The Discordant Life of Paul Robeson

I’m one of a dwindling band who can say, “I heard Paul Robeson sing.” These days most people under sixty would respond, “Paul who?”

To answer that question briefly, Robeson (1898–1976) was the son of a former slave. He took up the cause of Negro liberation (like most of his race in the US at the time, he referred to himself as a Negro) from the 1930s, while achieving greatness in sport, acting, and especially singing folk and protest songs in his magnificent bass. He was also a militant Stalinist.

I was twenty when Robeson ended his 1960 tour of Australia at Perth. At 2 a.m. on Friday, December 2 he accepted a railways union invitation to sing at the Midland Railway Workshops at lunchtime. By noon, in a remarkable feat of logistics, the unions had mobilised a throng of 2000, including me. Robeson was a big black man wearing a curious black beret, delivering beautiful deep music from the back of a truck outside the workshop gates.

It was just coincidence, but my mother Joan the following year was with an Australian communist delegation to China and Russia, and in Moscow she was lodged at a dacha for the elite outside the city. She discovered that Robeson was secreted away in the same dacha complex. The unlikely explanation she was given was that he was being hidden from potential CIA evil-doers; he was actually hidden to conceal from the world the mental breakdown that began in the wake of his Australian tour.

When my mother died in 2008, my jobs included selecting the funeral music. After batting away numerous well-meant suggestions from third parties, I settled on Robeson singing “Deep River”. (I didn’t know then that “Deep River” had also been among the music for Robeson’s own funeral.) I gave the funeral director a CD including that track, and it played fine. But the funeral director let the CD run on to the next track, which to my horror was Robeson singing “The Killing Song”, from his 1935 movie Sanders of the River. Given that my mother had spent her life as a peace activist and stalwart of the Australian Peace Council, the lyrics were awful:

On, on, into battle, 

Mow them down like cattle! 

Stamp them into the dust! 

Kill, shoot, spear, smash, smite, slash, fight and sla-a-ay!

I flinched as the verses rolled on, but no one was paying attention, they were too busy chatting.

The favourite CD in my collection is Paul Robeson, The Legendary Moscow Concert. It was “legendary” in half a dozen different ways, some to Robeson’s credit, some not. That concert evening encapsulates many of the paradoxes of Robeson as a great man, a great talent, a great fighter, and a great hypocrite.

Angered by the toxic racism of the pre- and post-war US, Robeson made himself a champion for the thousand times more toxic regime of Joseph Stalin. Robeson’s lifelong principle was always to laud and never to criticise the Soviets. This was not the self-delusion of other “political pilgrims”; Robeson knew first-hand of the reality and lied through his teeth about it for the good of the cause.

The story of that concert in Moscow on June 14, 1949, is dramatic enough, but the back-story twists and turns like an over-plotted work of fiction.

Robeson was invited to perform at the Tchaikovsky Hall, Moscow, as part of celebrations for the 150th anniversary of the birth of Pushkin. Meanwhile Stalin, in his final spasm of butchery, was working up the “doctors’ plot” as a presage to a holocaust of Russia’s remaining Jews. The “plot” was that Jewish doctors were poisoning high-ranking party patients. The doctors were, unsurprisingly, confessing under torture. When a couple of them held out, Stalin commanded the interrogators to “Beat, beat, and again beat!”—a rare instance of the Lubyanka’s thugs being criticised for half-measures.

Robeson was friends with the Moscow theatre director Solomon Mikhoels and the poet Itzik Feffer, both Jews. He met them, in company with Albert Einstein, when they were fund-raising in the US in 1943 for the Soviet war effort.

In Moscow he was troubled by evidence of anti-Semitic purges, and asked his Soviet minders to arrange for him to meet Mikhoels. Robeson knew Mikhoels had mysteriously died—he had taken part in a memorial service for Mikhoels in New York. His minder said that Mikhoels, sadly, had died of a heart attack. The reality was that eighteen months previously, the MGB in Minsk had set up Mikhoels one evening via an agent, jabbed him with a poisoned needle, then bashed his temple in, shot him, and ran over him with a truck, leaving his body in the snow by the road, along with the body of their own unlucky agent. Stalin’s daughter Svetlana overheard Stalin on the phone directing that “car accident” be cited as the cause of death, although Robeson’s minders cited heart attack.

Robeson then insisted on meeting Feffer, who in fact was in the Lubyanka awaiting execution. Feffer was roused from his cell bed, tidied up, sent home to be dressed, then brought to Robeson’s hotel room. The room was bugged and, in any case, Feffer’s family were hostages for his good behaviour.

Feffer alerted Robeson—who spoke fluent Russian—to the facts by gestures and notes on scraps of paper, while conversing about innocuous matters. On one scrap of paper Feffer wrote, “Mikhoels murdered on Stalin’s order”. As for his own future, he drew his hand across his throat.

