James Kirchick, a visiting fellow at the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution, is the author of “The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age.”
Paul Robeson led an extraordinary life. The son of a runaway slave, he was just the third African American to study at Rutgers University, where he was both an All-American football player and valedictorian. After earning a law degree at Columbia University, he became one of the most popular entertainers in the world, his stirring baritone illuminating Broadway musicals and Shakespearean dramas alike. He was reputed to speak a dozen languages.
Robeson was also, to his dying day, an unrepentant Stalinist.
That fact has been scrupulously avoided by Rutgers as it marks the centenary of his 1919 graduation, a year-long celebration that includes a series of lectures and the renaming of a campus plaza in Robeson’s honor.
The online material promoting the Rutgers festivities includes a biographical article titled “Paul Robeson: Renaissance Man Who Found Injustice.” Artist Nell Irvin Painter, who contributed a portrait for an exhibition commissioned by the university, describes Robeson as a “global activist,” saying, “His unwavering integrity and faith in his efforts is something that I think all artists, and people in general, should value and practice.” A Rutgers news release says that Robeson “joined the chorus of socialists and progressives who were fighting for causes of justice and equality” and that “his activism eventually cost him his livelihood.”
It is true that the U.S. government, out of a combination of racist and anti-communist paranoia, treated Robeson unjustly. The FBI spied on him. His name was stricken from the All-American sports records. His passport was revoked, and he was blacklisted and, unable to perform, forced into penury. He died a broken man. But this only tells part of Robeson’s complicated story.
Like many Americans who visited the Soviet Union in the 1930s, Robeson was entranced by what he saw. That his own country treated black men such as him so abysmally made the superficial equality of the communist system even more alluring. Yet his understandable anger at the United States blinded him to the many injustices of Joseph Stalin’s regime. Asked in an interview with the Daily Worker in 1935 about the execution of “counter-revolutionary terrorists,” Robeson called the policy “justice” and said: “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! It is the government’s duty to put down opposition to this really free society with a firm hand.”
Robeson’s opposition to Western imperialism in Africa blinded him to Soviet imperialism in Eastern Europe. In 1949, as the Soviets were erecting their Iron Curtain across the continent, Robeson delivered a speech to the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship in New York. “The Soviet Union is the friend of the African and the West Indian peoples,” he declared. Perhaps. But it was undoubtedly the enemy of the peoples of Eastern Europe.
For his services to the cause of international communism, Robeson won the Stalin Peace Prize in 1952. Several months later, after Stalin died unexpectedly, Robeson delivered a eulogy praising the “deep humanity,” “wise understanding” and “rich and monumental heritage” of the recently departed mass murderer. “Glory to Stalin,” Robeson said. “Forever will his name be honored and beloved in all lands.” For decades, until his death in 1976, Robeson remained an unwavering apologist for the Soviet dictator and the communist cause. Nothing in the ensuing Soviet catalogue of horrors — Nikita Khrushchev’s “secret speech” exposing the litany of Stalinist crimes, the invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, revelations about the gulags — appeared to dampen his admiration.
Robeson had every reason to feel disillusioned about America. But plenty of African American civil rights leaders, no matter how justifiably outraged at the actions of their country, refrained from glorifying foreign despotisms far worse in their treatment of national minorities, as was the Soviet Union.
“It is personally painful to me to realize that so gifted and forceful a man as Robeson should have been tricked by his own bitterness and by a total inability to understand the nature of political power in general, or Communist aims in particular, into missing the point of his own critique,” wrote James Baldwin in 1948.
A brave and eloquent advocate for his own people in the United States, Robeson was simultaneously a defender of the oppression of others abroad, thereby making a mockery of the “universal humanity” for which Rutgers lauds him. The closest the university comes to acknowledging Robeson’s unapologetic Stalinism is to say he was “branded a Communist sympathizer.”
Paul Robeson was a complex man. But so were Woodrow Wilson, Thomas Jefferson and many of the other figures in U.S. history whose veneration by colleges and universities we are now (rightly and belatedly) being asked to reappraise in light of their racism, sexism and other manifold human faults. If Robeson is going to be honored — as he absolutely should be — then we ought to honor him forthrightly.