Pete Seeger: UnAmerican, Communist, and a People’s Songster

By Saswat Pattanayak

 Pete Seeger was not the “American conscience”, as he is being now crowned by the corporate media after his demise. In reality, he was the UnAmerican conscience. And to understand this, it is important to underscore the extent of his internationalism, his commitment towards humanity, his selfless unpatriotic journey as a fervent communist, his lifelong quest against American militarism, adventurism and exceptionalism. Most importantly, to use history as a weapon in the class struggle, as Pete used music as his tool, it is pivotal to not let go of the “unAmerican” label that was imposed upon him by the American power, because he was perceived to be a communist, when in August 1955, he was summoned before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and he refused to testify against his comrades or to pass on any information regarding the Communist Party that could help implicate any office-bearer of the party.

Saswat Pattanayak with Pete Seeger (Photo: Amrita Misra) Saswat Pattanayak with Pete Seeger (Photo: Amrita Misra)

Unlike many entertainers and intellectuals who gave in to the peer pressures or social benefits, Seeger always stood by his old comrades. Disregarding his own health and limitations, when he arrived at the Tamiment Library of New York University on October 28, 2006 to express his appreciations for African-American civil rights activists James and Esther Jackson at a symposium titled, “James and Esther Jackson, the American Left and the Origins of the Modern Civil Rights Movement”, I had my first privileged opportunity to meet him. What struck me instantly was how humble and accessible a public personality he indeed was, when  he took time out for an exclusive chat with Amrita, where he showered praises on India. What also struck me from his outward appearance was that he not only sang for the working class, he also belonged to the masses. There was not a whiff of elitism about him, not a remote chance of him being perceived as a celebrity. For the few more times that I got to see him after that day, I always noticed him wearing the same shirt, or something quite similar. Nothing fancy about his outfits at all. The only other constant was the way he made sure to engage the audience in the songs he sang. Even a stage appearance for him was an occasion for revolutionary potential. He was a legendary musician, possibly the greatest in his genre; and yet he was not surrounded by bodyguards. Difficult to imagine such a public personality in our contemporary celebrity culture. Maybe because, he never lived a pretentious life boasting extraordinary lifestyles that most celebrities possess today.

Saswat Pattanayak with Pete Seeger (Photo: Amrita Misra) Saswat Pattanayak with Pete Seeger (Photo: Amrita Misra)

The last time I got to see Seeger was at a solidarity event for the imprisoned Native American activist Leonard Peltier, on December 14, 2012. It was a sobering occasion, and Seeger dedicated profound emotions for Peltier. Not only was he used to stand up for the rights of the marginalized and oppressed people of color, he also always expressed his desire for greater racial diversity. In recommending the same for the US Flag, he once wrote:

“My blue is good, the color of the sky.

The stars are good for ideals, oh, so high.

Seven stripes of red are strong to meet all danger;

But those white stripes: they, they need some changing.

I need also some stripes of deep, rich brown,

And some of tan and black, then all around.”

Pete Seeger in support of Leonard Peltier (Photo: Saswat Pattanayak) Pete Seeger in support of Leonard Peltier (Photo: Saswat Pattanayak)

Seeger’s refusal to cooperate with the American ruling class was not one of his own design. He always recognized his stake in being identified as an American.  He never denied the privileges he enjoyed as a white male in America whose “light-skinned ancestors participated fully in the decisions, good and bad, which formed this nation.” And yet, he also acknowledged that it was the stench emanating from American pride that was repulsive to him. He wrote in 1969:

“At midnight in a flaming angry town

I saw my country’s flag lying torn upon the ground.

I ran in and dodged among the crowd,

And scooped it up, and scampered out to safety…

And then I took this striped old piece of cloth

And tried my best to wash the garbage off.

But I found it had been used to wrapping lies.

It smelled and stank and attracted all the flies.”

The lies and deceptions characterizing American hegemony had formed the impetus for revolutionary music that went back to search for answers in the folk traditions. As a key figure in the movement, Pete Seeger relentlessly championed the causes of the oppressed through his emphasis on proletarian music. During the 1930s and 1940s, whereas the political struggles of the Communists suffered owing to sectarianism from within the movement and repression from outside, their cultural journey – firmly founded by the likes of “Joe Hill” and “Hammer Song”, never really subsided. It merely transformed itself into even more radical positions. As a result, 1946-1949 marked the period of People’s Songs, Inc., which provided the crucial glimpse into the potential of cultural workers in American communism. With Paul Robeson in its Board of Sponsors, People’s Songs had clear goals of pursuing the path of socialist realism. In March 1946, People’s Songs elected a national board of directors which included Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Alan Lomax, Bess Hawes, Lee Hays, Millard Lampell, Walter Lowenfels, Felix Landau, Earl Robinson, Benjamin Botkin, Tom Glazer, Waldemar Hille, among others. For all the three years until People’s Songs dissolved, Pete Seeger remained its national director. People’s Songs was followed by People’s Artists and the Weavers – both communist folk collectives, and they continued the tradition of the Old Left through the sixties.

Seeger’s songs were far from merely “protest music”. They were radical communist verses, calling for uncompromising class wars, infused with boundless optimism for a new progressive era that the working class must usher in. Along with Lee Hays, Seeger wrote in 1949:

“O, comrades, come and travel on with me,

We’ll go to our new year of liberty.

Come, walk upright, along the people’s way,

From darkness, unto the people’s day.

From dark, to sunlit day.

Tomorrow is a highway broad and fair

And hate and greed shall never travel there

But only they who’ve learned the peaceful way

Of brotherhood, to greet the coming day.

We hail the coming day.”

