The deaths within a short time of two highly respected men in their mid-90s, who both were members of the Communist Parties of their nations, and only somewhat reluctantly abjured their past associations raises questions that must be more seriously considered. It has been trivial since the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War to dismiss orthodox Communism as a dead doctrine, only followed by lunatic oppressors in North Korea (although they officially went nationalist rather than Marxist/Communist some years ago), or those about to die, such as Castro in Cuba. But it is a hard fact that both the most respected person on the planet, Nelson Mandela, and the freshly dead American folk music icon, Pete Seeger, were not only members of their respective national Communist parties, but maintained substantial elements of support for those even after they formally abjured their party memberships, that act itself a matter of some contention.
Not only that, but revelations of details of these facts has inspired various critics to denounce both of these widely admired figures for their apparent failures either to denounce their former associations (more for Seeger) or even to have joined the party in the first place (Mandela, whose membership was denied by him in his autobiography). So, Bryan Caplan has denounced Mandela for his even joining the South African Communist Party (SACP, although in the old days they were the CPSA), with him having actually been a member of their Central Committee at the time of his arrest in 1962, with on them praising him for this on his death.
Regarding Pete Seeger, as a 17-year-old freshman at Harvard in the same class as JFK in 1936 he attended a few Communist Party meetings, joining the Young Communist League (YCL) and then the party itself in 1941, only to leave it in 1950. Details of all this and other matters I shall refer to can be found at his Wikipedia entry, the New York Times obit for him, an article by David Graham at the Atlantic, while various sources have denounced him for his reluctance to denounce Joseph Stalin, although he would eventually do so in the 1990s, notably after the fall of the Soviet Union when he was given Kennedy Center Honors by Bill Clinton in 1994, when he apologized for having been slow to realize that Stalin was not just a "hard driver, but a brutal dictator." He had in 1982 sung for the Polish Solidarity movment, which many take as a denunciation of Stalin, although it took until 2007 for him to write a song openly and clearly denouncing Stalin specifically, "Big Joe Blues."
So, before proceeding further I shall make observations on my own position. In 2001, my Russian-born wife Marina, now in a plane over the Atlantic on the way to Moscow to visit her mother, and I took our then nearly 12-year old daughter, Sasha, to Moscow, and as a matter of history I took her to look at the corpse of Lenin in his Mausoleum on Red Square. As one approaches this view, one passes the roughly 20 herms with busts just behind it (there being two further layers, mere tombs, and then those "in the Kremlin Wall," the US's John Reed in that first layer, and cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in the latter). Among those herms is the one above the corpse of Stalin, who had initially lain next to Lenin after his death, then moved to a secret grave after Khrushchev delivered his deStalinization speech in 1956, only to be moved back to his remaining location just behind the mausoleum after Brezhnev overthrew Khrushchev a half century ago (with Brezhnev's corpse now lying beneath a similar herm in that row now that nobody any longer seeks to join). Anyway, ahead of us in line was an elderly man wearing many medals from his service in WW II, and Sasha got a serious lesson when we had to wait while this man stood for a long time and bowed very slowly and very deeply to the herm with Stalin's bust, even as she had been told that he was a mass murderer who killed millions and also personally had her much-respected great grandfather, Boris Mokhov, thrown in prison and profoundly tortured. While at that time those men still walked the streets of Moscow with their medals clanking proudly, they do so no longer, only appearing in small numbers in wheelchairs on the May 9 anniversary celebration of VE Day, their numbers rapidly dwindling.
While I have just provided what is viewed in Russia and some other parts of the former USSR as the main reason why Stalin might be defended, that in alliance with the US and UK, he oversaw the main push that defeated Hitler, with 20-30 million Soviet citizens dying in this effort, which included the deadliest battle in world history that turned the war around, Stalingrad (now Volgagrad), and the world's largest tank battle at Kursk, which was the ultimate death knell for Hitler. Needless to say some argue that Stalin killed more than Hitler, but if one counts Soviets who died in this war as a result of Hitler invading the USSR on June 22, 1941 with Operation Barbarossa as due to Hitler, it is not close (although the Black Book of Communism's number for Mao of 65 million puts him way ahead of both of them).
So, Dave Graham argues that Seeger's communism was "all-American." There is something to this, even if Seeger and many others naively followed the doctrine longer than could be justified by anyone paying close attention to what was going on. In the year Seeger joined the YCL, the party was in its Popular Front phase, allying itself with movements in other countries, with its publicly open national convention that year in the US looking like one would find today from the Dems or GOP more recently, lathered with flags and patriotic music and speeches. Then CPUSA General Secretary Earl Browder declared that communism was "20th century Americanism," and Seeger believed him, even though Browder was a paid sycophant-toady for Stalin.
