The Anti-Stalin Songbird

Banjo-pickin' lefty Pete Seeger has written a song condemning Stalin—sixty-plus years after his death. According to historian Ron Radosh, Seeger sent him a letter acknowledging his pro-Soviet credulity, agreeing that on his guided tours of the country he "should have asked to see the gulags." Seeger attached the lyrics to a new song about Stalin, "The Big Joe Blues":

"I'm singing about old Joe, cruel Joe / He ruled with an iron hand / He 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 / I got the Big Joe Blues / (Keep your mouth shut or you will die fast) / I got the Big Joe Blues / (Do this job, no questions asked) / I got the Big Joe Blues."

Seeger tells Radosh that "the basic mistake [with the Soviet Union] was Lenin's faith in [Party] DISCIPLINE!" Well, that's one way of putting it. It could also be argued that Lenin's basic mistake was his insatiable bloodlust; his murderous hatred of the so-called rich peasant class. Take this memo, from August 1918, in which Lenin outlines the level of "discipline" to be used against those "revolting" against collectivization:

"Comrades! The revolt by the five kulak volost's must be suppressed without mercy. The interest of the entire revolution demands this, because we have now before us our final decisive battle "with the kulaks." We need to set an example. 1) You need to hang (hang without fail, so that the public sees) at least 100 notorious kulaks, the rich, and the bloodsuckers. 2) Publish their names. 3) Take away all of their grain. 4) Execute the hostages– in accordance with yesterday's telegram. This needs to be accomplished in such a way that people for hundreds of miles around will see, tremble, know, and scream out: let's choke and strangle those blood-sucking kulaks. Telegraph us acknowledging receipt and execution of this.

Yours, Lenin"

Last week, the New York Times defended Seeger against Radosh's charge that the singer was only now repenting. Under the unironic headline "This Just In: Pete Seeger Denounced Stalin Over a Decade Ago," Times journo Daniel Wakin says that "Mr. Seeger, 87, made such statements years ago, at least as early as his 1993 book, "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" In the book, he said in a 1995 interview with The New York Times Magazine, he had apologized "for following the party line so slavishly, for not seeing that Stalin was a supremely cruel misleader."

At least as early as 1993? Merely a "cruel misleader?" Not exactly a full-throated condemnation, Dan. Indeed, in his biography Seeger does make a fifty-years-too-late partial repudiation of his Sovietophilia, but drops in a string of moral equivalence in the following sentences:

"I'll apologize for a number of things, such as thinking that Stalin was simply a 'hard driver' and not a supremely cruel misleader. I guess anyone who calls himself or herself a Christian should be prepared to apologize for the Inquisition, the burning of heretics by Protestants, the slaughter of Jews and Moslems by Crusaders. White people in the U.S.A. could consider apologizing for stealing land from Native Americans and enslaving blacks. Europeans could apologize for worldwide conquests, Mongolians for Genghis Khan. And supporters of Roosevelt could apologize for his support of Somoza, of Southern white Democrats, of Franco Spain, for putting Japanese Americans in concentration camps.

I eagerly await Seeger's next record, which will doubtless include a song denouncing himself.

Cato's executive VP David Boaz on "Stalin's songbird" here.

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  • Abdul||

    The "Old Joe Blues" is almost as inhumane as Stalin himself.

  • Travis||

    Well I'll be dammed, I didn't know he was alive anymore! Seriously.

  • Episiarch||

    I wonder if anybody will defend this useful idiot. Other than the NYT.

  • ||

    Well, better late than never.

    "Supremely cruel" sounds like a condemnation to me.

  • ||

    "Merely a 'cruel misleader?' Not exactly a full-throated condemnation,"

    As you note, he said "supremely" cruel misleader. Perhaps he should have also called Stalin a "turkey face."

  • ||

    It took him how long to figure this out?

  • ||

    I ain't apologizin' for NOTHIN'! Those Khwarezmids had it coming for years.

  • ||

    See, I think murderous thug would have been better. But that's just me...

  • ||

    Solzhenitsin in The Gulag Archipelago and Conquest in both The Great Terror and Harvest of Sorrow thoroughly documented how the "fellow travellers" had all the information they needed to conclude that Stalin was a murderous thug while "Uncle Joe" was still alive.