What the People’s Songs under Seeger had achieved was remarkable and unique in the context of American history. They strove to collect and preserve American folk materials with the aim of disseminating progressive values. This vision was made possible upon their visits to Soviet Union where American artists witnessed first-hand how the socialist state was providing institutional supports to sustain and nurture cultural roots. Pete Seeger himself had been to Soviet Union to verify the fruits of revolution, first hand. In his recollections at a later stage, he once wrote, “What I saw in the Asian republics of the USSR was a great satisfaction to me. I think it proves that Kipling was wrong when he said East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet. He was wrong, it’s not true, they can meet. And let’s hope that in the world to come they’ll be meeting more and more…. I was surprised by the bright-colored clothing that Soviet people wore. In America I was often told that Russia is a drab country, that everybody dresses in browns and blacks because they’re scared of wearing anything bright. Walking down the average Soviet street, you see the brightest colors you ever saw: reds, yellows, greens, blues, purples, pinks, sometimes all on top of each other. We saw a young man in the Frunze airport with a green hat, a purple jacket, and a red suitcase – bright, all of them, bright….Now it’s perfectly true that the average Soviet citizen can’t, as yet, afford the many luxuries the average American can. The average food on their table is not as fancy. So I was happy to note that even though Russia doesn’t have the stores overflowing with different commodities that American cities have, neither does it have the slums. This is important to me because, while I love my own country, I must confess that there’s not a city I can go to where, in parts of the town, the streets are not littered with trash, the houses are unpainted and dilapidated, and the people live with a sense of demoralization and lack of hope because they think there’s no chance for them ever to get ahead.”

Progressive American artists upon returns from the USSR had helped create the Federal Arts Project which found governmental support in the US not only in archiving and enriching historical materials, but also for the first time, in ensuring that American artists too, like their Soviet counterparts, received compensations for their works which was to be recognized as necessary contributions to society. The WPA Arts Project helped in distribution of folk music, and the group comprised Charles Seeger, Earl Robinson and Herbert Haufrecht. Charles Seeger was the father of Pete Seeger.

Charles Seeger was the founding member of the communist cultural group of the 1930s: Composers Collective, which was an offshoot of Pierre Degeyter Club of New York City – named after the French composer of “Internationale”. Composers Collective was just about as radical as it could get. Their foreword proclaimed:

“Music Penetrates Everywhere

It Carries Words With It

It Fixes Them In the Mind

It Graves Them In the Heart

Music is a Weapon in the Class Struggle.”

Music was indeed a weapon in the hands of Composers Collective – an unpolished, unsophisticated group that was musically catering to the masses, and therefore revolutionary in every sense. According to Charles Seeger, “proletarian music was defined by its militance in text and tune and by its association with the working class.” The collective drew inspiration from a German revolutionary composer Hanns Eisler whose songs were sung by untrained workers on mass marches. The only reason the Composers Collective could embrace specific m
usical legacies, especially of folk, was because of their reliance on the “Mighty Five” Russian composers –  Mussorgsky, Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, and Rimsky-Korsakov. The communists were Americans, and the Americans the communists in the Composers Collective, which gave way to later radical formations, Almanac Singers and People’s Songs. And Charles Seeger’s son Pete Seeger was to carry the burden forward to enlighten, agitate and entertain. He wrote:

“If a revolution comes to my country

Let me remember now

Old dollar bill, you won’t mean much

I better learn right now

What in life has true value

And, oh, if we’d only learn to share

There’d be no more need for revolution

Oh, hear the thunder. . .”

Ably aiding Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger was Alan Lomax who was serving as director of the Archive of American Folks Songs in the Library of Congress. Lomax helped Guthrie, Seeger, Josh White, Burl Ives, and Leadbelly perform across cities and to bring folk music back to the folks, in a progressive, emancipatory  package. Lawrence Gellert’s “Negro Songs of Protest” also helped chronicle the specific plights of black workers in a labor movement that was complicated by race relations. The slogan of the Popular Front during FDR’s time, “Communism is twentieth century Americanism” was inspired by Stalin’s prescription for Soviet Union where nationalism and communism intersected in useful ways. Socialist realism informed American folk musical traditions to the extent that Charles Seeger set standards to judge music: “The main question, should not be ‘is it good music?’ but ‘what is the music good for’?”

Being Charles Seeger’s son, Pete Seeger was not only introduced to the rich traditions of folk music that informed American history, but also to the immense radical possibilities that communism had to offer. Seeger joined the Young Communist League at Harvard in 1937 and decided against becoming a journalist since he refused to make compromises on political fronts. His association with Popular Front during Earl Browder’s leadership of CPUSA remained unflinching. Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie supported the Communist Party’s decisions all the way, including at the most controversial of times, when FDR was addressing American Youth Congress to favor aid for Finland to fight the Soviet Union. Guthrie ridiculed FDR with “Why do you stand there in the rain?” Both of them, along with Lee Hays, Millard Lampell and John Peter Hawes, were part of the Almanac Singers. As unrepentant communists, they vociferously attacked Roosevelt when the communists adopted an anti-war position, and urged him later on to extend support to Soviet Union as an important ally. Here is a stanza that describes FDR as a warmonger prior to Germany’s attack on Soviet Union:

“Oh Franklin Roosevelt told the people how he felt

We damned near believed what he said

He said, “I hate war — and so does Eleanor,

But we won’t be safe till everybody’s dead.”

Comparing FDR to bankers and militarists, Seeger further wrote,

“Franklin D., listen to me

You ain’t gonna send me ‘cross the sea.

‘Cross the sea, ‘cross the sea

You ain’t gonna send me ‘cross the sea.

You may say it’s for defense

But that kinda talk that I’m against.

I’m against, I’m against,

That kinda talk ain’t got no sense.

Wendell Wilkie and Franklin D.,

Seems to me they both agree,

Both agree, both agree,

Both agree on killin’ me.”

After Germany attacked the Soviet Union, the communists needed wartime organizing, and the Almanacs supported the war efforts in no uncertain terms:

“The butcher, the baker, the tinker and the tailor

Will all work behind the soldier and the sailor —

We’re working in the cities, we’re working in the woods

And we’ll all work together, to deliver the goods.”

