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No other Black artist in US defended the legacy of Stalin and USSR like Robeson

By Harsh Thakor 

April 9, 2023 marked the 125th anniversary of the birth of Paul Robeson, one of the outstanding Revolutionary or Marxist personalities of the 20th century. He was not only an outstanding U.S. scholar, athlete, lawyer, actor and singer but, most importantly, a relentless battler for the rights of all who championed the spirit of liberation, for his own people and for the peoples of the world. Till his last breath championed Marxism-Leninism and Black people’s Liberation. Very few artists transcended barriers of revolutionary courage to confront fascism, as Robeson, whose creative contribution among Black artists, is almost unparalleled. Reminiscent of a virtual soul of the oppressed masses, world over.
He was greatly appreciated and admired by the working class and peoples of the U.S. and Canada and of the entire world for his unflinching dedication for just causes, in which he put his own people in first place, and contributed the same to the peoples of the world.
It was  remarkable the manner in the most dire straits he would resurrect like a Phoenix from the Ashes, with death defying courage. He left no stone unturned in backing the anti-colonial liberation struggles world over and shimmered the spirit of the Russian and Chinese Revolutions, laying a role of their mascot, in America. His work was manifestation of the Marxist-Leninist spirit of liberation, with his art blossoming it into a living form.
Few were more illustrative or as much a living example of the spiritual and creative essence of Marxist ideology. His voice sang the very heart of the oppressed people. He demonstrated how Marxism-Leninism was the sole path for Black liberation, and how capitalist society could never give the Afro-American race recourse.
Paul Robeson displayed death defying courage when he was persecuted by the U.S. state, especially during the McCarthy inquisition. He manifested spirit of striving greater heights of peace, freedom and democracy.
Paul Robeson most articulately grasped the racial, economic, political, and ideological dynamics of the world-system. His radical acts of solidarity with the oppressed, combined with his superb sociological insight, were a role model for revolutionaries.. In times of world-systemic crisis, Paul Robeson type characters need to be resurrected.
No Black artist so congeally and courageously defended the merits and legacy of Stalin and the USSR as Robeson, proving before people’s eyes that Soviet Union was the only nation where the working class was liberated and racism abolished. Few artists eve r trotted so many corners of the globe crystallising the flame of people’s liberation.
Fellow actor, singer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte, speaking about Robeson’s study of music said, “He was conscious of the highest form of the art to get the nuances so people would think he was from there.” At a time the U.S. state is once again launching a witch hunt against all those who refuse to submit to its dictate, the example of Paul Robeson is more significant than ever.

Early Life

Robeson attended Rutgers University on a scholarship where he was a College All-American in football, the class valedictorian, debating champion and five times received honours from the Phi Beta Kappa academic honour society; received a law degree from Columbia Law School; played in the National Football League; spoke 20 languages; discovered common links in music through the pentatonic scale; acted in 11 films; was a bass-baritone concert singer; played the first African-American Othello and above all was a political activist.
His first acting role was in The Emperor Jones written by Eugene O’Neill. In 1922 while performing in a play in Liverpool, England, Robeson said, “I discovered I was a singer. I didn’t want to be a Wagnerian opera singer but sing the folk songs of my people. I wanted to have my voice come out of who I was.” By 1935 his singing career was on its way and that in 15 years it would make him “the best known man in the world.”
“My concerts show the unity, the relationship of Negro music to music of all the world, the idea that all men are brothers because of their music. Folk songs from all the different countries have similarities because they have similar aspirations,” said Robeson in an interview.
Fellow actor, singer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte, speaking about Robeson’s study of music said, “He was conscious of the highest form of the art to get the nuances so people would think he was from there.”
Robeson became the first African American to play William Shakespeare’s Othello, with Uta Hagen as Desdemona, in the Theatre Guild production in New York in 1943. It became the longest running Shakespeare play in the history of Broadway.” Interviewed about the role, Robeson said, “What provoked Othello was the destruction of himself as a human being, of his human dignity. I related that dignity to my whole people in what Othello calls ‘his honour, his dignity.'”

