Legacies of the Musical Cultural Front:

Robeson, Guthrie, and Seeger [1]

By Harry Targ
Purdue University

This paper was a presentation at “Woody at 100: Woody Guthrie’s Legacy to Working Men and Women”, a conferences at Penn State University, September 8-9, 2012 [2]


Several key concepts in the Marxian tradition influenced the consciousness and political practice of Paul Robeson, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger. First, all three were historical and dialectical materialists. They conceived of the socio-economic condition of people’s lives as fundamental to the shaping of their activities and consciousness. They were historical materialists in that they understood that the material conditions of people’s lives changed as the economic system in which they lived changed. And they were dialectical in that they were sensitive to the contradictory character of human existence.

Second, class as the fundamental conceptual tool for examining a society shaped their thinking. Increasingly they realized that class struggle was a fundamental force for social change. Given the American historical context they saw that class and race were inextricably interconnected.

Third, all three addressed a theory of imperialism which they regarded as critical to understanding international relations. Living in an age of colonialism and neo-colonialism all three performer/activists, but particularly Paul Robeson, saw imperialism as a central structural feature  of relations between nations, peoples and classes. They were inspired by those resisting the yoke of foreign domination.

Fourth, Robeson, Guthrie, and Seeger saw that community, harmony, and socialism would represent the next stage of societal development. They believed that the vision of socialism had the potential for improving the quality of life of humankind. Robeson’s experiences in the Soviet Union led him to a greater degree to regard the experience of existing socialist states as free of the kind of racism endemic to the United States.

Fifth, Robeson, Guthrie, and Seeger emphasized the connection between theory and practice. Each artist in his own way articulated what Robeson proclaimed in 1937 in the context of supporting the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War that every artist must take a stand. The artist (i.e., the intellectual) must act in the context of a world of exploitation. One was either on the side of the ongoing oppressive order or on the side of change.

Armed with these insights, the three folk artist/activists discussed below committed themselves to action; action grounded in the struggles of their day. In Gramsci’s terms, they were organic intellectuals. They joined anti-racist, anti-colonial, labor and peace struggles. They walked picket lines, entertained Spanish Civil War loyalists, striking workers and other protesters, and sought to lend support to international socialist solidarity. Being an organic intellectual in the 1930s and 40s, and in the case of Pete Seeger the 1940s and beyond, meant participating in what Michael Denning called “the cultural front.” The ambience of the CIO, the Communist movement, civil rights and anti-war struggles, and building the New Deal provided the social forces out of which Robeson, Guthrie, and Seeger could thrive and grow.  The three,–Robeson, Guthrie, and Seeger–artists and activists, were both agents and products of Marxist ideas engaged in practical political work as organic intellectuals participating in a broad cultural front.

Each artist/activist projected an image of human oneness. They saw the connections between the defense of democracy in Spain and the U.S. South and the necessity of building a peaceful and democratic post-World War II order to achieve justice for the working classes of all lands.  Robeson’s consciousness was shaped by the vision of a common pentagonal chord structure in the world’s folk music; a metaphor that privileges difference and unity. The musical visions of Guthrie and Seeger celebrated what was common in the human experience as well.

In sum, the remarks below address the implicit Marxist lens that shaped the consciousness and behavior of three giants-Paul Robeson, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger. It addresses how their artistic and political work was shaped by and shaped the social movements of the period from the 1930s to the present. It draws upon cultural theory, particularly Michael Denning’s idea of a multilayered “cultural front.” And it links the theory, practice and context to the political strategy of the “popular front.”

Finally, the paper suggests that the theory and practice of Robeson, Guthrie, and Seeger represent a model for building contemporary mass movements in the face of economic and political crises. Over the past two years the world has seen mass mobilizations against dictatorship in Middle Eastern regimes; emerging new socialist forces in France, the Netherlands, and Denmark; mass movements against wars on workers, women, and minorities in the United States; and the emergence of grassroots mobilizations, particularly the Occupy Movement, all across the North American continent. The framework of struggle-the 99 percent versus the one percent-while not expressly Marxist, can have the same animating effect on workers, youth, minorities, and women, that the songs of Robeson, Guthrie, and Seeger did from the 1930s to the present time.

Marxist Ideas: Historical and Dialectical Materialism

Marxist analysis begins with the presupposition that humans create the conditions for the production and reproduction of life. These involve the satisfaction of basic needs. To do so requires the organization of production: of human labor, technology, science, and society. “This connection is ever taking on new forms, and thus presents a ‘history’ independently of the existence of any political or religious nonsense which in addition may hold men together.” [3]

“Labor in the Marxist schema is the ultimate human activity as it is the basis from which life is sustained. The kinds of productive activities humans engage in determine their existence and who they are. “What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce. The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production.” [4]

With this as a beginning, Marx described the historic transformation from one ‘mode of production’ to another. Capitalism and socialism were the prevailing modes of production in Robeson’s time. Capitalism is a mode of production in which one class owns and/or controls the means of production (factories, technologies, scientific expertise) and the other class, the workers, exchange their ability to do work for a wage which will be used to reproduce life. In the capitalist mode of production, the ruling class appropriates the value of goods and services produced by workers, which translates into profit, in exchange for which workers receive enough money to survive.

The capitalist mode of production is dynamic. The root of its existence is exploitation, the ability of capitalists to expropriate the value of goods and services produced by workers, and expansion, continued capital accumulation. As to the latter, capitalist units, banks and corporations, need to expand in the face of competition with adversaries. The watchwords of the system are “grow or die.” It is this expansion that takes capitalists all across the face of the globe with slavery, colonialism and neocolonialism as the result. And, since expanding capitalist enterprises and wealthier ruling classes increasingly dominate the political lives of their governments, capitalism was a system that bred competition and war between states.

Marx’s historical materialist method was not linear, it was not mechanistic. The rise of capitalism out of feudalism and the growth of monopoly capitalism out of its industrial capitalist precursor occurred in a world of conflict and turmoil; in a world of contradictory social, political, and societal forces, history was shaped. Dialectical materialism assumes that material reality is contradictory. All processes, all things, all objects, are and are not what they appear to be. Within each social process are embedded contradictory tendencies. The dialectical method rejects thinking in terms of fixed conceptual categories and notions of mutual exclusivity (a thing is either this or that). History was complex; complex to understand and complex to judge.