    There are no excuses for their conduct vis-a-vis Stalin and the Soviet Union.

  • ||

    Geez, people. Give the guy a little credit. I say better late than never. Good for Pete to be big enough to admit his mistakes. It is extremely rare in my experience for someone of advanced age to change their opinion about anything, no matter what facts are presented. This shows Pete to be a man of more character than I had supposed. Anyway Seeger's real cardinal sin, in my eyes, will also be that he was one of the people trying to turn off Dylan's band when they went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in '65.

  • ||

    Or maybe you would have found a reason to decide that "murderous thug" wasn't strong enough, and bash him for that.

    From the article:

    Mr. Seeger continued in his letter to me: "the basic mistake was Lenin's faith in [Party] DISCIPLINE!" He often tells his left-wing audiences, he said, to read Rosa Luxemburg's famous letter to Lenin about the necessity of freedom of speech.

    Rather a different impression than the tigh edit and the suggestion that he was implicitly condoning Red Terror.

  • ||

    I'm not sure I appreciate the way you folks are treating one of America's top war allies.

  • ||

    the "fellow travellers" had all the information they needed to conclude that Stalin was a murderous thug while "Uncle Joe" was still alive.


    People had all the information they needed to conclude the earth was round over 3000 years ago, yet most people never bothered. For 30 years Solzhenitsyn has had all the information he needs to conclude that capitalism is a freer and more humane system than the sort of Orthodox slavic collective theocracy he would apparently prefer, yet he continues to prefer the latter. Most American "fellow travelers" were far more concerned about what they perceived as injustice at home than what was happening in the USSR. They were quite wrong, but I'm willing to forgive the ones who will admit they were wrong, even if it is very late.

  • SIV||

    joe,

    When are you going to denounce FDR?

  • Russ 2000||

    If I were 87 and history proved me dead wrong, I'd start feigning Alzheimer's.

  • ||

    "Tight edit." Jesus Joe, give it a rest. What does that second sentence change? If that is a "rather different impression," because, according to Seeger himself, he related some anecdote about Rosa Luxemburg to some (date unspecified) "left-wing audience," you need to do your homework on Seeger, Robeson, et al. Read Boaz's piece I linked and tell me he wasn't a fellow-traveler; read the Weaver's lyrics and tell me he wasn't a Stalinist stooge.
    Or maybe you would have found a reason to decide that "murderous thug" wasn't strong enough, and bash him for that.

    So now you are taking issue with things a might have said?

    And Vanya, he does deserve credit for finally realizing the error of his ways. And the Seeger/Lomax stuff at Newport is unconscionable...

  • ||

    One might accuse Seeger of tu quoque for his remarks in that last blockquote, but I think this nails the old "moral equivalence" charge.

  • ||

    SIV,

    I've denounced many things FDR did. When are you going to acknowledge that he's not Stalin?

    Michael,

    I'll give it a rest when you stop making it so easy.

    What does that second sentence change?

    Reason hired you to be a writer, and you need to ask that question?

    Sigh, ok. You edited his statement to set up a dichotomy, between his denunciation of party discipline, and a wished-for denunciation of the human-rights atrocities of the Soviet regime. Except that, whoa, lookie here! The very next words that came out of his mouth were...a statement urging his listeners to read a denunciation of the Soviet regime's lack of respect for people's rights.

    You set out to create a false impression of what Seeger was saying, and cut out the portion of his words that undermined it that impression.

  • Urkobold™||

    THE URKOBOLD MUST ADMIT THAT THE URKOBOLD WAS WRONG ABOUT HITLER. HE WAS A SHITTY ARTIST.

  • Gene Berkman||

    The Stalin era was before my time, but during the Vietnam War I went to many protests and antiwar conferences where Maoists were promoting their view of Communist revolution.

    It was bad enough to see a sea of red flags at an antiwar protest. But many prominent journalists and researchers also put out the line that China had advanced under Communism and was becoming a modern country, without talking about the tens of millions who died under Mao. It was similar to the widespread acceptance of Stalin as a national leader in the 1930s by American intellectuals.