Robeson as an Internationalist

When he first visited the Soviet Union, Robeson was greatly impressed with Russia at that time as he discovered no colour bar there. He eulogised the political system of the Soviet Union stating he never witnessed such scale of egalitarianism, his lifetime.. He went to Spain and was out among the Loyalist fighting men and played his part in sharpening the anti-fascist struggle by giving concerts Paul Robeson sang for Republican troops in Teruel, Spain, 1938.
Robeson was a committed anti-fascist, travelling to Spain during the Civil War to show solidarity with the anti-Franco resistance. He quickly found good company with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade composed of travellers from around the world who flocked to the region to fight fascism. This experience left him “filled with admiration and love” for this coalition of anti-fascists hailing dozens of countries around the world. When pressed by the HUAC on his possible ties to communists, he was resolute in his position: “wherever I have been in the world, Scandinavia, England, and many places, the first to die in the struggle against Fascism were the Communists and I laid many wreaths upon graves of Communists.”
Paul was an internationalist and a prominent figure in the working-class movement singing wherever workers were fighting for their rights. Some memorable occasions were the sold-out concert organized by the Scottish Area of the National Union of Mineworkers at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh; singing for the construction workers at the building site of the Sydney Opera House; the famous Peace Arch concerts at the U.S.-Canada border south of Vancouver in 1951 and again in 1952, in front of tens of thousands of people; the trans-Atlantic concert arranged by the South Wales miners when Robeson was still without his passport. His was a special bond with the Welsh miners after starring in The Proud Valley, a 1940 film about Welsh coal miners.

Robeson on Black Liberation

Robeson analysed integral relationship between Black liberation in the United States and movements for liberation in Africa. His polemics on racism in the world-system was illustrated when he asked “can we oppose white supremacy in South Carolina and not oppose the same system in South Africa?” He followed up with the assertion that “the colonial peoples—the coloured peopled of the world—were going to be free and equal no matter whose ‘best interests’ obstruct them.” Robeson offered a blistering critique of the ideological underpinnings of colonial-capitalism, whereby politicians endorsed their quest for global hegemony under the banner of it being in the ‘best interest’ to ‘take it slow’ in the march towards Black liberation.
Later, “He was angry that in the 1930s there were still no blacks playing major league baseball, so he led a delegation before the major league club owners demanding that the colour bar be broken. Not long afterwards Jackie Robinson became the first African American to play in Major League Baseball.”

Robeson targeted by US govt and Ku Klux Klan

After World War II the anti-communist witch hunt began that targeted Robeson and many others. To this persecution he responded, “Nobody is scaring me.” Quoting his father he said, “Never compromise your principles no matter what, never take low.” Robeson was to sing at the concert for the Civil Rights Congress in Peekskill, New York in August 1949. Nazis and Ku Klux Klan attacked and beat African Americans and Jews, burned crosses, and lynched effigies of Robeson disrupting the concert as the police stood by and did nothing.
A second concert in September was organized successfully by the Communist Party of the United States, World War II veterans and the trade unions, who protected Robeson and the 20,000 who attended. Of that time Belafonte said, “[C]ommunism became clearly the target and they set up instruments to attack it and the most powerful was HUAC [House Un-American Activities Committee].”
“[…] then he refused to make statements saying he wasn’t a communist as it was being used against people — denying of passports etc. — he refused to take an oath because he was opposed to it in principle,” said Lloyd Brown, Robeson’s friend and biographer about the stand he took at the hearings.
The government revoked his passport; he was denied concert halls and theatres and blocked from appearing on U.S. television. “I was blacklisted as were many of my colleagues,” said Robeson. But then, he said, “My career was re-started by the Negro community, especially the churches where I gave many concerts.” Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker stood on stage at a rally and said, ‘Paul is my friend, I don’t care what they say about him.'”
Paul was an internationalist and a prominent figure in the working-class movement singing wherever workers were fighting for their rights. Some memorable occasions were the sold-out concert organized by the Scottish Area of the National Union of Mineworkers at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh; singing for the construction workers at the building site of the Sydney Opera House; the famous Peace Arch concerts at the U.S.-Canada border south of Vancouver in 1951 and again in 1952, in front of tens of thousands of people; the trans-Atlantic concert arranged by the South Wales miners when Robeson was still without his passport. His was a special bond with the Welsh miners after starring in The Proud Valley, a 1940 film about Welsh coal miners.

