Wednesday, July 20, 2005

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 Part II.)


At 3:59 PM, July 20, 2005, Anonymous notherbob2 said...

One of the biggest roadblocks to gaining knowledge about our society is the tendency of those currently writing history to add political spin for their own purposes. I read the PBS version of Robeson’s life you linked. Young people reading this today and then reading your alternate view are justified when they conclude that, like the MSM, liberal historians lie. My point is that intelligent young people realize that, in our modern world, respect for the truth has given way to acceptance of political spin everywhere (both from the left and from the right). The dross of this spin weighs down the truth and makes it impossible for the unsophisticated to discern. Their only option is cynicism. Liberals not only tolerate this spin, they demand it.

At 4:45 PM, July 20, 2005, Blogger Dr. Sanity said...

Paul Robeson was a brilliant mind. I have always felt his life was the best example of how the ideology of the Left can drag even a brilliant mind into the depths you describe.

BTW Hope you're having a great vacation!

At 7:08 PM, July 20, 2005, Blogger Pat said...

There are two basic possibilities:

1. Robeson trusted Stalin and decided that Feffer had somehow betrayed the communist cause.

2. Robeson realized Feffer was telling the truth but decided that the cause of international communism was too important to be held back by the mere "truth".

At 8:23 PM, July 20, 2005, Blogger PatCA said...

"This story literally made the hair on my arms stand up."


At 4:26 AM, July 21, 2005, Anonymous David Thomson said...

Welcome to the real world. I am not even slightly surprised that true believing utopian ideologues are indifferent toward human suffering. This is really ho-hum for the course. They fervently believe that a few eggs must be broken to make an omelet. It matters little that a few innocent individuals are sacrificed for the greater good.

At 4:43 AM, July 21, 2005, Anonymous shro said...

Stalin planned to extradite the jews from Moscow, and perhaps from the European part of the Soviet union, to the far east. You should read "Stalin's last crime" by Jonathan Brent and Vladimir Naumov.
Did Robeson know about it? He should have if he was indeed "a great mind". He was a great artist but I suspect he was deeply insecure and a coward.

At 8:06 AM, July 21, 2005, Anonymous Paul said...

Have you read "Commies" by Ronald Radosh? That book is an eye opener even for a former member of the New Left (me) .

At 1:49 PM, July 21, 2005, Blogger Loyal Achates said...

Robeson's weakness for Stalinist Russia was the great tragedy of his life. But let me ask you; if Robeson was the great dupe, the poster child of leftist authoritarianism, why was it that it was only people like Robeson who were standing up for democracy in America for so many years? It was Robeson who fought against fascism in Europe when the business community and and the American and British upper classes were hailing it as a godsend; Robeson who defended freedom of conscience in America during the Mcarthy years; when President Truman was too weak to demand anti-lynching and anti-segregation laws, it was Robeson who demanded them and wouldn't settle for anything less. The examples are countless.

Any person who binds themselves to an ideology is bound to commit crimes against truth and reason. All I ask is that Paul Robeson be judged by all of his deeds.

At 2:34 PM, July 21, 2005, Blogger Kate Marie said...

Robeson's "weakness" for Soviet Russia may have been the "tragedy" of his life, but I'll go out on a limb and say the even greater tragedy was suffered by the millions of actual victims of Soviet Russia. In my opinion, Robeson's failure to speak for them, who were slaughtered in the name of the most illiberal ideology and form of government on earth, cannot be counterbalanced by his willingness to champion liberal causes in America. And I'm sure it offered little comfort to the murdered and the terrorized that while Robeson apologized for Stalin, at least he had the courage to speak out against Truman.

I have a side question about Robeson, though, and I really don't know the answer to this one. Did Robeson stance against fascism continue during the duration of the Hitler-Stalin pact? Most party members and fellow travelers became "pacifists" during those years; did Robeson buck the trend?

At 2:35 PM, July 21, 2005, Blogger Kate Marie said...

Ooops, my question should say did Robeson continue his stance against fascism during the time of the Hitler-Stalin pact?

At 4:05 PM, July 21, 2005, Blogger submandave said...

"All I ask is that Paul Robeson be judged by all of his deeds."

As commendable as speaking out against lynching and segregation is, to imply that these actions somehow absolve ignoring and abetting the premeditated murder of thousands by their own government is an exercise in moral equivalence I've rarely seen equalled. And as for the legendary McCarthy years, while Joe was largely a grandstander milking it for his personal political gain, KGB documents released after the collapse of the USSR showed he had most of his facts right.

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