  • ||

    NEWS-FLASH!!! ENTERTAINERS WITH POLITICAL VIEWS AREN'T NECESSARILY THE SHARPEST TOOLS IN THE SHED!!! FILM AT 11:00!!!

    Having been weaned on old lefty folk-singers, I have to admit I still have a bit of a soft spot for old Pete and the Weavers. Ok, the guy's politics were appalling, but it's not like we're suffering any shortage of knuckle-headed entertainers today, either. If I had to pick my entertainers based on their political views, I'd probably be stuck with listening to the alley-cats.

    Really, the only thing interesting thing about this is that anyone actually gives a shit what Pete Seeger thinks after all these years. The fact that anyone does probably indicates he did something right. Bob Dylan, Pete Townsend and Mick Jagger, eat your hearts out.

  • ||

    Pig Mannix,

    True enough, but Pete Seeger is an especially egregious case. Remember, he was prepared to take up arms to keep Dylan from going electric.

  • roy edroso||

    The Soviet Union is long dead. Only Castro and Kim are hanging in. Yet here you guys are hectoring an old man for not bothering to tell you when exactly he turned against Stalin.

    I can understand why the Red Scare never ended for Republicans -- they need every excuse they can get to feel righteous. Why are libertarians still prey to it, though? Don't you have enough all-powerful enemies, like the Department of Health and Human Services?

  • dhex||

    seeger et al was a victim of the earlier version of TEAM RED TEAM BLUE GO TEAM GO

    except the teams were switched (what color was anti-communism?)

    hence the stupidity.

    also:

    The "Old Joe Blues" is almost as inhumane as Stalin himself.

    FOR THE WIN

  • dhex||

    for reals, while it is really real and truly true that too many people get away with namechecking communism that would not with something like nazism, and rocking bad shirts and che and all that stuff, i think of it like the banding on a viper, except instead of telling you "this is deadly and poisonous" it's telling you "i write the worst fucking poetry you've ever read, including that girl you dated who sold weed."

  • ||

    I'll tell you something else about Pete: He's a mediocre musician.

  • ||

    Imagine a morally neutral, affectionate profile of a nostalgic 80-year-old Nazi. It doesn't happen, it wouldn't happen.



    This is the that comes to me when I listen to one of NPR's hymns of praise to some idealist who went to Russia or China in the 30s to aid Stalin or Mao.

  • Brian Carnell||

    "Geez, people. Give the guy a little credit. I say better late than never. Good for Pete to be big enough to admit his mistakes. It is extremely rare in my experience for someone of advanced age to change their opinion about anything, no matter what facts are presented. This shows Pete to be a man of more character than I had supposed. Anyway Seeger's real cardinal sin, in my eyes, will also be that he was one of the people trying to turn off Dylan's band when they went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in '65."

    Um...yeah...this late apology means about as much as it would if David Duke, near the end of his life, comes out and said, "yeah, I guess that Hitler was a cruel misleader after all."

    Plus it still furthers the Left fantasy that the only real problem with the USSR were the individual leaders who corrupted the otherwise pure and progressive Revolution (which is why Seeger can claim with a straight face that Lenin's problem was too much faith in discipline."

    The people failed the Revolution, not vice versa.

  • ||

    Imagine a morally neutral, affectionate profile of a nostalgic 80-year-old Nazi. It doesn't happen, it wouldn't happen.

    My next song is called "He Made The Trains Run On Time (But At What Cost?)" Hope you like it. Don't forget to tip your bartender.

  • ||

    Imagine a morally neutral, affectionate profile of a nostalgic 80-year-old Nazi. It doesn't happen, it wouldn't happen.

    Are you sure about that? Seems to me Leni Riefenstahl got some decent press towards the end. Mussolini fan Ezra Pound is still a well respected, even beloved, poet in many intellectual circles. And Nazi-lover Charles Lindbergh never got as much heat as any of the Stalin lovers.

  • ||

    vanya

    Charles Lindbergh never gave anywhere near as much support to the Nazi regime as any of the Communists of the thirties.

    And first of all though he might have admired the Germans (many Swedes and Swedish immigrants did) he was never a Nazi.

