Ron Radosh was a student and follower of Pete Seeger. Ron recalls his personal relationship with Seeger as well as Seeger’s loyalty to the vagaries of the Communist Party line in his memoir Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left, published by Encounter Books in 2001. Encounter has kept it in print along with the rest of the back catalog.
In 1941 Seeger was a member of the Almanac Singers. Ron recounts the release of the Almanac Singers’ album Songs for John Doe that year (any typos are mine):
Released during the week in June 1941 when Hitler broke his pact with Stalin and invaded the USSR, the antiwar album was filled with hard-hitting songs that called for no intervention in European battles on behalf of British imperialism, and condemned Roosevelt as a war-mongering fascist who worked for J.P. Morgan. “I hate war, and so does Eleanor, and we won’t be safe till everybody’s dead,” went a rollicking verse to the tune of “Jesse James.” Another, written to the melody of “Cripple Creek,” proclaimed “Franklin D., Franklin D., you ain’t gonna send us across the sea.” It was pure party-line propaganda.
It was ill-timed propaganda at that:
In true Communist fashion, Pete and his comrades had to respond immediately to the change in the party line that occurred when Hitler invaded the USSR. That meant a recall of the album just beginning to be produced. All pressings were destroyed, leaving only a few for posterity. Soon the Almanacs released an apology, “Dear Mr. President,” in which Pete lamented, in the understatement of the time, “Dear Mr. President, we haven’t always agreed in the past, I know” and went on to say he was ready to “turn in my banjo for something that makes a little more noise,” i.e., a machine gun.
Radosh winds up this part of the story as follows:
My friend Pete, then, was not just another antiwar activist. He was for peace during the Nazi-Soviet Pact, but called for U.S. intervention after the Soviet Union was invaded. Then during the Cold War, when Stalin tried to expand the Soviet sphere in Europe, the time had come to order a new peace offensive. So Seeger made the transition from war to peace songs, bolstering the Soviet Union’s Stockholm Peace Petition, which called for unilateral Western disarmament. “Put my name down, brother, where do I sign, I’m going to join the fight for peace, right down the line.”
In 2005 Howard Husock told Seeger’s story at length in the City Journal essay “America’s most successful Communist.”
It is somehow fitting in the Age of Biden that Seeger is to be honored with a stamp issued by the United States Postal Service. While the true authors and heroes of American liberty are defamed and dishonored, the likes of Seeger are to be celebrated. This is our history, Postal Service style:
“He was not only a champion of traditional American music, he was also celebrated as a unifying power by promoting a variety of causes, such as civil rights, workers’ rights, social justice, the peace movement and protecting the environment,” said Tom Foti, the postal service’s product solutions vice president.
There is a lesson there somewhere, but not the one that the USPS draws. And the linked AP story from which I am quoting only goes so far as to mention Seeger’s “Communist affiliations.” Seeger was a member of the Communist Party in the heyday of American Communism. That was his principal Communist affiliation.
I wrote Professor Harvey Klehr for comment this morning. Professor Klehr is our foremost historian of American Communism. He graciously responded:
Seeger was obviously a significant influence on American folk music, but I was struck by the Post Office statement – which totally ignored his long-standing ties to the Communist movement and praised his long-time activities on behalf of peace and civil rights.
Honesty would have compelled them to admit that he supported peace when the USSR did so and opposed opposition to fascism when the Soviet Union allied itself to Hitler to start World War II. He supported civil rights in the US, but could not bring himself to denounce Soviet repression of dissidents.
He was a Stalinist who partially repented only towards the end of his life. I find it ironic that people today who support canceling celebrities and performers for opinions and actions from years ago will likely have nothing to say about honoring Seeger.
As for myself, there are plenty of writers, actors, musicians, etc., whose politics I deplore but whose talents I enjoy. Erasing them from history doesn’t serve much of a purpose.
That says it all. I am pleased to add Professor Klehr’s comment to the record.