Pete Seeger's All-American Communism

The folksinger's romance with Stalinism remains disturbing, but it can't be separated from the rest of his work—nor from U.S. history.

Pete Seeger chats with Progressive Party presidential candidate Henry Wallace aboard a plane during a 1948 barnstorming tour. (Associated Press)

In death as in life, Pete Seeger brought Americans together, then divided them into warring ideological camps. To oversimplify, one can lump the political reactions to Seeger’s death on Monday at 94 into two groups. There are those, generally on the center-left, who praise Seeger heartily, accenting his stand against the House Un-American Activities Committee, while quietly—if at all—acknowledging his disturbingly durable devotion to Communism. And there are those, mostly on the right, who acknowledge Seeger’s importance and praise his less political songs while arguing, in essence, that his politics sadly tainted the rest of his career.

Both approaches offer serious problems. Seeger’s political record—as a whole, not taken selectively—is exactly the point. As Andrew Cohen wrote in his appreciation, Seeger was often described as “anti-American”:

I think the opposite was true. I think he loved America so much that he was particularly offended and disappointed when it strayed, as it so often has, from the noble ideals upon which it was founded. I don't think that feeling, or the protests it engendered, were anti-American. I think they were wholly, unabashedly American.

Seeger’s beliefs sometimes led him to grievously wrong conclusions, but it’s not un-American to be wrong, and that same politics is what also led him to stand up to McCarthyism, fight for the environment, and march with labor unions, too. (To which one might waggishly add, can anyone to whom Bruce Springsteen had dedicated a tribute be anything other than All-American?) Nor can one separate his music from his politics, something former George W. Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer tried to do.

To understand why the full range of Seeger’s political activities are indivisible from his music, you have to begin with his childhood and entry in the folk scene through his parents' involvement. There’s an instructive comparison here with Nelson Mandela, whose relationship with the Communist Party was a newly contentious topic in the days after his death. Unlike Mandela, whose alliance with Communism seems to have been a brief and opportunistic response to the brutal apartheid regime, Seeger’s was deeply rooted. Unlike the rural folk musicians he emulated, Seeger was no naif. His father was a Harvard-educated musicologist and his stepmother a composer, both early folk aficionados; he himself enrolled at Harvard. Later, Seeger also worked as an intern for the great folk-song collector Alan Lomax. The recordings that early 20th century collectors made are the basis of what we now know as American music, from blues to old-time country.

It's easy to mock folkies as bearded hippies today, but the early folk movement was overtly and radically political, reaching across class boundaries and celebrating of common people. The participants were preserving what seemed to them to represent an important part of the American identity, a part that was in danger of disappearing under pressure from the modern world. The class consciousness of that movement easily (perhaps inevitably) led to socialist and communist politics. As my colleague Rebecca Rosen notes, even Seeger’s choice of an instrument was charged. Like James Agee and Walker Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (or for that matter The Grapes of Wrath), the early folk collectors evinced a belief in the wisdom of the common people, but also an anger at their destitution—all the more extreme in an era before New Deal infrastructure projects and labor reforms. Even after FDR, that radicalism remained. There’s a reason that the New York folk scene was viewed with suspicion by anti-Communists in the 1950s and 1960s: Many of them were Communists.

This worldview led Seeger to some distressing and dangerous positions. He opposed American involvement in World War II up until the moment Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Though he’d quit the Communist Party by 1950, he never owned up adequately to having served as a useful idiot for the regime. The apology he delivered in his 1997 autobiography, quoted by Dylan Matthews, is shockingly terse and grudging:

Today I'll apologize for a number of things, such as thinking that Stalin was simply a 'hard-driver' and not a supremely cruel misleader. I guess anyone who calls himself or herself a Christian should be prepared to apologize for the Inquisition, the burning of heretics by Protestants, the slaughter of Jews and Muslims by Crusaders. White people in the U.S.A. could consider apologizing for stealing land from Native Americans and for enslaving blacks … for putting Japanese-Americans in concentration camps—let's look ahead.