Class and Class Struggle

Exploitation in the Marxist tradition is the system by which the surplus produced by the worker is appropriated by the capitalist. When capitalists hire workers to labor for a given period of time, much of the value of the products that are produced are appropriated by them and become the basis for profit. Since capitalists own or control the means of production and wish to hire workers at the lowest possible wages, under the least favorable conditions, to be as productive as possible, and workers have interests in appropriating more of the value of what they produce, class struggle is embedded at the point of production in the capitalist system.

During periods of intense struggle between capitalists and workers, capitalists utilize various strategies and governmental tools to weaken the resolve and organization of workers. Capitalism needs an industrial reserve army of un- and underemployed workers available to work for less and to drive down the price of work. In addition, capitalists use strategies such as production speedups and lengthening the work day to get more value out of their work forces. Historically, capitalists have used the importation of pools of workers from other countries to challenge the leverage of those already in the work force. And, significantly, capitalism has historically used racism, ethnic discrimination, and traditional patterns of male domination as tools to divide the workforce. Ultimately, Marx and Engels argued, capitalism was a historical system driven by class struggle and any efforts to divide the working class by race, gender, (and in our own day sexual preference), and nationality, must be opposed.


Lenin drew upon Marxist theory to development an outlook on twentieth century imperialism that shaped progressive thinking throughout the years of Robeson’s activism. The Marxist-Leninist view of imperialism was that it was synonymous with capitalism during its monopoly stage.

As capitalism evolved from competition among numerous economic actors to concentration and centralization, and as state power became more concentrated, small numbers of corporations and banks acquired enormous amounts of wealth and power. To sustain the monopolistic nature of capitalism as it evolved in Europe and North America, the need for vital raw materials, cheap sources of labor, markets, and more investment opportunities became critical. Capitalism was a global system from its emergence out of feudalism in the sixteenth century but the breadth of its reach had increased ever since. And expansion to non-western regions of the globe and ultimately the establishment of a worldwide system of colonies controlled by Europe and North America became vital to the survival of capitalism as a global system. Capitalism needed slave, then cheap labor, agricultural commodities, and raw materials. Also customers for the goods produced in the capitalist centers that workers could not afford to purchase made non-western markets critical as well.

In addition to these reasons for the globalization of capitalism, Lenin argued that manufacturing and banking capital had become increasingly integrated and that the ever expanding accumulation of money capital required the growth of investment opportunities beyond national boundaries. Consequently, he warned, countries and territories of the global south were becoming absorbed into the capitalist world system by way of investments in joint stock companies, loans, investments for overseas sale of goods, and the construction of production facilities. Imperialism as domination and control of the economic life of oppressed peoples, became an intrinsic part of the process of capital accumulation and hence capitalism itself. In the modern world, capitalism and imperialism had become one and the same system.


For Marx and later Lenin a socialist state represented the interests of the working class. The socialist state is a transitional stage of society which will someday be transformed to communism. Under socialism classes still survive; under communism they would disappear.

The socialist vision that animated mass movements since the rise of capitalism has been based on the proposition that the interests of the working class will be served in a socialist state in a way that they are not under capitalism. Thus, under socialism human needs will be fulfilled for all as best the society can afford, equality will be a value maximized along with freedom, and the state will engage in sustained efforts to eliminate historic patterns of discrimination based on race, gender, and ethnicity. In other words, under socialism, the state serves the interests of the entire working class instead of the capitalist class. Under socialism, Robeson believed, it was possible to envision the elimination of racism and sexism.
Robeson’s Marxism

Robeson’s commentaries on contemporary affairs from the mid-1930s reflect a growing theoretical sophistication and a consciousness informed by the concepts described above. In speeches, newspaper articles, and interviews, Robeson relied on history, on a sense of the materiality of peoples’ lives, and on the growing resistance to oppression as the driving force of history. By the 1940s, his texts refer more frequently to Marxian categories about the capitalist system. While he was a person of action and an artist, not a political theorist, his commentaries were increasingly historical, materialist, and dialectical.

Speaking to an enthusiastic audience of workers at the 1948 convention of the International Fur and Leather Workers Union for example, Robeson articulated the view that the vast majority of humankind had a history of struggle against the expropriation of the wealth they produced by tiny minorities. He remembered that his father ran away from slavery and that his cousins in North Carolina, sharecroppers and tenant farmers, struggled to make a living. He referred to miners in West Virginia and Latino workers “living practically under the ground in holes” in Colorado, and to workers in the Midwest as well as field hands in California “living at the edge of subsistence.” [5]

Robeson told the assembled trade unionists that he had witnessed and heard reports of police violence against striking workers in the Mesabi Range in Minnesota, and in Iowa, and in South Carolina. To him, the arms of the state were used by and for the minority ruling class to crush the drive for change. The power of the state, he claimed, was designed to keep working people in a kind of industrial servitude.

Robeson then made the historical point that “these things, unfortunately, are not new in the struggle of mankind.” Further, “…the people, the great majority of the people, struggling as we have for generation after generation forward to some better life, how can it happen that everywhere in history a few seem to take the power in their hands, confuse the people themselves and there they remain?”   [6] And, he pointed out, the development of the United States (and presumably of the world) was built upon the labor of these same masses of people from the British Isles, Africa, Eastern Europe, Asia, and Latin America.

