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Burying the Paul Robeson myth

Gerard Jackson

Monday 26 October 2009

Lefties have taken issue with my exposé of Paul Robeson's Stalinism. One of them pointed me in the direction of Paul Robeson Jr's biography of his father as evidence that Robeson senior was in fact a genuine humanitarian. This is an application of the ipse dixit fallacy and amounts to taking the word of the accused as evidence that he is innocent. Fortunately our courts demand far higher standards of evidence. As it turns out

Murdoch's Weekend Australian produced a simply awful puff job on Robeson Jr's The Undiscovered Paul Robeson: An Artist's Journey, 1898-1939 by the leftwing Frank Campbell. (The first global citizen 26 May 2001). Campbell told us that Robeson Jr disclaimed any kind of political correctness or myth-making. Alas, if only that were true. According to simpering Campbell Robeson senior expressed in his own way crimes against "all oppressed groups".

The sad truth is that Paul Robeson's humanity was — as we already know — highly selective: while some groups were worthy of support others seem to deserve extinction, particularly if they were enemies of the Soviet Union. Robeson, unfortunately, was ever the good Stalinist, something his son tried to conceal. As for Campbell's neglect of this fact, I put it down to him being a typical leftwing reviewer, nearly all of whom appear to think that the communist menace was a figment of McCarthy's febrile imagination.

In his book Robeson Jr uses evasion (some might say outright dishonesty) in trying to justify his father's refusal to speak out against the crimes of Lenin and Stalin. For example, Junior defends dad's silence during Lenin's 1919 campaign of slaughter by claiming that the number of blacks lynched in America during that period exceeded the number of people killed by Lenin. Not true, old boy, as you must know. (Naturally, this is not something I expect the likes of Campbell to know). And even if it were true, how could this possibly justify Lenin's policy of mass murder?

Now for some facts. In January 1918 Lenin set-up the Soviet Union's first slave camps, which were, in his own words, part of his grand plan of "purging the Russian land of all kinds of harmful [human] insects." The death rate in these camps has been estimated at 90 per cent. He also established the Cheka in December 1917 giving it instructions to unleash an unprecedented reign of political terror on the population with the aim of forcing it to submit to the Party, i.e., Lenin.

Feeling that his murderous organisation had been lax in its homicidal activities he chastised it for not executing enough counter- revolutionaries. The charming Lenin, the one that Robeson came to love and admire, ordered that one out of ten of those found guilty of idling were to be immediately shot. Another of his written instructions ordered a Soviet to "...instantly introduce mass terror, shoot and transport hundreds of prostitutes…" At this point we well and truly nail Robeson Jr's lie about the numbers killed in 1919.

From December 1917 to the end of 1920 the Cheka shot at least 50,000 people. This is not counting those who were hanged, garrotted or beaten to death. There is no need to wonder at this butchery once we recall that in 1918 Lenin told the Petrograd Soviet in no uncertain terms that "the energy and nature of mass terror must be encouraged." (From about the 1890s to 1916 executions averaged 17 a year, usually for murder). And not a peep from Robeson who expressed in his own way crimes against "all oppressed groups."

Regardless of what Paul Robeson's admirers would have us believe he was never a friend of liberty nor was much of a humanitarian. The man we are now told by aging fans was never a Stalinist is the same man who never hesitated to do Stalin's bidding, the same man who on Stalin's cue attacked the formation of NATO and asserted that "Negroes" would never fight Stalin's Russia. An outraged Sugar Ray Robinson publicly declared that he would punch Robeson on the nose if they ever met. But then Sugar Ray was not only a patriot, he had an instinctive understanding of the nature of tyranny and certainly knew cant when he heard it.

Readers might think that my accusation that Robeson was an enemy of liberty is simply false. If only it were. The Communist Party of the USA, of which he was a member, fully supported the 1940 Smith Act which made it an offence under which members of organisations that advocated the violent overthrow of the government could be prosecuted. It used the Act as a means to legally persecute Trotskyists. Robeson was so wedded to idea of liberty that while addressing a convention of the Civil Rights Conference (a communist party front) he rejected an appeal by a Trotskyist who feared he would lose his government pension, accusing Trotskyists of being no better than fascists and Klansmen and thus not deserving of any rights.

Yep, Mr Robeson was quite a freedom lover. Naturally, when the Smith Act was applied against the Communist Party Robeson screamed that their rights were being violated. As always with the left, it's not what is done that matters but who does it and to whom. Not that Murdoch's Australian ever published that fact.

Any of Stalin's subjects who were naïve enough to convey to Robeson any objections to the regime were signing their death warrants. His appalling betrayal in 1948 of the Jewish poet Itzhak Pfeffer, a committed Marxist-Leninist, brings home this dreadful fact with withering force. Robeson was on another of his friendship visits to Stalin's paradise and asked to meet with Pfeffer, who had already spent three years in prison. How could Uncle Joe refuse his good mate Paul. He ordered the secret police to clean Pfeffer up and then take him to meet Robeson. In the privacy of Robeson's hotel room Pfeffer pleaded with him to expose Stalin's crimes to the American people. He refused and Pfeffer was murdered.

On his return to America he denounced as anti-Soviet propaganda reports that Pfeffer and other Jews had been killed. Throughout the remainder of his life he never once condemned Stalin even though he was aware of the tyrant's crimes. But Robeson was not entirely conscience-free. He confessed on his death bed what he did to Pfeffer, expressing remorse for that particular action while still remaining an unrepentant Stalinist.

Campbell mentions the anti-black riots of 1919. Yes they were dreadful and unforgivable. Nevertheless, these atrocities, which were not organised by the state, do not justify Robeson's treachery. On the contrary, they make it all the worse. How could anyone who had suffered the humiliations and bigotry that were a way of life for American blacks at that time not show the slightest pity or empathy for Stalin's victims? That's a question that Campbell and his leftist ilk never ask let alone try to answer.

Campbell finished with the cretinous statement that Robeson was "destroyed by the anti-communist hysteria" of Joe McCarthy. Robeson's relentless support for one of history's most vicious tyrants is what undid him, not Senator McCarthy. Moreover, despite McCarthy's antics he was right about one thing — communism was a deadly enemy, a fact that the release of the Venona Papers confirmed.

It was 1949 and Stalin's Iron Curtain had descended on Europe and China had fallen to Mao Tse Tung. Democratic movements were destroyed by Stalin's stooges backed by the Red Army; there were mass arrests, executions, deportations and show trials. He made his move against Greece in 1944 when he encouraged the Greek communists to try and take over the country and put it under his control. Fortunately he was thwarted by the British and Americans. In 1948 he blockaded Berlin in an attempt to starve it into submission.

It's truly dreadful to think that Campbell's views are what still passe for intellectual discourse in Australia, specially in the media. On reflection, calling his attitude to anti-communism cretinous is far too generous. The same goes for Robeson's apologists.

Gerard Jackson is Brookesnews' economics editor

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