Always a Communist: Pete Seeger

The Weavers

As we saw yesterday, the folk singer Pete Seeger was, in the late 1930s, a slavish servant of the Kremlin line who was capable, at a moment’s notice, of making a 180-degree change in his position on any issue whatever. To continue the story: in the 1950s, he was a member of the Weavers, whose hits included the old tunes “Goodnight, Irene” and “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine”; in the 1960s, this time as a solo act, he became a symbol of leftist protest. Identified strongly with the civil-rights and Vietnam War eras, he co-wrote such songs as “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”, “If I Had a Hammer,” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!”, which became hits for performers ranging from The Byrds to Marlene Dietrich. Seeger also helped make “We Shall Overcome” an anthem of the protest movement. (He claimed that he was the one who changed the auxiliary verb in the title from “will” to “shall.”) Called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1955, he refused to answer questions; six years later he was found guilty of contempt of Congress, but his conviction was overturned. In November 1969, he led half a million protesters in singing “Give Peace a Chance” outside the White House.

Speaking to the House Un-American Activities Committee

According to some sources, Seeger became disillusioned with Communism, quitting the Party in 1949. Other sources, however, say that he considered himself a Communist all his life. “I still call myself a Communist,” he said in 1995, “because Communism is no more what Russia made of it than Christianity is what the churches make of it.” On the one hand, he went to Russia in 1965 and to North Vietnam in 1972. On the other hand, he sang at a benefit concert for Poland’s anti-Soviet Solidarity movement in 1982. At some point he also publicly apologized for having thought Stalin was anything other than a monster – but he watered down the apology by saying, “I guess anyone who calls himself 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. ought to apologize for stealing land from Native Americans and enslaving blacks.”

Performing with Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, and Arlo Guthrie in 1968

And so on, for several more sentences, the point being that everybody alive today has ancestors who did horrible things that need to be apologized for. The difference, of course, is that today’s Christians did not personally work with Torquemada or take part in the Crusades – whereas Seeger himself was a willing tool of Stalin, mindlessly following his orders and tailoring the message of his music to the Kremlin directives of the day. Then again, in 2007, heeding a critical article by historian Ronald Radosh, Seeger wrote “Big Joe Blues,” a song in which he accused Stalin of ruling “with an iron hand” and of having “put an end to the dreams / Of so many in every land. / He had a chance to make / A brand new start for the human race. / Instead he set it back / Right in the same nasty place.”

Good try, but it could be argued that this is pretty weak stuff. Did Stalin really set humanity back “in the same nasty place”? Or did he, by injecting sheer terror into the daily lives of an entire country and by imprisoning, torturing, and murdering tens of millions, take it to places far nastier than those anyone else (excepting perhaps Hitler and Mao) had ever conceived of?

Pete Seeger, Stalinist toady

Pete Seeger

Born in 1919, the folk singer Pete Seeger was son of two high-profile figures in classical music – his father a composer and musicologist, his mother a violinist and teacher at Juilliard – and his siblings, like Pete himself, went on to be successful (one of them was a radio astronomer, the other a teacher at Manhattan’s Dalton School). Seeger became a radical early on, apparently under the influence of his father: at age 17, he joined the Young Communist League; six years later, he joined the Communist Party.

Woody Guthrie

In the 1940s, he collaborated with Woody Guthrie and a number of other well-known folk singers. He also helped found a folk group called The Almanacs that was ideology under the Kremlin thumb. Songs for John Doe, an Almanacs album on which Seeger played and sang, faithfully reflected the anti-FDR and anti-war (and, indeed, Hitler-friendly) Soviet line of the period following the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Germany and Russia. When, shortly thereafter, Hitler violated the pact by invading the USSR, Moscow instantly reversed its position and ordered its American lackeys to do the same.

Accordingly, Seeger and his pals removed Songs for John Doe from the market and destroyed all the copies they could get their hands on. They then put out an album entitled Dear Mr. President, which was essentially a love letter to FDR and an enthusiastic call for all-out war to defeat the Nazis. It was right out of Orwell: we have always been allies with Eurasia; we have always been at war with Eastasia. Such was the mentality to which Seeger subscribed – this man long celebrated as a hero of the people, of liberty, and of free expression.