Robeson linked worldwide development and exploitation to that of the Black experience in the United States. He said that “the ‘Negro people’ …must have knowledge  that the very primary wealth  of America is cotton, built on the backs of our fathers; that cotton taken to the textile mills of New England;  and that we don’t have to ask for crumbs to be dropped  from the few up top, but we have the right and the responsibility to demand  in a militant way  a better life  for ourselves and for the rest of  those Americans and the peoples of the world who still suffer and are oppressed.”  [7]

Addressing the modern world, Robeson condemned United States support for the perpetuation of the British Empire which imposed “serfdom” in Asia and Africa and the apartheid regime in South Africa. He also argued that the United States thinks”… more of the profits of a few people of Standard Oil of this very state, than of the lives of one of the great peoples of the world.”  [8] Robeson said the directors of Standard Oil care nothing about working people; their sole motivation is profit. In summing up, Robeson claimed, millions of people throughout history have aspired and struggled so that the many can secure “some kind of real share of their labor,  that the few shall not keep on controlling our land, that there must be an extension of this democracy to those who do not have it.” [9]

In a 1949 interview, Robeson linked the struggles of African Americans to all workers and spoke, in colloquial language, of the ruling class that exploited everyone. This ruling class uses race and ethnicity to divide these workers so that the masses are divided into …”warring factions that produces nothing for them but discord and misery  while a scant, privileged few take all the wealth, hold the power and dictate the terms. This concentration of power in the hands of less than a hundred men is so strong that it can decide who shall eat and who shall not, who shall have decent homes and who shall be doomed to crowded tenements that are firetraps and rat-infested holes where children must be reared and the occupants live and die in despair.”  [10] Robeson related imperialism, class exploitation, and racism when he declared in London that: “…the fight  of my Negro people in America and the fight of the oppressed workers everywhere was the same struggle.” [11]

In an illuminating preface to a book by Luis Taruc, Born of the People, [12]  Robeson reflects on the historic resistance of the people of the Philippines to Spanish and U. S. colonialism. Recalling the apocryphal decision of U.S. President William McKinley to invade the Philippines to replace Spanish occupation, Robeson draws parallels with the history of colonialism practiced by the British and other imperial powers.  Most importantly, Robeson likens the history of imperialism to the then contemporary U.S. policies in Korea, in West Germany, and in the construction of a capitalist Japan.

And while the history of the world, Robeson seems to be suggesting, is a history of domination and exploitation, the imperial system creates resistance and ultimately the forces that will overthrow it. Ever the “dialectician,” Robeson refers to the Philippine struggle for freedom as an object lesson. “Here in Taruc’s searching and moving story, the whole struggle is laid bare–the terrible suffering and oppression, the slow torturous seeking for the ‘basic reasons’ and for the ‘right methods of action,’ the tremendous wisdom and perseverance in carrying through, the endless courage, understanding, determination of the people, of all sections of the people, for national liberation and dignity.”  [13] He concluded with reference to other struggles that in his mind represented the dialectical opposite of imperial domination; in the Soviet Union, in China, and in the Eastern European regimes (“Peoples Democracies”). Resistance will in the end yield a new kind of humanity, he claimed.
When Robeson first became a visible artistic presence and was called upon to answer questions about the world of politics, he demurred from involving himself in political discourse. He spoke more of the special qualities of the African American people and those of their African ancestors, particularly in comparison with Europeans and Americans. He drew upon simplistic anthropological comparisons of cultures which privileged analytical thinking, such as the European, and those, to the contrary, which were more emotive, such as the African. However, by the 1930s, Robeson’s thinking was transformed by exposure to the class struggles of the Welsh miners, his visits to the Soviet Union, his tour of the front in the Spanish civil war and his growing familiarity with the works of Marxists.

In an interview for a British film magazine, The Cine-Technician, [14] in 1938,  Robeson recalls how he years earlier had become aware that “the most genuine and enthusiastic applause always came from the gallery.”   [15] He realized that it was the working people who most responded to his work and that his own background and artistic sensibilities connected to that segment of the population.

By the time of the interview, Robeson was identifying world history with exploitation of peoples, articulating the just cause of the militant organizing drives of industrial unionism in the United States and Great Britain, and was connecting the struggles of people of color to the class struggles of workers. Also he was insisting that workers’ struggles must include those of minorities. Opposition to lynchings in the U.S. South and the poll tax to limit Black voting were working class issues relevant to the entire class, he said. The connections he was making in the late 1930s would continue to deepen in the subsequent twenty years of his political activism.

In a 1948 speech before a caucus meeting of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union  ILWU (and on behalf of third party presidential candidate Henry Wallace), Robeson identified the broader struggle for workers’ rights. “…the struggle for economic rights, the struggle for higher wages, the struggle for bread, the struggle for housing, has become a part of a wider political struggle. They have moved in to high places in government, and today the enemies of labor control the working apparatus of the state. They have to be removed. There has to be a basic change.”  [16]

And in an article referred to above, Robeson clearly identifies what constitutes the working class in his thinking: “To be completely free from the chains that bind him, the Negro must be part of the progressive forces which are fighting the overall battle of the little guy-the share cropper, the drugstore clerk, the auto mechanic, the porter and the maid, the owner of the corner diner, the truck driver, the garment, mill and steel workers. The progressive section sees no color line and views the whole problem of race and color prejudices and discrimination as a divisional tactic of those pitting class against class, dividing the masses into tint, warring factions that produces nothing for them but discord and misery…”  [17]

Robeson’s awareness of the global character of the struggle for liberation was sharpened by his interactions with and participation in the rising anti-colonial movements of the 1930s and 1940s. As his focus on Africa grew he articulated the connections between African misery and the extraction of vital natural resources by colonial and neo-colonial powers. During a speech delivered before the National Labor Conference for Negro Rights in 1950, Robeson referred to the important connections between the exploitation of Africa and the United States. The latter benefited from uranium mined in the Belgian Congo, and several African countries provided gold, chrome, cobalt, manganese, tin, palm oil, and other basic resources for industrial societies. [18]

Further, he argued that U.S. workers’ tax dollars, through the Marshall Plan, and the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, were being used to prop up European colonial powers to exploit Black Africa. In addition President Truman’s Point Four program was designed to finance opening the door for U.S. “banker-imperialists” to invest in natural resources and cheap labor in Africa. To maintain stability for foreign investors, Robeson claimed, the United States was building military bases on the African continent.

And in the context of the Cold War, Robeson’s world vision was clearly framed by a theory of imperialism. ” With the Soviet Union out of their grasp-one sixth of the earth’s surface-and Eastern Europe established on a new basis of independence, American big business sought desperately to extend their holdings in the rest of the world. For they need the sources of cheap labor, the easy markets and the fields of investments in which to multiply the idle profits they have already wrung out of the toil-broken bodies of American workers, black and white.” [19]

In this speech and many others after World War II, Robeson referred to the socialist alternatives existing at that time. He mentioned the Russian revolution and the efforts of European, U.S., and Japanese armies to overthrow the new Bolshevik regime. He acknowledged the recently concluded Chinese revolution. And he referred positively to the new socialist regimes under construction in Eastern Europe. His attachment to socialism as an alternative to western capitalism was kindled by early trips to the Soviet Union, where he noticed the paucity of racism in Russian life. Coming from a society fundamentally shaped by racism, in social interaction, culture, and distribution of wealth and power, the Soviet Union Robeson saw was radically different.

