03 February 2014

Remembering Pete Seeger

I like to say I'm more conservative than Goldwater. He just wanted to turn the clock back to when there was no income tax. I want to turn the clock back to when people lived in small villages and took care of each other.

On the 27th of January, the world lost a great man, and, more importantly, a very good one: Pete Seeger of folk music fame. His songs were part of the world that I grew up in, of the music my parents listened to, and probably as much as anything else instrumental in turning me toward my eclectic blend of old-style conservative and populist politics. His Christmas album was a Cooper family staple during Advent. There was a time when his Precious Friend album with Arlo Guthrie was on non-stop rotation in my CD player – I loved each and every one of these quirky, socially-tinged folk tunes, every one of the anecdotes, and got to the point where I could quote them from memory. His story of how the Hudson River got cleaned up largely through the efforts of volunteers he inspired by sailing up and down the place on the Clearwater, his gracious but unflinching resistance to the HUAC in the ‘50’s, his engagements with the labour rights movement and with the Civil Rights movement; all were those sorts of things that couldn’t help but rivet my early-teenage imagination.

Seeger’s unapologetic communism was actually one of the things which shaped my own sympathies with Marxist thought, one which lasted from middle school up until my last year at college (when my senior project advisor led me to read Sandel, MacIntyre, Bellah, Honneth and a number of other post-Marxist authors, whom I ultimately found more convincing than Marx himself). And it is one of the things which I can’t help but remain sympathetic with, in spite of having rejected Marx. Those who seek to condemn Seeger for his support of Stalin during the ‘40’s are in some very important ways missing the point. Seeger was an idealist who saw in the Soviet Union an extension of the promise that the little guy wasn’t doomed to be forever trampled underfoot, and one who had a healthy in-built distrust of those in his own country with power and authority. This did lead him to some very wrong conclusions about the nature of Stalin’s role in the Soviet experiment, but there are several things which do heavily ameliorate his record on this point.

These are covered admirably in Amir Azarvan’s blog post remembering Pete Seeger: he officially quit the CPUSA in 1950, supported the anti-Soviet Solidarity movement in Poland in ‘82 and wrote the highly critical anti-Stalinist song ‘Big Joe Blues’. It seems he had been given the grace to, as we say in the Orthodox Church, ‘see his own faults, and not to judge his brothers and sisters’. Dr Azarvan did note that Seeger was, sadly, pro-abortion rights – though that does fit with his progressive stance on most other things, it does seem to run counter to his otherwise unstinting support for the (in this case, literal) ‘little guy’, and he extends the hope that perhaps Seeger would have, given more time, turned from his support of this cause as he turned away from the Soviets.

But it cannot be denied that the man was a musical force – there is no better way to put it – and he left his mark upon millions. Including me. A real mensch, in the best sense of the word.

Memory eternal.


  1. Great post. Perhaps Seeger did not know about the extent of Stalin’s crimes at the time? I think this is an interesting point about historical communism. Communism is, on its face, a pro-human, progressive ideology. Its implementation, however, has often been very violent and oppressive and much of this is likely due to the nature of Marxism and Marxism-Leninism in particular.

    I still find it odd how some on the left hold on to Marxism-Leninism when it has been shown to not only be rather violent and cruel to the very people it is supposed to help, but it has a bad track record of “revolution from above” by party elites followed by a transition to gangster capitalism. No thanks.

  2. Thanks for the comment, John! Yes, indeed. I think David is right that the greatest standing rebuke to Marxist ideology is that it actually took hold in societies which were at the time some of the least-industrialised in the world - Russia, China, Korea, the Caribbean - and practically nowhere else.

    What we still need on the left is something like a Tolstoian sensibility that doesn't get snookered by the false eschatology of violent revolution or the equally-false eschatology of parliamentary pandering. That may be a good topic for another blog post, actually!

  3. Aye, there is the false eschatology of Marxism -- the notion that we have actually "arrived", and that anyone who fails to see that is either a malicious counter-revolutionary or insane.

    But I digress. As a friend of mine put it, here in South Africa Pete Seeger gave us the aural wallpaper for the freedom struggle.

  4. Seeger was a typical Volvo voter, from a privileged background who never got called on his stupidities.
    He also had a mediocre voice and was only a decent banjo player. Completely forgettable, except as some sort of mascot for aging hippies.

  5. Thanks for the comment, Steve! I do like that allusion 'aural wallpaper'; it gives Seeger credit for inspiration without necessarily overstating his contributions to a specific movement!

    Stan, I think the point was that he called himself on his own stupidities, as with 'Big Joe Blues'. And obviously he wasn't 'completely forgettable', given the tributes that have come in from news outlets left, right and centre.