Robeson had to work out a discreet way to save his friend’s life. He had a powerful position—his farewell concert the next night was being broadcast live throughout the Soviet Union, and he had untouchable stature as a US friend of the regime.

His solution was to use the concert to send a coded message to Stalin himself, endorsing Mikhoels and Feffer by name, and the Jewish community in general. He could get away with it because the purge had not yet become explicitly anti-Semitic and he couldn’t be expected to know all the secret rules governing public behaviour.

The capacity audience included party bigwigs and Jewish intellectuals, both groups now living in fear of the midnight arrival of MGB vans. (The point of Stalin’s terror was its arbitrariness.)

Late in his concert, Robeson, in Russian, said he would dedicate a special encore, the song of the Vilna Jewish partisans, to his dear friend Solomon Mikhoels, “whose tragic and premature death has saddened me deeply”. He added to the shock by speaking of his pleasure at meeting Feffer, who he said was well and hard at work on his memoirs. There were gasps of astonishment—many there would have known Feffer was on death row. Robeson then said he would sing in Yiddish the song of the Vilna partisans, first translating into Russian a verse, “When leaden skies a bitter future may portend” that ends, “We survive!”

The audience was in an unbearable emotional state. Their very lives were on the line and here was Robeson fearlessly albeit indirectly deploring the purge.

After his unexpected encore, one brave woman stood up and applauded; the whole hall then erupted in waves of frantic applause. People broke down, weeping, or flung themselves tearfully into the arms of strangers.

Stalin waited three years, then executed Feffer anyway. The censors locked away the tape of the concert for half a century; it was released only in 1995, after the demise of the Soviet Union, minus Robeson’s provocative comments. The tape generated the CD, and with the CD I can now read the cover notes about Mikhoels and Feffer written by Paul’s son Paul Jr (1927–2014), and hear Robeson’s Yiddish song. I can also hear the first seconds of the fifteen-minute storm of applause, the rest of it snipped by the original censors.

But this rounded story, which so impressed me initially, unravels. First, Feffer had in fact been an NKVD/MGB informer since 1943, but got caught in the meat-grinder himself. Under interrogation, he falsely accused a hundred other Jews, but at his trial he had the courage to express pride in his Jewish identity.

Second, how was Robeson going to handle his knowledge of Stalin’s murderous ways, while remaining an advocate for the socialist paradise? He chose to lie about it, to deny the undeniable. On his return to the US, he told a reporter from Soviet Russia Today that allegations of Soviet anti-Semitism were wrong: “I met Jewish people all over the place … I heard no word about it.” He said the Soviets “had done everything” for their national minorities. “Everything” in reality included genocides of Cossacks, Ukrainian peasants, Crimean Tatars, Kalmyks, Volga Germans and many other minorities.

In his book published in 1950, a year after his Moscow concert, Robeson wrote:

The Soviet Union’s very existence, its example before the world of abolishing all discrimination based on color or nationality, its fight in every arena of world conflict for genuine democracy and for peace, this has given us Negroes the chance of achieving our complete liberation within our own time, within this generation.

He never again publicly mentioned Mikhoels and Feffer, nor criticised Stalin, whom he saw as safeguarding the interests of the downtrodden, especially Robeson’s “own people”.

Shortly after his Moscow concert, Robeson told Paul Jr the truth, but swore him to secrecy about it during his (Paul Sr’s) lifetime. An account of the Moscow hotel meeting with Feffer leaked, via the widow of film director Sergei Eisenstein. Paul Jr vehemently denied the account as “wholly false according to my father’s personal recounting of these events to me”. Paul Jr was also lying, but he recanted and told the truth in 1981.

Robeson viewed the Soviet Union as his “second motherland”, and even thought “first” might be more accurate. He began his visits to Russia in 1934, getting dizzying  veneration and opportunities, contrasting with the America of Jim Crow. He was even inspired to place Paul Jr in a Moscow school.

Paul Jr admitted that his father knew of the Ukrainian famine during his visit, but told him in 1937 that he couldn’t undermine the anti-fascist Soviet Union. Paul Robeson didn’t just ignore the Stalin-created Ukrainian famine, he lied his head off, telling the Daily Worker:

I was not prepared for the happiness I see on every face in Moscow. 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.

Robeson’s position on the purges in the late 1930s was ambiguous. At the height of the terror he sided against the victims of the regime:

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 and I hope they will always do it … It is obvious that there is no terror here …

In 1952, when he’d become a pariah in the US, Robeson received the USSR’s highest honour—the Stalin Prize, worth US$25,000, an enormous sum in those days.

Even after Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s crimes in 1956, Robeson never criticised the dead vozhd (boss). When the Soviets invaded Hungary in 1956, Robeson supported them.

Robeson’s pro-Soviet advocacy turned US blacks against him, often in ways harrowing and humiliating for Robeson. In one 1951 incident in a Harlem bar, he told a famous black pitcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Don Newcombe, that Newcombe was one of his heroes. Newcombe responded, “I joined the army to fight people like you.” They nearly came to blows. One account has Newcombe being led out of the bar by one of Robeson’s quasi-bodyguards with a switchblade.