    Even Pound's admirers qualify there admiration by condemning his Fascist leanings.

    This is true of any Fascist or Nazi sympatizer. To be rehabilitated they had to admit the error of their ways.

    Comunists have never been held to that standard.

  • ||

    I kind of get the feeling Seeger isn't really very bright. A phrase like "supremely cruel misleader" just sounds like the phrase of someone who has a basically pre-adolescent view of the world. He thought Stalin was a nice guy, but he was really just a big meanie! Ditto for the capitalized "DISCIPLINE" and that awful singsong "Big Joe Blues" song. I do think "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" is a good song, but I guess that was a fluke.
    Isaac Bartram: Generally true, but with one exception: Ingmar Bergman admitted to having been a Nazi sympathizer during World War II, but no one seemed to care; it was mentioned in hardly any of his obituaries.

  • ||

    I'm not sure I appreciate the way you folks are treating one of America's top war allies.

    Thus my suspicion that Dan T is a fake lefty.

  • ||

    "Supremely cruel" sounds like a condemnation to me.

    And thus continues joe's travels as a Stalin apologist.

    What the hell joe? Why even comment? And in support of anyone who did not denounce Stalin before 1960, let alone someone who waited until 1993 to do it?

  • ||

    "i write the worst fucking poetry you've ever read, including that girl you dated who sold weed."

    She never wrote anything as far as I could tell...in fact i don't really think she did anything...except sell weed and tell me I was a chauvinist.

    Oh wait, she did take a painting class...but stopped after I showed her the "paint" filter in photoshop.

  • Johnny D.||

    Imagine a morally neutral, affectionate profile of a nostalgic 80-year-old Nazi. It doesn't happen, it wouldn't happen. We're still making movies about the crimes of Nazism, a totalitarian regime that lasted 12 years, while you can count on the fingers of one hand the Hollywood movies about the bloody 70-year rule of the Communist Party.

    That is an interesting point, and one I'd love to see addressed by, well, just about anyone.

  • highnumber||

    Whenever someone mentions the Weavers, I think of this song by Naked Raygun.

    Home Of The Brave

    Starin' off in... to the night
    She picks up her dreams and her bags
    "I'm off to a place where life's right"
    Jeanie walks out on the home of the brave

    He picks up his boots from the dust
    Knocks out the dirt on the ground
    Wonders about his life... and he cussed
    Stu wonders what his parents had found

    Broken dreams and promises
    These are the things they have and hold
    A country that even...
    Persecuted the Weavers
    Did you ever see the Weavers?


    Great song. Especially with all the "Whoa-oh-oh"s.

  • SIV||

    Pinochet knew how to handle the folk singers.

  • ||

    Stalin died 54 years ago.

  • ||

    Wonder how long it'll be before that hack Springsteen covers Big Joe Blues...not that I really care.

  • ||

    This is a variant of what my husband and I call the "Wagner Problem" -- how much of an asshole does an artist have to be before the assholery eclipses the art? Obviously, really great talents have more latitude than mediocre ones, so even though he was a world-class jerk, I still like Wagner because his music is as close to sublime as is possible on this plane of existence.

    Applying the balancing test in this case, I have many pleasant and not-stoned memories of singing "If I Had a Hammer" in college, and Seeger's main crime is saying nice things about the Soviets. I don't know of any evidence that anything he did actually furthered the cause. He made idiot speeches and recorded the repulsive "Little Boxes," which is bad, but not so much that it overcomes the good stuff. Besides, I get a warm feeling knowing that it would probably irritate him that someone who rejects his politics likes his music. I feel the same way about Merle Haggard, although I'm sure he and I could have a beer without a problem, while Seeger would think I'm some kind of evil sellout. ("Sing Me Back Home" still makes me cry, even in traffic.)

    For an example of the other kind, where being a jerk completely overwhelms any merits of the "art," I nominate the guy who wrote "On The Road," from a lower-down thread. I have to agree with Truman Capote; that book is typing, not writing.

  • ||

    I have many pleasant and not-stoned memories of singing "If I Had a Hammer"

    You should see "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind".

  • Syloson of Samos||

    Imagine a morally neutral, affectionate profile of a nostalgic 80-year-old Nazi.