Seeger was never to mince words and he never did, regardless of shifting political positions –

“Now Mr. President, we haven’t always agreed in the past, I know,

But that ain’t at all important, now,

What is important is what we got to do,

We got to lick Mr. Hitler, and when we’re through,

Let no one else ever take his place,

To trample down the human race.

So what I want is you to give me a gun,

So we can hurry up and get the job done.”

Pete Seeger in support of Leonard Peltier (Photo: Saswat Pattanayak) Pete Seeger in support of Leonard Peltier (Photo: Saswat Pattanayak)

It is important to note that Seeger was not driven by pacifism or any spiritual notion of universal peace. For him, peace was an active process needing persistent political efforts towards combating fascism in every creative way possible; and therefore to institute peace, if there was a requirement to turn his music into a weapon, he never hesitated to sing pro-war anthems. With Guthrie’s guitar machine “killing the Fascists”, Seeger joined him and Lampell in expressing their collective hatred towards Hitler in this telling stanza of 1941:

“I wish I had a bushel,

I wish I had a peck,

I wish I had a rope to tie

Around old Hitler’s neck.

Hitler went to Russia

In search of Russian oil,

But the only oil he’ll find there

Is a pot in which he’ll boil.”

Because the American press worked overtime to expose the contradictions in CPUSA stands, and since raid-baiting was a stark reality, Seeger wrote “Talking Unions” to clarify Almanacs’ position –

“Now, you have come to the hardest time;

The boss will try to bust your pocket line.

He’ll call out the police, the National Guard;

They’ll tell you it’s a crime to have a union card.

They’ll raid your meeting, hit you on the head.

Call every one of you a goddamn Red –

Unpatriotic – Moscow agents –

Bomb throwers, even the kids.

But out in Detroit here’s what they found,

And out in Frisco here’s what they found,

And out in Pittsburgh here’s what they found,

And down in Bethlehem here’s what they found,

That if you don’t let Red-baiting break you up,

If you don’t let stool pigeons break you up,

If you don’t let vigilantes break you up,

And if you don’t let race hatred break you up –

You’ll win.”

The House Un-American Activities Committee reported on the Almanac Singers in 1944 and they were viciously attacked in the press as Communist entertainers. No respite followed even after Almanac Singers gave way to People’s Songs and the Weavers. When for the first time, HUAC heard testimony against them in July 1947, they were denounced as “subversive organization”, and a “vital Communist front because of its emphasis on appeal to youth and because of its organization and technique to provide entertainment for organizations and groups as a smooth opening wedge for Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist propaganda.” Against the overwhelming climate of red-baiting, of various left (Trotskyist) oppositions towards the communists and the McCarthy era looming large, Seeger remained defiant, and along with Guthrie, he supported and rallied around Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace, as per CPUSA line. And Seeger wrote the iconic “Hammer Song” to celebrate the communist symbol:

“If I had a hammer, I’d hammer in the morning,

I’d hammer in the evening — all over this land.

I’d hammer out danger! I’d hammer out a warning!

I’d hammer out love between my brothers & my sisters —

All over this land.”

Seeger’s antiwar sentiments have been much written about. What is less mentioned is that his opposition to war was principled and decisively progressive. His protests against Vietnam War was indeed against American hooliganism and militarism. His call to bring the American troops home was at the same time, an open support for Vietnam’s right to self-determination. He wrote:

“I may be right, I may be wrong,

But I got a right to sing this song,

Bring them home, bring them home.

There’s one thing I must confess,

I’m not really a pacifist,

Bring them home, bring them home.

If an army invaded this land of mine,

You’d find me out on the firing line,

Bring them home, bring them home.

The world needs teachers, books and schools,

And learning a few universal rules,

Bring them home, bring them home.

So if you love your Uncle Same,

Support our boys in Vietnam,

Bring them home, bring them home.”

Seeger did not quite stop there. In a glowing tribute to Ho Chi Minh, he wrote:

“I’ll have to say in my own way,

The only way I know,

That we learned power to the people and the power to know

From Teacher Uncle Ho!”

Seeger always took his communism seriously and he wrote about capitalistic contradictions, but carefully employing a language that was truly accessible to the workers, to the “bottom” uneducated and semi-literate section of society who he remained connected with, all his life. If it was Teacher Uncle Ho at times, it was Karl the Marx at other times that he introduced in his songs. In a poem later in his career, he wrote about the class society in America and resented how the working class was being stigmatized:

“Some say the trouble’s in the Pentagon

Some say the trouble’s in the street

Some say the president’s a paragon

Where’s the trouble at the bottom?…

Some say the trouble’s with the system

Some say the trouble’s in the class

Karl said the trouble is the upper one,

That is the upper, not the bottom.”

Like Robeson, Seeger
had chosen his side in the class war that was, and continues to be, waged. He was deeply affected by the imperialistic aggressions and social unrests afflicting the world. And yet, he was hopeful of resolutions and positive outcomes, and like fellow communist poets Victor Jara and Nazim Hikmet whose songs he also used to adapt post-translations, he too remained at heart a romantic, an untiring lover of humanity. When he dabbled with imaginations for a better world that he, the weaver, could weave, he wrote:

“Oh, had I a golden Thread / And needle so fine

I’d weave a magic strand / Of rainbow design

In it I’d weave the bravery / Of women giving birth,

In it I would weave the innocence / Of children over all the earth,

Far over the waters / I’d reach my magic band

Through foreign cities / To every single land,

Show my brothers and sisters / My rainbow design,

Bind up this sorry world / With hand and heart and mind,

Far over the waters / I’d reach my magic band

To every human being / So they would understand.”

Seeger was always resolute and optimistic. He possibly could not afford to be otherwise. For someone with the burden of carrying the legacies of several generations of radical songsters, he had to convince the world that he was going to be there every step of the way. And he knew more than any of us, that the march towards a Soviet America was a long and tiring one. But it had to begin with changing the hearts of the people, with expanding the scopes for their imaginations. It was going to be a long process, step by step. In his words, therefore:

“Step by step, the longest march can be won, can be won

Many stones can form an arch, singly none, singly none

And in union what we will, can be accomplished still

Drops of water turn a mill, singly none, singly none.”

