Yesterday, a diary lauding the life and accomplishments of Paul Robeson was published, and it remains on the Recommended Diary list today. I posted an extended comment objecting to Paul Robeson's unyielding support for Joseph Stalin. My comment received a number of replies, criticizing various aspects of my argument, and I feel compelled to respond at length. In my view, the historical evidence shows that Paul Robeson willfully chose to ignore the horrible crimes of Joseph Stalin, many of which were documented in Robeson's lifetime, and remained an ardent supporter of Stalin to the end of his life.
First, no one--no one--denies the brutal racial oppression under which African-Americans lived in the Jim Crow-Apartheid Era. Robeson's moral outrage against this was not only perfectly understandable, it was completely justified. But he made one of the worst mistakes an advocate of human freedom can make: he took as an ally and supporter in his struggle an enemy of human freedom even more vicious and more destructive than the enemy he was fighting.
Some of the arguments with which I have been presented are curious. It has been argued that other figures were deceived by the Potemkin Village tactics of the Soviet Communists. To this I would reply: the more thoughtful and insightful ones weren't. Bertrand Russell was initially enamored of the Bolshevik Revolution, but after a trip to civil war era Russia in 1920, he returned disillusioned. He later wrote, in an essay entitled Why I Am Not a Communist, the following:
The dictatorship of the proletariat thus came to be the dictatorship of a small committee, and ultimately of one man - Stalin. As the sole class-conscious proletarian, Stalin condemned millions of peasants to death by starvation and millions of others to forced labour in concentration camps. He even went so far as to decree that the laws of heredity are henceforth to be different from what they used to be, and that the germ-plasm is to obey Soviet decrees [rather than] that reactionary priest Mendel. I am completely at a loss to understand how it came about that some people who are both humane and intelligent could find something to admire in the vast slave camp produced by Stalin.
And yet Robeson always found much to admire in Stalin's slave camp regime. The farcical, horrible show trials of 1936-38, in which the Communist Party's surviving founders and many of the USSR's top military leaders were destroyed, were obvious travesties, utter caricatures of justice. The robotic testimony given by the defendants, implicating themselves and confessing to ludicrous charges, had obviously been wrung out of them by torture and threats against their families. Robeson's reaction to these grotesque proceedings?
From the testimony I read at the time, I believe that justice was done to these men on the whole. In the critical struggle then going on, some innocent men might have suffered, but as to the general fairness of these trials, even reliable American observers like Raymond Robbins (sic) testified.
In other words, lynching when done in a good cause is defensible. Disgraceful. Totally disgraceful. Inexcusable.
Some who questioned my comment of yesterday said that Robeson could not have known about Stalin's depredations. However, the idea that Robeson had no way of knowing about Stalin's evils is a falsehood. Despite the grotesque lies of Walter Duranty in the New York Times, denying that there was any hunger in the USSR (when in fact a horrible famine was raging), there were accurate reports coming out of the USSR (in The Chicago American, for example, and in the reporting of Malcom Muggeridge). There was the book Russia's Iron Age  by William Henry Chamberlin which laid out in stark detail the horrors of Stalinism in the 30s. There was Assignment in Utopia , based on Eugene Lyons' first hand reporting. And there were already other accounts coming in from people who had seen the barbarism of Stalin first-hand. Robeson ignored all of this. It contradicted his worldview, and therefore had to be discounted.
Another commenter pointed out that Paul Robeson received a postage stamp in his honor. My response: So what? The USPS made an egregious mistake in honoring such a man. And yes, the Postal Service HAS made other such mistakes. Not often, I will grant, but sometimes. It honored James Buchanan, defender of the Dred Scott decision and the worst president in U.S. history, with a stamp. Slave-owner and Native American killer Andrew Jackson was honored. Confederate traitor Robert E. Lee was honored. (And for that matter, John Wayne, Ozzie Nelson, and Rudolph Valentino were honored.) In short: what on Earth does getting a stamp have to do with anything?
