Tuesday, October 09, 2007

An open letter to Pete Seeger: About your Stalin song

Dear Pete:
    Adulation, denigration:
    They're two sides of the very same coin.
    Both a con to keep you under,
    Both a trick to do you down.

      History's made by human people,
      praise the good and love the small.
      One man can accomplish nothing,
      many make the tyrants fall.

I wrote those words back in 1990, towards the end of my song, Djugashvili, in which, like your recent song, The Big Joe Blues, I sought to come to terms with the undoubted crimes committed in the USSR during the Stalin era. Reading about your song in the New Statesman (and subsequently in another article in the online New York Times) has caused me to revisit my own song. I am now planning to perform it next month, in the Raise Your Banners political song festival here in Bradford, probably along with my version of Woody’s Jesus Christ song. (I’ve appended the text of Djugashvili at the end of this letter; the tune is adapted from Dock Boggs’ Coocoo Bird).
Here is a comment I appended to the New Statesman online article about your song:
    “I am saddened by Seeger's song. Not because the horrors it documents are not true, but because by personalising them in the shape of Stalin, he actually absolves from guilt the apparatchiki who sent people to the gulags. It should be remembered that Khrushchev, whose speech to the 20th CPSU Congress began the process of the demonisation of Stalin (a denunciation, we should always remember, which was circulated by the United States Information Service who rightly saw it as a valuable weapon in the Cold War), that same Khrushchev presided over the famine in the Ukraine. When Stalin died, Khrushchev crowed: The mice have got rid of the cat. What do we think he meant by that?
    “The way in which Stalin attempted to protect artists like Bulgakov, Mandelstam and Pasternak from the Politburo bureaucrats is well documented.
    “After the fall of Nazism, attempts to blame the Holocaust solely upon Hitler were rightly recognised as attempts to evade responsibility for their part in it; those who try to suggest the gulags were the sole responsibility of Stalin are playing the same role.
    “When Stalin's death was announced, many of his ‘victims’ in the gulags wept. They did not blame him for their incarceration. Do we, and my old friend Pete, presume to be wiser than they?”

Of course, I have only seen some of the words of your song. We both know that, when divorced from their melody, many songs don’t read well on the page. I have searched on the Internet but cannot find it. Has it been recorded? I might even sing it alongside my own song, rather in the spirit of Brecht’s two contradictory plays, Der Jasager and Der Neinsager, in which he left it to the audience to decide which had the more preferable outcome. As Bob Dylan famously said: “I can’t think for you; you’ve got to decide.”.
The words as published in the New Statesman go as follows:
    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.

I’m not sure how that stacks up against Woody’s criteria:
    “I hate a song that makes you think you're not any good! I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are either too old or too young or too fat or too thin or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or songs that poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or your hard travelling.
    “I am out to fight those kind of songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood.
    “I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world, and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter how hard it's run you down and rolled over you, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work. And the songs I sing are made up for the most part by all sorts of folks just about like you.”

I have no problem, of course, with tendentious or politically slanted songs. I have written many myself. Some have been political ephemera, composed on this march or during that campaign, and deservedly forgotten. In the end, as performers, our sole criterion must surely be: Is it an effective song? Does it address concerns that are uttermost in people’s minds right now? If it is about struggle (or, more relevantly, in this context, defeat) does it strengthen us or weaken us in our resolve?
Assuming that we can blame one man for crimes committed across a sixth of the world’s surface, can it be true that he put an end to all our dreams? Yes, I know many ran screaming out of the room when Khrushchev denounced his old boss, more when the same Mr K also sent the tanks into Budapest. But you didn’t. And I didn’t. So I find myself asking: Why now? Has your dream died within you? I cannot believe that. I will not believe that. Like Joe Hill in the song (and Jesus in the prayers of millions across the world) those dreams never died. In the words of the other Dylan, “death shall have no dominion”.
When I was a young tyro agitator in the Young Communist League, I was often criticised by older comrades for refusing to believe Stalin was a god. After the 20th Congress of the CPSU, the same people (the very same!) criticised me for refusing to believe he could have been a devil. Many of those people, like the “Communist” leaders of Britain’s Electrical Trades Union (who had tried to stop me singing at their trade union college because of my political “unreliability”) went on to become red-baiting anti-leftists, operating blacklists in the union they continued to control in the same, anti-democratic manner as before.
I appreciate that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (Santayana; Marx quoted Hegel in similar terms, adding “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce”). Re-evaluating historical figures can play an important contemporary role; similarly, criticising hagiography can equip us to avoid similar “cults of the personality” in future. But this does not mean we should refrain from honouring those (Joe Hill, Martin Luther King, Che Guevara, Paul Robeson, yes and also Stalin and Mao, and even yourself) who have made considerable contributions to human progress. Stigmatising them, or seeing them as wholly good or wholly bad runs against everything we know about human nature. As Brecht says of Galileo, his great anti-hero, we cannot expect to only praise or only condemn them. The most considered evaluation of Stalin came from Mao, who described him as “30 per cent wrong and 70 per cent correct” (at the same time, he described the level of understanding in the Chinese Communist Party as “30 per cent know-how, and 70 per cent ignorance”, that “in the area of literature and art, the advantage lies outside the Communist Party”; would that the great principle of such self-criticism had not perished inside the left).
In his song, The Ballad of Stalin, Ewan MacColl tried (unsuccessfully, to my mind) to equate Stalin with ballad heroes like John Henry and Ewan’s own “Big Hewer” in his radio ballad of the same name:
    “There was a range of mountains that was standing in the way
    So Stalin put his hand out and he smoothed them all away;
    For Joe he was determined to make the land all green
    And that’s the biggest project that the world has ever seen.”

