Rutgers Rolls Out the Red Carpet for Paul Robeson
Paul Kengor
by
Paul Robeson in 1938 (Wikimedia Commons)

Rutgers University is celebrating the 100th anniversary of one of its most accomplished alumni: Paul Robeson. Robeson was an All-American football player. He was a renowned singer, hailed for his classic rendition of “Ol’ Man River.” He was an actor. He was class valedictorian. He fought for civil rights and faced his share of unjust discrimination. He was also a member of Communist Party USA and a devoted Stalinist who adored the Soviet Union.

“I was not prepared for the happiness I see on every face in Moscow,” Robeson gushed to the Daily Worker upon arrival for a December 1934 Potemkin village tour. “I was aware there was no starvation here, but I was not prepared for the bounding life; the feeling of abundance and freedom that I find here, wherever I turn.”

Amid mass starvation and the launch of Stalin’s Great Purge, Robeson was not merely a denier of the totalitarian state; he was an apologist. He dropped an incredibly outrageous statement to the Daily Worker: “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!”

Yes, he actually said that. Robeson was deadly serious. He also felt fully at home.

“This is home to me,” Robeson grinned. “I feel more kinship to the Russian people under their new society than I ever felt anywhere else. It is obvious there is no terror here, that all the masses of every race are contented and support their government.”

Paul Robeson was so sycophantically devoted to Stalin’s USSR that he was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize in 1952. It was richly deserved.

When Stalin died the next year, Robeson was in agony. He wrote a loving eulogy, “To You Beloved Comrade,” extolling the tyrant’s “deep humanity,” his “wise understanding,” his “rich and monumental heritage,” his “deep kindliness and wisdom.” Paul’s heart wept for Joe; no, it ached. “He leaves tens of millions all over the earth bowed in heart-aching grief,” sobbed Robeson for a man who left tens of millions of dead human beings.

As for Rutgers, it whitewashes all of this. The entirety of Robeson’s trip to the USSR is summed up as a merry little socialist jaunt: “During a whirlwind tour of the Soviet Union, Robeson meets African-Americans who had emigrated to the socialist country and notes that the Soviet Constitution effectively bars racial discrimination. ‘Here … for the first time in my life … I walk in full human dignity,’ he says.”

The Rutgers exhibit for Robeson takes the predictable line of the Left. It quotes the stoic Stalinist taking on the real bad guys — the anti-communists of the House Un-American Activities Committee: “You are the non-patriots,” lectured the intrepid fighter who literally swore a loyalty oath to Stalin’s Kremlin, “and you are the un-Americans, and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves.”

All the shame goes to the anti-communists.

The Rutgers exhibit laments that the U.S. government “labeled him a Communist.” Poor Paul was “branded a Communist sympathizer, a ‘Red’ during the height of the Cold War.”

Sorry, Rutgers, but Paul Robeson was branded a communist by no less than Gus Hall, head of Communist Party USA. “My own precious moments with Paul,” recalled Comrade Gus, “were when I met with him to accept his dues and renew his yearly membership in the CPUSA.”

But Rutgers’ blind-eye is what we expect from leftists eager to falsify history in order to sustain their “Red Scare/McCarthyism” bogeyman. For the Left, there’s higher ideological value in portraying Paul Robeson as a victim of anti-communism than a cheerleader for Stalin.

I’ve reported these facts on Robeson here before at The American Spectator and in books. But such facts and much more are presented at length in a fascinating, seminal article on Robeson published by historian Ron Radosh in The American Interest. An ex-communist who has written groundbreaking works on (among others) the Rosenbergs, Radosh’s 8,000-word missive on Robeson ought to be required reading in any course on 20th-century American communism. It needs to be a handout at the Robeson exhibit at Rutgers, which it surely will not be.

Radosh’s piece is meticulously researched and balanced. The tone throughout is respectful. I will not summarize everything here (click the article for yourself), but a few things stand out:

A telling early moment in Robeson’s sojourn was the fate of John Goode Jr., one of two brothers of Robeson’s wife, Eslanda. The brothers were early African American political pilgrims seduced by the Soviet experiment. When Paul and Eslanda arrived in Moscow, they were taken aback by John Jr.’s “cold, worn, and old” (Eslanda’s description) condition, his lack of clothes, food, basic necessities, and money for rent. And yet, when interviewed by Communist Party leader Ben Davis Jr. in the Sunday Worker, a jovial Robeson claimed that John Jr. provided proof that all the workers “live in healthful surroundings, apartments, with nurseries containing the most modern equipment for their children.” He said that his brother-in-law’s apartment was filled with “plenty of light, fresh air, and space. Believe me he is very happy.”

As Radosh notes, this was certainly not true. In fact, Robeson and Eslanda feared that John Jr. would be arrested as soon as they left the country. They helped get him out. As for John Jr.’s roommate, he wasn’t so lucky. Arthur Talent was arrested, taken to prison, and shot.

