What The Left Today Can Learn from Paul Robeson

Gerald Horne is one of the leading and most influential historians in the nation. His research explores racism in a variety of contexts, involving labor, politics ...
Paul Robeson at a softball game

Gerald Horne is one of the leading and most influential historians in the nation. The author of more than 30 books, Horne is currently the John J. and Rebecca Moores Chair of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston. His research explores racism in a variety of contexts, involving labor, politics, civil rights, international relations, and war. In this interview, section editor Keisha N. Blain interviews Horne about his recent book, Paul Robeson: The Artist as Revolutionary. In this short and compelling biography, Horne charts the life of the famed singer and civil rights activist from his early years in Princeton, New Jersey, until his passing in Philadelphia in 1976. The book takes the reader on a transnational journey through Robeson’s eyes, exploring his varied political commitments and his efforts to advance civil and human rights from various locales including London and Moscow. Robeson’s remarkable life deepens our understanding of the global black freedom struggle in the 20th century, and offers valuable insights on contemporary movements for social justice.

Keisha N. Blain (KNB): What motivated you to write a biography of Paul Robeson?


Gerald Horne (GH): I have multiple research agendas with which the Robeson biography was aligned. One agenda is telling a continuing story of how Africans have sought to ally with global forces—in Robeson’s case, with the socialist camp and a rising Africa and India—to erode our oppression. Another is writing a broad history of the Black Radical Left. Yet another is writing about Hollywood and the entertainment industry generally. Writing about Robeson met all these criteria.

However, the Robeson biography is particularly germane, I think, given the present conjuncture. That is, just as France and Germany over the decades often surrendered to the rightward leanings of “allies” in London and Washington—and have now been repaid with “Brexit” and Trump and the possibility of an offshore alliance headed by the United Kingdom and the United States targeting the European Union—centrist and “liberal” forces surrendered in often joining in the crusade against Robeson and the radicalism he represented—and have now been repaid with a right-wing populism dominating Washington, as the routing of radicalism created favorable conditions for the rise of this trend. It is too early to ascertain how this current trend will eventuate, but it is apparent that the intentions of the perpetrators are not benign.

As I note in the concluding paragraphs of this biography, it is routine in the United States to announce that the real and imagined flaws of the socialist bloc have invalidated the very idea of socialism for all time. Yet despite the intimate tie between the enslavement of our ancestors and the rise of capitalism, there are few—even in our community—who have the gumption to announce that this horrendous tragedy invalidates the very idea of capitalism for all time.

The blame is not all on one side, I’m afraid. Admittedly, the consensus among many socialists, which has overdetermined the supposed progressiveness of the rise of capitalism in terms of advancing the productive forces of humankind, has—quite scandalously—downplayed the victimization of enslaved Africans and dispossessed indigenes in this process. I hope to correct this tendency in my forthcoming book on the rise of settler colonialism in North America in the 17th century, with a special focus on slavery and dispossession, which should be published within the year.

Painting in broad strokes, too many “socialists,” particularly the acknowledged dwindling and besieged force in North America, have shown more sympathy to those European settlers who found “freedom” in the Americas and less sympathy to those victimized in the process. One of the early textual footnotes in my book on 1776 addresses this issue.

Simultaneously, it would be fatuous for me to point the finger of accusation at Robeson and his generation—fighting an often-lonely battle against Jim Crow and malignant anticommunism—and blame them for not being more rigorous in unmasking the grimy origins of US imperialism. This earlier generation was often barred from archives precisely because of Jim Crow. But what is the excuse for today’s generation, with fuller access to archives and records?


KNB: You argue that we cannot fully understand United States history—and how Jim Crow came to an end—without a careful consideration of Paul Robeson’s life. Can you elaborate on this point?


GH: Robeson was an immense sacrificial lamb. He was pulverized and, in return, our community received anti–Jim Crow concessions (though admittedly, all in our community did not follow the NAACP line in this regard). That is, the Robeson story is yet another chapter in the story of how the tallest trees in our forest—including W. E. B. Du Bois, Shirley Graham Du Bois, Ferdinand Smith, William and Louise Thompson Patterson, Ben Davis, Claudia Jones, and others—were chopped down in order to facilitate not only said concessions, but a Cold War that, ultimately, placed China in the passing lane and did not convert Russia into an ally. These overlaid trends will be shaping US history for decades to come.

In some ways, the Robeson biography is a sequel to my book on 1776, which argued that the founding of the United States, far from being a step forward for humanity, was—at most—a step forward for certain Europeans. Imagine if the consensus view was that apartheid being proclaimed in 1948—which, inter alia, was designed to uplift poorer Europeans (especially Afrikaners), as my forthcoming book on US–South African relations will detail—could somehow be spun as a step forward for all South Africans, including Africans, thus vitiating the heroism of Nelson Mandela and his African National Congress comrades (I need not note, I am sure, the Communist ties of the Nobel Laureate, which likely included party membership at one time).

Thus, rather than being a great triumph for “democracy,” the Cold War involved the routing of our most ideologically advanced leaders and intellectuals, setting back our community ideologically—and the North American landmass as a whole. Yet, even with that decisive development, it required the co-opting of China some four odd decades ago to attain this catastrophic “success,” which, again, has accomplished little more than placing China in the passing lane. This makes the Cold War akin to London at the turn of the 20th century, appointing Tokyo as its watchdog in Asia, a decision which backfired spectacularly on December 8, 1941 (see my book Race War); or Spain supporting the rebels in 1776, then being rewarded by the resultant United States winding up with territory once ruled by Madrid, including three of the four largest US states: Florida, Texas, and California.