Still another commenter, in response to my assertion that no one would forgive someone who had supported Hitler as fervently as Robeson defended Stalin, pointed out that Charles Linbergh, Joseph Kennedy, and Prescott Bush had done so, without damage to their careers. Point taken. Well, Lindbergh WAS ruined by his views. Joseph Kennedy was more anti-English than pro-Germany and was a genuine isolationist (which does not excuse him). And Prescott Bush should have ruined, but was not. My point remains: why should ANYONE who loudly and ardently supported Stalin or Hitler NOT be ruined? Why should they NOT be condemned?
Robeson cheered for Stalin's pact with Hitler, and then, like the rest of the Communist world, did a 180 degree reversal on 22 June 1941, the date Germany invaded Russia, and demanded all-out aid to the Soviet Union. But I guess principles are disposable, and I guess intellectual and moral consistency are for the weak.
Robeson played a concert in Prague in 1949, celebrating his good Soviet friends. His good Soviet friends were then in the process of crushing Czech democracy into the dirt, but this didn't detract from Robeson's celebration. Robeson just didn't give a damn about it.
Robeson remained a fervent Stalinist, even AFTER the following events:
The crushing of national independence and democratic movements in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and elsewhere in eastern Europe, by Stalin.
Stalin's attempt to strangle the people of West Berlin into submission through an illegal blockade.
The insane post-war purges inside the USSR and the preposterous worship of Stalin that accompanied them.
The Communist invasion of South Korea.
And most damningly, even AFTER Nikita Khrushchev's "Secret Speech" of 1956. Robeson could STILL not bring himself to denounce Stalin. Even then. Even then.
Robeson's "defense" of civil liberties depended on who was being threatened. From the socialist political journal New Politics (1998):
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.
Robeson also turned a deliberately blind eye to the vicious anti-Semitism of Stalin. Again, from the same New Politics piece:
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.
Look at the historical sources. Even after the full depth of Stalin's hatred of the Jews had been revealed. Robeson was STILL defending Stalin and turning a blind eye to his violent anti-Semitism. And you want to tell me that Robeson was a great man?
Upon Stalin's long-overdue death in 1953, Robeson wrote a glowing, and utterly nauseating eulogy to him. Excerpt:
Today in Korea - in Southeast Asia - in Latin America and the West Indies, in the Middle East - in Africa, one sees tens of millions of long oppressed colonial peoples surging toward freedom. What courage - what sacrifice - what determination never to rest until victory!
...Colonial peoples today look to the Soviet Socialist Republics. They see how under the great Stalin millions like themselves have found a new life. They see that aided and guided by the example of the Soviet Union, led by their Mao Tse-tung, a new China adds its mighty power to the true and expanding socialist way of life. They see formerly semi-colonial Eastern European nations building new People's Democracies, based upon the people's power with the people shaping their own destinies. So much of this progress stems from the magnificent leadership, theoretical and practical, given by their friend Joseph Stalin.
They have sung - sing now and will sing his praise - in song and story. Slava - slava - slava - Stalin, Glory to Stalin. 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. From his last simply written but vastly discerning and comprehensive document, back through the years, his contributions to the science of our world society remain invaluable. One reverently speaks of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin - the shapers of humanity's richest present and future.
What vomit. What groveling, lying hero worship of Stalin. What a pack of God-damned lies. PEOPLE'S DEMOCRACIES in Eastern Europe? That's an obscenity. Absolutely disgusting.
Many people, repelled by the injustices and inequities of modern capitalism, embraced Communist ideas for a period. But most of those people woke up and realized that had they had been duped and misled. Betrand Russell woke up. Richard Wright woke up. Many others who had been Communist sympathizers in the 20s and 30s woke up. But Paul Robeson never did. It never occurred to him, evidently, that anyone who holds total and unlimited power, as Stalin effectively did from December 1927 to March 1953, is a dictator and an enemy of freedom. Robeson was one of the few Communist sympathizers who clung the Soviet delusion right to the very end. In my view, the true heroes of the time were the liberal anti-Communists, people who were pro-civil rights, pro-labor, and fighting for working people: Paul Douglas, Walter Reuther, Hubert Humphrey, Harry Truman, Arthur Schlesinger, and others like them. Not Robeson. By God, not Robeson.
I should give James Baldwin the last word:
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...