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?

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.

Tinseltown’s traitors

Dalton Trumbo

We’ve devoted a good deal of attention on this website to Dalton Trumbo (1905-76), the blacklisted Communist screenwriter who was celebrated in a 2015 movie, Trumbo, in which he was played by Bryan Cranston. But it occurs to us that some of the other leading figures on the Blacklist – the members of the Hollywood Ten, as they were known – deserve equal time. Or at least a mention.

Let’s begin with the cardinal issue: they were all Communists. They were all unswerving admirers of Josef Stalin – and this at a time when his record as a bloodthirsty dictator and mass murderer of his own people had already been well established. And yet in later years – from the 1970s onward – they were hailed as heroes of free speech and the individual conscience (two things that Stalin himself was determined to crush). And, as illustrated by Trumbo, the idealization of these champions of totalitarianism continues into our own time. Witness a November 2015 article in the Hollywood Reporter entitled “The Hollywood Ten: The Men Who Refused to Name Names.”

Josef Stalin

Written by David L. Dunbar, the article bore the subhead: “When the House Un-American Activities Committee subpoenaed filmmakers to testify about communism in the industry, a few held their ground – and for a time, lost their livelihood.” Of course, if they’d been stubborn supporters of democratic capitalism living in Stalin’s Russia, they’d have lost not only their livelihoods but their lives – but that’s a detail that the fans of the Hollywood Ten prefer not to think about.

As Dunbar observed, the committee, known as HUAC, subpoenaed 41 screenwriters, directors, and producers to testify at a 1947 hearing to probe “subversive activities in the entertainment industry.” Most of those summoned proved to be “friendly” witnesses – meaning that they agreed to say whether or not they were or ever had been members of the Communist Party. Those who answered yes were invited to name fellow Communists – and, if they did, were sent back to work with their reputations intact.

Nine of the Hollywood Ten

But then there were the Ten. They refused to answer the committee’s questions. In return, the committee held them in contempt, fined them $1000 apiece, and ordered them sent to prison for up to a year. Back in Hollywood, their studios fired them.

The logic behind HUAC’s decisions, of course, was that these were unrepentant servants of a foreign power that, while having been a wartime ally, was quickly metamorphosing into an enemy. Under the Constitution, to be sure, they had a right to their opinions, a right to express them, and a right to gather freely and discuss them. Then again, they didn’t have the right to be traitors. Whether they crossed the line into treason is a question that has been discussed ever since.

As for their being fired – well, that’s another issue. The studios were private employers. They had a right to hire or fire whomever they wished. No one has a right to a lucrative job writing movies. Whether it was morally defensible to fire them for their Communist sympathies, is again, a matter for discussion and debate.

One point, however, is crystal clear: these men who publicly took the moral high ground, condemning a system in which they were punished for their political views, themselves were ardent believers in a system that routinely executed dissident artists such as themselves.

Who were these men? We’ll start in on them tomorrow.

Stalinizing Britain’s schools

Recently, British columnist James Bartholomew took up a subject that goes to the heart of what this website is all about.

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James Bartholomew

It started with a holiday cocktail party, where he happened to meet a woman who teaches history at a top U.K. school. “We somehow started chatting about Stalin,” he recalled, “and she said – in passing – that there had been good aspects to his Five Year Plans.”

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Josef Stalin

Of course, anyone who knows the true history of Stalin’s Five Year Plans knows that they proved to be a nightmare for the people of the Soviet Union. Far from improving the Soviet economy, as intended, they caused famine. Compared to the Western world’s economy, the USSR’s was a disaster. Yes, they told the world otherwise, but historians have long since shown that the statistics shared by the Kremlin with gullible Western journalists were sheer fairy tales.

After his encounter with the history teacher – with whom he “only just managed to avoid having a row” – Bartholomew decided to look into exactly what British children are being taught these days about Stalin. He bought a copy of a study guide for history students. What he discovered was that the fatuous teacher’s “balanced” view of Stalinism is now “the standard line” at the very best British schools.

Take collectivization – Stalin’s expropriation of privately held farms from their owners and introduction of a system whereby groups of peasants were ordered to run them on behalf of the state. As any student of Soviet history knows, this policy proved to be disastrous. Bartholomew sums up the results:

Production decreased. People starved. Some farmers were not keen to have their property taken away. They were imprisoned or killed. Some collectives hid grain to avoid starvation. If discovered, they were killed, too. In all, up to ten million died as a result of the collectivisation in one of the greatest man-made disasters the world has ever known.