Another tragic case was that of Ignaty Kazakov, a physician and friend of Robeson who was purged in March 1938. Robeson’s son recalls that his father reacted with “intense rage mixed with hurt” at the news of Kazakov’s fate, but a few days later justified the killing by explaining that “sometimes great injustices may be inflicted on the minority when the majority is in the pursuit of a great and just cause.”

Another case of a Robeson delusion — above all, to himself.

Robeson seems to have deluded himself repeatedly: about the Soviet Union, about Stalin, about CPUSA, about communism. We see this in another key passage in Radosh’s article, in which Robeson, like a handful of other pro-Soviet black Americans (Langston Hughes, Lovett Fort-Whiteman, Frank Marshall Davis), strangely let himself be convinced that Bolshevik Russia was some sort of racial utopia setting an “example before the world of abolishing all discrimination based on color or nationality.” Albeit a racial utopia with, uh, virtually no blacks.

Did living with these lies have an effect? Yes.

By 1956, with Nikita Khrushchev’s revelations about the “Crimes of Stalin,” Paul Robeson started learning more about his Beloved Comrade and those idyllic days of happiness and abundance. Radosh reports that Robeson was devastated when Soviet officials informed him that after his meeting with Itzik Feffer in 1949, Feffer was taken to secret-police headquarters and shot in the back of the head. Radosh recounts,

During his 1949 Soviet concert tour, Robeson asked to meet his friends Itzik Feffer and Solomon Mikhoels: two Jewish artists whom he had first met in 1943 when Stalin sent them to tour the United States on behalf of the “Jewish Anti-Fascist League.” Little did Robeson know that Mikhoels had since been murdered on Stalin’s orders, on January 13, 1948, in what was disguised as a hit-and-run car crash. Feffer, meanwhile, was being held at the infamous Lubyanka prison in Moscow, having been arrested by the NKVD in December 1948. The authorities made him presentable for the occasion and brought him to meet Robeson in his hotel room. Feffer signaled that the room was bugged, and that they should only make pleasantries but communicate with hand gestures and written notes. Feffer told Robeson about the growing anti-Semitism, and the prominent Jewish cultural figures who were under arrest. Then Feffer put his hand across his throat, indicating that he expected that his days would be short. He was shot to death a few years later.

This was the harsh reality that slowly dawned on Paul Robeson, as it had for countless Potemkin progressives whose hearts had burned red for the USSR.

Robeson grew depressed. After a party in his hotel room in Moscow on the night of March 27, 1961, he went into the bathroom around 2:00 a.m. and slit his wrists. As Radosh relates, Robeson “never recovered his mental health.” One friend would say that as Robeson steadily learned the fate of friends at the hands of the regime he defended, it overwhelmed him. “The truth of their imprisonment, torture and murder, and the scale of it, was too much for him,” said Herbert Marshall. Marshall, an actor and filmmaker, spent time with Robeson during the 1934 trip to the Motherland, when Marshall was studying filmmaking with director Sergei Eisenstein at the Soviet Cinematography Institute. Marshall diagnoses that Robeson had “a kind of delayed reaction and then complete collapse” as he ultimately learned about the “world that betrayed him, the world of the CPSU.”

Radosh carefully navigates contrary views regarding Robeson’s emotional decline, including from Robeson’s disturbed, angry, radical son, Paul Jr., and his biographer, Martin Duberman. Further clouding the truth were American communists who served as gatekeepers for Robeson in his final years and who permitted only ideologically approved “safe people” into his orbit.

As for Radosh, he believes that “it is a tribute to Robeson’s sensitivity and honesty that when confronted with the truth he was devastated…. Knowing the truth about Stalin, while failing to tell anyone in the West about it, must have caused Robeson great emotional turmoil.”

Eventually, Robeson died in Philadelphia on January 23, 1976, the city and year of the bicentennial of the country he judged inferior to Stalin’s dystopia.

As Ron Radosh details, the full story of Paul Robeson is a compelling one, more tragic than the narrative preferred by progressives who want to cast him as a victim of American racism rather than Soviet communism. Robeson lied to himself for ideological purposes, and now they do the same. With assiduous ideological cleansing, they blithely sanitize the Marxist-Leninist beliefs that dominated Robeson’s life.

And so, Rutgers basks in its Paul Robeson centenary. Much of what it will commemorate about Robeson is deserved. When he stepped onto that football field over a century ago, the only black kid on the team, he was cruelly harassed. It was a discrimination he faced way too often. He should be commended for overcoming those struggles.

But Paul Robeson’s life should be dealt with honestly. That means an honest accounting of his odious Stalinism and his outrageous defense of Soviet communism.

Rutgers ought to have the academic integrity to build an honest memorial to Paul Robeson, not a Potemkin village.

Paul Kengor
Paul Kengor
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Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College in Grove City, Pa., and senior academic fellow at the Center for Vision & Values. Dr. Kengor is author of over a dozen books, including A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Communism, and Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.
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