When I was younger, too young to think really deeply about song lyrics, my parents used to play a single CD of Pete Seeger songs. They played them usually in the car, on road trips, though sometimes my mother put them on in the kitchen while she was cooking. Those were back in the days before music was available at the tap of a finger or the simple request of a voice, and the CD had to be carted carefully between car and kitchen to keep it from developing a scratch.
Some of my preschool teachers at the Eliot Pearson Children’s School (affiliated with my now-university Tufts), an experimental school geared towards diversity and serving those with special needs, were also fans of Pete Seeger. We read “Abiyoyo” and listened to the song. We talked about what kids felt about the whaling song. Responses ranged from “Wow, cool, I wish I could go spear a whale!” to “That’s horrible! They’re killing whales!” In the end, those responses probably had a lot to do with what each kid thought about Baby Beluga. I, for one, found the song and the story that went along with it perfectly entertaining, while maintaining my stance as an avid animal lover.
If you don’t know what song I’m talking about, check it out here on YouTube if you’re so inclined.
My parents weren’t playing me and my siblings Pete Seeger’s songs for children, though. They were playing us the album titled If I Had a Hammer: Songs of Hope and Struggle. These songs, more than anything else, referenced this thing called the union.
Back then, the only union I knew was the Union of the Civil War. I knew a lot about the Civil War because my mother had read me a book about it at my grandparents’ home in New Jersey, also because I loved figures like Harriet Tubman, Abraham Lincoln, and John Brown (to leave the insurrectionist for last). So I was very gung-ho about Pete Seeger’s songs about the union, because I thought he was singing about the Union.
In my teenage years, I became a staunch anti-socialist and realized what Pete Seeger was singing about. (I didn’t stop listening, but that’s a story for another day.) But I sort of thought that my parents had been trying to brainwash me in my younger years. Only later did I realize they’d been playing me music they enjoyed, nothing more and nothing less. I also dropped my staunch anti-socialism when I learned about the 1950s and the extraordinary courage evidenced by men and women across the country in the face of their beliefs. Today I believe that people should believe what they believe, and speak out about what they believe if they feel so called. They shouldn’t waste so much time criticizing others’ beliefs.
And Pete Seeger made beautiful music. The man also had a very interesting life. Did you know he dropped out of Harvard? that he served the army in World War II as an entertainment specialist? that his wife was half-German and half-Japanese?
By quirk or coincidence, my elementary school music teacher was also a big Pete Seeger fan. His tastes ranged more towards the more commonly-played Pete Seeger favorites: “If I had a Hammer,” “This Land is Your Land,” and “Turn, Turn, Turn,” the Ecclesiastes-inspired song penned by Seeger that became a hit under the guidance of the Byrds. We might’ve sung one or two of the union songs, and I believe that in those classes the teacher explained to us that the union in the song was not the Union of the Civil War, just as he explained that the “at ’em, boys,” in the Air Force song was not “Adam, boys,” or, worse, “atom, boys.”
Looking back on it, many of my elementary school “elective” teachers were the type of outspoken, opinionated liberals who would’ve fit well in an experimental school like my preschool — which is maybe why I remember their classes more than I remember my standard, everyday instruction in math, science, English, and — the kicker of kickers — social studies. Not history. Social studies.
I don’t remember studying socialism in elementary school social studies.
Socialism is a weird thing for me. For most everyone, it seems to have this unmistakable allure — like if they didn’t know any better, they’d go for it. Their eyes light up when they hear about increased harmony, the wealth disparity shrinking, free college for all, better healthcare, better infrastructure. Can you slap a bandaid on what’s been by choosing socialism? You betcha, some Americans seem ready to say. Forget it, say others. Are you crazy?
We talk all too willingly about socialism, but hardly ever veer into the territory of what-might-come-after — that is, we don’t talk about the big bad brother in the closet, the big red C. And for good reason. No politician with serious aspirations would advocate for communism, not after the implosion of the Soviet Union. Not after it’s been practically proven that communism, as a political ideology, doesn’t work.
In steering conversation clear of communism, we too often steer conversation away from why communism failed.