Henry A. Wallace

Yes, Seeger & co. expressed some admirable sentiments: they sang about racism and anti-Semitism. Then again, at the time it was an integral part of the Moscow line to emphasize America’s unequal treatment of blacks and Jews. If the Kremlin had suddenly, for whatever reason, ordered American Communists to reverse their line on racism and anti-Semitism, what would Seeger have done? Given his immediate, unquestioning turnaround on FDR, it’s a fair question.

When the U.S. entered the war, Seeger joined the U.S. Army and spent the duration entertaining troops in the Pacific. In the 1948 election he supported third-party presidential candidate Henry A. Wallace, who was famously soft on Communism (if not, in fact, an all-out closet Communist). It was Wallace who said in a 1946 speech that the U.S. had no more in common with Britain than with the Soviet Union and whose refusal to disavow his endorsement by the Communist Party USA alienated even Norman Thomas, the country’s most prominent socialist. But his views didn’t alienate Seeger.

Hating free speech: Howard Biberman

Herbert Biberman

We’ve been looking at the Hollywood Ten, those unwavering devotees of totalitarianism, blind servants of Stalin, and out-and-out traitors who, after being held in contempt by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, spent a few years on the so-called Blacklist and later, in the 1970s, were gloriously rehabilitated, applauded by the media and by a new generation of Hollywood luminaries as heroes of the individual conscience, the life of the independent artist, and the First Amendment. Today’s subject: Herbert Biberman (1900-71), who after working in the New York theater in the early 1930s went to Hollywood, wrote several minor films, and married Oscar-winning actress (and fellow Blacklist member) Gale Sondergaard.

An APM button from the group’s “pro-peace” phase

In Hollywood, Biberman was a busy Communist bee. Among much else, he played a major role in a Soviet front group whose history of ideological shifts illuminates the way in which these groups perfectly mirrored the Kremlin’s own changing policies. Originally founded in 1933 as the American League against War and Fascism and conceived of as a means of preparing the Depression-struck U.S. for imminent Communist revolution, it encouraged workers to oppose FDR, whom it presented as oppressing workers and as being engaged in preparation for war. Two years later, however, having decided the U.S. was not on the verge of revolution after all, the Kremlin had the group’s name changed to the American League for Peace and Democracy and ordered it to support FDR and to boycott and propagandize against the USSR’s more immediate enemies, Germany and Japan.

Molotov (left) and Ribbentrop at the signing of the pact

Two years after that, when the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed, forging an alliance between Stalin and Hitler, the American League for Peace and Democracy was renamed American Peace Mobilization (APM) and told to be pro-peace, pro-Nazi, and, once again, anti-American. After Hitler invaded Russia, however, the APM, under Kremlin orders, underwent another ideological make-over: now it supported the Soviet war against Hitler and equated Nazi Germany with the U.S. and Britain, representing Hitler, Roosevelt, and Churchill as equally imperialist and equally intolerable.

Some of the Hollywood Ten and their lawyers, December 1947

How does Biberman fit into all this? He was on the APM’s “National Council.” As Allan Ryskind writes in Hollywood Traitors, Biberman told an APM meeting that the U.S. had become “a colony of the British Empire” and that Hitler, Roosevelt, and Churchill were “making a deal for the money markets of the world” and sacrificing “the lives of millions of men” in the process. At an APM rally in Los Angeles, he received a standing ovation after savaging FDR and Churchill. The readiness of Biberman (and several other members of the Hollywood Ten who were also on the APM “National Council” or otherwise involved in the group) to instantly change their ideological tune, not once but several times, in accordance with Kremlin directives only goes to show that none of this had anything to do with individual conscience or personal philosophy – it was all about being robotic, lockstep soldiers who were prepared to believe anything that Josef Stalin told them to.

Biberman before HUAC

Later, after America had entered the war on the side of the USSR, Biberman was active in other Soviet front groups, among them the Civil Rights Congress (CRC) and the Hollywood Writers Mobilization (HWM). These supposedly independent groups, which represented themselves as having been founded spontaneously by free-thinking individuals who, among other things, simply wanted to serve the war effort. In fact they were all branches of the same tree, following the same orders from the same masters in Moscow.

Albert Maltz

In 1946, like Alvah Bessie, Biberman stood up at a Communist gathering to condemn their fellow Hollywood Ten member Albert Maltz for the high crime of having suggested that the works of Communist artists should not be straitjacketed by Kremlin ideology but should rather be allowed to deviate from that ideology in minor specifics as long as it served, on the whole, the general aims and principles of Communism. For Bessie and Biberman, Maltz’s suggestion amounted to heresy; after Bessie denounced Maltz, Biberman took his turn, “spout[ing] elaborate mouthfuls of nothing, his every accent dripping with hatred.” In short, despite the Hollywood Ten image that would take form decades later, he was very far from being a champion of free expression.

