News | Party / Movement History - Politics of Memory / Antifascism - Racism / Neonazism - USA / Canada - Democratic Socialism Paul Robeson: The Left’s Tragic Hero

The musician, actor, and socialist should be remembered for both his heroic contributions and his attachment to Stalinism



Mario Kessler,

Paul Robeson gives a performance to dockworkers in Oakland, California, 1942. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Paul Robeson, African American singer and actor, lawyer and football player, political activist and Communist, was born 125 years ago today on 9 April 1898. Robeson was a masterful and prolific musician — he recorded almost 300 songs between 1925 and 1961, in 20 different languages, with a repertoire that included folk, blues and jazz standards, pop and musical pieces, classical as well as political songs. But he was also a vitally important champion in the struggle for black liberation. Until the onset of the Cold War he was, to quote W. E. B. Du Bois, “the best-known American on Earth” — and not only among Communists.

School, Studies, and First Professional Successes

Paul Leroy Bustill Robeson was born in Princeton, New Jersey in 1898 to a freed slave, Presbyterian preacher William Drew Robeson, and his wife Mary Louise, née Bastille, who died at an early age; he was the youngest of five children. In Westfield and Somerville, New Jersey, where Robeson lived after 1910, he excelled in all school subjects, including sports. In 1915 he won a nationwide academic competition for a scholarship to study at Rutgers University (then Rutgers College).

Mario Kessler is senior fellow at the Leibniz Center for Contemporary History in Potsdam, Germany.

An earlier version of this article appeared in the magazine Sozialismus.

Robeson was a standout player in American football. He was twice selected to the nation’s top college amateur football team, but experienced racial discrimination even there — an opposing team refused to play because a black man was on the field. Robeson subsequently gave up a brief career in the National Football League in favour of his artistic ambitions, although he had experienced discrimination there too: Robeson, though blessed with an outstanding bass voice, was not allowed to become a member of the college choir.

Robeson completed his undergraduate studies with honours in 1919 and studied law at Columbia University. After graduating in 1923, he briefly worked in a law office; he happened to meet pianist Fletcher Henderson in Harlem who was looking for a new singer for his Four Kings of Harmony. After listening to several of Robeson’s songs, Henderson offered him a place in the quartet. It was also around that time that Robeson met his wife Eslanda Goode, whom he married in August 1921. From that point on, Eslanda worked as his agent in a partnership that was by no means free of tension. Paul Robeson Jr, the couple’s only child, was born in 1927.

Robeson was also offered an acting career. In April 1921, he played one of the title roles in Mary Hoyt Vyborg’s play Taboo; sang in the chorus of the Broadway production of Shuffle Along shortly afterward, and performed in England for the first time in 1922. It took until February 1924 for Robeson to be offered the title role in Eugene O’Neill’s Wings Are Given to All Children of Men, despite the racist agitation of the Hearst press. This was followed with the role of Brutus in O’Neill’s tragedy The Emperor Jones. In March 1925, Robeson recorded his first song, the spiritual “Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit.” Robeson’s first European tour followed. The recording of Jerome Kern’s “Ol’ Man River” brought him global success in 1928. This and other successes gave Robeson financial security for a long time.

Robeson’s Path to Communism

Robeson returned to London in 1930 to take the lead role in Shakespeare’s Othello. He took up part-time studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London in early 1934, majoring in Swahili. Sergei Eisenstein invited him to Moscow at the end of 1934 for his (unfinished) project to bring the Haitian Revolution to screen under the title “Black Majesty”. In contrast to Berlin, where he was harassed by an SA squad during a stopover, Robeson was impressed by Moscow. “In Russia, for the first time, I felt like a full human being,” he said after arriving. “No colour prejudice like in Mississippi; no colour prejudice like in Washington.”

Robeson’s experiences in the USSR were marked by the overwhelming feeling that, for the first time in his life, he was not discriminated against or excluded on the basis of his skin colour. This tragically led him to ignore the brutality of Joseph Stalin’s government. When commenting on an execution of persons who the Daily Worker, the paper of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA), called “counterrevolutionary terrorists”, Robeson argued, “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.” He continued:

It is the government’s duty to put down any opposition to this really free society with a firm hand, and I hope they always will, for I already regard myself at home here ... I feel more kinship to the Russian people under their new society than I have ever felt anywhere else. It is obvious that there is no terror here, that all the masses of every race are contended and support their government.

Robeson’s own family was eventually directly confronted with Stalin’s terror. In a 10 May 1936, interview, he described the apartment of his brother-in-law, John Goode, who was working in Moscow at this time. “While in the Soviet Union I made a point to visit some of the workers’ homes”, he said,

and I saw for myself. They all live in healthful surroundings, apartments with nurseries containing the most modern equipment for their children … I certainly wish the workers in this country — and especially the Negroes in Harlem and the South — had such places to stay in.