Robeson was interviewed by the Sunday Worker in 1936 about a recent visit to the Soviet Union. He was quoted as saying: “While in the Soviet Union I made it a point to visit some of the workers’ homes-that is some that were not so famous as Eisenstein. And I saw for myself. They all live in healthful surroundings, apartments, with nurseries containing the most modern equipment for their children. Besides they were still building. I certainly wish the workers in this country-and especially the Negroes in Harlem and the South-had such places to stay in.”  [20] A year later he spoke with praise about verbal commitments to racial and national equality in the new Soviet constitution. He referred to the constitution as a manifestation of a new “Soviet humanism.” [21]

Twelve years later, in the darkening days of the Cold War, Robeson continued his praise of the Soviet Union at an address at a banquet sponsored by the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship. After criticizing unemployment and low wages of black Americans, the specter of lynchings, and the perpetuation of the Jim Crow system of segregation in the South, he offered the Soviet model as an alternative. For him “the Soviet Union’s very existence, its example before the world of abolishing all discrimination based on color or nationality, its fight in every arena of world conflict for genuine democracy and for peace, this has given us Negroes the chance of achieving our complete liberation within our own time, within this generation.” [22] Beyond what he saw as the socialist “humanism” of the Soviet system, Robeson pointed to the deterrent power of the Soviet Union against “world imperialism.” For him, the struggle for racial justice in the United States would be less of a public issue than it is if the United States were not in global competition with the Soviet Union.

Embedded in the corpus of Robeson’s public statements and activism was a vision of a society of social and economic justice and workers’ political empowerment. This was why he was driven to fight Fascism and to adamantly defend democracy for all people. To him the state should reflect and serve the interests of the working class. And when a worker’s state is established, he was suggesting, the drive for conquest and control of other peoples would end. He was positing a common humankind that was fragmented and brutalized by imperialism. For Robeson, the existing socialist states of his day represented the possibility of global change. Central to the socialist outcome would be an end to racism and exploitation.

Guthrie’s Marxism

Woody Guthrie came to his understanding of capitalism, the connections between the land, labor, the ownership and control of the means of production through a process of experiencing family wealth and impoverishment in Okemah, Oklahoma. He saw people around him being driven from economic security by the devastation of land by corporate agriculture, technology, and natural disaster. His travels led to experiencing migrant labor in California, militant labor struggles across the North American continent, and left political activism in his later life.

In a 1947 essay reflecting on his political awakening Guthrie wrote that: “I never did know that the human race was this big before. I never did really know that the fight had been going on so long and so bad. I never had been able to look out over and across the slum section nor a sharecropper farm and connect it up with the owner and the landlord and the guards and the police and the dicks and the bulls and the vigilante men with their black sedans and sawed off shot guns.” [23]

Virtually all of Guthrie’s writings, musical and essays, emphasize the role of work, the expropriation of the value of what workers produce by capitalists, and the enforcement of a capitalist system based on unequal distribution of wealth and power enforced by the state. His language was vivid, polemical, and insightful (“inciteful” also):  “The Rich War Lords believe in Killing, Hating, and Taking. They hire people to do it for them. They hire your brother to grab up a badge and a gun and mow you down in front of a shop, or a mine, or a mill, or a factory. They even spend wagon loads of money on picture shows, magazines, newspapers, radios, and for phonograph records, and everything in the world, even preachers, to make you think they are Right, and us poor folks are Wrong.” [24]

A myriad of statements like these over the course of Guthrie’s career suggest his belief that the economic system in which farmers and factory workers lived was driven by the Marxian idea of exploitation. His song lyrics spelled out over and over again how the capitalists expropriated what by all rights belonged to laborers and how history was driven by on-again off-again struggle between capital and labor. By instinct, observation, and study Guthrie realized that the viability of the capitalist economic system was built on force and fraud.

The former, force, is represented by police, scabs, and armies. Fraud refers to the print media, radio, the music industry, and religion. In memoir after memoir Guthrie mentioned the entertainment industry, with particular disdain for former comrades who sold out to “the big money boys” and created a commercially viable and sanitized popular music. It is interesting to note in similar ways that through experience Robeson came to reject the original lyrics to his classic rendition of “Old Man River” in the musical “Showboat” because of its demeaning portrait of the docile African American worker along the Mississippi River. And later Pete Seeger wrote about his discomfort with the commercial success of the folk group, The Weavers, whose somewhat modified folk songs for a time became commercially viable and, at the same time, less militant. (However, the Weavers did introduce into popular culture people’s songs at a time when anti-communism was destroying any residue of the cultural front).

Even the artist, Guthrie wrote, was inextricably connected to the capitalist order. “No, you are never actually bought nor bribed til they have decided that they can use you in one way or another to rob, to deceive, to blind, confuse, to misrepresent, or just to harass, worry, bedevil, and becloud the path of the militant worker on his long hard fight from slavery to freedom….And it is the highest form of your owner’s joy when he buys you out from the union side.”

However, Guthrie pointed out that despite artistic complicity with owners, from time to time those artists radical pasts will be used to immobilize their progressive activities. And generally capitalism created a system of spies who identify dangerous radicals including artists who had become supporters of the system and Congressional committees to investigate past or current activists. This creates a capitalist “dog eat dog” system. “It is all of this spying on each other that causes the newspapers to be full of killings, murders, rapes, robbings, divorces, shootings, stabbings, and every known kind of disease, decay, rot and degeneracy.”

