In a splendid article that was posted recently at the American Interest, historian Ronald Radosh provided a useful reminder of the career of one of the most prominent and hard-core Stalinists of yore: Paul Robeson, the great black American singer and actor who starred in the 1936 film version of the Kern/Hammerstein musical Show Boat and the 1933 film version of Eugene O’Neill’s play The Emperor Jones. Radosh began his article with a question: “Can a man endowed with genius squander it through extreme political blindness?” Radosh is not exaggerating when he describes Robeson as a genius; nor is he exaggerating when he goes on to state that “Stalin had few more loyal devotees in America than Robeson.”
The reason why Radosh’s article is so important is that Robeson, since his death in 1976, has frequently been memorialized as one of the major black American artistic figures of the last century. For example, since this year “marks the 100th anniversary of Robeson’s graduation from Rutgers University,” that institution “is pulling out all the stops to celebrate.” Now, there is no question but that Robeson was indeed one of the great American artists. Radosh sums up his rapid career rise:
As an undergraduate, Robeson was class valedictorian and a ranked All-American football player. After graduation, he went on to Columbia University Law School, where he earned his law degree while playing football in the NFL. He then became an actor, appearing in Emperor Jones and All God’s Chillun Got Wings, and used his remarkable bass-baritone to establish himself as a popular singer. After moving to Britain in 1928, he appeared in Jerome Kern’s Showboat, stopping the show with his famous rendition of “Ol’ Man River”; later, he played the titular role in Shakespeare’s Othello on Broadway. And he did all this while both suffering from and actively fighting the scourge of American racism.
Robeson, then, assuredly deserves his tributes. But what is almost always ignored by those who celebrate his legacy – or, sometimes, mentioned in passing or even represented as some kind of virtue – is his reprehensible, undeviating devotion to Stalin. It was a devotion that persisted even though, as a frequent visitor to the USSR, he saw things that made it clear to him that it far from a paradise – that it was, indeed, a nightmare on earth. One American acquaintance of his who had relocated to Russia was executed by Stalin on trumped-up charges, but Robeson remained stalwart in his Stalinism. Other Americans who, seduced by Communist rhetoric, had foolishly moved to Russia but later realized their mistake, begged Robeson in vain to help them get out. Asked about Stalin’s show trials, Robeson said that “anyone who lifts his hand against” the Soviet government “ought to be shot!” He called Stalin “wise and good.” When his 11-year-old son asked him why he had not stood up for an innocent friend convicted in one of Stalin’s trials, Robeson explained that “sometimes great injustices may be inflicted on the minority when the majority is in the pursuit of a great and just cause.” Or, as Stalin put it, you’ve got to break eggs to make an omelet. And every time he returned from the USSR to the US, he dutifully parroted Kremlin propaganda.
There’s more, much more. Read Radosh’s entire piece. It’s devastating. And it’s important, because almost invariably, when Paul Robeson’s artistry is remembered, his chilling reverence for a totalitarian monster is dropped down the memory hole.