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Amiri Baraka: Angry Black Communist, the Soul of the Sun

 

“Who invaded Grenada

Who made money from apartheid
Who keep the Irish a colony
Who overthrow Chile and Nicaragua later

Who killed David Sibeko, Chris Hani,
the same ones who killed Biko, Cabral,
Neruda, Allende, Che Guevara, Sandino,

Who killed Kabila, the ones who wasted Lumumba, Mondlane , Betty Shabazz, Princess Margaret, Ralph Featherstone, Little Bobby

Who locked up Mandela, Dhoruba, Geronimo,
Assata, Mumia,Garvey, Dashiell Hammett, Alphaeus Hutton

Who killed Huey Newton, Fred Hampton,
MedgarEvers, Mikey Smith, Walter Rodney,
Was it the ones who tried to poison Fidel
Who tried to keep the Vietnamese Oppressed

Who put a price on Lenin’s head?”
(Amiri Baraka)

Amiri Baraka (Photographed by Saswat Pattanayak)

Who says Amiri Baraka is no more?
He is alive as long as there exists humanity. He shall remain relevant as long as critical questions continue to be posed. When Baraka wrote the poem “Somebody Blew Up America”, he was accused of anti-semitism, he was stripped of the poet laureate rank of New Jersey and many prominent political leaders and activists ridiculed him for having taken such a radical stand at a time when the country was mourning 9/11, as jingoism was the only poetic license a poet could afford to retain in America then. And yet, Amiri Baraka did not give in to the patriotic flavor of the day. He instead spoke the truth. Awards and recognitions were not going to influence him. He relinquished the honorary positions. He adopted what a true radical does: he remained unafraid of truth.

This truth however became the contentious issue for a hypocritical world order that soon termed him as controversial. What was controversial about furthering the cause of peace as an active oppositional stand against militarism and racism? Upon his demise, New York Times called him the “polarizing poet”. Polarizing? What was polarizing about the poet who dreamt of unifying the world while challenging the artificial geographical borders conveniently set by colonial masters?

Amiri Baraka was neither controversial nor polarizing. He was a poet, a historian, a progressive, romantic, revolutionary communist. And he was always unafraid of truth. The truth to him was revolution. A revolution to him was beyond a certain group of people, certain race of people, or people of a certain nationality. Like Paul Robeson before him, he strove for the revolution through his art. He shunned social divisions imposed by the ruling class. And if to acquire this truth, he had to struggle to reach there, he remained unafraid of that. He was not ashamed of transforming himself as a political being if by doing so he could further the progressive causes of the world. He wrote:

“I see art as a weapon of revolution. I define revolution in Marxist terms. Once I defined revolution in Nationalist terms. But I came to my Marxist view as a result of having struggled as a Nationalist and found certain dead ends theoretically and ideologically, as far as Nationalism was concerned and had to reach out for the communist ideology.”

When I met Amiri Baraka for the first time in Summer of 2011 at his house, he was 77. I had expected to see an old man, a retired poet, a tired revolutionary, or maybe a combination of all three. What I found in him instead was a young man deeply curious to know about international affairs, a passionate researcher sharing his new findings, and an enthusiastic radical radiating hope for the future. I had promised to be back to his place for another meeting, perhaps to conduct a more formal interview. But then I also knew that formal interviews are not conducted with lovers of revolution. Or, maybe I was quick to abandon any professional project in the midst of the hearty welcome, fine homemade foods and introductions with his entire family; the warmth and love that they bestowed upon my father (journalist Subhas Chandra Pattanayak) and I, when we visited him along with my dearest friend Dr. Todd S Burroughs, and beloved Professor and freedom fighter Dr. Les Edmond.

Todd S Burroughs, Amiri Baraka, Subhas Chandra Pattanayak, Les Edmond Todd S Burroughs, Amiri Baraka, Subhas Chandra Pattanayak, Les Edmond

I saw Mr. Baraka two more times – once in Brooklyn during an evening of revolutionary recitals, and the last time was at a Left Forum event. On both the occasions, he kindly asked about my father and reminded me that we needed to have that interview we have been planning for. Well, the interview could never finally take place. But I have no regrets at all. The fact that I did get to see him in person a few times was itself such a precious experience. The fact that he and his remarkable wife, revolutionary poetess Amina Baraka posed for my lens will always remain the high point of my artistic career.

Amina Baraka & Amiri Baraka Amina Baraka & Amiri Baraka

Personal is political and that is how I was drawn towards him early on. And that is the philosophy which was embodied in Baraka’s works throughout. His poems inspired me and empowered me. Baraka to me was Langston Hughes of our times. A poet of his people, a poet for all people. Like Hughes, his songs carried messages not of hope, but of revolution. Not of charities and feel good rhetorics, of sweet talks or inner peace bullshits. But of raw emotions, critical posers and call for actions.

Hughes had written:
“Goodbye
Christ Jesus Lord God Jehova,
Beat it on away from here now.
Make way for a new guy with no religion at all-
A real guy named
Marx Communist Lenin Peasant Stalin Worker ME-
I said, ME!”

Baraka, too wrote:
“We’ll worship Jesus
When Jesus do
Somethin
When jesus blow up
the white house…
we’ll worship jesus when
he get bad enough to at least scare
somebody – cops not afraid
of jesus
pushers not afraid
of jesus, capitalists racists
imperialists not afraid
of jesus shit they makin money off jesus
we’ll worship jesus when Mao
do, when tour does
when the cross replaces Nkrumah’s star
Jesus need to hurt some a our
enemies, then we’ll check him out…
we ain’t gon worship jesus
not till he do something
not till he help us
not till the world get changed
and he ain’t, jesus ain’t, he can’t change the world
we can change the world
we can struggle against the forces of backwardness,
we can struggle against our selves, our slowness, our connection
with the oppressor, the very cultural aggression which binds us to our enemies
as their slaves.
we can change the world
we aint gonna worship jesus cause jesus don’t exist
except in slum stained tears or trillion dollar opulence stretching back in history, the history
of the oppression of the human mind
xxxxx
we worship the strength in us
we worship our selves….
throw jesus out your mind
build the new world out of reality, and new vision
we come to find out what there is of the world
to understand what there is here in the world!
to visualize change, and force it.
we worship revolution.”

