Paul Robeson—“A socialist society represents an advance to a higher stage of life!”
”Once he did not exist
But his voice was there, waiting.
Light parted from darkness,
day from night,
earth from the primal waters.
And the voice of Paul Robeson
was divided from the silence.”
From-Ode to Paul Robeson
By Pablo Neruda, Translated by Jill Booty
There can never be enough said or written about the tireless and heroic feats achieved by the monumental Paul Robeson, artist, socialist, freedom fighter and friend of all workers everywhere. Robeson’s life and the example he led is just as inspiring today for new generations as it was in his own time. His early life is described here by the Bay Area Paul Robeson Centennial Committee:
“Paul Robeson was a famous African American athlete, singer, actor and advocate for the civil rights of people around the world. He rose to prominence in a time when segregation was legal in America and black people were being lynched by white mobs, especially in the South.
“Born on April 9, 1898 in Princeton, New Jersey, Paul Robeson was the youngest of five children. His father was a runaway slave who went on to graduate from Lincoln University, and his mother came from a family of Quakers who worked for the abolition of slavery. His family was familiar with hardship and the determination to rise above it. His own life was no less challenging.
“In 1915, Paul won a four-year academic scholarship to Rutgers University. In spite of open violence and racism expressed by teammates, Robeson won 15 varsity letters in sports (baseball, basketball, track) and was twice named to the All American Football Team. He received the Phi Beta Kappa key in his junior year, belonged to the Cap & Skull Honor Society and was the Valedictorian of his graduating class in 1919. However, it wasn’t until 1995, nineteen years after his death, that Paul Robeson was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
“At Columbia Law School (1919 to 1923), Paul met and married Dr. Eslanda Cordoza Goode, who was to become the first black woman to head a pathology laboratory. He took a job with a law firm, but left when a white secretary refused to take dictation from him. He decided to leave the practice of law and use his artistic talents in theater and music to promote African American history and culture.”
Robeson rose to international prominence as a premier singer and actor, breaking the race barrier in acclaimed appearances all over the world. However, his early life experiences with racism and labor injustice impelled him to fight in even wider arenas than the theater. In his biography titled Here I Stand, Robeson cites the words of abolitionist Wendell Potter, “…I would come to learn in my own way, the great truth he spoke of when, after chattel slavery was abolished, he joined the fight for Labor’s emancipation: ‘When I want to find the vanguard of the people I look to the uneasy dreams of an aristocracy and find what they dread most.’” (Paul Robeson, Here I Stand, 1958)
Henry Winston, National Chairman of the Communist Party, USA, writes of Paul Robeson in his hard-hitting text Strategy for A Black Agenda, comparing the deeds of Robeson to the pioneering work of Frederick Douglass:
”In our time, the towering figure of Paul Robeson has personified the link between two significant periods—from the betrayal of Reconstruction to the era of Black liberation begun with Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Decade.
“Frederick Douglass had himself been a slave and Robeson is the son of a slave. Like Douglass in his time, Robeson has devoted his life to the cause of Black liberation. And like Douglass, he recognizes that Black liberation cannot be achieved via a separatist path, but through Black power in alliance with the oppressed and exploited of all colors. Robeson has always seen Black independence and Black-white alliance as related, indispensable components of the liberation struggle…
“Robeson struggled for self-union of his people at home and for solidarity with the oppressed and their allies at home and abroad. Whereas Douglass travelled widely in Europe to win support for the anti-slavery cause, Robeson travelled even more extensively, rallying support for Black liberation from imperialism everywhere.
“That Robeson’s travels were more extensive than Douglass’ was of course made possible by the October Revolution, which replaced the czar and serfdom with socialism, opening the way for the end of racism and oppression in a major part of the globe, and becoming the most decisive support for the oppressed and exploited throughout the world.” (Henry Winston, Strategy For a Black Agenda, 1973 )
“Democracy cannot survive in a racist America” (Paul Robeson, Here I Stand, 1958)
Paul Robeson found that while he was lauded abroad for his achievements in countries like the USSR that had organized their society into socialism, he was persecuted at home in the US by the oppressive and racist forces that struck against his Black people and laborers alike, of all colors. His studies of socialist countries and socialist writing caused him to firmly link the source of injustice in the US to the forces of monopoly capitalism: “Increasingly it is becoming clear that the main roadblock to social progress in our country-for labor, for education, for public health and welfare-is that very group which stubbornly opposes equal rights for Negroes…the upholders of ‘state’s rights” against the Negro’s rights are at the same time supporters of the so-called ‘right-to-work’ laws against the rights of trade unions.” (Paul Robeson, Here I Stand, 1958)
Robeson spoke up with clarity for the solution: “On many occasions I have publicly expressed my belief in the principle of scientific socialism, my deep conviction that for all mankind a socialist society represents an advance to a higher stage of life-that it is a form of society which is economically, socially, culturally, and ethically superior to a system based upon production for private profit…the development of human society-from tribalism to feudalism, to capitalism, to socialism-is brought about by the needs and aspirations of mankind for a better life.”