But that’s not what British students are being told. According to the study guide, collectivization had its “pros and cons.” One “pro”: it “ended the forced exploitation of peasants by greedy landlords and got rid of the greedy and troublesome kulaks.” The “kulaks” were the small farmers from whom Stalin stole the farms. To call these people “greedy and troublesome” is to use the language of Stalinism itself. They were greedy, yes, insofar as they sought, like any person operating a private business under a capitalist system, to maximize production and profits and minimize expenses. “Troublesome”? Again, yes, to the extent that they stood up to the Bolsheviks who took their property from them.

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Eton College

Another “pro” of collectivization: “It helped peasants work together.” Yes, and ultimately starve together.

“It would be grotesque,” observes Bartholomew, “to suggest as a subject for discussion the possible Pros and Cons of the Holocaust. It would be sickening to offer the idea that forced labour camps ‘helped people work together’ even if you expected children to knock the suggestion down.” The same should apply to Stalin’s reign of terror. But no: when it comes to subjects like Stalinist collectivization, “students are advised to give a ‘balanced answer.’ Students are to take into the ‘balance’ that up to 10 million people were starved or killed. The brutal enforcement of starvation of 2.5 to 7.5 million Ukrainians, know as Holodomor, is not mentioned.”

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The Kremlin

The reason for this is clear. In Britain, as elsewhere in the West, the people who formulate school curricula uniformly recognize the horrors of Nazism – but some of them are likely to have a soft spot for Communism, notwithstanding its own attendant horrors. “The communists in the Soviet Union,” Bartholomew reminds us, “were responsible for the deaths of a minimum of between 13 and 15 million people, the second worst rate of deaths caused by human action after those caused by Mao Tse Tung in China. But young people are not taught this.” And the less they know about “the terror, economic failure and mass murder that took place under communism,” the more likely they are “to be seduced by similar ideas.” Yes, that’s how it works.  

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.

GBS: So versatile that he loved Hitler and Stalin

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George Bernard Shaw

Dublin-born George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), author of such works as Caesar and Cleopatra, Pygmalion, Saint Joan, and Man and Superman, was widely considered the best playwright of his time, and is often described as the greatest playwright – with the exception of Shakespeare – in the history of the English language.

He was also a man of many opinions. He famously opposed vaccinations and crusaded for simplified spelling, among many other causes. He was an early member of the Fabian Society and the Independent Labour Party, both of which promoted socialism in the United Kingdom. To his credit, he was an early supporter of women’s rights and interracial marriage. Less attractively, while some intellectuals and artists in the West loved Hitler and hated Stalin or vice-versa, Shaw went on record as admiring both of these bloodthirsty dictators – not to mention Lenin and Mussolini, too.

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“Really interesting statesman”

He called Lenin “the one really interesting statesman in Europe”; in 1931, he met Stalin and came away with the impression that the strongman was “a Georgian gentleman.” Two years later, during the deliberately engineered Ukrainian famine, or Holodomor, in which several million people died, he wrote a letter to the Manchester Guardian defending the Soviet Union from what he called “slander” in the British press.

The same year, he greeted Hitler’s rise to power by calling him “very remarkable,” denied that Hitler was out “to establish a military hegemony in Europe,” and accepted the official German verdict that the Reichstag fire of February 27, 1933 – likely a false-flag operation by the Nazis – was the fault of Communist opponents of the Third Reich.

Adolf Hitler, Austrian born dictator of Nazi Germany, 1938. Hitler (1889-1945) became leader of the National Socialist German Workers (Nazi) party in 1921. After an unsuccessful coup attempt in Munich in 1923, for which he was briefly imprisoned, Hitler set about pursuing power by democratic means. His nationalistic and anti-semitic message quickly gained support in a Germany humiliated by defeat in World War I and the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles and, from the late 1920s, suffering from economic collapse. Hitler came to power in 1933, and persuaded the Reichstag (parliament) to grant him dictatorial powers. He proceeded to crush opposition both within his own party and throughout German society, and set about re-arming Germany. Hitler's aggressive policy of territorial expansion to secure 'lebensraum' (living space) for the German people eventually plunged the world into the Second World War. A print from Kampf um's Dritte Reich: Historische Bilderfolge, Berlin, 1933. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)
“I have backed his regime…to the point of making myself unpopular”

“The Nazi movement,” Shaw once wrote, “is in many respects one which has my warm sympathy; in fact, I might fairly claim that Herr Hitler has repudiated Karl Marx to enlist under the banner of Bernard Shaw.” In a 1935 letter to an Austrian colleague, he asked that his best wishes be communicated to Hermann Göring and noted that “I have backed his regime in England to the point of making myself unpopular.”