I personally think that what was going on with Seeger, whom I profoundly admire as the Grand Old Man of American Folk Music and the composer of many songs that will be sung as long as Americans sing songs, was a Yankee stubbornness that did not like people telling him what to do. His great grandfather had been a famous abolitionist, and his father had been a Conscientious Objector in WW I. It is ironic given this that his most criticized act was producing a pacifist recording with the Almanac Singers in early June, 1941, in line with the then CPUSA and Stalin line of peace between Hitler and Stalin, broken weeks later with the Operation Barbarossa German invasion of the Soviet Union (with Seeger after this serving the war effort in the US), and during a period when the US itself was still neutral in the war. In any case, I observe that even many libetarians, who are often strongly anti-Communist, admire his resistance in 1955 when he stood against the demands of the House Un-American Committee (HUAC), a body that in retrospect must be viewed as the epitome of unAmericanism itself, and unlike any other witness in the post-Hollywood-Ten era did not refuse to testify by invoking the Fifth Amendment, but forthrightly declared his right not to reply to certain questions on the basis of the First Amendment, free speech, as foundationally all-American as you can get. They brought a conviction against him for his temerity in 1957 as "Contempt of Congress," (snort), which was overturned on a technicality in 1962. I shall quote his most famous rejoinder to them in the hearing that no one has ever overturned:
"I feel in my whole life I have never done anything of a conspiratorial nature. I am not going to answer any question as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs [he was a practicing Unitarian Universalist at his death], or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this."
While he "drifted away from" the Communist Party after 1949, he declared that he remained a "communist with a small 'c'" for the rest of his life, even as he eventually mocked "socialists" for not noticing that no nation with a publicly-owned post office "produced a Federal Express."
Although they are both greatly revered and were near the same age and died near the same time, Nelson Mandela's relationship with the Communist Party was quite different from that of the arguably naive Seeger. I think that in the end Mandela's was also idealistic, but he operated at a much more difficult level and was as far from naivete as one can get. It has long been known that his ANC, which he co-founded the Youth League of in 1944 prior to the introduction of official apartheid in South Africa, allied itself for practical reasons with the SACP at an early stage. It was long known that many at the top of the ANC went further and joined the party in this alliance, including Mandela's successor, Thabo Mbeki (and Mbeki's father who went to jail in Robben Island with Mandela in the early 1960s).
The SACP was a much more serious player in South Africa than was the CPUSA in the US, and after the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, was largely brought into play against the black nationalist Pan African Congress (PAC), the racist rival of the ANC, it was not ridiculous for those in the ANC who sought a non-racist solution to the problems in South Africa and were looking at severe repression from the then hardline apartheid government, would look to the SACP for support, which remained and continues to the present day, against the racisms of both whites and blacks, even if the ally was severely flawed as the CPSU most certainly was. We can poke at Mandela for covering up for this link, but after 27 years in jail and his peace-making performance after his release, such griping looks pretty minor. That he was the most respected person on the planet at his death is not seriously challenged by this information in the grand scheme of things, my friend Bryan Caplan notwithstanding.
There is another player here who is not disconnected from the deeper issue I am aiming at here. That is Martin Luther King, Jr. J. Edgar Hoover attempted to discredit him with several presidents by whispering in their ears not only the tales of his marital infedelities, but his links with the Communist Party. Now, unlike both Seeger and Mandela, he was never a member of the party. However, he did have two senior advisers in the Sourthern Christian Leadership Conferenc (SCLC) who had been member of the CPUSA up to the moment in the late 1950s that they moved to advise him, Stanley Levison and Jack ["Hunter Pitts"] O'Neill, the former Jewish and the latter African-American.
So, this brings me to a bottom line that is not generally recognized but should be. While the Communist Parties of the world were involved with deep and serious evils, certainly any of those who supported either the Soviet Union based on the Stalin model, or its rival in China led by the even bloodier Mao Zedong, not to mention such lesser bloody dictators as Kim Il Sung. Nevertheless, in certain nations at certain points in time where they were not in power, they came to be the only poltical entity that stood for an important principle: civil rights for all irrespective of their racial or ethnic background. We know that in the USSR Stalin did not follow this always, but he stood in sharp contrast on this matter to Hitler whose raison d'etre was to exterminate a particular group, the Jews. In the 1920s and 1930s the CPUSA was the only political body standing for racial civil rights in the US, and in South Africa in 1960-62 its South African counterpart was doing so likewise in conjunction with the African National Congress (ANC). That Nelson Mandela resisted, advisers to Martin Luther King, Jr. had adhered, and particularly that the great grandson of a prominent abolitionist who would compose "If I Had a Hammer" and put together the universally sung version of the civil rights anthem "We Shall Overcome" would get his back up when pushed on the matter of his idealistic youthful party membership when pushed by HUAC and others of similar unAmerican ilk, must be considered in the light of this one great moral triumph and virtue of this party that otherwise must be viewed as covered in nauseating shame.