Many happy returns, Pete

| 17 Comments

I awoke this morning to the joyful noise that the rev paperboy was raising at The Woodshed and Teh Beavers.

Today Pete Seeger is ninety years old, and I thank the rev for reminding me. Pete is the guy who faced down the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1955 by taking the First, not the Fifth -- that is, he didn't refuse to name names because he declined to incriminate himself; he refused to grovel or to incriminate others because he considered HUAC an offence in the sight of the First Amendment of the American Bill of Rights, that classic articulation of the first and noblest principle enshrined in the bills and declarations and charters of every genuine democracy:

I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.


I know I've played this historic performance (famously censored for about four months) before, but it's my favourite from the years of Pete's triumph over those who had tried for over a decade to silence his music and his forthright defence of genuine democracy.


Thank you, Pete, and thank you for the breakfast concert, rev.


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17 Comments

Och skdadl, we told great Seeger stories tonight, somewhere he knows we are all glad he didn't end up in journalism eh? His love of the outdoors does continue to get me fantasizing :)

Pete Seeger has a great history of cultural politics over the past many decades. So, he is to be celebrated for that.

I have trouble celebrating his facing down HUAC as the peak of his career, though. Pete thought that no American should have to answer any questions about his political beliefs/associations when posed by government, but didn't think the same principle extended to the Soviet Union, where he defended a far more intrusive government inquisition, with consequences far beyond any he faced.

The most recent biographer of Pete asks him about his days as a down-the-line supporter of Stalin, and Pete says he stayed far too long and was far too willing to go along with things he knew were wrong.

I'll celebrate that.


Now, if only some of the people who ran things like the Vietnam war or cointelpro were as forthright in apologies for things they didn't just assent to in ignorance, but actually perpetrated.

Well, I have no problem at all with anyone who faced down HUAC or any other red-baiter on principled turf, even a few others I can think of who had supported the Soviet Union out of either ignorance or frustration -- Lillian Hellman, Dashiell Hammett, and Arthur Miller come to mind. The U.S. was hardly a democracy itself in the 1950s, as Martin Luther King, eg, or Seeger's Japanese American wife could have told you.

Seeger made his statement in 1955, when Stalin was dead, Seeger had left the party, and Khrushchev was preparing the denunciation that led in the West to the CND spring of 1956. I don't know who Seeger's most recent biographer is, but I know of public statements he has made back to the mid-90s regretting that he turned a blind eye to the show trials of the 30s and 40s. I doubt that he has ever regretted trying to live as a socialist as much as that is possible in North America, however, and why should he?

During the Second World War, at a time when Japanese Americans were being rounded up and sent to concentration camps, Seeger married a Japanese American woman. He also served in the army in the Pacific. I dunno -- sounds like a fairly straightforward guy to me, a guy to whom genuine human and democratic values mean a lot more than anyone's ideological agenda.

Well, straightforward if you skip some episodes.

For example, The Weavers (and Pete) opposed the war against the Nazis, and put out an album . Did I mention that was during the Nazi-Soviet alliance?

Then, as soon as Hitler attacked Stalin, the album was recalled, and a new, pro-WWII album was released. And, sure, after Stalin said it was okay, Pete and other CPers ditched their pacifism and "served in the Pacific" and elsewhere.

So, was that really "not anyone's ideological agenda"? Is support for the Nazi-Soviet pact REALLY a "defence of humane and democratic values"?

I'd say Pete Seeger has had a good fifty year run since his party days, and deserves to be celebrated for THAT.

Gosh. As I recall, Pete and the Weavers were Merkins, right?

And the pact between Hitler and Stalin ended 22 June 1941, right? When Hitler invaded the USSR?

And when the U.S. was still not at war with teh Nazis?

As I recall, the U.S. did not go to war with the Axis powers until 7 December 1941.

So Pete and the Weavers were ahead of their time, at least among Merkins.

And none of the red-baiting is ever going to touch the power of honest people thinking their way through power politics they have little access to, little control over, but to which they try to respond day by day as best they can.

Shame about the U.S. in WWII. My parents and most of their siblings in two large extended families enlisted in 1939.

GEEZE Jeffery ... now you Do have me confused ..... googling The Weavers I find: "The Weavers group was formed in November 1948 by Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays, Fred Hellerman and Pete Seeger", and googling Lee Hays I find: "In 1948, Hays formed the Weavers with Seeger, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman." I did not bother to google the war against the Nazis, as I believe it ended about this time of the year in 1945.

Perhaps you mean the Almanac Singers, with Seeger and Hays - but if yer goning to slag someone make sure you do not make freshman mistakes.

You are right Croghan ; I had elided in my memory the two groups with Seeger and Hays. The person I was "slagging" (that is, discussing his actual public actions,), was Pete Seeger.

Since Pete Seeger himself has discussed his membership in the CP, I hardly think it is "redbaiting" to discuss the implications of that membership, as Skdadl's post suggests.

Pete Seeger refused to criticize the Soviet Union when its leader was destroying artists much like himself. That fact stains his "principled" stand against HUAC, and will do so until he dies.

Seeger has actually come to recognize the force of this critique--perhaps he is redbaiting himself--as can be gleaned from this article:

http://www.nysun.com/arts/seeger-speaks-and-sings-against-stalin/61666/

He doesn't bother to use the "Merkin" defence. Instead, He admits that party discipline of the Communist type is deeply destructive of democracy, which should be of important to any "left" worth belonging to.