Which is a complicated question all in its own right, but I can name a few of the commonly-given reasons. The rich and powerful really didn’t want to give up their wealth and power, for one. They didn’t really want everyone to become equal. That’s right. People don’t want to be equal. They might not mind being born equal, but when it comes to being equal… Check out this short story by Kurt Vonnegut if you’re interested in what that might look like. If you’re someone who thinks you advocate for complete equality and have never read the story before, you might be in for a shocker.
So there’s one. Another one, commonly given, is that when people don’t have an incentive to work, they won’t work. Also that the world needs a lot of farmers, but not necessarily everyone wants to be a farmer, and that if given the choice not enough people will be farmers and too many will be, well, writers and artists and actors and… You get the picture.
Let’s imagine a world, a world in which every American gets a thousand dollars a month for simply living. First off, let me point out that there are places in this country in which one can survive off a thousand dollars a month, all the more so if one joins up with a partner for the effort. Two thousand dollars a month could secure an apartment in the greater Boston area! Sure, our fictional couple would need extra money for food and all the other necessities, but they’d already have a roof over their head if they were careful about the roof they chose. And that’s in one of the most expensive states to live in.
Okay, so now what? Maybe one member of our couple makes a couple hundred dollars a month blogging and thinks, well, he makes enough blogging, so why should he get a job? Expand the picture, and pretty soon you might find yourself in a society filled with bloggers and YouTubers and wonderful people doing wonderful things they love, but not enough farmers, in a country with an abundance of fertile land to farm. So where’s the food coming from? Maybe it’s being imported from China and South America. But what have happened to the exports?
This is just one problem I see with socialism as some American leaders propose it, especially in this day and age when people are buying into the gig economy even though they aren’t being given a thousand dollar check each month. (There are all sorts of other problems, too. Like where do the thousand dollars for each American come from? And how will the government get the money back? They could raise taxes, but unless they’re going to tax back some portion of the thousand dollars, then in the case of our blogger they could make back 50% of a couple hundred dollars, which is not enough to sustain any meaningful bureaucracy.) Americans love to talk about European “socialism,” but they don’t seem to understand some of the potential drawbacks. My parents have friends in Germany who had to fret over whether or not their daughters would receive high enough scores on state-sponsored exams to get onto a college track. And this was when their daughters were in the fourth grade. Let me repeat that. The fourth grade.
In Germany, they decide whether you’ll be a farmer or a doctor in the fourth grade.
Gross oversimplification, I know, but it seems that many Americans haven’t thought about what European-brand socialism could mean to occupational freedom of choice — which, I would argue, lies near the core of what it means to be American. People come here and they work hard to make money and make a return on what constitutes their initial investment — coming here in the first place. They strive to do well for their families, to help their children do better than they did. It’s like life.
I would argue that it’s mainly the wealthy or upper middle class who advocate for socialism in this country. And I wonder if it’s because they’ve reached a glass ceiling — a ceiling at which they can no longer count on their children doing better than they do — and they’re scared of that and too scared to put themselves out on a limb to try to do better. The vast majority of millionaires in this country are still self-made. Yes, there are some high-profile ones who float along on Mommy and Daddy’s investment dollars, but they’re actually relatively few in the grand scheme of things. The people in this country advocating socialism would have you believe otherwise.
Now, okay. Pete Seeger may have been blacklisted during the 1950s, but is his music staunchly socialist? It depends how you look at it. I’d say that the song “Banks of Marble” might be (although people have commonly interpreted it as a workers’ rights tune), but some of the other songs — and, specifically, the union songs — aren’t. American socialism and labor unions, although they initially seem like related concepts, have some fundamental differences, number one being that labor unions essentially act as a safeguard against capitalism, but they’re not antithetical to it. If anything, they exist to tame some of the wilder, more dangerous forces of capitalism — the kind that perhaps led Thomas Hobbes to call the condition of man “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Labor unions, from the capitalist lens, are an obvious development. And one that speaks to the enlightenment of the working class: it takes at least some smarts to band together for mutual benefit.
American socialism, on the other hand, speaks to some kind of condescending, semi noblesse oblige on the part of society’s upper-and-middle-crust, who are all too ready to tell the working classes that they’ll benefit from a system of big government that’ll bring better healthcare and free education, etc., etc. What happened to the working man rising up? In America, I’m afraid, we may have come to a point where it’s no longer possible. And no, upper-and-middle-crust, that doesn’t mean that the working men and women want you to speak for them.