The nadir of Robeson’s career was his April 1949 speech at the Congress of the World Partisans of Peace in Paris, involving 2000 delegates, Picasso and luminaries such as Nobel-winner Frederic Joliot-Curie. The repercussions included the US government withdrawing his passport, trapping him in America from 1950 to 1958 and encouraging his blacklisting as a concert performer, which cut his income from US$100,000 a year to barely $5000. (Robeson did his 1960 Australian tour because he was offered a fee of US$100,000.)

So what did Robeson say in Paris? Immediately after the speech Associated Press reporter Joseph Dynan filed his report, which was picked up throughout the US press. It had Robeson purporting to speak on behalf of the 14 million US Negroes to the effect that they wouldn’t fight for the US against Russia in the event of a war. Mainstream Negro organisations disowned Robeson and protested their loyalty to the US. Robeson found himself isolated from both black and white America.

Dynan’s report quoted Robeson thus:

I bring you a message from the Negro people of America that they do not want a war which would send them back into a new kind of slavery … It is unthinkable that American Negroes would go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations against a country which in one generation has raised our people to the full dignity of mankind.

Robeson’s supporters claimed he had been stitched up by Dynan’s false report. They cite other, less damaging versions of his impromptu speech, such as the following, after translation into French and then back again into English:

We shall not put up with any hysterical raving that urges us to make war on anyone. Our will to fight for peace is strong. We shall not make war on anyone. We shall not make war on the Soviet Union.

There were half a dozen reports of the speech, all different. The closest to Dynan’s, in the UK’s Daily Worker, read:

It was unthinkable for himself and for the Negro people at home, that they should go to war in the interests of those who have oppressed them for generations, against a country which had shown there was no such thing as a backward people.

To me, as a reporter who has done hundreds of similar conference reports, the Dynan version is the most plausible. The role of a wire-service reporter is to get an accurate report filed as soon as possible. Dynan went straight from the hall after Robeson spoke, to write and despatch his copy. Dynan was an experienced professional and recent war correspondent in Italy. It’s a silly idea that he would delay to concoct a version to damage Robeson. The phrases in Dynan’s version are authentic Robeson. I’ve heard some of them on a tape of a private speech he gave in Perth eleven years later. Dynan couldn’t invent this Robeson-speak; he must have heard it.

Call it coincidence, but communist leaders elsewhere were expressing similar or more aggressive sentiments than Robeson. In Australia, for example, a month before the Paris conference, CPA general secretary Lance Sharkey said that “if Soviet Forces in pursuit of aggressors entered Australia, Australian workers would welcome them”. Sharkey got a three-year sentence for sedition.

Robeson provided only a muted denial of the AP report, saying that he was referring to Negro people globally as war-averse, not just to US Negroes.

The major controversy for half a century was whether Robeson was a Communist Party member or merely a supporter. He lost his US passport from 1950 to 1958 because he refused on principle to answer the question, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party of the USA?” Witnesses who testified that he was a member were attacked by Robeson supporters as government shills. Robeson’s sympathetic biographer Martin Duberman concluded in 1988, “On the most obvious level, he was never a member of the CP-USA, never a functionary, never a participant in its daily bureaucratic operation …”

But in reality Robeson was a CP-USA member for decades. The party had decided he would be more effective for the cause if his membership remained secret—disclose the fact and you’d be expelled. When CP-USA general secretary Gus Hall was serving an eight-year sentence in the 1950s on McCarthy-era charges of conspiracy to advocate the violent overthrow of the US government, Robeson campaigned for his release on civil liberties grounds, without of course disclosing his own party membership.

But in 1998, on the hundredth anniversary of Robeson’s birth, Gus Hall announced, “We can now say that Paul Robeson was a member of the Communist Party.” Robeson’s membership was, he said, “an indelible fact of Paul’s life, [in] every way, every day of his adult life”. Robeson’s most precious moment, Hall said, occurred:

when I met with him to accept his dues and renew his yearly membership in the CP-USA. I and other Communist leaders like Henry Winston, the Party’s late, beloved national chair, met with Paul to brief him on politics and Party policies and to discuss his work and struggles.

Paul Jr, himself a CP-USA member from about 1948 to 1962, was a practitioner of dissembling. But when his father was outed—along with himself—he put it succinctly: “If people want a politically correct hero, then Paul Robeson’s not the man.”

Robeson’s reputation has come full circle, from guarded respect up to 1945, vilification for most of the Cold War as a Soviet stooge, and now respect again, especially from the liberal media. A recent profile on America’s PBS television gave him a twenty-one-gun salute, managing to make no mention of either communism or the Soviet Union. I must say the contradictions involved with any assessment of Robeson make him a tough subject to handle.

Forty of Tony Thomas’s Quadrant essays have recently been published by Connor Court as That’s Debatable—60 Years in Print

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