It doesn’t seem to me that Seeger has ever bought into E.O. Wilson’s comment about communism: “Wonderful theory, wrong species.”

      Woodie’s guitar inspired the inscription on Pete’s banjo head: “This machine surrounds hate And forces it to surrender.”

      1. I don’t see why the 1982 protest shouldn’t count as a “repudiation of Communism” insofar as “Communism” meant subservience to the Moscow line.

  5. “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.”

    I can see how that’s an “argument”, but considering the weight of genocide and horror on the other side, I just don’t see how it’s a “potent” argument. The objection to the right-wing despots, after all, is all the evil they were doing. And, yet, the communists were at the very same time perpetrating hugely more evil.

    And it’s not as though the right was supporting their despots because they liked them, or thought despotism admirable, the wave of the future. (The way the communists actually favored communism.) They just saw them as an alliance of convenience against hugely worse communists.

    1. Portugal is a pretty good example of a right wing regime with a similar body count to left wing governments. And if you count facism as right wing, well….

    2. I’m not sure that the right didn’t like right-wing despots, or at least those who bathed regularly. Pinochet, for example, got a lot of breathless press from the right.

        1. Go to any ‘libertarian’ website, and bring up Pinochet. Not Stormfront, but alleged libertarians.
          Now go to any leftist website, and bring up Stalin.

          1. So I googled “Pinochet” withing


            First entry:

            “Princeton’s John Londregan drives a stake through the heart of Pinochet in The Weekly Standard:Pinochet tied his advocacy of free markets about people’s eyes like a blindfold, to keep them from seeing his firing squads. Nothing that was achieved during his years of tyranny justifies the crimes he committed.”

            So much for that.

    3. I disagree both with you and with Mark, since I don’t think all of these people can be lumped into the same category.
      Supporting Chiang doesn’t look too bad in retrospect, given the magnitude of the crimes that Mao committed. It’s hard to imagine how a right-wing authoritarian regime could have been much worse. Chiang wasn’t a very good ruler, but he wasn’t Hitler – or Mao.
      In contrast, the overthrow of Allende and Arbenz – both fairly ordinary social democrats – in favor of military dictators is far harder to justify. These were flagrantly anti-democratic coups.

      1. I disagree on Chiang. The only thing that might keep him as not as bad as Mao was sheer incompetence. When you are more concerned with personal enrichment than in defending your citizens from the Imperial Japanese Army you don’t get to use the fact that the IJA did the killing as a defense. And he got lots of love from the right wing press, too.

        Jonas Savimbi both got a lot of good press on the right and wasn’t any better than the communists he opposed, either. I’d probably put Roberto d’Aubuisson in the same categories.

  6. 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 it’s unfair to judge Seeger and other misguided fellow travelers of the Left during the 1930s on the strength of what happened later (and I agree that it is), then isn’t it equally unfair to judge America Firsters on the same basis?

    Up until Pearl Harbor, I don’t see why “stay out of the war” was an unreasonable position on its face. Everyone knew that opposing Hitler meant allying with Stalin (or vice-versa), and with that kind of choice to make, saying “screw it, let’s stay far away” is pretty understandable. The Holocaust didn’t start until 1941; up until then, the Nazi regime was clearly and unquestionably anti-Semitic, but it wasn’t obvious that the scope and nature of their anti-Semitism was worse than what had been seen before in other countries. Russia hardly had a good record on that front, after all. And it wasn’t until after the war that the magnitude of Nazi atrocities became widespread knowledge in the West.

    1. This is wrong on a couple of levels. First, fighting Hitler did not mean siding with the Soviets up until June 22, 1941; that is, in fact, the main point of the original post. While it may or may not have been obvious that Germany and the Soviet Union would go to war eventually, this assumption involves doing exactly what you say you are trying to avoid: using hindsight. For almost two years Hitler and Stalin were allies.

      It also isn’t true that it is only hindsight that allows us to view the Nazis as particularly evil. Even prior to the Wannsee Conference they were unusually hostile to Jews and other minorities even by Central and Eastern European standards. They combined that with an extremely aggressive foreign policy and an apocalyptic worldview that made them more dangerous than the communists even if they were not more evil.

  7. I don’t think Pete Seeger’s support of communists and communism was particularly wise or smart, but I’m not going to ride him out of town on a rail for it either. No one in this world has clean hands. As far as I know Pete has never put a bullet through another man’s brain, raped a woman, or abused a child. On the contrary, for more than fifty years he’s put his heart and soul into causes that I consider decent, just, and humane. If any apology is required I think he made it long, long ago.

  8. The mention of Pinochet and D’Aubisson bring to mind Shah Reza Pahlavi of Iran. Last week was the 60th anniverary of the 1953 CIA coup that ejected the democratically elected government of Mohammed Mossadeqh from power in Iran, and re-installed the Shah. Mossadeqh’s government had the temerity to nationalise the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company with some mad-ass idea of using the revenues for the benefit of the people of Iran. That was enough for Eisenhower, aware of the strategic implications of oil and scared of “losing” another country to communism, to authorise the coup, which has vociferous British support.

    One can only say that both the US and Iran have paid a heavy price.

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