Red Ken’s anti-Semitic fantasies

Ken Livingstone

Ken Livingston reached the pinnacle of his career in the years 2000-2008, when he served as mayor of London. Before that he served for many years as a member of Parliament and, later, as head of the Greater London Council. Now 71 years old, he’s one of the veteran figures in the Labour Party – he’s been an active member for 47 years – and has enjoyed wide respect and affection within its ranks, despite his tendency to defend radical Islam and insult Jews and Israel (a country he considers anathema). Thanks to his far-left views, he has long been known by the nickname “Red Ken.”

Naz Shah

But Red Ken is no longer every Labourite’s favorite socialist crank. In an interview with the BBC in April of last year, Livingstone stood up for Labour MP Naz Shah, who’d been suspended from the party for having written or reposted anti-Semitic material in Facebook. For example, she’d compared Israel to Nazi Germany and reposted a meme calling for Israel to be moved to the U.S. In her defense, Livingstone said: “Let’s remember, when Hitler won his election in 1932 his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel.” In other words, Hitler “was supporting Zionism.” Only later, according to Livingstone, did the Führer go “mad” and decide to exterminate the Jews of Europe.

Seen from one perspective, the former mayor’s remarks were nothing new: as Richard Ferrer put it in the New Statesman, Red Ken has “made gratuitously antagonising Jews into an art form.” While serving as mayor, for example, Livingstone played host to Islamic religious scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi, for whom rabid Jew-hatred is an inextricable part of his theology.

Yusuf al-Qaradawi

Qaradawi, by the way, is also big on hating homosexuals, and when British gay-rights advocates protested Livingstone’s extremely gracious – in fact, downright friendly – treatment of Qaradawi, Livingstone shot back by calling them dirty Islamophobes. Yet even though Jews and gays tend to form an important part of the Labour Party base, especially in London, Livingstone somehow got away with all of this.

He didn’t get away with his comments in defense of Naz Shah, however. Shortly after airing his curious rewrite of modern German history, Livingstone was fired from LBC (formerly the London Broadcasting Company), for which he had co-hosted a TV program for eight years. Not until this April did the Labour Party take up his case. After three days of deliberations, the party’s National Constitutional Committee declared his words about Jews “grossly detrimental,” but decided to suspend him from the party instead of expelling him outright. In the meantime, speaking to reporters, Livingstone made things even worse for himself, claiming that the Nazis had sold guns to Zionists before the war and that this amounted to a “real collaboration” between the two. When asked to apologize, he refused.

Livingstone in his Che/Corbyn t-shirt

After his suspension, Livingstone was photographed wearing a t-shirt bearing an imagine that combined features of Che Guevara and Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn – who, like Red Ken, is a radical socialist. It was unclear whether Livingstone, a fan of Che’s and a longtime ally of Corbyn, was trying to make a statement about Corbyn, who had criticized him for his remarks about Jews, or whether the shirt was just part of his ordinary casual wardrobe. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Theresa May, a member of the Conservative Party, said that Labour’s failure to dump Livingstone entirely amounted to a “betrayal” of Britain’s Jews. One hundred and seven of Labour’s own MPs, along with 47 Labourites in the House of Lords, agreed, signing on to a statement by the Jewish Labour Movement that criticized the committee’s decision to suspend rather than expel. And the Independent called his suspension “the mildest of rebukes for a 71-year-old who has no intention of running for office and describes himself as a ‘house husband.’”

These developments came at a bad time for Labour. Local elections will be held on May 4, and Labour’s prospects were already looking poor.

Sunsara Taylor’s perpetual revolution

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Sunsara Taylor

Sunsara Taylor, whom we’ve been discussing this week, is currently telling anyone who will listen that Donald Trump is a fascist, worse than Hitler, who will gradually introduce a cruel dictatorship and maybe even destroy the entire planet in a nuclear Armageddon. You might induce from this that Taylor cherishes American freedom and sees Trump as a disastrously departure from the previous occupants of the Oval Office. Um, no. Last year, long before the election of Trump as president seemed even a remote possibility, Taylor was on the warpath against the American system. Along with her Revolutionary Communist Party comrade Carl Dix, as we saw yesterday, she set out on a national tour of college campuses with a goal of recruiting revolutionaries and overthrowing the government. The press release announcing the tour read, in part:

bob-avakian-communist-columbia-micah_fleckThis world cries out for radical change….

