Paul Robeson: A Flawed Martyr

Barry Finger

[from New Politics, vol. 7, no. 1 (new series), whole no. 25, Summer 1998]

Barry Finger is a member of the New Politics editorial board.

It is personally painful to me to realize that so gifted a man as Robeson should have been tricked by his own bitterness and by a total inability to understand the nature of political power in general, or Communist aims in particular, into missing the point of his own critique...

James Baldwin


IN THE LATE AND UNLAMENTED STALINIST WORLD certain "fortunate" victims of totalitarian repression, the dead and the near dead, might experience an official rehabilitation -- their "crimes" exonerated and their reputations, if not their lives or their health, restored. The "excesses of socialist construction" were thereby said to be effaced, presumably demonstrating to the inexhaustibly gullible the essential humanity and self-correcting character of the once new social order. So too, in a macabre parallel, we can now anticipate the periodic rehabilitation of Stalinist victims of McCarthyite repression, and -- thanks to the generosity of a social system that now bestrides the world without challenge -- we can be further assured that too fine a point will neither be affixed to the "commitment" with which capitalism tethers its fate to democratic liberties, nor to the decades long pall that Stalinism cast over American liberalism.

In short, the hospitality committees of both the right and the left wings of the Establishment may once again be ready to shake hands and break bread together. And where better to enjoy this very American feast of reconciliation but at the intersection of racial and political repression, at the centenary of Paul Robeson's birth. There the right can begin to forgive itself the "excesses" with which it so lustily championed white supremacy, and the "left" similarly the euphoria for a totalitarian cause with which it was once so infatuated. But these are, in any event, no more than the mannered moderation that comes with age and security, rather than genuine insights nourished by political integrity.

The victim as hero, the archetypal theme of so many fervid Popular Front fantasies, is now replayed as the celebratory theme of Paul Robeson's life -- the triumph in death of the maligned champion of the oppressed. How ironic that in reducing Robeson's actual and very real artistic triumphs to the level of proletcult kitsch, his champions not only fundamentally falsify the quality of his political allegiances, but debase as well the very elements of his career truly worthy of preservation. For what spared Robeson the fate of innumerable "artists in uniform" was that he, for lack of a more felicitous distinction, was an interpretive rather than a creative artist. As such he was largely freed from the artistic clash of values otherwise demanded by the "purveyors of bureaucratic heroism," to borrow Trotsky's phrase, who guided the Stalinist movement. Freed, that is, to pursue projects that permitted him to venture beyond the confines of Stalinist "aesthetics," beyond the "Ballad for Americans" and everything that that represented.

It is here, released from the icy grip of the Party, that we gain an appreciation for a remarkable artistic intelligence at work: a talent whose interpretations of traditional spirituals gave voice, in the words of Richard Wright, to the "humiliation and burning hope" of American blacks; whose oratory breathed life into the plays of Eugene O'Neill; and whose towering and passionate Othello redefined our understanding of the role. Here was a black performer still deep in the age of minstrelsy who comported himself with an implacable dignity and stature, both in film and in public, offering a seditious countervision to the prevailing racist stereotypes and in so doing undoubtedly providing a momentary sigh of relief to the oppressed.

But Robeson aspired to more than artistic excellence, seeing in his talents and growing prestige an instrument of social and racial liberation. It is the political ends to which that instrument was applied, however, that measures the true tragedy of the man and his generation. That larger tragedy promises to be lost in the thick mist of celebration for the fullness of an artistic career that might still have been were it not destroyed by the hysteria of the Cold War. In this distorted vision, a half-truth that conceals a greater lie, the images of a proudly defiant black man hauled before a star chamber, under fascist-like assault at a Civil Rights Congress picnic in Peekskill, condemned to spend his declining years deprived of a passport and in bitter isolation, all threaten to envelope and subsume the larger truth about Stalinism and the American Communist Party, under whose tutelage Robeson so devotedly labored.

WHAT THE COMMUNISTS WERE CHARGED WITH, IN THE POST-WAR WORLD, and what lends a sympathetic luster to their martyrdom, was being members or sympathizers of the Communist Party, which was their inalienable right to join or support. That they were charged with spreading the revolutionary views of Marxism, a charge of which they were totally innocent, remains a flagrant libel against Marxism. But what prompted that libel was the falling out of imperialist rivals, yesterdays' wartime allies who, having parceled out control of the world between them, now found their mutual antagonisms unbridgeable.