Todd S Burroughs, Amiri Baraka & Saswat Pattanayak Todd S Burroughs, Amiri Baraka & Saswat Pattanayak

This is the Baraka I have known. The “real guy” Hughes wanted us to remember, emulate and while worshipping the revolution, to worship the revolutionary. It is not the gods who are immortal. It is Baraka and the revolutionaries like him who shall always live in our midst.

Immortality is radicalism. Going to the roots and to find that all of us never really perished. We are all connected with each other, in our life form and without, in our present and our collective history. This is again what Baraka used to characterize as “Digging”, the name of the outstanding work of his that traces the evolution of Afro-American art. About that book, he had written, “This book is a microscope, a telescope, and being Black, a periscope. All to dig what is deeply serious…The sun is what keeps this planet alive, including the Music, like we say, the Soul of which is Black.”

Baraka’s black-is-beautiful was a legendary call for international unity for the people of the third world. It was a call for communism in a country that was the most anti-communist in the planet. Baraka never faltered, never feared and always remained the fighter, against conventional wisdom. In “Reggae or Not!”, he outlined who he was as a black man in America:

“Self Determination
Revolution
Socialism Socialism Socialism
DEATH TO ALLIGATOR EATING CAPITALISM
DEATH TO BIG TEETH BLOOD DRIPPING IMPERIALISM
I be black angry communist
I be part of rising black nation
I be together with all fighters who fight imperialism
I be together in a party with warmakers for the people
I be black and african and still contemporary marxist warrior
I be connected to people by blood and history and pain and struggle
We be together a party as one fist and voice
We be I be We, We, We, the whole fist and invincible flame
We be a party soon, we know our comrade for struggle…
Only Socialism will save
the Black Nation
Only Socialism will save
America
Only Socialism will save
the world!”

Goodbye, angry black communist. See you again in the morning, the soul of the sun.

Saswat Pattanayak || Saswat.com

Revolution 2.0: Victory of the Hashtaggers

 

By Saswat Pattanayak

 (Written for Kindle Magazine)

 

Possibly the greatest myth about the world we inhabit today, is that things are just getting worse everywhere. Apparently, the claim goes, things were all flourishing until a couple of decades ago. People used to be all nicely employed, they owned their own houses, had finest of healthcare, made tons of savings, expressed themselves freely without fear, and were generally happy-go-lucky. And that, things are just plain ugly today, with uncertainties looming large, with privacies encroached upon, people falling prey to corporate propaganda, and intellectual vacuum looming large.

Alas, even the worst myths have some credibility. So let’s start from there – yes, things used to be great for some folks, back in the days. In those good old days. In those abjectly feudal, and overtly colonial eras. Since there was slavery, the plantation owners had it good. Since there were princely states, the royals had it good. Since there were colonial empires, the colonialists had it good. Since there was Apartheid, the racists had it good. In fact, the myth has so much credence that the ruling class of every epoch believed they all had it so good. Quite naturally then “You’ve never had it so good!” became the US Democratic Party campaign slogan in 1952 and was swiftly adapted by the UK Conservative Party five years later. The myth of goodness apparently existed until the advent of the 60’s, if not until the end of the 70’s.

What in the world suddenly changed?

Here’s the shocker: nothing perhaps has changed. Maybe the world is still the same. Whether things were nice and dandy back then depends on who we seek that answer from. Usually, a white privileged male in the US, an upper-caste landlord in India, a French right-wing supremacist in Algeria, among numerous other categories may find things getting worse over the period of time. Whereas a black Afrocentric radical, a feminist of color, a gay man, a disabled woman, a Dalit activist – may in fact claim that either things have remained just the same, or they in fact, have improved. People who were being lynched in the public because of the color of their skin or women who were treated as no more than dishwashers are not the one to complain about the gradual turns of events. They may rightfully complain about the viciously slow growth, but they are in no rush to turn back the clock and tune into the halcyon days. As Louis CK points out rather profoundly regarding white privilege: “I’m not saying that white people are better. I’m saying that being white is clearly better, who could even argue? If it was an option I would re-up ever year. Oh yeah I’ll take white again absolutely, I’ve been enjoying that, I’ll stick with white, thank you. Here’s how great it is to be white, I could get in a time machine and go to any time and it would be fuckin’ awesome when I get there. That is exclusively a white privilege. Black people can’t fuck with time machines. A black guy in a time machine is like hey anything before 1980 no thank you, I don’t want to go.”

History of the world can be written through the lens of the
ruling class, or it can be narrated from the perspectives of the oppressed.
From the lens of the latter then, the world could indeed be making progresses.
It is making progress when we witness women demanding wages for house work, it
is making progress when men join protests against rape culture, it is making
progress when outcastes reject the dominant paradigm, it is making progress
when the racial minorities establish academic departments in hitherto elite universities.
And these progresses do not happen merely incidentally, they do not happen
because of sudden change of hearts; instead they do, because of concerted
efforts and revolutionary movements of the working class – a vital credit which
the ruling class deliberately refuses to concede, lest such experiments become
too commonplace to be suppressed.

Even greater in significance than the myth are the means.
How exactly do the historically oppressed manage to make progresses? After all,
they traditionally lack not just power, but also access; they start out
disadvantaged, with entry behavior knowledge, skills, and abilities
compromised. The dominant understanding of emancipation is that the ruling
structure empowers the oppressed through greater facilitation of resources. The
truth is way unsavory: the historically oppressed invariably always turn
ungrateful towards their ruling masters. They take time to gain the knowledge
to challenge the status quo, make efforts to acquire skills to equip themselves
to face eventualities, and finally work in solidarity to dismantle the
oppressive structures, at times gradually, and at other times suddenly. What
usually seems spontaneous in revolutionary framework is invariably always a
result of prolonged preparations and wait for the opportune moment.