A radically different and far better world is possible—getting rid of this madness and horror, and getting beyond a world of oppression, exploitation, and domination. This will take an Actual Revolution.

“Revolution” and “socialism” are in the air…But a real revolution—one that aims to change the world—is radically different and, yes, more demanding. A real revolution requires a scientific understanding of society and how to radically change it. That science has been qualitatively developed by the revolutionary leader, Bob Avakian. We’re coming to your campus to get into this with you.

The tour appears to have been something less than a spectacular success. Witness a report by Columbia University student journalist Micah Fleck. “Though flyers spangled the hallways and scaffolding of Columbia’s campus promoting Carl Dix and Sunsara Taylor for Months,” wrote Fleck, “fewer than two dozen students attended their April 13 talk in a room that can seat more than 200.”

But Taylor didn’t let the pathetically low turnout defeat her. Referring to the cause, quite simply, as “The Revolution,” she and Dix presented a “new constitution,” which the RCP had helpfully published in book form in 2010. (It can be read in its entirely – 104 pages – here.) Taylor told her cozy audience that her movement sought to bring about “a world without America and everything America stands for.”

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With fellow RCP leader Carl Dix

As we’ve noted, no matter what the name of the group or the specific cause du jour, Taylor has always been nothing more or less than an operative for the RCP. And her specific groups and movements and campaigns have never been anything other than efforts to enhance the RCP’s influence and power. And, above all, to raise the profile of Bob Avakian. Even a relatively sympathetic student, Pier Harrison, who attended one of her events at New York University in February 2010, was taken aback by the fact that she spoke “with cult-like reverence for party Chairman Bob Avakian.”

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Annie Day

Harrison reported that “[b]etween Taylor’s speech and the Q&A[,] staff sent around collection baskets, just like in Church, for donations to support her tour, and the goals of the RCP.” Harrison asked moderator Annie Day, also an RCP member, whether she, Taylor, and their comrades “intended to stage a violent or non-violent revolution. Her response: violent.

So, would there be bloodshed? Day replied: “Revolution is a serious business. This is not just the frustrations of individuals. We are not pacifists. So to answer your question, yes.” Harrison wrote: “The most mind-blowing part of this whole event was realizing that by ‘revolution’ they mean that they are willing to kill people.” He also suggested that “the RCP has hijacked the feminist agenda to further its own will to power, which, again, they do not hide.” He was certainly correct about that. Whether the issue is war or women’s rights or the Trump presidency, the business of the RCP – with Sunsara Taylor as its public face and voice – is hijacking, pure and simple.

For her, Trump isn’t Hitler. He’s worse.

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Sunsara Taylor

Recently we spent a few days recounting the curious careers of Bob Avakian, longtime head of the Revolutionary Communist Party, and his loyal sidekick Carl Dix.

As it happens, there’s a third figure who looms large in the RCP and who deserves her place in the sun on this website. Her name: Sunsara Taylor. She surfaced recently on the Fox News program Tucker Carlson Tonight, where she was identified as an “organizer” of a movement called Refuse Fascism. Its exclamation-point-heavy website explains its position:

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Bob Avakian

In the Name of Humanity,

We REFUSE to Accept a Fascist America!

Drive Out the Trump/Pence Regime!

The Trump/Pence Regime is a Fascist Regime. Not insult or exaggeration, this is what it is. For the future of humanity and the planet, we, the people, must drive this regime out.

Donald Trump and Mike Pence have assembled a vicious cabal that has put forth positions and begun initiatives which demonstrate that they fully intend to shred political and social norms with catastrophic consequence. Because Trump has his finger on the nuclear trigger, the Trump/Pence regime is more dangerous to the world than even Hitler….

The Trump/Pence regime will repeatedly launch new highly repressive measures, eventually clamping down on all resistance and remaking the law…IF THEY ARE NOT DRIVEN FROM POWER.

