When the legendary folk singer Pete Seeger passed away Monday at the age of ninety-four, remembrances of him unsurprisingly focused less on his music and more 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 Pete 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 twentieth 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 counter-intuitive as it may sound, time after time American communists such as Seeger were on the right side of history — and through their leadership, they encouraged others to join them there.