Among the means to challenge and dismantle structures, the
most pivotal one comprises education. Historically, slaves and landless
peasants used to be educated by their masters with the sole purpose of becoming
more efficient servants, and yet some of those ingrates after having their
consciousness raised about their oppressed conditions through the newly
acquired knowledge, then used to utilize that very transformation as a tool
against their own masters. This is an inevitable process pertaining to
historical stages of development. The greed of the ruling class, the tactic of
the oppressed class, and the revolution as the synthesis.

Media of all kinds are only extensions of that irresistible
weapon of education, that ineluctable tool of emancipation.

The historically oppressed have always tried to seize the
media and to make them work in their mission to overthrow the systems of
oppressions. At times, they have succeeded. And at other times they have been
defeated. This was true for print media, it was true for electronic media, and
it is true for digital/online media.

The ruling class interpretation however has been starkly
different. Obsessed as it remains with keeping the oppressed duly invisible,
and focused as it remains with its own profit charts, the ruling class
interpretations are concerned only with the conversation its own team members
have with each other. As a result, both liberal and conservative publications
entirely leave out narratives that have direct impacts on the racially
oppressed, for instance. The need for black underground press in the US rose
specifically to challenge the prevailing discourses between educated whites who
shaped media agenda while entirely ignoring existing racial tensions as a structural
given, not as a symptomatic aberration. Most of the researches conducted at
elite schools focus therefore, on media monopolies and the gory sketches of
their battles to redraw the maps of territorial conquests. They remain
oblivious to the underground rebellions by innumerable insurgents, at times
deliberately oblivious because they are convinced that the noisemakers are not
aspiring for a takeover. And more often than not, they are right. A political
analysis will draw the parallel between the nature of the colonizers and the
nature of the colonized. Whereas the colonizers worry about expanding their
territories, the revolting masses only are interested in their own
emancipation.

And so is the case of media. Huge majority of the world
possibly has no interest to become media moguls. Rupert Murdoch is neither
their competition, nor their enemy. The anti-poor, racist, casteist policies
furthered by their oppressive governments are their concerns. Reclaiming a
country’s past (sic) glory is not something they remain bothered about,
especially since that system never worked for them anyway. Besides, the
majority rightfully demands for a life with basic needs fulfilled, and not
everyone thinks that unlimited greed is a good thing. And so they are interested
in subverting the dominant paradigms without needing to reinforce those very
undesirabilities themselves. From radical comic strips to basement mixtapes,
from underground hip-hop to homemade newspapers – the creative subversion of
media over the time has been aimed at being emancipatory without being
necessarily competitive. The producers of these media have been jailed by the
authorities, harassed by the communities, and ostracized by the advertisers.
But the quest to challenge the dominant media narratives has never ceased
anywhere in the world at any point of history.

And so it is with the Internet and online media.

Started as a militarist project, aided by money from the
capitalist regime, Internet has been subject to sustained appropriations by
hackers, hobbyists and housewives. In the times of big corporate media engaged
in mergers and acquisitions, Internet has enabled plethora of independent
bloggers, many remaining anonymous, and most continuing to update their
platforms without necessarily fear of authorities or expectations of profits.
They are aware of their state of being othered, marginalized and oppressed. And
they are in no hurry to make compromises, while steadfastly remaining glued to
making revolts. Many of them are even found micro-blogging on Facebook and
Twitter, making alliances with strangers all around the world, generating
consensus with hashtags, and creating alternative universities in the virtual
world where conventional, institutionalized truths are massacred and unfounded
claims are doubly, nay, innumerably checked for veracity. Internet has provided
for Afrocentric literatures that could never be found in public libraries or
dominant media’s breaking news, it has allowed for interviews with those
freedom fighters to be shared and archived, who would never get an invitation
from any of the four estates of democracy. 

There are challenges to Internet of course; enormous ones.
Just as there were challenges to all previous and contemporary forms of media.
But there are opportunities too on Internet; enormous ones. For one, it
provides access to those who can access it, which is far greater an empowerment
compared to, let’s say, writing a letter to the editor of a print newspaper,
while waiting for it to be published uncensored. Secondly, the social media
bring people together, virtually if so desired, and for real, if so. It allows
for more people to get informed about and to participate in a protest rally, an
Occupy demonstration, an awareness march against sexism. All one needs to do is
post an event, provide a backgrounder, interact with the audience to answer any
question, make changes to the plans real time, cover the event for those who
could not attend, and archive it for future references. Not to discount the
difficulties or even impossibilities of such networking at the face of enormous
digital divide that has rendered majority of people without access to Internet,
to begin with. But to underline the fact that Internet, when enabled, emerges
greater as an accessible form of media than any other. The need therefore is to
democratize it and to make it universally accessible, to make it truly
participatory.  

For the teeming millions, the question is often not about
ownership. The question is about participation. The joy lies not in
monopolizing. It lies in distributing. Maybe it is how most of us have simply
been raised – amidst the sheer joys in, or necessities of sharing. And
therefore it becomes our second nature to simply enjoy the very fact that we
are able to share new information with each other, through blogging, through
micro-blogging, through file-sharing. Maybe that something which appears to be
unproductive by the ruling class is something we just tend to be doing over and
over again. In an otherwise individualistic, secretive world reveling in
distrust, suspicion and increasing abandonment of neighbors, maybe the virtual
media is what boldly caters to our needs. Who knows if it is good, bad or ugly.
For sure, at least for now, the authorities think it is threatening them. This
coming together of people who disregard their carefully assigned social
locations and organize themselves for a common cause that transcends boundaries
set by the ruling class. Maybe that is what is a constant irritant to the
historically oppressive ones, and for that reason alone, it must continue as a
revolutionary tactic.

