Communist or not, Paul Robeson’s politics examined by biographer Martin Duberman

On March 19, 1983, CBC-TV broadcast an obituary of Fred Rose, the only Communist to have served in the Canadian Parliament (1943-1947).  Convicted of espionage and expelled from Parliament, Rose spent four and one-half years in prison, then self-deported to Poland, never to return.

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In the course of the obituary, the CBC played an audio by a person identified as “the American Communist” Paul Robeson recorded in New York in behalf of Rose’s re-election campaign.  See http://www.cbc.ca/archives/categories/war-conflict/cold-war/the-gouzenko-affair/fred-rose-obituary.html

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Robeson’s politics, his affinity for the Soviet Union, his relationship with the leaders of the Communist Party, USA, and his reckless activism during the Cold War, take up at least a quarter of Martin Duberman’s comprehensive biography, “Paul Robeson, a Biography” reissued by Open Road Integrated Media

Robeson was one of the most talented men of the twentieth century.  A stellar vocalist, best known for his Negro spirituals, and outstanding actor, legendary for his portrayal of Othello, Robeson crossed the color line, winning acclaim of whites as well as Blacks.

His greatest fame was in the United Kingdom, where he lived for much of the 1930’s.   In the U.K. he appreciated a racial climate far milder then the segregation of the United States.  Robeson spoke out for and entertained  British labor groups and anti-colonial organizations.  Robeson’s politics caught fire when he visited the Soviet Union.

Back in the Stalin era, the Soviet Government rigidly controlled the news media, arts and political thought.  Noting the lack of discrimination against Blacks in the USSR (few Africans, Caribbeans, or African-Americans lived there) Robeson accepted the Communist line that racialism of all kinds had been abolished, and that all nationalities were encouraged to develop their own cultures.

Speaking out in the context of fighting racism in the United States and colonialism around the world, Robeson saw himself as a fighter for his people.   He saw the Soviet Union as the one country that fulfilled his idea of a non-racist society.

Robeson showed great courage, singing at a left-wing concert in Peekskill, New York in 1949, knowing that anti-Communists were planning violence to stop his concert.  He supported the Soviet “peace policies” in the early Cold War years, speaking both in the United States and abroad.  His rhetoric against American racism threatened America’s image abroad.

The United States government retaliated by revoking Robeson’s passport, destroying his ability to perform in England, and killing his audience appeal and earning potential outside of the Black and progressive communities.

Besides politics, Duberman gives a balanced view of Robeson’s life.  Most interesting is his long, but distant marriage to Eslanda Goode Robeson.  Rarely did they live together.  Paul had numerous affairs.  He was inattentive to their son, Paul, Jr.  Nevertheless, Essie stayed with him.  She is portrayed as manager of his career, defender, and fellow political activist.  She was a journalist and activist in her own right.  They shared a lavish lifestyle when times were good.

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Martin Duberman

Duberman’s book gives a view of the Black elite in the days before integration, and a rich account of Black culture during the Harlem Renaissance and afterwards.

Duberman concludes that Robeson was never a member of the Communist Party USA, pointing out, that if the government could have proven membership, he would have been prosecuted.

I concur with Duberman’s conclusion.  Robeson was most useful to the C.P. as a prestigious apologist for the Soviet Union and progressive causes.  I doubt that a man of his stature, strength and independence would submit himself to Party discipline.

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