KNB: In the book you offer a compelling sketch of Robeson’s early life, showing how his upbringing in New Jersey and his time at Rutgers all helped to shape his ideas on race, politics, and internationalism. Is there a particular story about Robeson’s early years that stood out to you or surprised you in some way?


GH: Not only in his early years, but throughout his long life, Robeson was a learner. I continue to be amazed by his dedicated study of various languages and the technicalities of music. Robeson is a role model for today. Without sounding like a disappointed geezer, I continue to be disappointed by the fact that too many of today’s intellectuals do not follow global trends, which—historically—was the province of those like Robeson. It has been as if the anti–Jim Crow concessions, wrung from the US ruling elite at the expense of Robeson and his comrades, “worked”; but the trade-off was getting our intellectuals to back off assessing and taking advantage of the global correlation of forces. At best, our intellectuals tactically tinker with domestic arrangements, which ineluctably lead our community to the brink of disaster, like a latter-day soap opera.


KNB: One of the fascinating aspects of your book is how it centers Robeson’s political ideas and activism, rather than focusing solely on his career as an entertainer. Can you tell us more about his commitment to “radical internationalism”?


GH: Robeson was not only a friend of Moscow—he spoke Russian fluently—but was quite close to leaders such as Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, and Jawaharlal Nehru of India. Our leaders historically have come to recognize, even if not fully articulate, that the founding of the United States in 1776 was not a leap forward for humanity; though it was certainly a great leap backwards for Africans, who found themselves falling victim to a new nation that began to oust London from the leadership of the slave trade. Though this small planet is now undergoing a wrenching transformation that will be catalyzed by the ascension of President Trump—who will prove to be the Gorbachev of the United States, elected to rescue a system, though he will accelerate its incipient decline—I see few signs that many in our community have learned the lessons displayed by Robeson’s “radical internationalism,” which today would involve, for example, outreach to the United Nations and Caricom and the African Union and the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa). I see little evidence of reaching across the border to ally with Mexico, now desperately seeking allies; or even the European Union, which, in the wake of “Brexit,” finds itself being repaid by a possible offshore antagonist in London, aided by Washington, after decades of surrendering to the worst impulses of the “Anglo-American” alliance.


KNB: As you point out in the book, Eslanda Robeson—Paul Robeson’s wife, and activist in her own right—played a key role in his career. How would you summarize her influence on his political ideas and praxis?


GH: Ms. Robeson was at one time his manager. She was the one who facilitated his rise as a globally recognized entertainer. Without her, it is possible that he would not have risen as high—or as rapidly—as he did. As he indicated, he may have become a simple philologist. Fortunately, both the Robesons and other left-wing luminaries preserved their papers, now decently archived, a move that I highly recommend to others. I would have preferred if both had written extensive autobiographies, but here is one area where contemporary intellectuals can excel and surpass the Robesons. I look forward to living long enough to read the memoirs and autobiographies of my peers and counterparts.


KNB: Could you tell us more about what you describe as Robeson’s “love affair” with Britain? How does this compare with his interest in Russia?


GH: In his admiration for London, Robeson was reviving an antebellum tradition that I wrote about in my book Negro Comrades of the Crown: African Americans and the British Empire Fight the U.S. before Emancipation. I also wrote about this in the “prequel” to this work, The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America. In other words, from 1776 to 1865 our community was aligned with London, not unlike how Africans in what was then Rhodesia were opposed to a settlers’ revolt against London. Because of the unremitting hostility we have absorbed in North America, we have been forced to lengthen the battlefield and ally variously with Madrid, London, Port au Prince, Mexico City, Tokyo, Moscow, New Delhi, et cetera, not to mention a rising Africa and Caribbean. Robeson traveled to London in the early 1920s and lived there through most of that decade and the next. That is where he was influenced to study Marxism, for example. That is where some of his most significant artistic achievements were attained, e.g., his performance in Othello. That is where he traveled in the late 1950s once the US returned his passport, yielding to pressure from the international community, particularly from London.


KNB: What insights does Paul Robeson’s story offer on contemporary movements for social justice? What lessons can we all learn from Robeson?


GH: Of course, there is the internationalism, there is the intense study (particularly of languages), there is the affiliation with organizations—the Council on African Affairs and the Civil Rights Congress, in particular. There are the comradely relations with individuals like Ben Davis and William Patterson and W. E. B. Du Bois in particular, not to mention John Howard Lawson, “Dean of the Hollywood Ten.” We would all do well to emulate Robeson in all these spheres, recognizing the value of collective endeavor while—dialectically—recognizing the value simultaneously of often-lonely study. This is even more necessary than ordinarily, since the global correlation of forces are at an inflection point, and it is precisely this factor that has shaped our community, for better and worse. As will be noted in my forthcoming book, “Facing the Rising Sun”—which concerns, inter alia, pro-Tokyo Negroes—Black Nationalists were devastated during the course of the Pacific War, with many being tried and jailed, including Elijah Muhammad. Following that conflict there was the Cold War, when those like Robeson, who had soared during the 1941–45 era, were harassed and persecuted. Today, the current US administration contends that the post-1945 dispensation, which includes NATO and the European Union and a batch of global alliances, no longer suits the interests of US imperialism. Disappointingly, though perhaps inexorably, I detect little evidence that our intellectuals and leaders are aware—except in the dimmest sense—what this may portend. To employ the current trite phrasing, if Robeson were alive today, he would be sorely disappointed. icon

Featured photo: Paul Robeson watching a softball game with other members of the 1943 production of Othello. Photograph by Farm Services Administration / Library of Congress