In the US, the fight against racism is strongly tied to the fight against capitalism and the struggle for workers’ unity and socialism. Karl Marx, in writing of the racist slave society of early America proclaimed: “Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.” (Marx, Capital, 1867, Vol.1.) “Marxism-Leninism shows that racism is an obstacle to class unity, ” said Henry Winston (Class, Race and Black Liberation, 1977). Comrade Winston also wrote: “Lenin tirelessly emphasized that the struggle for democracy is indivisibly bound up with the struggle against racism, and class and national oppression…The history of this country has been warped and distorted, first by slavery, then the survivals of slavery and the ceaseless propagation of racist ideology.” The ideals set forth by the founding fathers for the United States are made reality in the movement to eliminate racism and economic injustice. “As Lenin persistently emphasized, the fight for democracy is at the heart of the class struggle” (Henry Winston, Strategy for a Black Agenda, 1973)
William Z. Foster also illuminated the basis of the anti-racist people’s force which is the chief foe of racist monopoly: “The workers, as Lenin points out, develop bourgeois democracy to the utmost, and then make the leap to Socialist democracy. The fight for socialism is a struggle, by democratic means, for the highest form of democracy, which is completely unachievable under capitalism.”
“These democratic freedoms the working class also struggled to establish, defend and expand; but it fought, too, for its own specific democratic demands-higher wages, shorter hours, popular education, Negro people’s rights, the right to organize and strike, social insurance, protection of women and children in industry, etc. to all of which, historically, the ruling class has been opposed. These working class demands, fundamentally different in substance from the limited democracy of all American bourgeois leaders past and present, are the roots within the framework of capitalism, of what will eventually mature under socialism as proletarian democracy.” (William Z. Foster, History of the Communist Party USA, 1947)
In 1951, Paul Robeson and William L. Patterson took bold action to bring the staggering racism in the United States to a world stage. They submitted the document “We Charge Genocide” to the United Nations, signed by many stalwarts in the movement for justice.
“Out of the inhuman Black ghettos of American cities,” the introduction began, “out of the cotton plantations of the South, comes this record of mass slayings on the basis of race, of lives deliberately warped and distorted by the willful creation of conditions making for premature death, poverty and disease … ”
“Jarvis Tyner, executive vice chair of the Communist Party USA, says the power of the petition was its expose of culpability in genocide by the ruling circles in the U.S. “The federal government claimed it had nothing to do with the lynchings. But this petition said: ‘You knew about it and you did nothing. You knew about the super-exploitation and inhuman hardships inflicted upon the Black people and you did nothing. Your inaction, your indifference in the face of oppression means that it was policy.’”
“Among the signers were the eminent African-American historian and freedom fighter Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, George Crockett Jr., later a distinguished judge in Detroit who went on to serve many terms in the U.S. Congress, New York City Communist councilman Benjamin J. Davis, Jr., Ferdinand Smith, Black leader of the National Maritime Union, Dr. Oakley C. Johnson of Louisiana, Aubrey Grossman, the labor and civil rights lawyer, and Claudia Jones, a Communist leader in Harlem later deported under the witch-hunt Walter-McCarran Act. Also signing were family members of the victims of “legal lynching”: Rosalee McGee, mother of Willie McGee, framed up on rape charges, and Josephine Grayson, whose husband, Francis Grayson, was one of the Martinsville Seven, framed and executed on false rape charges in Virginia.
“In the section titled “Evidence,” hundreds of cases of lynching were documented. The petition charged that since the abolition of slavery at least 10,000 Black people had been lynched. The full number, it stated, will never be known because the murders were often unreported…
“…The “prime mover” in the genocide against the African-American people “is monopoly capital,” the petition charged. “Monopoly’s immediate interest is nearly four billions of dollars in superprofits that it extracts yearly from its exploitation and oppression of the Negro people …” The racist wage differentials inflicted on Black workers drives down the wages for workers of all races, the petition charged. Despite gains for the African-American people, that wage differential continues today to pour tens of billions in extra profits into corporate bank accounts each year.”(“We Charge Genocide: the cry rings true 52 years later”, Tim Wheeler, People’s World, Feb. 2003)
“A Democracy cannot exist without labor unions” (Paul Robeson, “Negroes should join the CIO”, 1940)
The freedoms that Robeson used his voice to establish and protect still have far-reaching effects today. He worked endlessly in the Civil Rights movement and in the labor movement, putting his views into action in supporting and advising unions and workers all over the world. Union brother Fred Hirsch records the lasting impression of Paul Robeson on organized labor:
“Robeson didn’t have to look far to become a partisan of workers and, with that, of the trade union movement. The most important person in his life was his father. His father was a minister, but before that, a slave, a worker in the most abject of American working class conditions.