What the Stalinist movement was never accused of is precisely what it actually was: the mortal enemy of the working class and its struggle for freedom. Stalinism was never held accountable, nor could it be, by Truman or McCarthy for having been the most energetic agitators for wartime no-strike pledges and incentive pay; for having outstripped most reactionary labor leaders in pro-war chauvinism, for urging the government to jail John L. Lewis for calling the miners out on a defensive strike, for denouncing A. Phillip Randolph as an agent of fascism when he organized the anti-racist March on Washington movement, for applauding the detention of Japanese-Americans, and for loving the Bomb. In brief, the Communist Party and its supporters could never have been prosecuted for having done their all to support capitalism when that service coincided with the interests of Moscow.

Before the Robeson centennial memorializes the Stalinist victims of capitalist intolerance by rallying progressives around a nostalgia-sanitized portrait of American Communism, the actual and rather novel contribution of the Communist Party to the traditions of labor solidarity perhaps bear remembering. This is particularly apt, because Robeson himself subscribed to that very special Orwellian notion of "civil liberties" that was neither civil nor libertarian and violated the honorable tradition of progressives and radicals to mobilize for the cause of the persecuted, regardless of particular political differences.

When the Smith Act, the predecessor of McCarthyism, was enacted by Congress and signed by Roosevelt, its first victims were leading members of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and of Minneapolis Teamsters local 544, eighteen of whom were convicted. This was in 1941, when Russia and America were wartime allies. Convinced that the 18 were convicted for their views and not for any illegal acts, the labor and liberal movements rallied to their cause in large numbers, again without regard for their political differences with Trotskyism. The Communists also rallied in unions and arenas where they could gain a hearing throughout the country. What made their intervention so singularly notorious however is that they rallied tirelessly to isolate and discredit the supporters of the indicted socialist unionists, regretting only that the sentences were not harsher.

When a few years later it was the Stalinists who were persecuted by the same provisions of the Smith Act, a Conference to Defend the Bill of Rights was hastily convened in July of 1949, largely under Stalinist initiative, to solidify a defense movement. In preparation, the Daily Worker printed an editorial warning in advance that the Communist Party would not allow the forum to defend the civil liberties of "Trotskyites." Those with scruples, like I. F. Stone and Professor Thomas I. Emerson, were put on notice that such support would be considered disruptive. Nevertheless, endorsement of the Minneapolis defendants and the related case of the veteran, James Kutcher, who had lost both legs in the very "peoples' war" which the Communists invoked with such religious fervor, was not short in coming having been proposed by none less than the chair of the conference, Paul J. Kern. Kutcher had lost first his limbs and then, due to his membership in the "subversive" Socialist Workers Party, lost his clerical position in the Veterans' Administration, his disability pension and finally his public housing. Paul Robeson, a leading World War II sentimentalist, (after Hitler unilaterally and violently destroyed his Pact with Stalin) then took to the platform and in a sordid display of Stalinist solidarity denounced adherents of the Socialist Workers Party as "allies of fascism who want to destroy the new democracies of the world. Let us not be confused. They are the enemies of the working class. Would you give civil rights to the Ku Klux Klan?" Kern's resolution was defeated.

Earlier that year, Robeson arrived in Moscow while Stalin's "anti-Zionist" campaign was in full swing, a response, it was officially maintained, to an alleged plot to kill the beloved Soviet leader which was in fact nothing but a pretext for a nationwide pogrom and recognized as such by all but those too blinded by Stalinism to stare directly into the abyss. Yet, even for many Soviet sympathizers it had an unsettling effect. The famous actor-director, Solomon Mikhoels, had disappeared, and the poet Itzak Feffer was rumored to be missing. Both were familiar to Robeson as members of the "Jewish Joint Anti-Fascist Committee," which the Kremlin had launched as an emissary to its wartime allies in the West. After Mikhoels "mysterious" death was reported new questions were raised. It was to quell these disturbing rumors, that Robeson undertook his mission to Moscow.

Feffer had in fact been in prison for a year, and Robeson's original plans had to be delayed while Feffer was being fattened for the arranged meeting. Although their meeting room was bugged, Feffer, through gestures and a few written notes, let it be known to Robeson that he faced imminent execution, that other prominent Jewish cultural figures were under arrest and that a massive purge of the Leningrad and Moscow parties was underway. Robeson responded, not by canceling any further performances in Moscow, but by proclaiming his friendship for Mikhoels (who he surely knew had been murdered) and for Feffer (in prison, awaiting execution) at a Moscow concert program. That proclamation, emanating from an esteemed artist, only added to the confusion and dismay of the beleaguered Jewish community. On his return to the United States, denying rumors of rampant anti-Semitism, he announced to a reporter from Soviet Russia Today that he had "met Jewish people all over the place... I heard no word about it." He was at pains to instruct the skeptical that the Stalin regime "had done everything" for its national minorities.

