When African-American writer and communist Richard Wright was physically expelled by his comrades during a May Day parade in 1937, he concluded that he “would always be for them, but they would not be for him.” He quietly left the Party but would not go public with his departure until 1944.
What earned Wright the violence from the marchers was his determination to write as an African-American first and as a Party member second. Such a view was verboten in the Party despite their loud clamor about civil rights for blacks.
By contrast, Paul Robeson, African-American singer, actor and civil rights activist, never forgot his priorities to the Party. He was always “for them,” despite its betrayals and hypocrisies, and his loyalty would be expressed in similar qualities by betraying his friends and defending a Soviet Union he knew to be murderous.
During a 1934 pilgrimage to the Soviet Union when Stalin was intentionally starving 14 million Russians, Robeson saw–or reported–only well-fed ecstasy:
“I was not prepared for the happiness I see on every face in Moscow,” said Robeson. “I was aware that there was no starvation here, but I was not prepared for the bounding life; the feeling of safety and abundance and freedom that I find here, wherever I turn. I was not prepared for the endless friendliness, which surrounded me from the moment I crossed the border. I had a technically irregular passport, but all this was brushed aside by the eager helpfulness of the border authorities’.”
Of the Purge Trials, in which Stalin was murdering off “his opposition” (currently estimated at 3 million) on trumped-up charges, Robeson was gleefully bloodthirsty:
“From what I have already seen of the workings of the Soviet Government, I can only say that anybody who lifts his hand against it ought to be shot! It is the government’s duty to put down any opposition to this really free society with a firm hand,” he continued, “and I hope they will always do it … It is obvious that there is no terror here…”
Scholars are torn about whether Robeson was an actual member. His hand-picked biographer, historian Martin Duberman, claims Robeson was not.
But the point is moot. For Robeson was as knee-jerk about Stalin as any dutiful Party member. He was in every way, Orwell’s “human gramophone,” an entity that was more robot than human in its spewing out of politically correct phrases.
Moreover, he fulfilled the requisite duty of any good Party man by being a selective civil libertarian. He wanted the government to prosecute American Trotskyites, Stalin’s bete noir, for the crime of trying to overthrow the American government (hardly such a threat as the American Trotskyites were at best a splinter group). At a Party conference he linked the Socialist Workers Party with the Ku Klux Klan, and hence the former was ineligible for civil liberties’ protections.
Turning on a dime, Robeson rediscovered the Bill of Rights when his own comrades were being prosecuted.
For those who defend Robeson as being deluded or shown only what his Soviet minders wanted him to see on trips to Russia, there is undeniable proof that he knew that Stalin was a murderer.
On a 1948 trip to Moscow, at a time when Stalin was instituting a pogrom against Soviet Jews, Robeson wanted to see his friend, Solomon Mikhoels, who had been murdered on orders from Stalin–but was told by the Soviets that Mikhoels was merely traveling. Seeking information, Robeson met a then Soviet prisoner and poet named poet Itzik Pfeffer.
Robeson meet with a well-groomed but sans fingernails Pfeiffer who was warned by the Soviets to behave. Nevertheless, in a hotel room meeting with Robeson, Pfeiffer made hand gestures that the room was bugged and on scraps of paper informed the singer that Jews were being murdered by Stalin. Pfeiffer told Robeson that, “They’re going to kill us. When you return to America, you must speak out and save us.”
Here above all was an opportunity for Robeson to tell the truth about what was really happening in Russia. But true to form, he burned the notes in an ash tray and then flushed them down the toilet.
Pfeiffer was executed.
Instead of informing the world about what happened to his friend, Robeson, in effect, urinated on his grave. Stateside, he denied any ant-Semitic pogrom being carried out by Stalin. He stated while in Russia that Robeson “met Jewish people all over the place,” and “heard no word about it.”
But he knew the truth, and still, Mother Russia took precedence over honoring his friend’s memory. He made his son swear not to tell the truth until after his father’s death “because he had promised himself that he would never publicly criticize the USSR.”
In a burst of arrogance, Robeson also declared that no African American would defend America if invaded by Russia.
It is unthinkable that American Negroes could go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations against the Soviet Union, which in one generation has raised our people to full human dignity.
But non-communist African-American activists bitterly attacked Robeson. Labor leader A. Philip Randolph denounced Robeson as exploiting his race. Jackie Robinson who weathered considerable racism to become the first African-American athlete to play in Major League Baseball, was a much more rigorous thinker than the self-proclaimed intellectual Robeson when he said that”[C]ommunists kick up a big fuss over racial discrimination when it suits their purposes. Although declaring he couldn’t speak for “15 million African-Americans,” he indicated that he would fight the Soviets if they went to war with America. He also stated that he believed his race would as well.
Nevertheless, Robeson continued to argue that blacks would always support the Soviet Union:
“Yes, all Africa remembers that it was Litvinov who stood alone beside Haile Selassie in Geneva, when Mussolini’s sons flew with the blessings of the Pope to drop bombs on Ethiopian women and children. Africa remembers that it was the Soviet Union which fought the attempts of the Smuts to annex Southwest Africa to the slave reservation of the Union of South Africa… if the peoples of the Congo refuse to mine the uranium for the atom bombs made in Jim Crow factories in the United States; if all these peoples demand an end to floggings, an end to the farce of ‘trusteeship’ in the former Italian colonies…. The Soviet Union is the friend of the African and the West Indian peoples.”
Upon receiving the Stalin Peace Prize in 1952, Robeson attacked the president who desegregated the US Army while Stalin was murdering Jews in heaps:
“We know how Truman betrayed the American people in their hopes for peace, how he betrayed the Negro people in their thirst for equal rights,” he said in his acceptance speech.
His ardor for Stalin never cooled. Upon the dictator’s death, Robeson, in a moist eulogy, stated the following:
“Forever will his name be honored and beloved in all lands. In all spheres of modern life, the influence of Stalin reaches wide and deep. … his contributions to the science of our world society remains invaluable. One reverently speaks of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin — the shapers of humanity’s richest present and future. … Yes, through his [Stalin’s] deep humanity, by his wise understanding, he leaves us a rich and monumental heritage. … How consistently, how patiently, he labored for peace and ever increasing abundance, with what deep kindliness and wisdom.”
Not even Nikita Kruschev’s Secret Speech denouncing Stalin’s Purge Trials as a monstrous frame-up compelled Robeson to publicly condemn Stalin.
A year before his death, former Communist Party head Gus Hall, who knew Robeson finally admitted that the singer was a Party member.
When Hall stated that in “every way, every day of his adult life.” Robeson “never forgot he was a Communist.”
Amend that statement to read “Stalinist” rather than “Communist” and that sums up Robeson’s political life perfectly.