No wonder, Obama’s NSA is after these people, these global
ungrateful netizens. In the most recent development, Verizon which at first
denied, and later admitted of having turned over the call records of millions
of American citizens to the NSA has, only this September, testified in the
court that it wants to prioritize those websites and services that are willing
to shell out for better access. Verizon has made it clear that the company
would block online content from those companies or individuals who do not pay
its tolls – obviously undermining Net Neutrality principle. Concerned by the
NSA and its corporate partners such as Verizon, Brazil has become the first
country to propose rejecting America’s web authority. President Dilma Rousseff
has recently ordered a series of measures to ensure Brazilian online
independence and security to defy NSA interceptions. The way Brazil wants to do
this is by compelling Facebook, Google and other US companies to store all data
related to its citizens locally on Brazilian servers and by pushing for new
international rules on privacy and security through the UN General Assembly.
Its potential effectiveness, or even viability, is yet to be evaluated, but it
is certainly something that may encourage other countries to follow suit. This
suspicion also underlines the refusal on part of international community to be
convinced by Obama’s assurances regarding user privacies. The bigger concern of
course is if the anti-Americanism itself may then give way to invincible
national repressions. Will it be any more ethically sustainable on part of
other countries, to filter contents or to keep a watch over their respective
netizens domestically? 

Answers to that already exist within the US, where many a
domestic horror stories remain untold until after a case reaches a court of
appeals. The most invisible ones are related to Internet freedom, precisely
because any expose of that would discredit the country’s long standing, albeit
hypocritical, claims on free speech, while equating it with let’s just say,
China. Or, for that matter, with India. When two girls landed in trouble over
commenting on Facebook about Bal Thackeray, it made world headline last year.
And yet the US has been persecuting its own citizens for much lesser Facebook
activisms that go unnoticed. In 2009, six employees at the Hampton Sheriff’s
office in Virginia lost their jobs after registering their ‘likes’ on the
Facebook page of the person who contested their boss in an election. Two of
those employees, Deputy Daniel Carter and Robert McCoy, filed a lawsuit
claiming they were fired by Sheriff B.J. Roberts specifically for liking a
Facebook profile for Roberts’ opponent, Jim Adams and as many as four years
later, only last month, a court of appeals decided that liking something on
Facebook was the “Internet equivalent of displaying a political sign in one’s
front yard” and hence it would be considered protected speech.       

While the cat-and-mouse game persists, losing sight over the
pattern would be a travesty. Harassment of the audience based on their media
consumption, or arrests of producers based on their media activism is not a new
trend. Neither is encroachment on individual privacy rights as is being largely
claimed following Snowden’s grand revelations. The entire saga of FBI is
nothing, if not one state sponsored and violence-laden surveillance program.
The Red Scare, the infamous Smith Act, McCarthyism, the war on Black Panthers
are all among numerous systematic assaults on privacy rights in the US. 

 

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The truth is there never were any golden days of freedom and
equality for the world in the past, as is being felt nostalgic about these
days. Unless, we value the life of, or demand for freedom by the most oppressed
as being inherently lesser – since there have been substantial outcries against
oppression at every stage of history, most of them not just regarded as such
only because the history textbooks follow ruling class ethos. Only when we take
the starting point of analysis as one where the status quo is considered to
have remained virtually the same, if not emerged better, we can recognize that
more people – even purely quantitatively speaking – are able to join global
resistance against capitalism and express themselves today, than ever before.
And this political opportunity has opened itself up, because as the bearded old
men have hinted at, the Internet may indeed be what the capitalism has produced
to further its own gains, and yet, it may eventually become its own
grave-digger. As more desperate measures are taken to control Internet and as
even more resistance surfaces to free it – through the radical voices of the
hitherto underrepresented – the fall of ruling elites and the victory of
hashtaggers will become equally inevitable.

Lesson from Snowden: Myth of the Free Press

By Saswat Pattanayak

 

The recent rise in whistleblowers in America maybe new, but the governmental scrutiny and penalization process is hardly so. Apart from the widening scope of social/virtual media’s sphere of influence, there is hardly anything unique about the circumstances unraveled by Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning. Political radicalism, underground media activism and alleged unpatriotic nature among conscientious citizens in the United States are what has indeed uniquely created this country.

It has always been the case of the powerful ruling class elites duly supported by the judiciary, military and corporate media constantly engaged in wars against progressive activists and causes. Because the blazing speed with which various official and classified documents now reach a diverse global audience is something new, the use of technology in bridging the gap between ruling class and the formerly clueless audience certainly appears to be groundbreaking in our times.

But to claim that there are spectacularly outrageous misdeeds that the Obama and Bush administrations uniquely are culpable of when it comes to attacking free speech rights, is to get the peoples’ history entirely wrong. It might suit our times to highlight what appears to be bizarre and unacceptable to us from a legal standpoint, but to view that as historically decisive moment that is unprecedented, would be to trivialize the various ongoing struggles against ruling class monopolists.

To begin with, there is clearly nothing novel about collection of vital information about individuals. In many cases, it may not even be illegal. We have been willfully submitting information related to our private lives to corporations such as Google and Facebook since years now. Unless it is a special dislike we harbor towards the government as an institution, the privacy rights argument appears quite weak at the outset. But what is important to remember while expressing shock and disbelief at PRISM is that such experiments have been core to the way governments have always functioned in collaborations with business houses.

It is only after Daniel Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon Papers that enormous importance was attached to the idea of a whistleblower, and by extension, to the idea that it is crucial to expose an administration when they lie. There’s no denying that it is important to leak official documents with an intent to secure individual rights, but what is equally critical is to not get all shocked at the findings of classified information. What is essential is to recognize what I.F. Stone used to say: that, all governments lie. All administrations resort to lies. That, international diplomacy is nothing but a systematization of lies. What is crucial is to acknowledge that individual freedom is always going to be limited so long as a state exists. That, it is not just the communist and overtly authoritarian regimes which manipulate individual rights to free speech and privacy, but the western liberal democracies have also always done so.