(A rather self-conscious echo there, in the last line of every verse, of Woody’s Great Historical Bum.) It is not perhaps irrelevant that this particular verse refers to what turned out to be an ecological disaster. But then the same could be said, perhaps, of Woody’s encomia to projects like the Grand Coulee Dam.
And is not your own “He ruled with an iron hand” reminiscent of Ewan’s “Stalin put his hand out”? I think Alex Comfort’s lyric is appropriate here:
    One man's hands can't break a prison down,
    Two men's hands can't break a prison down,
    But if two and two and fifty make a million,
    We'll see that day come round,
    We'll see that day come round.

I believe that it takes more than one man's hands, also, to organise the sort of tyranny associated now with Stalin's name.
One problem with Ewan’s Stalin ballad is that it is out of touch with the healthy scepticism of our native traditions. It’s true, that during the demob strikes of British troops at the end of World War II, one of their slogans was “Joe for king and Pollitt” (Harry, general secretary of the CP) “for Pope”. And armourers chalked “This one’s for Joe” on the bombs they were loading into the bomb-bays of British bombers going to attack Berlin. But a more typical British reaction against hero worship came when volunteers on youth brigades in Yugoslavia encountered the following Serbian lyric about Tito: “Druje Tito, oy, Druji Tito/Lyublicici byela" (“Comrade Tito, oy, comrade Tito,/Our little white violet”), to which the Trecu Engleska Brigada responded: “Harry Pollitt, oi, Harry Pollitt,/Our little red geranium” or (less politically correct), “Mary Gibson, oi, Mary Gibson,/Burnt the stew last Tuesday”.
You are quoted as wondering what Woody would have said about Stalin. Well, we do know, from his memorial to FDR:
    “He (Roosevelt) said he didn’t like De Gaulle, nor no Chiang Kai Check (sic):
    Shook hands with Joseph Stalin, says: ‘There’s a man I like’.”
    (Dear Mrs Roosevelt)

This song, incidentally, presents a rather sanitised version of Roosevelt’s life. He was, after all, the president whose administration set up the machinery used by the FBI and the CIA to persecute the left and assassinate the Rosenbergs. Rather more realistic is Woody’s song from the phoney war period, Why do you stand there in the rain?, urging FDR not to send military aid to Finland, a country which later became a base for the Nazi attack on the USSR, which his record company refused to put out and which isn’t in the Essex Music collection of Woody Guthrie Folk Songs in my archive. (It’s not in the online archive of Woody lyrics either.)
I return to my early question: why this song, and why now? Are we more guilty of what Khrushchev called “the cult of personality” (while building up a similar cult around himself) today than we were then? The only living leader we are tempted these days to eulogise is Fidel. (Frankly, I have no problem with that. It is preferable to the way the faceless leaders on the Chinese CP are leading their country down the capitalist road Mao warned against.) But, as I have written elsewhere (and as the lyric I quote at the outset of this letter indicates) demonisation is the same process working in reverse, as “a con to keep you under, . . . a trick to do you down”.
In Britain, the excoriation of Margaret Thatcher as “the iron lady” helped to perpetuate her power, compared with the reality of her indecision and petulance in the face of any opposition - demonstrated by her acquiescence in the American invasion of the British territory of Grenada. Today, representation of George W. Bush as a bumbling idiot serves a similar function, concealing the true face of an astute politician whom we under-estimate at our peril.
We need to remember Lenin’s words, in his article, "The Political Significance of Abuse": "Abuse in politics often covers up the utter lack of ideological content, the helplessness and the impotence, the annoying impotence of the abuser."
A song today about Stalin (or, indeed any other hero, all of whom inevitably stand upon feet of clay) would serve a useful purpose if, in the words of The Who rock group, it declared: “We won’t get fooled again.” (Of course, we will, but if we follow Dylan’s advice, “Don’t follow leaders/Watch for parking meters”, we might be better able to resist the temptation.)