Guthrie linked capitalist exploitation to social control and efforts to divide the working class. “This is the system which the owners would like to prolong, to keep alive, to prolong as long as they possibly can, because in the wild blindness of it all, they get all of us to fighting against one another, and rob us coming in the fields of production, and going, in the realms of distribution.” Guthrie’s project, he said, was “to expose by every conceivable way that I could think of with songs and with ballads, and even with poems, stories, newspaper articles, even by humor, by fun, by nonsense, ridicule and by any other way that I could lay hold on.”  [25]

The power of Guthrie’s songs came from the combination of his explication of the trials and tribulations of farmers, factory workers, and the unemployed; the dramatization of their continual struggles against exploitation and oppression, and his vision of a better socialist world. The distillation of Marxist theory is best reflected in the iconic three verses in “This Land is Your Land”

On private property:

Was a big high wall there that tried to stop me:
A sign was painted said “Private Property”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing–
This land was made for you and me.

On the consequences of exploitation:

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple,
By the relief office I saw my people–
As they stood there hungry,
I stood there wondering if
This land was made for you and me. [26]

And on struggle:

Nobody living can every stop me,
As I go walking my freedom highway.
Nobody living can make me turn back.
This land was made for you and me. [27]

Seeger’s Marxism

Pete Seeger is incorporated in this discourse on Marxism, culture, and politics for a variety of reasons. First, as a bridge between the theory and practice of Robeson, Guthrie and the years subsequent to the height of the Cold War, Seeger, in a fundamental sense was the translator of progressive political culture to newer generations of political activists. Second, inspired by (and inspiring at least Woody Guthrie), Seeger translated the Marxist outlook and practice to a variety of issues that were not addressed as centrally during the Great Depression, World War II, and the early Cold War. Third, Seeger presented a model of engaged artistry in an era when the connection between art and politics was actively discouraged and punished.

Finally, the body of Seeger’s art and activism actually enriched Marxist theory by conceptualizing the connections between all peoples, people and nature, and firmly embedded the inextricable bonds between an understanding of class, race, and gender (and sexual preference and the environment). It is not that these connections were not suggested by Marx in the nineteenth century, nor in the work of Robeson and Guthrie, but with the exigencies of the Cold War and post-Cold War period, these were more underscored by history.

First, Seeger’s performances, songs, and celebrations of the artistry of others clearly has foregrounded history, materialism, and dialectics. His collection Carry It On! A History in Song and Pictures of the Working Men and Women of America, (with Bob Reiser, Simon and Schuster, 1985) organized songs about the working class chronologically and topically, including “Oh Freedom, 1770-1865;” “Eight Hours, 1865-1900;” “Solidarity Forever, 1900-1918;” “Talkin’ Union, 1918-1945;” “The Banks of Marble, 1945-1963;”and “More Than a Paycheck, 1963-Now.”

A newer Seeger anthology of songs, Where Have All the Flowers Gone, A Singer’s Stories, Songs, Seeds, and Robberies, (A Sing Out Publication, 1993) reflected the growing complexity of issues that progressive movements of the sixties and beyond took. Chapter titles included: “All Mixed Up;” “Politics 1939-49;” “Kids;” “Some Love Songs, Some Music Without Words,” “New Tunes to Others’ Words;” “”New Words to Others’ Tunes,” “The Vietnam War;” “From the Great Old Book;” “Think Globally, Sing Locally;” and “Time, Home, Family, Friends.” In addition, along with his many other publications and recordings, Seeger published an “afterword” to a recently reissued version of the Guthrie/Seeger collection  from the 1940s and 1950s called Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People (University of Nebraska Press, 2012).

Most of Seeger’s often performed songs have illustrated the centrality of history, work, and the systems of exploitation that working people have experienced. Seeger sang of the brutality of the mine owners in Wales who “plunder willy nilly.” “They have fangs, they have teeth,” so much so that “even God is uneasy.” [28] Seeger and the Weavers regularly sang about the banks there “were made of marble, With a guard at very door, And the vaults are stuffed with silver That the seamen sweated for.” [29]

The exploitation of the miners and seamen were part of historical struggles that were even reflected in the Old and New Testaments. In “Turn, Turn, Turn” Seeger pointed out that…. “to everything there is a season.” The song suggested that the ebbs and flows of history were not bound by calendars, dates, times, and heroes and villains. A “season” was defined by its historic projects. And these historic projects, the words suggested, included “a time to reap,” “a time to build,” “a time to break down,” “a time to cast away stones,” and “a time to gather stones together.” Projects entailed defeats and victories, tears and laughter but the seasons go on and encompassed “a time to love” and “a time to hate.” And in the end the song declared that “it’s not too late.”

Over the years, Seeger’s performances emphasized class struggle, “Which Side Are You On.”  “Union Maids,” “We Shall Not Be Moved,” “L’Internationale” and countless others. They also highlighted the struggle against imperialism from “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” “Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream,” to “Waste Deep in the Big Muddy” including solidarity with the Vietnamese people (“Teacher Uncle Ho”) and the Cubans (“Guantanamera”).

And, in terms of Seeger’s vision, peace, harmony with nature, equality, an end to racism and sexism, played most prominently. The lens on the world assimilated from the labor and anti-fascist struggles of the 1940s were adopted by Seeger’s performances and writings to the reemerging campaigns for racial justice and later the liberation of women. And, in dialectical fashion, Seeger learned from those engaged in struggles-in the freedom movement of the South, growing challenges to patriarchy, and the environmental movement. His founding of the Clearwater movement to clean up the Hudson River brought all of these concerns together.

Theory and Practice

In practice man must prove the truth, that is, the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question. [30]

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it. [31]

Marx saw a necessary connection between the development of ideas about the world and engagement in that world to change it. Contrary to bourgeois systems of thought that evolve in abstract and intellectual contestation with competing ideas, in the Marxist perspective, ideas are tested in action. All three political actors discussed above were performers, not philosophers. However, they did engage in research about social systems and cultures and saw the need to relate their understanding and ideas about culture to concrete realities. They resolved to connect their intellectual and artistic powers to action, to social change.