After rising to fame, Daniel Ellsberg has declared that Snowden’s are the most remarkable contributions in recent times. He said, “I definitely have a new hero in Edward Snowden, the first one since Bradley Manning, and I’m glad it didn’t take another 40 years. People who respect or admire what I did, they may not realize it right now, but before this is over, they’ll recognize that he deserves great admiration.” Whereas Ellsberg is right in calling Snowden, Manning or Assange as heroes of our times, they are not the only ones in the span of last forty years, or if Ellsberg’s claim to fame is considered, in the history of the United States.

Nothing could be farther from truth. Only in recent times, prosecution of Judith Miller clearly revealed to what extent journalists could be penalized for concealing their sources. As a New York Times reporter, even as she did not publish any article about the Plame Affair, Miller had to spend twelve weeks in jail for refusing to reveal her source. Miller clearly is not a hero in the sense that Glenn Greenwald or Bob Woodward are, but the lesson that needs to be drawn is that not all journalists are equally privileged in order to get away with what would be considered a “crime” for others. Race, gender, accessibility, networking, political rapport among many other factors influence the heroisms.

Even as Woodward has made millions of dollars off the sales of his investigative journalistic books – works that have ideologically helped the Democrats – during those very times, every other underground paper in the country were being shut down by the government. Woodward or Ellsberg were champions for a change of power in Washington to suit their political beliefs, not activists for press freedom on behalf of publishers and editors of radical media.  A Underground Press Syndicate (UPS) was formed just to address the assaults on press freedom in 1967. Managing editor Ron Thelin of Oracle wrote, “Well, here we all are, Uncle Sam on the verge of death. A sleep-stupor symbol-addicted environment haunts our hearts, and what are we going to do about it?” Jeff Shero who had campaigned for the abolition of segregated toilets at the University of Texas founded ‘Rat’, a major left-wing underground newspaper. New York’s ‘East Village Other’, California’s ‘L.A. Free Press’, ‘Berkeley Barb, Detroit’s ‘Fifth Estate’ – and at least thirty other small radical publications had together formed UPS as a means to organize, educate and agitate the masses, to make investigative journalism accessible and to make investigations that truly exposed the contradictions within capitalism.

UPS was inspired by the Black Panthers and shared information with the public that would help challenge the duopoly of phony democracy. They were also vehemently anti-sexist. One of their resolutions ran, “That male supremacy and chauvinism be eliminated from the contents of the underground papers. For example, papers should stop accepting commercial advertising that uses women’s bodies to sell records and other products, and advertisements for sex, since the use of sex as a commodity specially oppresses women in this country.” As a result of the underground media activism in the United States, as Abe Peck wrote, “DDT was banned, abortions were legalized, the draft ended, U.S. troops finally left Vietnam, the American Psychiatric Association “de-diseased” homosexuality, and draconian sentences for smoking plants were reduced.”

Scandals like Watergate were the bread and butter of the underground press, while New York Times and Washington Post were busy covering nuclear power stations. I.F. Stone and Hunter S. Thompson, Max Scherr, John Wilcock, were among the more prominent names in the underground media scene. It was only after the UPS became so impactful that it attracted FBI’s campaigns to shut it down, that the kinds of Bob Woodwards and Daniel Ellsbergs rose to prominence. With big media, pulitzer prizes and partisan favors monopolizing over investigative norms, the revolution found itself stalled. Ellsberg failed recently to appreciate his predecessors, maybe because the underground journalists were not just opposed to Nixon, but to the entire system of political economy that benefited the liberals and the white left. Whereas, “Actuel” published regularly investigative reports on FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s murderous rampage, some sampled stories from a typical issue of “Fifth Estate” included: a strike by illegal Mexican American immigrants in the Californian vineyards; the MC5 tel
ling stores that wouldn’t stock their records to go fuck themselves; the white left: can you take them seriously?”

Berets and black leather jackets, Afro hair, military salutes, and iconic poster images – the underground press raised its fist; self-defense and communal self-sufficiency spawned new organizations such as the IBA (International Black Appeal) which appealed in the pages of the Inner-City Voice for help in distributing food in the ghettos of Detroits, suffering in the aftermath of the 1967 riots.

Thirty years since, underground press no longer exists in the United States. Instead of asking what led to the demise of an activist oriented news coalition that not just made investigations and made classified information accessible, witnessed its publishers getting jailed and offices ransacked, and virtually experienced first-hand the murder of press freedom – if we continue to glorify four white men in last forty years for merely leaking information that would have otherwise kept our private lives private, then we are missing the mark entirely.

Long before the UPS came to fore, when the American administration was attacking radical newspapers, W.E.B. Du Bois already had attested in 1953, “It is not a question as to whether these facts and opinions are right or wrong, true or false. It is the more basic question as to who is going to be the judge of this, and as to how far honest people can remain intelligent if they refuse to listen to unpopular opinions or to facts which they do not want to believe. There is a determined effort today to put papers like these out of existence, to harass and harry them, to make readers afraid to subscribe to them or to buy them on news stands; to keep newspaper distributors from handling them; and in these and other ways to make their continued existence impossible.”

Snowden’s episode followed by Lavabit exposes what should have been long known, had we been paying attention to the history of the underground press. Cops have confiscated typewriters, cameras, darkrooms, graphic equipment, business records, books and posters; editors have been convicted of false obscenity charges, on charges of immorality, their cars firebombed and their offices infiltrated by plainclothed officers. Starting from the “red scare” to the “witch hunt” to the underground press, anticommunist arrests of journalists and sustained harassments targeting anyone, black or white, that exposed the racist administrative policies, press freedom in the United States (and much of Europe) has been a sham all throughout the recorded history.

Ellsberg, Woodward, Assange, Manning, Snowden are merely those who have relatively survived the assault.