When the legendary folk singer Pete Seeger died Monday at the age of 94, remembrances of him, unsurprisingly, focused less on his music than on his social activism. All the better — Seeger, the epitome of tireless commitment to the cause, would have liked it that way.
Some comments were laudatory, praising every aspect of his advocacy. But most of them struck the balanced tone of The Washington Post’s Dylan Matthews, who tweeted, “I love and will miss Pete Seeger but let’s not gloss over that fact that he was an actual Stalinist.”
Such attempts at balance miss the mark. It’s not that Seeger did a lot of good despite his longtime ties to the Communist Party; he did a lot of good because he was a communist.
This point is not to apologize for the moral and social catastrophe that was state socialism in the 20th century, but rather to draw a distinction between the role of communists when in power and when in opposition. A young worker in the Bronx passing out copies of The Daily Worker in 1938 shouldn’t be conflated with the nomenklatura that oversaw labor camps an ocean away.
As counterintuitive as it may sound, time after time American communists like Seeger were on the right side of history — and through their leadership, they encouraged others to join them there.
Communists ran brutal police states in the Eastern bloc, but in Asia and Africa they found themselves at the helm of anti-colonial struggles, and in the United States radicals represented the earliest and more fervent supporters of civil rights and other fights for social emancipation. In the 1930s, Communist Party members led a militant anti-racist movement among Alabama sharecroppers that called for voting rights, equal wages for women and land for landless farmers. Prominent and unabashedly Stalinist figures such as Mike Gold, Richard Wright and Granville Hicks pushed Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal to be more inclusive and led the mass unionization drives of the era. These individuals, bound together by membership in an organization most ordinary Americans came to fear and despise, played an outsize and largely positive role in American politics and culture. Seeger was one of the last surviving links to this great legacy.