Perhaps Robeson’s most prominent “political” speech was given before the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief at Royal Albert Hall on June 24, 1937. In it he proclaimed the necessity of the artist to take a stand.” … I have longed to see my talent contributing in an unmistakably clear manner to the cause of humanity. Every artist, every scientist, must decide NOW where he stands. He has no alternative.” [32]

And then he connected the necessity of action in the struggle to save Spain from fascism with the longer struggle of Blacks for liberation. He reiterated that the artist must take sides. “He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative. The history of the capitalist era is characterized by the degradation of my people: despoiled of their lands, their culture destroyed, they are in every country save one, denied equal protection of the law, and deprived of their place in the respect of their fellows.”  [33] He ended his speech with a clarion call for artists to defend culture from assault; that the legacy of humankind is threatened by the rise of fascism. From this dramatic moment to the end of his active political life in the early 1960s, Robeson connected his art with his understanding of colonialism, racism, fascism, and imperialism. His political and artistic choices were carefully crafted to link theory with practice.

Time after time, Woody Guthrie made it clear about how he saw the connection between his singing and the struggles of workers for a better life. He said he hated songs that made people feel that they were no good. “I am out to fight those kinds of songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood.” He wrote that he sang songs about the exploiters and the downtrodden, “…the outlaws that the people loved and the ones that the people hated.”  “The folks all around the world have been fighting now for a hundred centuries to all be union and to all be free and I sing the songs that tell you about that.”

Guthrie made it clear who he was speaking and singing for. “I speak for the union people that see a union world and that fight for a one big union all around the world…a singer for the AFL of L, CIO, Brotherhoods and Sisterhoods….” “….and fight against the white hood of the Ku Klux Klan because I hate them….” “I speak for the human beings of this human race and when anybody quits being a human and goes to fighting against the union right then I jump on them with all of my teeth and toenails….And I hang on and I keep on singing and yelling and singing and yelling and singing and yelling and reading and writing and hollering and fighting and everything else.” [34]

And Pete Seeger has always connected his stage presence, soliciting musical participation, and activism for social change. In addition, he has argued that there are intimate connections between music-popular culture-and building social movements.

Will there be a human race here in another 200 years? Yes, it’s a possibility. If so, it
will be partly because songwriters of many kinds used whatever talents they were
born with or developed.

And used them to help their fellow humans get together. Their closer neighbors. Their
distant cousins in the wider world. These pages show some of the mistakes made and
some of the small successes of one songwriter and his friends in the 20th century.

Here’s hoping that readers will find a few ideas worth stealing.  [35]

The Organic Intellectual

The mode of being of the new intellectual can no longer consist in eloquence, which is an exterior and momentary mover of feelings and passions, but in active participation in practical life, as constructor, organizer, ‘permanent persuader,’ and not just a simple orator…     [36]

The Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci wrote about the “organic intellectual,” that is the intellectual who was connected to various social groups or movements and acted in concert with and stimulated the activities of such groups. The organic intellectual in class society was linked to the project for historical change of the working class.

As the consciousnesses of Robeson, Guthrie, and Seeger were changed by exposure to Marxism, the socialist vision, anti-colonial struggles, and the working class, their conception of art as well as their conception of their connections to their audiences changed significantly. As indicated above, the artists realized that their strongest connections as artist were with the working class, or as Robeson put it, the people “in the gallery.” They came to see their art as a project of and for poor and oppressed peoples. The fight against Fascism and war and for democracy remained intimately connected to human liberation.

In an illuminating interview in 1939, Robeson discussed the historic meaning of the folk songs he was singing and the ways in which his performances concretized the historic struggles of common people. His performances linked the historical context in which the songs of freedom originated and the contemporary struggles against racism and fascism. For example, the cry to “let my people go” had meaning for those fighting fascism in the 1930s as well as those chanting against slavery and feeling “like a motherless child” describes the pain and suffering of emigration in the face of fascist military expansion.

In response to a question about what folk music meant to Robeson, he described the roots of the genre and the ways in which he as performer used his talent to give meaning to the traditions. In this way, he was the interpreter, the organizer, the intellectual guide to the masses of working people who created the culture that was basic to their humanity.

First, Robeson defined folk music. “I mean the songs of people, of farmers, workers, miners, road-diggers, chain-gang laborers, that come from direct contact with their work, whatever it is. This folk music is as much a creation of a mass of people as language.”  [37] Woody Guthrie once wrote that “I saw the hundreds of thousands of stranded, broke, hungry, idle, miserable people that lined the highways all out through the leaves and underbrush. I heard these people sing in their jungle camps and in their Federal Work Camps and sang songs I made up for them over the air waves.” [38]

Second, Robeson discussed the sociology of the music and most importantly his connection, organically, with the creators of the culture.  Both folk music and language “…are derived from social groups which had to communicate with each other and within each other. One person throws in a phrase. Then another-and when, as a singer, I walk from among the people, onto the platform, to sing back to the people the songs they themselves have created, I can feel a great unity, not only as a person, but as an artist who is at one with his audience.” [39]

In this interview, Robeson grounded his own changing consciousness in the process of connecting with the “folk” who created the music he sang. “This keeping close to the feelings and desires of my audiences has a lot to do with shaping my attitude toward the struggle of the people of the world. It has made me an anti-fascist, whether the struggle is in Spain, Germany or here.” [40]

His career, Robeson said, had led him to see through the “pseudo-scientific racial barriers” which shaped his consciousness growing up in a racist society. The rejection of that society and the commitment to struggle against it came from “…my travels, from world events which show that all oppressed people cry out against their oppressors-these have made my loneliness vanish, have made me come home to sing my songs so that we will see that our democracy does not vanish. If I can contribute to this as an artist, I shall be happy” [41] Guthrie and Seeger, in language much paralleling Robeson’s, would share the vision of the folk musician as an organic intellectual.

The Cultural Front

The heart of this cultural front was a new generation of plebeian artists and intellectuals who had grown up in the immigrant and black working-class neighborhoods of the modernist metropolis… a radical social-democratic movement forged around anti-fascism, anti-lynching and the unionism of the CIO. [42]

Michael Denning portrays the “cultural front” of the 1930s as a broad network of organizational connections constituting a mass movement. The Communist Party of the United States was a significant element of this network, expanding well beyond the orbit of the party to encompass performance artists, labor activists, civil rights workers, and varying anti-fascists forces in the United States. The cultural front was a mass movement, it was a cultural moment, it was an ambience or atmosphere that attracted millions of people. For Denning its most visible manifestation was the massive mobilization of workers to demand the right to form unions. The Congress of Industrial Organizations or CIO was its organizing vehicle and below that, it must be added, the dogged Communist Party organizers who worked for years building support for industrial unions.

