Pete Seeger and American communism

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The death of Pete Seeger has sparked a worldwide outpouring of love, affection and appreciation for the life and legacy of this great artist, activist, humanitarian and socialist.

It has presented a quandary for some - how could such a great humanitarian and artist also be a communist? And why was he so loved and revered? Curiously, similar broad public discussions occurred around the passing of Nelson Mandela and Amiri Baraka.

Didn't Seeger get the memo: communism is (supposedly) passé, it (supposedly) means a militarized, conformist, and undemocratic society and it's "anti-American."

However, it was precisely Seeger's socialist beliefs, reflected in his love of the multiracial, multiethnic American people and its incredibly diverse culture and heroic history of struggle, and in his patriotism and lifetime of radical activism, that defined his greatness.

Seeger joined every strike picket line, demonstration, peace vigil and sing-along he saw and organized more than a few. In fact just three months before his death he dropped in on a meeting of startled Buffalo Communications Workers of America members and led them in song.

While Seeger embraced the song, music and culture of people struggling around the world and stood in solidarity with all oppressed, his outlook was rooted in and shaped by the U.S. working class and people.

It was Seeger's confidence in the power of ordinary people to shape their destiny that made him a hero to millions and stirred an intense interest in his life.

Seeger left the Communist Party USA in the early 1950s as it was being driven underground and the Cold War anti-communist drive had criminalized the party and left. He had just moved to upstate New York and was one of a few members in the area.

"I realized," Seeger told an interviewer in 2006, "I could sing the same songs I sang whether I belonged to the Communist Party or not, and I never liked the idea anyway of belonging to a secret organization."

The extensive government attack on a political party and anyone who entertained progressive and socialist ideas, coupled with revelations about the crimes of Stalin against the Soviet people, including communists, were a one-two punch that all but destroyed the party in the 1950s and did destroy many people's lives and livelihood. Seeger too paid the price with the infamous blacklist.

Yet, Seeger never wavered from his communist beliefs even after leaving the Communist Party, and in fact remained a friend of the party and reader and supporter of the People's World until his death Jan. 27 at the age of 94.

To acknowledge the deeply felt beliefs that motivated Seeger's life is to recognize something the corporate ruling class and anti-communists will never admit: the role of communists and socialists as continuers of the great revolutionary democratic tradition that courses through the nation's veins.

The emergence of a mass socialist movement in the latter part of the 1800s and the founding of the Communist Party USA in 1919 is intertwined with this revolutionary democratic history and a product of it.

The contributions of U.S. socialists and communists continue today in the struggles to preserve, deepen and expand democratic rights, attain full racial and gender equality and LGTBQ rights, preserve and develop American working class culture, prevent U.S. imperialist aggression, save the environment and defeat right-wing extremism.

Just as it is impossible to separate Seeger and his life from socialist and communist movements, it is impossible to separate these movements from the history of the American people.

And like Seeger, who adapted to new conditions and new movements, the U.S. Communist Party too is adapting and shedding stilted and wrongheaded ideas of how social change happens, furthering the vision Seeger and socialists/communists share for a country and society that truly puts nature and people before private profit.

It remains our challenge to convey this vision in the language millions can understand and embrace. In doing that, we'll be carrying on Pete Seeger's legacy.

Photo: Daily Worker archives/Tamiment Library (Permission needed to reprint this photo. Contact: editors@peoplesworld.org)

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  • Great piece, John.
    Is it just me or am I seeing a resurgence of highly hysterical reactions to anything "Communist" or "Socialism" recently. I believe this is coming out as propaganda from the Right due to the knowledge that they have pushed the masses too far and fear a new uprising? It seems that the nasty, vitriolic editorials on people like Seeger are attempts to prime the public with a renewed fear of a growing movement spurned on by Communists.

    Now is the time for a concerted effort on our part to disseminate the CPUSA's program to the public and fight back with truth.

    Posted by David Baldinger, 02/15/2014 9:25pm (9 months ago)

  • Pete sung the truth....spoke the truth and lived the truth!
    Is there another Pete Seeger out there?