World Tour

In 1958, after receiving his passport back Robeson embarked n a venturous world tour — “the man of unbending principle had returned.” The CIA poisoned Robeson in 1961 under their MK-Ultra program. Robeson was in Moscow and was planning next to meet Fidel Castro in Cuba before returning to the U.S. to join Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X in the civil rights movement. He was invited to a “surprise party” in Moscow set up by the CIA that was filled with anti-Soviet dissidents. There he was given LSD. Shortly after he left Moscow, he was admitted to the Priory Hospital in London, England. Within 36 hours of his arrival in London, and against the advice of Soviet doctors, Robeson was subjected to the first of 54 electro-convulsive shock therapy sessions. He never fully recovered and this ended his singing and political activities at the age of 63.
Turner Classic Movies (TCM) held a month-long retrospective of Robeson’s films entitled Star of the Month in September 2021. The films screened were Borderline (1930), The Emperor Jones (1933), Sanders of the River (1935), Show Boat (1936), Song of Freedom (1936), Big Fella (1937), King Solomon’s Mines (1937), Jericho (a.k.a. Dark Sands, 1937), The Proud Valley (1940) and Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist (1979), a TCM premier.
The TCM statement announcing the series reads: “Paul Robeson, was a man of immense talent and ability — actor, singer, academic, athlete, public speaker and civil rights activist. It was his efforts in the last-named capacity, along with his leftist politics, that further hampered his career in an age when opportunities for Black performers were already limited.”

Robeson admiration for Stalin

A month after Joseph Stalin died in 1953 Robeson wrote a letter entitled To You Beloved Comrade. He wrote, “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 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.
“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.
“Yes, through his deep humanity, by his wise understanding, he leaves us a rich and monumental heritage. Most importantly — he has charted the direction of our present and future struggles. He has pointed the way to peace — to friendly co-existence — to the exchange of mutual scientific and cultural contributions — to the end of war and destruction. How consistently, how patiently, he labored for peace and ever increasing abundance, with what deep kindliness and wisdom. He leaves tens of millions all over the earth bowed in heart-aching grief.”
He ends his letter with a verse from a Lewis Allan song:
To you Beloved Comrade, we make this solemn vow
The fight will go on — the fight will still go on.
Sleep well, Beloved Comrade, our work will just begin.
The fight will go on — till we win — until we win.
Paul was married to Eslanda Goode, a U.S. anthropologist, author, actress and civil rights activist. The film’s title, The Tallest Tree in Our Forest, was coined by Mary Jane McLeod Bethune an educator, philanthropist, humanitarian and civil rights activist.

Robeson and China

Chinese love for Robeson reportedly derives most of all from his role in globalising the future national anthem of the People’s Republic of China.
Friends of Socialist China said, introduced in November 1940, for Robeson, its lyrics “expressed the determination of the worlds oppressed, in their struggle for liberation."
It added, “Robeson’s connections with the struggles  of the Chinese people can be traced to at least 1935, when he met in London with Mei Lanfang, considered the father of modern Peking Opera, who was returning from three weeks of successful appearances in the Soviet Union.
“On October 1 1949, when Chairman Mao proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Robeson sang the national anthem on the streets of Harlem and cabled his congratulations to the Chinese leader. Despite being a victim of grave targeting, he unflinchingly stood firm when Chinese forces entered the Korean war. Mutual support between the People’s Republic of China and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea would, he insisted, be the 'great truth' in their shared journey to freedom.
“The 1940 film ‘The Proud Valley’, starring Robeson and set in the mining communities of South Wales, was shown in China in the 1950s as well as his participation in mass China friendship activities in Britain after the US authorities were forced to restore his passport.”
Indeed, the Leftist legacy of portraying African American figures as the true revolutionaries led the People’s Republic of China to uphold Robeson as a hero and a role model. Robeson’s public support justified the CCP’s involvement in the Korean War and later facilitated its new diplomatic defenders and tactics. As the PRC contested Soviet dominance of world communism and aspired to leadership of the Third World that bound the destinies of China with former agricultural colonies in Asia, Africa and Latin America, Robeson’s giant global stature bridged China’s alliance with Africa. Yet, following the Sino-Soviet split in the early 1960s, PRC state media and publishers fell silent on Robeson. His 70th birthday in 1968 slipped by without notice in China, although his previous birthdays were celebrated as state events. Robeson’s position advocating peaceful coexistence for countries with different systems, highly applauded by the PRC during the Korean War, now fell on the wrong side of tensions between the Soviet Union and China.
In 1976, with the termination the radical Maoist years, Robeson remerged as a hero, and he remains popular in China today. Even as China made the about turn from communism to full scale capitalism, Robeson retains a special place in the nation’s heart. Robeson is commemorated for globalising China’s national anthem, for his songs that searched souls for his contributions to the Chinese nation’s liberation – and to the friendship between the people of China and the United States, particularly African Americans. His classic ‘Ol’ Man River’ continues to fascinate the Chinese.

