When Robeson took the wrong side

May 16, 2008

IT IS no doubt a good thing that a great actor, singer and cultural figure such as Paul Robeson, whose life was destroyed by McCarthyism and racism, can be heard in the new CD collection that Annie Levin reviews ("Artists must take sides"). But the title of the article is ironic, since there is one side Robeson took which was the wrong side.

As a lifelong supporter of Stalinism and of Stalin's Russia, Robeson engaged in some unfortunate behavior. When Congress passed the anti-communist (small-c) Smith Act in 1940, it was used first to indict and convict 18 Minneapolis Trotskyists. The Communist Party (CP) called not for their defense, but for harsher sentences.

Then, in 1949, the Smith Act was used to indict 11 CP leaders. At a 1949 civil liberties campaign conference, the party organized to defend CP victims of the Smith Act, a resolution (moved by the chair of the conference, no less) called also for the defense of the Minneapolis defendants and of a legless Trotskyist war veteran, James Kutcher, who had been fired from his Veteran's Administration job.

Robeson stood up to speak against the resolution, denouncing the Socialist Workers Party as "allies of fascism who want to destroy the new democracies of the world. Let us not be confused. They are the enemies of the working class. Would you give civil rights to the Ku Klux Klan?" The resolution went down to defeat.

Although Robeson knew firsthand that Stalin was engaged in an anti-Semitic campaign in Russia, after a 1949 visit to the Soviet Union, he denied seeing any evidence of Stalin's persecution of Jews. Robeson received the Stalin prize in 1952, and in 1956 denounced the Hungarian revolutionaries as the "same sort of people who overthrew the Spanish Republican government."

These facts are painful, but they are necessary to acknowledge.
Paul D'Amato, Chicago

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