It did not occur to Robeson how atypical this was of the general housing situation in the Soviet Union. But just 21 months later, Robeson had to use his connections to help his brother-in-law, accused of terrorist conspiracy, to escape from Moscow; he therefore must have known how perilously people lived who did not have a famous advocate such as himself.

Robeson later revealed that his young son would be enrolled in school in Moscow, where he would not be discriminated against because of the colour of his skin. Paul Robeson Jr was accepted to an elite school whose students included Stalin’s daughter and Vyacheslav Molotov’s son. His father went back to London and appeared in films and plays of varying quality until he once again received highest recognition for his role of François-Dominique Toussaint Louverture, the leader of the Haitian Revolution. Robeson formed a close friendship with C. L. R. James, the author of The Black Jacobins, on which the play of the same name was based, which lasted until 1949.

The Spanish Civil War and its international repercussions finally turned Robeson into a political activist. With the beginning of the war in 1936, he sent proceeds from his concert performances to aid the Spanish Republic and performed there himself in 1938; Robeson in addition donated the proceeds of his concert performances to the strike funds of striking miners in Wales. After a meeting with Jawaharlal Nehru in June 1936, Robeson publicly advocated India’s independence and also supported anti-colonial efforts in Africa. On the occasion of his one-hundredth birthday in 1998, CPUSA secretary general Gus Hall revealed that Robeson had been a party member for decades, but had kept it a secret in consultation with the party leadership.

From World War II to the Cold War

Shortly after the beginning of World War II, the Robesons settled in Enfield, Connecticut. In July 1940, Robeson set out on a concert tour of the western parts of the United States, the highlight of which was to be a concert at the Hollywood Bowl. But none of the hotels contacted wanted to accept a black artist. He was finally forced to rent a room at an inflated price if he agreed not to eat his meals in the hotel’s restaurant.

Robeson contributed the voice of the narrator to the film Native Land, directed by Leo Hurwitz and Paul Strand, which premiered in 1942. It was one of the first films to document civil rights violations in America. Despite the fact that the United States and the USSR were now allied and Communists in the US were temporarily in less danger, the FBI saw the film as covert Communist propaganda. Among Robeson’s barely countable activities of those years was a recording of the “March of the Volunteers” in both English and Chinese, which became the anthem of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. In 1943 Robeson was also a leader in the campaign to eliminate segregation in baseball leagues — still without success.

The war against fascism, in which black and white soldiers fought together in the US Army, put — not for the first time — the overdue question of equality for black people in the military on the agenda. It became urgent after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 in June 1941 that prohibited discrimination in the defence industry on the part of federal agencies.

Robeson appeared as an almost heroic representative of the ‘Other America’, not only to the Communists, but also to many independent leftists and left-liberals.

But the CPUSA, which until then had been committed advocates of black and white equality, curbed all campaigning for this cause after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, and especially after the US entry into the war the following December. If until then the party had supported a policy of strict defeatism and isolationism (“The Yanks are not coming!”), it now unconditionally supported US government policy, even at the cost of alienating the African American civil rights movement, for which the struggle against “racial segregation” was far from over.

On 25 July 1946, Robeson managed to talk to President Harry S. Truman, telling him that, if the federal government refused to defend its black citizens against lynchings, black people would have to defend themselves. The president assured Robeson that the United States and Britain were the best guarantors of a democratic society, to which Robeson replied that England was one of the greatest slave-holding nations in human history, while the practice of lynching in the contemporary United States reminded him of the worst of European fascism. American and British policy today, Robeson argued, would not support anti-fascism. Truman declared that this was not the time to introduce legislation against lynching. Robeson and W. E. B. Du Bois, the legendary cofounder of the African American civil rights movement, then started a campaign on 22 September 1946, the day on which President Abraham Lincoln had officially declared slavery abolished in 1862.

That same year, 1946, Robeson was summoned to appear before the so-called Tenney Committee, the California subcommittee of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). There, and likewise in May 1948 before the Senate Judiciary Committee, he refused to answer questions about his CP membership, citing the Constitution. In 1948 he, along with Albert Einstein, also actively supported the presidential candidacy of Henry A. Wallace, chairman of the newly formed and short-lived Progressive Party. Wallace refused to exclude Communists from his party. He was fiercely attacked in the election campaign by the two anti-Communist camps, with the Democrats around Truman and the Republicans around Thomas E. Dewey, but also by Norman Thomas, the candidate of the Socialist Party of America. Wallace stood no chance against the victorious Truman.