    .....observer Jules...

    Posted by jules, 02/15/2014 9:20pm (9 months ago)

  • "And like Seeger, who adapted to new conditions and new movements, the U.S. Communist Party too is adapting and shedding stilted and wrongheaded ideas of how social change happens, furthering the vision Seeger and socialists/communists share for a country and society that truly puts nature and people before private profit." Good article. I especially liked the sentence above.

    Posted by Rev. Paul White, 02/14/2014 4:21pm (9 months ago)

  • Thanks John for keeping the history of our Party and one of our greatest
    contributors to the struggle alive. Pete Seeger will no longer be here physically, but his songs will last forever.

    Posted by Lance Cohn, 02/14/2014 11:41am (9 months ago)

  • And he refused to be a snitch when called before the House Unamerican Activities Committee.

    Posted by John Whiskey, 02/14/2014 12:32am (9 months ago)

  • Hi Folks,
    I've been a fan of Pete's since way back and am also a left wing singer/songwriter. Like the old song says, You Ain't Done Nothin' If You Ain't Been Called A Red. GoodLuck.
    Eliot

    Posted by Eliot Kenin, 02/14/2014 12:10am (9 months ago)

  • It would be nice to see on the web pages of the communist party,,not only "Radical ideas, real politics" but "Radical ideas, real politics, for a socialist tomorrow" since that is what favors the planet and humanity. In other words People before private profit from COLLECTIVE effort. Commuist aren't against profit from individual private effort.

    Posted by ismael, 02/13/2014 6:41pm (9 months ago)

  • Thank you for writing this statement, John. I was happily shocked to see words such as "communist" and "socialist" in the many news reports and obits following Pete's passing---most wonderful is that these words were not largely used in a negative connotation. Is it simply that the passage of time has lessened the so-called communist threat or is the media finally stepping away from that nonsense Cold War mentality that had most of the press frozen for decades? Either way, the power of Pete's activism was indeed based in his socialism, his communism, his Marxism and in more recent years--as he stressed in conversations with me as well as interviews--his close studies of Rosa Luxemburg. Shout it from the mountains.

    Posted by John Pietaro, 02/13/2014 4:14pm (9 months ago)

  • Great piece, John. Rick

    Posted by Rick Nagin, 02/13/2014 3:47pm (9 months ago)

  • The fact that the CPUSA has been terrorized, bullied, blackmailed, blacklisted, and repressed politically, is(though it should not be)too much of a secret.
    Millions of workers and immigrants in the United States of America do not connect this repression with its small size, yet big influence on historical movements of the U. S. working class.
    John Bachtell, in this outstanding article, notes some of this repression, and traces the history of communist influence from the mid-1800s.
    This is tracing it from the earth-shaking Communist Manifesto, from the conditions of the 1848'ers, and its reverberations, literally throughout the world, and especially in North America.
    A modern day Biblical Job, (Marx's own comparison) our Karl Heinrich Marx, had a profound influence on modern literature, art, philosophy, ethics, economics and science in general.
    Just as the Catholicism of Galileo's day repressed and persecuted him, modern day Inquisitor's capitalist tribunals hounded, persecuted and repressed the genius of Karl Marx.
    However, with a lion's ferocity, Marx would not yield.
    Pete Seeger, like Marx, never yielded to slavery, counter-revolution, union spies, anti-worker lies, capitalist lies, or capitalism's mindless assaults against peoples or nature.
    Pete Seeger worked, sang, and organized for people's revolution in human rights, women's liberation, civil rights, LGTBQ rights, African American Native, and Latino liberation, and liberation from the scourge of war, and nuclear war.
    Pete Seeger embraced the economic rights of the working class, as Marx did, clear that, flowing through all these struggles, as he garnered the interpenetrating music of the working peoples, congealing it in the irresistible struggle of song, peace, environmental and human justice.

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 02/13/2014 3:10pm (9 months ago)

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