During her six-minute appearance on Carlson’s show, Taylor may have set a world record for comparing Trump to Hitler. “We the people,” she insisted, “must drive this regime out!” Donald Trump and Mike Pence, she charged, “are operating out of Hitler’s playbook.” She referred to Trump’s “Nazi inauguration.” Her prescription for change: “We need to pour into the streets and say no….We must drive them out. We must stay in the streets.”

Quite a show. But as it turns out, Refuse Fascism is only the latest in a long list of groups with which Taylor has been involved. Or perhaps the proper term should be “pseudo-groups” or “front groups,” because in fact Taylor has, all along, been nothing more or less than an RCP operative and a devout disciple of Avakian.

no-stoptrumppencemosaicenspfararabv1These various groups or sub-movements (or whatever you want to call them) have come and gone over the years, rising up at a certain point – apparently in an effort to catch a wave of public feeling – and then disappearing when the wave breaks on the shore. They all involve a good deal of money-grubbing. Case in point: Refuse Fascism’s Facebook page urges supporters “to start out with a $5 donation” and be “part of crowdfunding this movement to stop this fascist, illegitimate regime from ruling.”

Tomorrow we’ll take a little stroll through Sunsara Taylor’s previous attempt to overthrow the U.S.A. – and rake in cash for the RCP.

The man who dreamed of Zyklon B

George Bernard Shaw
George Bernard Shaw

Yesterday we examined George Bernard Shaw‘s enthusiasm for Hitler – and noted a 1933 letter to the New York Times in which he suggested that the Führer, instead of planning to exterminate Jews, should simply say: “I will tolerate Jews to any extent, as long as no Jew marries a Jewess. That is how he could build up a strong, solid German people.”

At other times, however, Shaw was gung-ho for extermination. A strong supporter of eugenics, he championed “the right of the State to make eugenic experiments by weeding out any strains they think undesirable.” He spelled out his ideas as follows:

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Zyklon B, the “gentlemanly gas” that Shaw hoped for

I think it would be a good thing to make everybody come before a properly-appointed board, just as they might come before the income tax commissioner, and say every five years, or every seven years, just put them there, and say, “Sir, or madam, now will you be kind enough to justify your existence?” If you’re not producing as much as you consume or perhaps a little more, then, clearly, we cannot use the big organizations of our society for the purpose of keeping you alive, because your life does not benefit us and it can’t be of very much use to yourself…. I appeal to the chemists to discover a humane gas that will kill instantly and painlessly. In short, a gentlemanly gas – deadly by all means, but humane not cruel.

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Beatrice Webb

Some Shavians have insisted vehemently that when Shaw offered this suggestion, he was kidding, in the same way that Jonathan Swift was kidding in his famous essay “A Modest Proposal.” But Shaw wasn’t kidding. He floated the same idea in a private letter to his friend Beatrice Webb, writing: “I think we ought to tackle the Jewish Question by admitting the right of the States to make eugenic experiments by weeding out any strains that they think undesirable, but insisting that they do it as humanely as they can afford to.”

The only thing left to say about Shaw’s pro-Nazi views is that they survived Nazism itself. After Hitler’s death, Shaw remembered him as a “national hero”; when some of the Führer’s highest-ranking honchos were put on trial at Nuremberg after the war, Shaw considered them martyrs.

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Shaw’s ultimate hero

Shaw’s admiration for the Nazis, however, was eclipsed by his enthusiasm for Stalin and company. When Hitler invaded Russia in 1941, Saw was delighted because he was sure the results “would reveal to the world the real strength of Soviet Communism.” The rapidity with which the Bolsheviks transformed Russia impressed him, and caused him to dismiss the Fabian ambition of gradually turning Britain socialist. Scorning law-abiding activists who sought to effect change from within the system, he looked up to men with “iron nerve and fanatical conviction.” During a 1931 visit to Moscow, he announced: “I have seen all the ‘terrors’ and I was terribly pleased by them.”

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Shaw biographer Michael Holyrod

Shaw returned to Britain from Russia “filled with religious fervour for the communist cause” (as one journalist has put it) and eager (as one of his biographers, Michael Holroyd, has written) to “bring the light of the Soviet Church to new audiences round the world.” Indeed, just as Shaw had promoted the idea of the Nazi extermination of Jews and other human beings whom he viewed as undesirables, he also argued for the wholesale massacre of Russian opponents of Communism, arguing that “if we desire a certain type of civilization and culture we must exterminate the sort of people who do not fit into it.” All this, dear reader, from the second-greatest playwright in the English language.