While he did criticize Hitler’s emphasis on anti-Semitism, Shaw was hardly free of that poison himself. Far from it: as Saul Jay Singer demonstrated at length last year in an article for the Jewish Press, the playwright was “an open and rabid Jew-hater.”

shaw2For example, Shaw accused Jews of “craving for bouquets” and called it “a symptom of racial degeneration.” He called Jews “obnoxious creatures” and pronounced that “it would have been better for the world if the Jews had never existed.” He described Jews as “the real enemy” and defended Hitler’s mistreatment of them as a reasonable “product of mass discontent over Jewish wealth.” And in 1933 letter to the New York Times he proposed that the Nazis should “make it punishable incest for a Jew to marry anyone but an Aryan….Instead of exterminating the Jews, he [Hitler] should have said, 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.”

But if Shaw was awfully fond of Hitler, he was even more of a fan of Stalin. More tomorrow.

Joris Ivens: Stalin’s and Mao’s Riefenstahl

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Joris Ivens

Today, a quick look at Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens (1898-1989). He started out making short experimental films in which he sought to capture atmosphere, much in the way of an impressionist painter. He also helped establish Amsterdam as an early center of filmmaking, and helped bring directors like René Clair and Sergei Eisenstein to the city.

EH5408P c.1937-1938 Ernest Hemingway with a film cameraman and two soldiers during the Spanish Civil War, 1937-1938. Photographer unknown in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.
With Hemingway and two soldiers in Spain

Then, in 1929 and again in 1931, he went to the USSR. He was hooked. And he started making propaganda pictures. Song of Heroes (1931), about industry in the city of Magnitogorsk, promoted Stalin’s Five-Year Plan. In 1936 he relocated to the U.S., where the next year he screened his film The Spanish Earth at the White House. The movie, funded by a consortium of left-leaning writers including Lillian Hellman and John Dos Passos, was a paean to the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. Ivens presented the Republicans as uniformly fighting for liberty – ignoring the fact that many so-called Republicans were, in fact, Marxists who enjoyed the support of the Kremlin and who sought to turn Spain into a Communist satellite of the Soviet Union. It was transparent wartime propaganda, but it attracted the participation of many top-flight talents, including Marc Blitzstein and Virgil Thomson, who composed the music, Ernest Hemingway, who wrote and read the voice-over narration, and Jean Renoir, who did the French-language voice-over.

Three years later, Ivens did the same favor for Mao Zedong that he had for Stalin in The Spanish Earth, releasing a film, The 400 Million, that told the story of the Second Sino-Japanese War, emphazing the contributions of Mao, his compadre Zhou Enlai, and their Communist cohorts while underplaying the role played by Chaing Kai-shek and his anti-Communist Nationalists.

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Frank Capra

In 1943, at the height of World War II, American director Frank Capra (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life), who had been asked by the U.S. War Department to make a series of films entitled Why We Fight, invited Ivens to direct a movie for the series about the Japanese. Ivens was soon fired, however. Why? For (no kidding) making the movie too pro-Japanese.

Ivens left the U.S. in the 1940s, and before long was living in Stalin’s newly conquered and Communized Eastern Europe. During the Vietnam War, he made a couple of pro-North Vietnam documentaries. In 1967, he won the Lenin Peace Prize. And he spent six years in the 1970s making How Yukong Moved the Mountains, a more than twelve-hour account of China’s Cultural Revolution, in which millions were removed from their jobs, torn from their homes and families, tortured, “re-educated,” and/or killed. As it happened, Ivens – by now a profoundly convinced Communist and close friend of Mao and Zhou – thoroughly approved.

It is telling to observe that Ivens’s lifelong cinematic efforts on behalf of Stalin and Mao did not prevent him from being treated in his homeland as a local hero. In 1989, he received a knighthood from the Dutch government. Shortly afterwards, he died. Such was the life of Stalin’s and Mao’s Leni Riefenstahl.