As late as the 1970s, in his column in the left-wing folk magazine Sing Out!, Seeger was giving space to horrifying ideas. Dealing with the case of Wolf Biermann, a socialist singer expelled from East Germany for dissidence, he gave space to correspondents arguing that there might appropriately be limits on what artists should say in an ideal Marxist regime. In 1999, he accepted an award from Fidel Castro’s regime. It’s hard to square these actions with the ideas Seeger promoted elsewhere, and they deserves condemnations.

But while the class-leveling ambitions of Seeger and his ilk may have been extreme or wrong, labeling them un-American is ahistorical, as is the conviction that they were inevitably doomed to failure. To call Seeger’s Communist affiliation un-American is to beg the question. In Seeger’s eyes, the ideas the Communist Party stood for were quintessentially American: It sought to protect the little guy and to defend him against avaricious attacks from the powerful. He and his comrades believed they were defending the ideals the country was founded on, and if they were wrong—the country was, after all, founded by wealthy landowners—that was because they were foolish enough to naively believe the national myth.

It’s harder than ever to imagine a truly leftist America today. Labor unions are on the wane, faith in government programs is at a low, and even an elaborate, market-based plan to expand healthcare is decried as socialism. (Incredibly, Seeger managed to remain optimistic, even as his brand of politics became an odd antique.) During the 1930s, when Seeger was in his twenties, that wasn't unpredictable. As Jacob Remes notes, Earl Browder, the general secretary of the Communist Party USA, was around that time using the slogan, “Communism is 20th Century Americanism," arguing for a patriotic leftism.

There’s no moral equivalence between Stalin’s regime, with its millions of victims, and the 20th century American government,  but it’s important to remember that for Seeger and his comrades, the question of who was defending liberty was not so clear, especially at a remove from the Soviet Union. As Seeger notes in this video, he had friends who died fighting with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain, as part of the Communist and republican opposition to Francisco Franco, who was backed by Hitler. More to the point, Seeger was famously called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, a congressional body devoted to depriving Americans of their livelihoods and freedom. In Seeger’s case, they were nearly successful. An investigation managed to derail his band, the Weavers, and got him blacklisted. After refusing to testify before HUAC in 1955, he was charged with contempt of Congress in 1957 and sentenced to a year in prison in 1961, though the conviction was overturned. The incident limited his career opportunities for years to come.

Over the following decades, and as Seeger came to be seen more as a kindly uncle and graying institution than a dangerous radical, the same commitment to social justice that had led him to naively embrace Communism also led him to pen the defining anthem of the modern civil-rights era, “We Shall Overcome” and to stand side by side with Martin Luther King. It led him to protest the Vietnam War, and later against the war in Iraq. It led him to speak out against tobacco and to argue for environmental conservation. It led him to sing “This Land Is Your Land” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to celebrate Barack Obama’s inauguration, and it led him to march with Occupy Wall Street protesters, many angry at Obama, in 2011. In its strange way, it also led to his conniption when Bob Dylan plugged in at Newport, even if the story of Seeger trying to take an axe to the electrical cord is apocryphal. Many of these stands were and are politically contentious: King is now a celebrated idol, while the Vietnam War still divides. But each of them represented Seeger situating himself in the middle of a heated American political debate.

Unionism, Communism, pacifism—each of these political movements is an important part of both Seeger’s story and the American story. Seeger—who demanded to know, “Which side are you on?”—was perhaps not the type to embrace political ecumenicism, but trying to wipe these chapters from history or declare them outside the bounds of national identity is to perpetuate an impoverished and incomplete idea of what it means to be American.

Here in the June 1941 Atlantic, political theorist Carl Joachim Friedrich writes to condemn Songs for John Doe, an album of antiwar songs by the Almanac Singers, a group that included a young Pete Seeger on banjo and vocals. See page 668.