India and Robeson

Many in India have expressed their admiration with Robeson.  Archishman Raju writes in the Scroll, "Many important personalities in India expressed their admiration with Robeson Bhupen Hazarika who had based his famous songs ‘Bistirna Parore’ and ‘Ganga Behti Ho Kyun’ on Ol’ Man River. The mathematician and historian D. D. Kosambi revered  Paul Robeson’s songs. The Telegu writer Chalam one wrote that his daughter compared Sri Sri’s writing with Robeson’s music."
According to Raju, “It was Bengal, Hemanga Biswas, a member of Indian People’s Theatre Association, himself remembered for imbibing folk traditions and fighting for peace, would perform the song 'Negro Bhai Amar Paul Robeson' along with his troupe. This song, composed and written by Kamal Sarkar, was based on a translation by Subhash Mukhopadhyaya of Nazim Hikmet’s poem written in 1949 to his 'Negro Brother' Paul Robeson.  'They don’t let us sing our songs' for 'they are afraid' is the call of both the original poem and the song."
In April 1958, Paul Robeson’s 60th birthday was celebrated in several cities in India. These celebrations were organised by an all-India committee under the chairmanship of MC Chagla, the former chief justice of the Bombay High Court.
In his address at the celebration, Chagla reportedly said, “Robeson was fighting against the insolence and arrogance of a ‘superior’ race, and the sense of dominance which comes from a lack of pigmentation in the skin.” He added, “If there is a God, and God is only another name for compassion and kindness, the Negroes must be dearer to Him than any other people.”

Conclusion

Robeson’s life hardly had a single blackmark, and even when emotional never lost his balance. Very hard to visualise a Robeson to re-emerge in today’s world, with waves of globalisation and neo-fascism blowing at their strongest, and hardly any Marxist alternative. In the dark days of Ukraine War, Palestinian crisis, Hindutva fascism, unprecedented economic crisis and alienation of labour, the world desperately needs a Robeson reborn. I recommend everyone to read the writings of Paul Robeson which are a must in treasure house of any revolutionary like “I Am at Home”, ‘Thoughts on Winning the Stalin Peace Prize ‘, ‘To You Beloved Comrade’ and Yourselves”. I also recommend the movie ‘Here I Stand” and documentary “The Tallest Tree in our Forest.” and article by Gao Yunxiang.in ‘Friends of Socialist China.’
In my opinion however, was Robeson’s flaw that he remained publicly neutral concerning the USSR-China rift that began in the late 1950s, maintaining his cordial relations with both countries, and expressed no condemnation about Nikita Khrushchev’s “secret speech” in 1956 denouncing Stalin’s crimes Robeson’s eclectic political stand on these issues was conveyed indirectly by his personal friendship with Khrushchev and his patronising of Khrushchev’s domestic and foreign-policy reforms. Historian shave to inquire into why the Chinese Cultural Revolution led by Mao Tse Tung did not attract Robeson and why he did not raise his voice against the betrayal of liberation Struggles by the Soviet Union after the 1960s.
---
*Freelance journalist 

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