Good for him.


It is -- and always has been -- possible to condemn Stalin, the regime he ran, show trials, and the oppressive discipline of any particular political party there or here without being a red-baiter, a nuance that seems to escape you, jeffry.

Actually, that's not a nuance. It's just intelligent thought.

And it's because red-baiters continually duck that kind of intelligence that we call them red-baiters, and condemn what they did to civil liberties in North America in the 1940s and 1950s and have done ever since (sometimes worse than others).

In 1941, Pete Seeger was twenty-one years old, and more alive to the horrors his own government had been complicit in during the 1920s and 1930s than were most of his compatriots. Even the wiki entry will tell you that.

Loose language about anything of the "Communist type" is overgeneralizing ideological shit. No one intelligent thinks or writes that way.

Slag on, Jeffy, this man's paid his dues:

"Pete Seeger: The Power of Song"

Slag on, Jeffy, this man's paid his dues:

"Pete Seeger: The Power of Song"

"Redbaiter" is here used as a slur which is being used to silence those who would dare raise uncomfortable questions.

But let us say that someone thinks that it is really immoral to circumscribe one's principles in the way that Pete Seeger admittedly did? You know, to argue that the Cuban Five were screwed because they did not receive a change of venue for their jury trial, but never criticize Cuba for 1) Not having juries at all; 2)not allowing changes of venue at all 3)Convicting every single person charged with a crime, ever, without exception?

This selectivity of principle is the problem.

Pete Seeger was an example. He is deemed heroic because he demanded a fair trial for himself, with all the necessary precautions and civil liberties. But, insofar as he wasn't willing to require the same standards for Soviet writers, and closed his eyes to their oppression, his heroism is deeply flawed.

Skdadl also thinks: "Loose language about anything of the "Communist type" is overgeneralizing ideological shit."

Oh, how handy.

In fact, both Lenin and Stalin had a VERY CLEAR idea of what was required for a Communist-type party organization. This is quite a basic idea.

For those wondering what are the organizational principles of a party of the Communist type, the CP of the USA sets out its principles here:

http://www.cpusa.org/article/static/15/

The problem with organizations fo the Communist type is that they are top-down organizations, with a well-documented propensity to turn into single person dictatorships.

For example, here's what the USA Party says:

"SECTION 2. Each Party body is subordinate to the next higher body, with central authority vested in the National Convention, the highest body of the Party, which not only has the authority to act on all aspects of Party policy and activity, but elects the national leadership to carry through its will and decisions between conventions."

See that? Once you control the Executive, you can get continuously "re-elected" and all party members and organizations are "subordinate".

This is the core of a "Communist type" party's organization though the cited url contains others. The great majority of CP's have this organization, which comes originally from Lenin. There are other anti-democratic principles, of course, such as "democratic centralism" .

Y'know, jeffry, I read what you've written above, and I figure I have one of two interpretative choices:

1. You were born yesterday. Some of us have been thinking about this history in detail for most of our now regrettably long adult lives, and notions like "democratic centralism" aren't exactly news to most of us, as so many abominations hatched in our own countries are not either.

To me, you are the one who is being selective of principle and who is slurring, mainly because you overgeneralize so wildly and attach so little of what you say to lived social history, anything except exceptionally reduced caricatures of theory.

2. You have political commitments not entirely clear to me but which lead you to side with the last remnants of the Plantation Caucus, the only people I run into lately who are still doing the Red Scare. (Well, I don't watch Faux News -- I gather they do that there too.)

In either case, I think that attempting discussion with you is no longer sensible. This is going to turn into a mulberry bush, and we don't do that at POGGE.

I hope that I won't have to get more explicit than that.

Yes, it must be that I was born yesterday. I thank you for elucidating the only possible basis for my comments.

After all, if Pete's use of human rights rhetoric was instrumental only, a mere tactic an to be deployed against his hated capitalism, (and not extended to his enemies) well, only the naive could object to that.

Insistence that human rights norms must be universal can only mean that one is unsuited for the hurlyburly of party politics, or even polite discussion.

And, yes, it is fine to associate me with the Plantation Caucus. Such attribution cannot be deemed redbaiting, since it accuses me of racist,not Communist associations. You have indeed learned well in your long life.

jeffry, I get the impression that you would not approve of Seeger unless he had been superhumanly perfect in all of his opinions and actions throughout all of his life. Maybe you need to lower your standards for humanity.

Even on his own terms, I don't quite get what Jeff House's problem could be with the original posting or his stand at HUAC. Jeff says above,
"I'd say Pete Seeger has had a good fifty year run since his party days, and deserves to be celebrated for THAT."
Most specifically, what Jeff says he objects to is Seeger's pro-Stalin stance when he was young.

Now, early in the discussion, skdadl pointed out
"Seeger made his statement in 1955, when Stalin was dead, Seeger had left the party"
That would seem to put the HUAC statement precisely during Seeger's "good fifty year run since his party days". So upon seeing that, it seems to me the appropriate response for Jeff would have been "Oh, didn't realize that was after he'd repudiated Stalin and the party; my objection therefore doesn't apply. My mistake."

Did Jeff not notice that point being made?
Or is it just Jeff doesn't care whether his "pro-Stalin" comments were applicable to the situation he's objecting to, he just wanted to get his dig in?

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