    This was the sort of treatment given to Heidegger by many people.

  • Syloson of Samos||

    Not that Heidegger shouldn't be taken seriously.

  • Billy Beck||

    "Geez, people. Give the guy a little credit."

    Are you fucking crazy? That old bastard's fallback touchstone is goddamned Rosa Luxemburg.

    Don't be an idiot.

    To hell with Seeger.

  • Mark Bahner||

    'Supremely cruel' sounds like a condemnation to me.



    And don't forget the "misleader."

    Why, that's even more powerful than "double dumb-ass on you."

  • ||

    Ingmar Bergman admitted to having been a Nazi sympathizer during World War II, but no one seemed to care; it was mentioned in hardly any of his obituaries.



    Well, I mean, he was a Swede.

    For some reason the Swedes have gotten a pass in the whole Nazi-sympathizer deal.

  • ||

    "'Supremely cruel' sounds like a condemnation to me."

    And don't forget the "misleader."

    That's just another example of that deceptive "tight editing" that somebody was complaining about.

  • John Sabotta||

    "Stalin's songbird"

    That Mandelshtam perished and Seeger lived and thrived is one of the great shames of this century.

  • John Sabotta||

    The Stalin Epigram, November 1933

    Stalin Epigram

    We live, but we do not feel the land beneath us,
    Ten steps away and our words cannot be heard,

    And when there are just enough people for half a dialogue,
    Then they remember the Kremlin mountaineer.

    His fat fingers are slimy like slugs,
    And his words are absolute, like grocers' weights.

    His cockroach whiskers are laughing,
    And his boot tops shine.

    And around him the rabble of narrow-necked chiefs -
    He plays with the services of half-men.

    Who warble, or miaow, or moan.
    He alone pushes and prods.

    Decree after decree he hammers them out like horseshoes,
    In the groin, in the forehead, in the brows, or in the eye.

    When he has an execution it's a special treat,
    And the Ossetian chest swells.

    - Osip Mandelstam, slightly preceding P. Seeger

  • Syloson of Samos||

    Isaac Bertram,

    Well, a number of Swedes were instrumental in rescuing Jews in WWII, so not all Swedes were by any means sympathetic to the Nazis. Sweden also took in all the Jewish people that came from Denmark.

  • ||

    Syloson

    Bad joke, actually.

    To their credit most Swedish Nazi-sympathizers lost their enthusiasm as soon as the full extent of Nazi antisemitism became well known. But the same can be said of Nazi-sympathizers in many countries.

    And for many Swedes it was more a matter of being pro-German than it was being pro-Nazi.

    To stress my earlier point though, while former Nazi sympatizers have gone on to be respected for various contributions nobody praises them for their Nazi past.

    Communists are constantly praised for their idealism even by people who think they were mistaken in that "idealism".

  • ||

    This is a variant of what my husband and I call the "Wagner Problem" -- how much of an asshole does an artist have to be before the assholery eclipses the art? Obviously, really great talents have more latitude than mediocre ones, so even though he was a world-class jerk, I still like Wagner because his music is as close to sublime as is possible on this plane of existence.

    The "Wagner problem" is a much greater problem for artists whose ouevre (like most of Seeger's, but unlike that of Wagner himself) is more agitprop than art. Seeger properly catches lots more shit for being a Comsymp than does Picasso for being an actual Party member.

  • ||

    joshua corning | September 5, 2007, 7:47pm | #

    "Supremely cruel" sounds like a condemnation to me.

    And thus continues joe's travels as a Stalin apologist.,/i>

    I suspect joshua corning is a fake righty.

    The above comment is too idiotic to have been written with a straight face.

  • ||

    Here, let me try again. Because it's worth saying twice.

    I suspect that joshua corning is a fake righty, sort of the opposite of Dan T. The above comment is too idiotic to have been written with a straight face.

  • Syloson of Samos||

    Isaac Bertram,

    To stress my earlier point though, while former Nazi sympatizers have gone on to be respected for various contributions nobody praises them for their Nazi past.

    Communists are constantly praised for their idealism even by people who think they were mistaken in that "idealism".


    That seems to be a fair assessment of the issue.

