The death of Pete Seeger, and the outpouring of tributes that have accompanied it, has inevitably led to some reconsiderations of the legacy of the American Communist movement – that is, the Communist Party USA and its larger sphere of influence, the so-called “Popular Front,” in the 1930s and 1940s. Seeger had few, if any rivals as the most widely known personal legacy of that movement. Yet his relationship to it was more complex and less damning than some have realized.
When he left the Communist Party in 1950, it was undoubtedly less a principled decision than to advance the career prospects of what would be his most successful group, The Weavers. Yet however unsatisfactory his second thoughts may have been, by the peak of his fame in the 1960s and 1970s he was clearly his own man. All Americans should be forever grateful for Seeger’s efforts to clean up the Hudson River, which in the book of life should far outweigh his quite small role in furtherance of the political evil that defined the 20th century. Instructive is the contrast with his mentor Woody Guthrie, a more gifted artist and poet despite his turgid aesthetic, who remained a devout party member until his death in 1967.
In the Atlantic, David Graham is more right than wrong to explain the quintessentially American roots of the American Communist experience, which is not, of course, to deny that the movement was first and foremost an instrument of Soviet foreign policy. But in many ways it is that very reality, and what it reveals about American politics both past and present, that is overlooked in the moral grandstanding on both the left and the right regarding the legacy of both Communism and anti-Communism.
Perhaps nowhere is this more shockingly on display than in the column by Bhaskar Sunkara, “In Defense of Pete Seeger: American Communist.” The founder of Jacobin magazine, widely seen even by some conservatives as a fresh and engaging outlet of Marxist thought and analysis, Sunkara proves to be nothing of the sort, repeating some of the most brazen and preposterous myths about American Communism, in almost every particular asserting the very opposite of the truth.
Probably the most widely accepted of these myths in our day was that the Communist Party “represented the earliest and most fervent supporters of civil rights.” To the contrary, the Communists only began recruiting significant numbers of African-Americans at the tail end of their 1930s heyday, most of them rather conservative, disillusioned NAACP Republicans. The direct organizational forefathers of the civil rights movement were in the bitterly anti-Communist Socialist Party, most notably A. Philip Randolph, who launched the first “March on Washington” movement in the 1940s.
Opposing the principal objective of the Popular Front – getting the United States to enter and fight the Soviet Union’s war in Europe – Randolph was a founder of the Socialist-led Keep America Out of War Congress in 1938. Though he resigned in early 1941 to lead the March on Washington Movement, right up until Pearl Harbor the Congress counted among its leaders James Farmer, Randolph’s young protégé who became a major civil rights leader in the 1960s. Farmer was also supported in that lost cause by two of Randolph’s earliest collaborators, George Schuyler and Ashley Totten. It is a tragedy and a scandal that rather than these unmistakable and unmistakably radical roots of the civil rights movement, many would locate them in such Communist figures as Paul Robeson, whose frank Stalinist apologetics bore no substantive relationship to the actual struggle for civil rights.
Sunkara insists that “stateside Communists were the underdogs, the victims of censorship and police repression, not its perpetrators.” Quite the contrary, to put it politely. As early as the Moscow Trials of 1937-38, supporters of the defendants and other opponents of the new warmongering line of “collective security” were ruthlessly abused and purged by Popular Front operatives at such redoubts as The Nation and the New York Times. Before the McCarthy-era Hollywood blacklist was the pre-Pearl Harbor blacklist of such anti-interventionists as Lillian Gish and Morrie Ryskind. And before the leaders of the Communist Party itself were convicted under it in 1949, they were the biggest cheerleaders for Smith Act prosecutions, from the successful case against the Trotskyists in 1942 to the unsuccessful case against assorted right-wingers in 1944. Indeed, long-time party leader Israel Amter bluntly advised regarding all wartime critics of FDR, “Let us rather adopt the methods of the Soviet Union.”
Even the Communist point of pride in being at the forefront of the drive for industrial unionism in the late 1930s is highly problematic. The quintessential Communist-led union, the United Electrical Workers, was essentially a company union of General Electric, whose president, Gerard Swope, had a New Deal-aligned vision denounced by Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas as “a complete denial of the bases of the old capitalism, but it set up instead a capitalist syndicalism still operated for profit, a scheme which in essence is fascist.” The Communists effectively served as enforcers for CIO leaders John L. Lewis and Sidney Hillman to toe the New Deal line, while it was the ostensible “right wing” of the CIO, led by Homer Martin and David Dubinsky, who remained in favor of forming a Labor Party after 1936.
Labor movement Communists were also, naturally, the most zealous enforcers of the wartime no-strike pledge, and thus deeply complicit in the little-known reality that there were more American casualties on war industry shop floors on the home front than on the battlefield. African-Americans were disproportionately affected by this, and their protests within their unions were far from the only wartime black protest movement angrily opposed by the Communist Party, further accentuating the sickening irony that it is seen by so many as having been in a vanguard role for civil rights.
In short, it is deeply scandalous that the Communist Party USA and its fellow travelers constitute so much of what American history remembers as “radicalism.” There is, of course, the matter of the tens of millions killed by Josef Stalin and the yet larger number killed by Mao Tse Tung. But seldom has the designation of American Communism as a radical movement been properly challenged. At the height of its power and influence, the Communist Party was militant in its defense of the Roosevelt administration, and particularly aggressive enforcing its line in the labor movement. Bitterly opposed to independent political action, they rarely if ever shied away from calling for Soviet-style repression of their opponents.