Jackie Robinson, the best African American baseball player of this time, whose successful integration into white professional baseball was championed by Robeson, was compelled to appear before HUAC on 18 June 1949, to answer the question of whether he knew that Robeson was a Communist. He replied somewhat ambiguously that, if so, it would not be a reason to deprive Robeson of his constitutional right to refuse to testify. Robeson himself repeatedly declared, for example at the Paris World Peace Congress in 1949, that African Americans, deprived of civil rights by their own country, would never go to war against the Soviet Union, in which the dignity and equality of all people was guaranteed. Robeson called Gerhart Eisler’s escape in May 1949, evading prosecution after his interrogation by HUAC, “the greatest victory for the forces of peace in the world”. His former friend Max Yergan, who had become a fanatical anti-Communist, now labelled him a “black Stalin”.

But Robeson appeared as an almost heroic representative of the “Other America”, not only to the Communists, but also to many independent leftists and left-liberals. His long self-deception about Stalin and the nature of the Soviet Union therefore was all the more tragic.

Robeson’s Tragic Self-Deception

Robeson again travelled back to Moscow in June 1949 and sought contact with his Jewish friends Itzik Fefer and Solomon Michoels. Fefer, who had been arrested as a result of Stalin’s anti-Semitic purges, was brought to Robeson’s hotel. Knowing that the room had been bugged, Fefer indicated through gestures that Michoels had been murdered and that the same fate awaited him. Robeson sang a Yiddish partisan song in Moscow shortly afterwards as an encore (possibly arranged with the organizers of the concert tour). After his return to the United States, however, Robeson declared that there was no antisemitism in the Soviet Union.

Robeson’s unrepentant Stalinism showed itself again in his behaviour toward American Trotskyists. Robeson addressed a conference at New York’s Henry Hudson Hotel on 17 July 1949 that was devoted to the defines of 12 indicted CP leaders who had been charged with subversive activity under the Alien Registration Act, also known as the Smith Act. One provision of this law, passed by Congress in June 1940, was that foreign-born persons guilty of subversive activities against the government could be deported to their country of birth. Its first defendants in 1941 were not Communist Party members but instead eighteen members of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SWP) that had organized several large truck driver strikes in Minnesota; they received prison sentences but were not deported.

While numerous figures on the non-communist Left expressed solidarity with the defendants, the CPUSA attempted to discredit the Trotskyist strike leaders. Worse, Communist cadres compiled a dossier on the Trotskyists for the US Department of Justice, and thus for the FBI, that was used unofficially to reach a verdict. Nevertheless, there were quiet fears among Communists that their anti-Trotskyist campaign might ultimately be turned against CP members. This finally happened in 1949.

The once-condemned Trotskyists immediately declared their solidarity with the now-persecuted CP leaders. But in preparation for the conference at Henry Hudson Hotel, the Daily Worker warned that the Communist Party should not allow the forum to defend bourgeois liberties for Trotskyists, as they were agents of counterrevolution. According to a New York Times report, Robeson appeared on stage and attacked conference chairman Paul J. Kern, who advocated support not only for Communists but also, wherever warranted, for Trotskyists. Robeson denounced Trotskyists as “allies of fascism who want to destroy the new democracies of the world” — meaning the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe. “Let’s not get confused. They are the enemies of the working class.” He went so far as to ask demagogically, “Would you give civil rights to the Ku Klux Klan?” Kern’s resolution in defines of civil rights also for Trotskyists was overwhelmingly rejected. Robeson argued against defending the Trotskyists even though knew that some of the erstwhile strike leaders and their supporters, including Max Shachtman, were from Eastern Europe and would face the death penalty if deported there.

Instead of the maligned Trotskyists, it was the actual Ku Klux Klan that, over a three-hour period, beat a crowd assembled for a concert with Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger on 27 August 1949 in Peekskill, New York. The frenzied mob burned benches and chairs and overturned buses and cars, while it was mainly Trotskyists who had arrived in an effort to defend concertgoers.

The concert had to be cancelled, but when it was made up on 4 September, buses and cars were once again pelted with stones. Despite Robeson’s slander, Trotskyists protected him against racist attacks from the Ku Klux Klan as well as, subsequently, from the US judiciary. Among these Trotskyists was C. L. R. James, whose personal friendship with Robeson had suffered lasting damage after the incidence at the Henry Hudson Hotel. The Trotskyists and other socialists outside the CPUSA had believed that mutual solidarity in the face of racial hatred would be stronger than any political difference between them. Robeson’s equation of the Trotskyist with the KKK tragically showed them that this was not the case.