    I should note that in the case of Heidegger that as we find out more about his activities in the 1930s and the 1940s (particularly his activities as university rector) the more it becomes less possible to ignore Heidegger's involvement in the Nazi party.

  • ||

    Syloson of Samos

    It is my impression that the role of the German intelligentsia in promoting Naziism is something that historians are uncovering more and more these days.

  • ||

    No cite to really back that up though. More an impression, for what it's worth.

    Not much, eh? :)

  • ||

    And for many Swedes it was more a matter of being pro-German than it was being pro-Nazi.

    And don't forget that many Swedes sympathized with Finland, which still has a significant Swedish minority population, so they were no fans of the USSR. Hell, if I'd been a Swede in 1940 I certainly would have preferred German domination to Soviet.

  • ||

    vanya

    Good point.

    I really don't mean any of this as a serious criticism of the Swedes. They have longstanding cultural ties to Germany.

    The pro-German feeling is entirely understandable.

    Look, the fact is that the Germans were widely admired for their industry, learning and discipline. For some the early Hitler years just seemed an extension of that.

    But in the end any right thinking person was completely repelled by the blinding insanity of the Nazis' homicidal antisemitism and militarism.

  • dhex||

    This is a variant of what my husband and I call the "Wagner Problem" -- how much of an asshole does an artist have to be before the assholery eclipses the art?

    yeah that's always a pretty decent issue.

    fela kuti and miles davis come to mind. but so does someone like burroughs, whose work i admire very deeply.

  • ||

    Isaac B,

    American Communists were important pioneers in the civil rights movement, women's rights, free speech, the end of the draft, the rights of the accused, opposition to domestic spying, and ending the Vietnam War.

    Name one admirable cause Americann Nazis or fascists have ever contributed to. Just one.

    People have sympathy for the idealism of American communists because American communists actually did good things for this country.

  • ||

    joe

    Plenty of people did good things for this country. Plenty of people worked for all the things you mention without doing while they were lavishing praise on a genocidal tyrant.

    And there are communists who recognized Stalin for what he was and denounced him. People like Pete Seeger didn't.

    But I do take your point that most Communists appear to have been motivated by somewhat high ideals.

    However as American movements Naziism or Fascism have never been anywhere but on the fringe. Hence it hard to point to any kind of accomplishments at all.

  • ||

    And, joe, you don't have to be a Stalinist to support all of the things you listed, including ending the Vietnam War. Although it should be fairly obvious why the Commies would be in favor of that.

    And considering the Communists' record on most of those things once they actually were in power they still don't have much to recommend them.

  • ||

    I've denounced many things FDR did. When are you going to acknowledge that he's not Stalin?



    Here is the sticky question for you joe: Do you think FDR was a good president, overall?

    Name one admirable cause Americann Nazis or fascists have ever contributed to. Just one.



    You realize that the Communists provided support and training for Nazis and fascists throughout U.S. history.

    I read an authorized biography of Orson Wells not too long ago, and was supprised to learn that the Communist Party in New York in the 1930s tried to assassinate Orson Wells for speaking out against Nazism, because they felt it endangered the non-agression pact between the USSR and Germany. Fortunatly he survived long enough for Germany to invade Russia, but at least one Commie managed to take a shot at Orson (the gunman was then disarmed and beat up by one of the actors from a play they were working on).

    Also, the former head of the KGB U.S. branch insists to this day that the KGB assasinated MLK, as well as provided material support for white supremacist groups in the U.S. (The idea was to instigate a race war, and thus disrupt the U.S. economy/government). FBI documents at the time confirm that the FBI suspected white supremacist groups of recieving support from Communists.

    So really, the line between the Communists and the Nazis and Fascists are quite blurred. Both were working quite closely from the 1930s on in the United States.

    American Communists were important pioneers in the civil rights movement, women's rights, free speech, the end of the draft, the rights of the accused, opposition to domestic spying, and ending the Vietnam War.



    Communists claim credit for being "important pioneers" in those issues, but a common Communist tactic is to attach their agenda to pre-existing popular agendas of the day despite their being almost no connection. And in the case of civil rights, for sure Soviet directed Communists were trying to sabatoge the civil rights movement.

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