Yours in musical comradeship,


The song Djugashvili

Tune: adapted from Coocoo Bird
(Dock Boggs, American traditional)

Iosif Vissarionovich Djugashvili, nicknamed Stalin
Born Gori, Georgia, December 21, 1879,
murdered, Kunstevo, Moscow, March 5, 1953

Djugashvili, born a Georgian,
son of a cobbler, man of steel.
Djugashvili, trained for priesthood,
but he would not buy their deal.
    Djugashvili was a rebel,
    sent to exile in the east.
    But no prison bars could hold him:
    Djugashvili was released
by his comrades in the struggle
as the armies went to war.
Now the people called him Stalin,
knew what he was fighting for.
    Djugashvili, tried and tested,
    steel that's tempered in the flame.
    Yanks and Germans, Japs and British
    put a price upon his name.
Thirteen armies on the borders
tried to crush the people's power.
But the people under Lenin
threw them back each bloody hour.
    Millions starving in the country,
    rich men's barns were full of grain:
    Djugashvili and the people
    dispossessed them, broke their reign.
Peasants learnt to drive the tractors,
worked together, hand in hand,
made the fields a golden harvest,
fed and prospered all the land.
    In the cities, all the factories
    turning out by day and night
    not the goods the people wanted
    but the weapons for the fight.
Western bosses, men of money,
saw the coming of their doom,
started building up a puppet,
kill the baby in the womb.
    But the puppet was a monster,
    turned upon the puppeteers:
    Hitler built a mighty army,
    clouds of war were drawing near.

Djugashvili tried to warn them
but the danger was ignored.
So he traded with the devil,
bought some time, prepared for war.
    Now had come the time of torment,
    Mother Russia stood alone.
    People's terror fought with terror,
    innocents were stricken down.

Many revolutionaries,
loyal to their final breath,
and the leaders of the army,
treacherously were done to death.
    Hitler launched his deadly panzers
    which had conquered in the west:
    Djugashvili led the fight back,
    Soviet people passed the test.

When the Russians and their allies
raised their flags above Berlin,
once again they spoke of friendship
and the peace that they would win.
    Winston Churchill and the Yankees
    started plotting World War Three.
    Soon a wall divided Europe
    no one spoke of unity.

Djugashvili died one morning
in the year of fifty three
and throughout the world the people
wept to hear the news that day.
    Now today it is too easy,
    pointing fingers, calling names,
    at the life of men like Stalin:
    history apportions blame.

Did you live through times of torment,
did you have to stand alone?
Could you take the hard decisions,
could you win what Stalin won?
    Djugashvili was a giant
    though a man like me and you,
    made mistakes, but built a nation,
    saved us all in World War Two.

Now the pygmies follow after,
try to slander what he did.
They have wrecked the work he started,
opened up the gates of greed.
    But the truth cannot be silenced
    and the people's wrath will grow.
    Then the world will stand in memory
    of the one called Uncle Joe.

Adulation, denigration:
They're two sides of the very same coin.
Both a con to keep you under,
Both a trick to do you down.
    History's made by human people,
    praise the good and love the small.
    One man can accomplish nothing,
    many make the tyrants fall.

Djugashvili, born a Georgian,
son of a cobbler, man of steel.
Now the people call him Stalin,
what we struggle for is real.

    London/Bradford, November 27/28, 1990
    (inspired by the Ewan MacColl commemoration, The Red Megaphone)
    Tune adaptation and words © Copyright 1990 Karl Dallas/EMI Music


  1. My impression is that in the United States, media celebrities are not really allowed to express the more politically and morally balanced evaluation of what happened in the USSR before 1956 that your great folk song expresses--since it might raise questions about the U.S. corporate media's continued assertion that the U.S. society is "a democratic society" while "Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany were equally totalitarian."


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