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: email@example.com)