Paul Robeson developed his worldwide reputation as an artist and as a political activist at the height of the cultural front. He, along with many other performers, writers, and painters inspired the mass political mobilizations of the cultural front and at the same time were stimulated in their work to develop further in conformance with its vision. A symbiotic relationship developed between performer and movement.

Among Robeson’s organizational connections were a variety of unions affiliated with the Congress of Industrial Organizations. He worked closely with African-American organizations committed to racial justice. As suggested above, he gave his energies to the anti-fascist struggle in Spain. And he involved himself in the burgeoning anti-colonial movements, particularly in support of Pan-Africanism. From World War II until the end of his political activism, he identified with the Socialist states and as the Cold War deepened became an activist in the world peace movement.

Guthrie and Seeger emerging as performers and political activists about five years later committed themselves to union organizing and anti-fascist struggles. Traveling the country singing in union halls and labor camps, they offered their services to give voice and inspiration to working class struggles. Upon return to New York City, Seeger and Guthrie sought to build a working class song movement that would resonate from the cultural center to the nation at large. Creating the Almanac Singers, networking with folk musicologists such as Alan Lomax and singers engaged in ongoing class struggles such as Aunt Molly Jackson and Florence Reece from Harlan County, Kentucky, Seeger and Guthrie nationalized a folk genre that reflected the Marxist lens discussed above. And after World War II, Robeson, Seeger, and Guthrie joined forces in an effort to keep the Cultural Front and its Popular Front politics alive by working vigorously for the presidential campaign of Henry Wallace in 1948. In addition, they appeared together in defiance of racist and anti-communist violence at the iconic folk concert at Peekskill, New York in 1949.

As Denning suggested Robeson’s career and political activism paralleled the rise to influence of progressive forces in the United States and around the world. Artists like Robeson, Guthrie, and Seeger, stimulated, nourished, and inspired these forces and at the same time were stimulated and nourished by them. Each depended on the other for definition and ultimately survival. The growing challenge to Robeson’s and Seeger’s politics in 1950s America was significantly impacted by the decline of the Left. Repression occurred as progressive sectors of labor and the civil rights movement were subjected to anti-communism.  While Robeson, Guthrie, and Seeger remained important political figures around the world, as socialism grew and anti-colonial movements gained victory, the restrictions on Robeson’s travel and the anti-communist assaults on Seeger attempted to cut off connections with a global cultural front.

In sum, reflecting on the Marxian commitment to the transformation of theory into practice, the Gramscian model of the committed “organic intellectual,” and Denning’s idea of a time and place, the 1930s and 1940s, when a working class, anti-lynching, anti-fascist “cultural front” framed art and politics, we can better understand Paul Robeson, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger, the activists, and Marxists.

The Relevance of the Marxism of Robeson, Guthrie, and Seeger Today

Today, at a time of growing violence and war, racism, super-exploitation of workers, all on a global basis, the Robeson/Guthrie/Seeger model of an engaged artist/intellectual/activist seems as necessary as ever. In reviewing their lives and work, several critical elements of thought and action emerge that can serve as an examples for artist/intellectuals and social movements today.

First, Robeson, Guthrie, and Seeger developed a theoretical framework that helped them to understand domestic and international relations; politics, economics, and culture; and the vital links between class, race, and gender (although ideas about gender were less developed). They embraced the Marxist approach which was historical, materialist, and dialectical.

Second, Robeson realized by the mid-1930s, and Guthrie and Seeger a few years later, that their theoretical understanding of the world needed to be matched by practical engagement in that world. Robeson, early in his career believed that as an artist he should not to be politically engaged. But again, the events of the 1930s changed his mind: that to be an artist meant to be engaged. He realized that he had no choice but to join the struggle for the survival of humankind. Throughout his remaining years, he referred to himself as a fighter against fascism. Similar but less dramatic “conversions” could be teased from the biographies of Guthrie and Seeger.

Third, Robeson’s commitment to the struggle for human liberation and against fascism was to be manifested in his political activities and in his artistic endeavors. He would sing for the movement. He would fashion an art that was of the movement. His commitment to the performance of the “Negro spiritual” was designed to celebrate the pain and suffering and the very soul of his people. Over the years, his passion for performing the songs of people from many lands constituted an expression of his political ideology and international class solidarity. And as was sampled above the same frame was as passionately articulated by Guthrie and Seeger.

Fourth, Robeson realized that his art was an expression of and concretized the vision of the broad masses of peoples for whom he performed. His realization that he resonated most to the people “in the balcony’ reflected the connection between him as the “organic intellectual” and the working class he spoke for. And, in the milieu of the 1930s, he represented the vision and the hope of workers, Black and white, colonial peoples, and the broad front of anti-fascist freedom fighters the world over. His performance represented them and their existence made his art possible. He was perhaps an early example of a global artist speaking for and shaped by a global cultural front. [43] Again, Guthrie and Seeger sang in support of industrial workers, participating in their organizing drives; mobilized in the campaign against Fascism in Europe and Asia, after the war participated with peace and justice activists, and particularly in the case of Pete Seeger, supported and helped bring visibility of the Southern Freedom movement to the country at large. All three performers came together to support Progressive Party presidential candidate Henry Wallace in 1948 and joined in resistance against racism and anti-communism in a concert, then riot, in Peekskill, New York in 1949.

Finally, Robeson’s Marxism, manifested in theory and practice, in performance and politics, shaped his thinking about his music. His understanding of the music he sang was shaped by historical and dialectical materialism and class solidarity. In an appendix to his autobiography, Here I Stand, he writes about the commonality of chord structures he found in music from Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America:

Continued study and research into the origins of the folk music of various peoples in many parts of the world revealed that there is a world body-a universal body-of folk music based upon a universal pentatonic (five-tone) scale. Interested as I am in the universality of mankind-in the fundamental relationship of all peoples to one another-this idea of a universal body of music intrigued me, and I pursued it along many fascinating paths. [44]

Robeson saw a beautifully diverse world of peoples and cultures sharing a common humanity. To him human solidarity was possible because of it. Robeson’s articulated vision of human solidarity in his art and politics was perhaps his most profound contribution. This as well was the greatest contribution of the cultural front from which he came. No more important idea is needed today to guide our social movements, and a blossoming global cultural front, than that of the “universal body of music” and the “universality of (hu)man kind” which he proclaimed.