“At fifteen years old Robeson’s father ran away from his owner to join the Northern forces, to work and fight to eradicate slavery. Young Paul respected his father more than any person in the world. In the late forties I listened in awe when Robeson spoke of how his “people freed the mules and left their plows and their cotton sacks to rot in the furrows where they dropped. They put down their baling hooks, their hammers and saws. They stopped making the things and wealth the slave owners needed to supply their armies. It was the biggest strike of workers ever seen on this continent. Thousands of Negro slaves made their way across the South to fight against slavery and win that great war.” (paraphrased) Paul traveled far from the soil from which he sprang. He left his legacy in that soil and that soil never left his soul…
“…Here on the West Coast Robeson helped shape the ILWU into a conscious bulwark of affirmative action. ILWU leader Eddie Tangen told of Robeson’s guidance to show that “the fight for Negro rights was a special problem and needed special solutions…Paul very forcibly brought to our attention that the whole fight had to be led by Negroes…” When Tangen, a white man who had led fights against racism, said: “I understand the problem, why can’t I lead?” Robeson told him, “You’re not Black, that’s why.” After brooding on that, Tangen stepped aside so that Joe Johnson became the Sec.Treas. of the whole union, an affirmative action landmark.” (“Paul Robeson and Labor”, Fred Hirsch, AME-Zion Church, San Jose, CA, 12 March 1999)
In 1943, Paul Robeson was made an honorary member of the ILWU. Legendary Longshoreman leader Harry Bridges remarked, “Robeson frequently spoke and performed before ILWU members.” (International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union, from Paul Robeson: Tributes and Selected Writings, Paul Robeson Archives, NY, 1976).
“Robeson makes no bones about his friendship with the Soviet Union”-Benjamin J. Davis, Political Affairs, Apr. 1958
“So, through my interest in Africa I came to visit and to study what was going on in the Soviet Union. I have told many times how pleased I was to find a place where colored people walked secure and free as equals.” is how Robeson modestly tells the story of his beginning of a life-long and reciprocated affection between himself and the Soviet Union in Here I Stand. He would go on to champion the socialist state’s fight against fascism, and was on the forefront of artists who raised funds to aid in the Great Patriotic War (WW2) against Hitler imperialist reaction.
“The acquaintance with the life of Soviet People greatly influenced the formation of Paul Robeson’s political views, the development of his class consciousness and the molding of a convinced champion of freedom for his black fellow-countrymen. Communism stopped being something vague for him. Studying the life of the society whose friend he had become, Robeson saw that the ideas of the great philosophers of Marxism had brought freedom and equality to the life of the Soviet people. As Paul himself said, it was here that he had found the right way of struggle for the equality of nations…”
“…Paul Robeson has become a character in some plays by Soviet playwrights, while a mountain summit in the Western Tyran-Shan and Trans-Ili Ala Tau mountains in Central Asia has been named after him.
“Paul Robeson is very near and dear to Soviet people.” (“Paul Robeson: great friend of the Soviet peoples”, Slava Tynes)
About the all out people’s war against the criminal fascist front of monopoly, Robeson clearly stated: “But in Britain the umbrella of appeasement that was held high by Chamberlain did not obscure the portents seen in the skies by the common people, and everywhere they rallied for anti-fascist action…And so it was that I, as an artist, was drawn into that movement and I came to see that the struggle against fascism must take place over every other interest. ” (Paul Robeson, Here I Stand, 1958)
These are just a few highlights in the life of a deathless warrior for socialism and justice. Whether it was on the international stage calling for peace, or at the gates of the White House demanding justice for African-Americans, or in the halls of workers, bringing words of solidarity, Paul Robeson personified the statement penned by Lenin: ‘All democracy consists in the proclamation and realization of rights which under capitalism are realizable to only a very small degree and only relatively. But without the proclamation of these rights, without a struggle to introduce them now, immediately, without training the masses in the spirit of struggle, socialism is impossible.’ ” (Lenin, Collected Works, v.23, p.74)
The words of Paul Robeson ring true for us today: “…we must go all-out to rally not tens of thousands but hundreds of thousands in a demonstration that will show that we really mean business…Our speakers should go to the White House and to congress and, backed by the massed power of our people, present our demands for action. Then they should come back to the assembled people to tell them what “the man” said, so that the people can decide whether they are satisfied or not and what to do about it.” (Paul Robeson, Here I Stand, 1958)
defend man’s bread,
Light of man,
child of the sun,
sun of the American suburb
and of the red snows
of the Andes:
you guard our light.
brother of the earth,
good father of fire,
sing for us all…”
From-Ode to Paul Robeson
By Pablo Neruda, Translated by Jill Booty