The common and wholly unacceptable rationalization for Robeson's denial of Soviet anti-Semitism when he was clearly aware of its prevalence is that his silence actually served the interests of the victims. In the case of Feffer, it extended his life until 1952 when he was executed. But even if one were to give some credence to this pathetic excuse, how can one explain away Robeson's silence after Stalin's death? Ilya Ehrenberg had been given the Stalin Prize in 1952 for services rendered, above all, as a Jewish front for Stalinist pogroms. But after Stalin's death, he, unlike Robeson exposed the cruelties of Stalinism including its virulent anti-Semitism. Robeson, by contrast, not only maintained his silence about Soviet anti-Semitism but continued as a staunch public supporter of Stalinism for the rest of his life.

Robeson's fealty to Stalinism already had a long history. During the Spanish Civil War, he affirmed his "love (for) the cause of democracy ...I belong to an oppressed race," he explained, "discriminated against, one that could not live if fascism triumphed in the world." He traveled to Barcelona entertaining and boosting the morale of the International Brigades; he raised money for CP-filtered Spanish relief and remained to the end uncritical of a Popular Front cause that had opened a murderous second front against the revolutionary left. When his unshakable hatred for fascism was confronted with a betrayal of monstrous proportions in the Hitler-Stalin Pact, this "in no way whatsoever weakened or changed" his devotion to the Stalinist system. The collective security that Robeson had once so passionately invoked in defense of the Spanish Republic was thoroughly repudiated for nearly two years, until, that is, the Soviet Union was under siege.

Robeson greeted the Soviet Constitution imposed on the Soviet people in 1936 on the eve of the great purge trials as "an expression of democracy, broader in scope and loftier in principle than ever before expressed." Of these show trials, Robeson was quoted as saying that the USSR had dealt properly in the trial of the "counterrevolutionaries... they ought to destroy anybody who seeks to harm that great country." For Robeson the Soviet invasion of Poland (prearranged with Hitler) and of Finland (which met with the Wehrmacht's approval) were "defensive," a justifiable response to thwart Britain's designs against Russia.

While the Hitler-Stalin pact was still in effect, Robeson counseled American blacks that they had no stake in the rivalry of European powers. Once Russia was attacked, he urged blacks to support the war effort, now warning that an Allied defeat would "make slaves of us all." The Communist Party denounced the Double V campaign (victory over fascism abroad and Jim Crow at home) and castigated black leaders who refused to suspend their people's struggle. The first March on Washington Movement in 1941 to desegregate the armed forces was excoriated for spreading "confusion and dangerous moods in the rank and file of the Negro people and utilizing their justifiable grievances as a weapon of opposition to the Administration's war program." Randolph, himself, was denounced as a "fascist helping defeatism" and as a saboteur who "guaranteed the triumph of fascism." These Stalinist pronouncements did not elicit a pee of objection or reservation from Paul Robeson.

When in 1949, Robeson traveled to Prague, just prior to his infamous visit to Moscow, he was predictably lavished with hospitality by the newly installed Stalinist regime. One anti-Stalinist Czech later recalled his contempt for that "apostle who sang of his own free will, at open air concerts in Prague at a time when they were raising the Socialist leader Milada Horàkovà to the gallows, the only woman ever to be executed in Czechoslovakia by Czechs, and at a time when great Czech poets (some ten years later to be 'rehabilitated' without exception) were pining away in jails."

How fitting that in 1952 Robeson was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize, an award he no doubt fully and justifiably earned. Not four years later, while the sheen was still on the medal, Robeson compared the Hungarian revolutionaries to the "same sort of people who overthrew the Spanish Republican Government," a calumny from one whose political life was stained by his unqualified support of a brutal totalitarian system.

MCCARTHYISM WAS UNDOUBTEDLY A SOCIAL PURGE. If it never attained the murderous sweep of its Stalinist counterpart and confined itself "merely" to trampling liberties and destroying lives, it was nevertheless a vicious operation. It transformed thousands of its victims into martyrs. But before we allow these victims -- and Paul Robeson is emblematic of them -- to be recast as heroes it is necessary to take stock of what Stalinism really was; to ask how it happened that millions who had fixed their aspirations to a democratic future without war and oppression could have committed themselves to a social system which was, in every regard, the negation of that vision. When this question can be posed without the reflexive charge of "red baiting" being offered in retort, a new awakening will be evident on the left.

[colored bar]

Contents of No. 25

New Politics home page