Guthrie was more pugnacious when he wrote:

I hate a song that makes you think that you are 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 too old or too young or too fat or too slim. Too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard traveling. I am out to fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood….[45]
Pete Seeger once quoted his Weavers comrade Lee Hayes who wrote:

    Good singing won’t do;
    Good praying won’t do;
    Good preaching won’t do;
    But if you get them all together
    With a little organizing behind it,
    You get a way of life
    And a way to do it.” [46]

In sum, Robeson, Guthrie, and Seeger articulated through art and action a set of accessible Marxist concepts for understanding the world and general ideas about how to change it; a vision of a “Popular Front” that must bring the vast majority of humankind (the 99 percent?) to common action; and a call to action combining intellectual rigor, militancy and tolerance.


1.  Penn State Conference theme
2.  Parts of this paper were presented at a conference “Paul Robeson: His History and Development as an Intellectual” at Lafayette College, Easton, Pennsylvania, April 8, 2005. This latest version was improved as a result of substantive suggestions for a revision by Jay Schaffner, labor educator and musician’s union organizer, now retired.
3. Karl Marx and  Frederick Engels, The German Ideology, International Publishers, New York, 1976, 50.
4.  Ibid. 42.
5.  Paul Robeson, “Speech at International Fur and Leather Workers Union Convention,” May 20, 1948, Proceedings, in Philip S. Foner ed., Paul Robeson Speaks: Writings, Speeches, Interviews, 1918-1974, Citadel Press, Secaucus, N.J. 1978, 184.
6. Ibid. 185.
7.  Ibid. 185.
8.  Ibid. 186.
9.  Ibid. 186.
10.  Paul Robeson, “My Answer,” as told to Dan Bailey in New York Age, August 6, 13, 20, September 3, 17, 1949, in Foner, ed.,229.
11.  Paul Robeson, “I, Too, Am American,” Reynolds News, London, February 27, 1949 in Foner, ed., 191.
12.  Paul Robeson, “Foreword ,”  Born of the People by Luis Taruc, ” New York, 1953, in Foner, ed., 370-372.
13.  Ibid. 371.
14.  Paul Robeson, “Paul Robeson Tells Us Why,” An interview by Sidney Cole in The Cine-Technician, London, September-October, 1938, in Foner, ed., 121-123.
15.  Ibid. 122.
16.  Paul Robeson, “remarks at Longshore,  Shipclerks, Walking Bosses and Gatemen and Watchmen’s Caucus,” August 21,1948 Proceedings, Foner.,ed. 188-189.
17.  Paul Robeson, “My America,” in Foner, ed. 229.
18.  Paul Robeson, “Forge Negro-Labor Unity for Peace and Jobs,” speech at National Labor Conference for Negro Rights, Chicago June 10, 1950, in Foner, ed. 246.
19  Paul Robeson, “Speech to Youth,” address delivered at First National Convention of Labor Youth League, November 24. 1950, in Foner, ed. 255.
20.  Paul Robeson, “U.S.S.R. The Land for Me,” Sunday Worker, May 10, 1936, in Foner, ed., 106.
21.  Paul Robeson, “When I Sing,” Sunday Worker, February 7, 1937, in Foner, ed., 116.
22.  Paul Robeson, “The Negro People and the Soviet Union,”  address at the National Council of Soviet  American Friendship New York, November 10, 1949,  pamphlet, New York, 1950 in Foner, ed., 240.
23.  Woody Guthrie, Pastures of Plenty, a Self-Portrait, (edited by Dave Marsh and Harold Leventhal), Harper Collins, 1990, 9.
24.  Woody Guthrie (with Alan Lomax and Pete Seeger), Hard Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People, University of Nebraska Press, 2012, 281.
25.  Woody Guthrie, Pastures of Plenty, 200-201.
26.  David R. Shumway, “Your Land, The Lost Legacy of Woody Guthrie,” in Robert Santelli and Emily Davison editors, Hard Travelin:’The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie, Wesleyan University Press, hanover, 1999, 133-134.
27.  Pete Seeger, Where Have All the Flowers Gone: A Singer’s Stories, Songs, Seeds, and Robberies, Sing Out Publications, 1993, 142.
28.  Pete Seeger, Where Have All the Flowers Gone, 99.
29.  Pete Seeger and Bob Reiser, Carry It On! A History in Song and Picture of the Working Men and Women of America, Simon and Schuster, 1985, 179.
30.  Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “Theses on Feurbach,” in Lewis S. Feuer, ed. Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy, Anchor Books, 1959, 243.
31.  Ibid. 245.
32.  Paul Robeson, “The Artist Must Take Sides,” Daily Worker, June 24, 1937, November 4, 1937, Foner, ed. 118.
33.  Ibid. 119.
34.  Woody Guthrie, “WNEW,” Born to Win, Colliers, 1965, 220-226.
35.  Pete Seeger, Where Have All the Flowers Gone, 261.
36.  Antonio Gramsci,  Selections From the Prison Notebooks, International Publishers, New York, 1971, 10.
37.  Paul Robeson, “Paul Robeson Told Me,” interview by Julia Dorn, TAC, July-August, 1939, in Foner, ed. 131.
38.  Woody Guthrie, Pastures of Plenty, 7.
39.  Paul Robeson, “Paul Robeson Told Me,” 131.
40.  Ibid.
41.  Ibid, 132.
42.  Michael Denning, The Cultural Front, Verso, London, 1996, xv,xviii.
43.  Robeson inspired many artists to take the politically engaged path including  Ossie Davis , Ruby Dee, Harry Belafonte, Nina Simone, Pete Seeger, and Danny Glover.
44.  Paul Robeson, Here I Stand, Beacon, Boston, 1988, 115.
45.  Woody Guthrie, Born to Win,  223.
46.  Pete Seeger and Bob Reiser, Carry It On!, 10.

Harry Targ is a national committee member of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism.

Category : Culture / Hegemony / US History / Working Class

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