Paul Robeson (Part I)--a mind can be an impossible thing to change
This post isn't really another one about Radical Son, although it was sparked by a story that appeared in the book.
Horowitz relates a bloodcurdling incident in the life of the great Afro-American actor, singer, football player, Columbia Law School graduate, and Sovietophilic Communist-supporter Paul Robeson. The story, and that of Robeson's life in general, illustrates the depths to which adhering to the party line brought this otherwise great man--and those depths, as you shall see, were very deep.
The trajectory of Robeson's life is a highly cautionary tale of the ideological seduction of a gifted man by what was originally an idealistic dream, his failure to see the horror that dream had become, his severe moral compromise as a result, and the cost of that compromise to him and others. Robeson was a perfect example of just how very difficult it can be for a mind to change, no matter how insightful or otherwise intelligent that mind might be.
Here, by the way, is the basic liberal/leftist view of Robeson's life: Afro-American artist as victim. As we shall see, if you stick with me through this one, the truth is far more complex--and, I think, far more interesting.
In Radical Son, Horowitz writes that during WWII Josef Stalin had created a group called the Jewish Joint Anti-fascist Committee, designed to improve relations with his anti-Fascist Western allies such as the United States. The Russian Yiddish poet Itzhak Feffer was a member of the group (one of the Jewish parts of the "Committee"). While on a visit with the group to the US, he and Robeson (who spoke fluent Russian, by the way) became fast friends. After the war was over, however, in the late 1940s, Stalin--who had murdered countless people from the 30s on--now decided it was the Jews' turn, after all. Feffer was a fairly well-known literary figure and a Party stalwart, but this didn't prevent him from being among those arrested.
There were rumors in the US about what was happening. Robeson visited the Soviet Union around this time and asked to see Feffer. Horowitz writes:
[Robeson] was told by Soviet officials that he would have to wait. Eventually he was informed that the poet was vacationing in the Crimea and would see him as soon as he returned. The reality was the Feffer had already been in prison for three years, and his Soviet captors did not want to bring him to Robeson immediately because he had become emaciated from lack of food. While Robeson waited in Moscow, Stalin's police brought Feffer out of prison, and began fattening him up for the interview. When he looked sufficiently healthy, he was brought to Moscow. The two men met in a room that was under secret surveillance. Feffer knew he could not speak freely. When Robeson asked him how he was, he drew his finger nervously across his throat and motioned with his eyes and lips to his American comrade. "They're going to kill us, " he said. "When you return to America, you must speak out and save us."
After his meeting with the poet, Robeson returned home. When he was asked about Feffer and the other Jews, he assured his questioners that reports of their imprisonment were malicious slanders spread by individuals who only wanted to exacerbate Cold War tensions. Shortly afterward, Feffer, along with so many others, vanished into Stalin's gulag.
It was not that Robeson had not understood Feffer's message. He had understood it all too well. Because it was Robeson, near the end of his own life and guilty with remorse, who told the story long after Itzhak Feffer was dead.
This story literally made the hair on my arms stand up. I knew Robeson had been a Communist, or at least a Communist sympathizer (although whether or not he was technically a Party member is more or less irrelevant, so openly dedicated was he to the cause). But how could he have been guilty of such betrayal on a personal level? And why? I also wondered about Horowitz's source for the story. Perhaps it wasn't even true. To whom did Robeson tell it "near the end of his own life and guilty with remorse," and why?
(To be continued...in Part II.)