Robeson appeared in court on 20 September 1949, to testify in favour of 12 accused Communists, but he was not allowed to do so. The government subsequently revoked his passport in summer 1950. His attorneys were told that at this time foreign travel by Paul Robeson would be contrary to the fundamental interests of the United States. This meant that he lost the opportunity to perform abroad, which, together with the boycott policy of the major American radio stations and record companies, represented a severe financial loss for him. (Still, a concert he gave in New York in 1957, transmitted via submarine cable to England and Wales, received worldwide attention.) Robeson spent many of the following years struggling to regain his passport.

On 22 December 1952, Robeson received the Stalin International Peace Prize, which he accepted in New York (instead of Moscow). Shortly after Stalin’s death in April 1953, Robeson praised the dictator as a humanitarian and peacemaker, and praised the Soviet Union as a great family of nations. In Stalin's country, he declared, “Yakuts, Nentses, Kirgiz, Tadzhiks had respect and were helped to advance with unbelievable rapidity in this socialist land. No empty promises, such as coloured folk continuously hear in the United States, but deeds.” Robeson kept silent about the deportation of entire peoples who were accused of being collaborators of Adolf Hitler in World War II: Balkars, Ingush, Karachays, Crimean Tatars, Chechens, Volga Germans, and Baltic peoples. Nor did he publicly comment on Nikita Khrushchev’s revelation of Stalin's crimes at the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956.

Later Years

Robeson received a summons to HUAC on 12 June 1956, after refusing to sign an affidavit that he was not a Communist. Although HUAC had by then become less dangerous, its questioning was still somewhat of a risk. Invoking the Fifth Amendment, Robeson again refused to reveal his political affiliation. When asked why he had not remained in the Soviet Union because of his proximity to their political ideology, he replied: “Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay here and have a part of it just like you. And no fascist-minded people will drive me from it.” In that regard, he said, it would not matter whether he was a Communist or not.

Robeson’s passport was returned to him in 1958. Despite deteriorating health, the following three years were marked by concert appearances in several countries, including the Soviet Union and, for the first time, the German Democratic Republic, where Humboldt University in (East) Berlin awarded Robeson an honorary doctorate.

Socialists would be well advised to clearly acknowledge Paul Robeson’s tragedy and self-deception in order to honour him, despite his contradictions and illusions, as a great and steadfast personality, as a universalist and internationalist.

During his final stay in the Soviet Union in March 1961, Robeson locked himself in his Moscow hotel room after a concert and attempted to take his own life by slitting his wrists. He was found and rescued. Some have speculated that Robeson’s attempted suicide was connected to his despair over Stalinism; his biographer, Martin Duberman, believes that bipolar disorder was the main cause. Robeson remained under medical care in London until 1963 before his family took him to the GDR capital. After temporary recuperation, he returned to the United States in late 1963.

While still in London, Robeson hailed the March on Washington on 28 August 1963 as a “turning point” in the American civil rights movement. He sporadically attended meetings of the civil rights movement in 1964, but he attempted to commit suicide for a second time while staying in San Francisco in 1965. He was saved once again; his health, however, was permanently shattered. Immediately afterward, double pneumonia and kidney blockage forced him to give up all public activities.

After Eslanda’s death in December 1965, Robeson moved in with his son’s family in New York, and in 1968 with his sister in Philadelphia, living there in complete seclusion. On 15 April 1973, 3,000 people gathered at New York’s Carnegie Hall to mark his seventy-fifth birthday. In his last taped public address, he said, “Although I have been unable to engage in social activities for several years, I want you to know that I remain committed to the struggle for freedom, peace and the brotherhood of man on earth.” On 23 January 1976, Robeson died in Philadelphia at age 77 after suffering a stroke. He was buried next to his wife Eslanda in Ferncliff Cemetery in New York.

Robeson’s Legacy

Paul Robeson’s artistic and political career, as well as his physical and mental health, were severely damaged by decades of racist hostility. His ultimately ineffective means of coping involved ignoring the increasing contradictions between his socialist ideals and the reality of the Soviet Union. For him, the Soviet Union remained the lifeline to which he increasingly clung in despair. He was not willing to talk about this personal tragedy, neither in public nor even with his family. The anti-Stalinist New Left viewed him critically as a result.

Some chroniclers today hide Robeson’s Stalinism in order to avoid inconvenient questions; for others, it becomes a pretext to consign Robeson’s name and his achievements to oblivion. Socialists would be well advised to clearly acknowledge Paul Robeson’s tragedy and self-deception in order to honour him, despite his contradictions and illusions, as a great and steadfast personality, as a universalist and internationalist.

Making critical use of Robeson’s legacy and his experiences is of crucial importance. Paul Robeson contributed decisively to giving black people and other oppressed groups the level of self-confidence necessary to move from being victims to being actors in history. This is what constitutes his special, unique value as an artist and socialist activist.