In June 1949, Paul Robeson arrived in the Soviet Union on one of his periodic pilgrimages. According to a new account by his son, Paul, Jr.,1 Robeson was immediately alarmed by the political atmosphere, sensing the virulently anti-Semitic character of the state-orchestrated campaign against “Zionism,” “Titoism,” and “cosmopolitanism.” Concerned about his many friends in the quasi-official Jewish cultural community, the “People’s Artist” of American Communism sought to make contact with them. As testimony to the seriousness with which a personal request from Paul Robeson was regarded by Soviet officialdom, even in that climate of paranoia, his perseverance in the face of resistance from the authorities did eventually meet with some success. The poet Itzik Fefer—the famed Red Army Colonel Fefer of the wartime Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee—was apparently taken from his prison cell and deposited at Robeson’s hotel doorstep. The two friends spent an afternoon together in a room which both men assumed had been bugged. But Fefer, using body language, communicated to Robeson a few suggestive facts about the terror already well under way: the murder of the Yiddish theater director Solomon Mikhoels the previous year, at the direct order of Stalin; the arrest of other prominent Jewish cultural figures; the massive purge of the Leningrad Communist party; and Fefer’s assessment of his own likely fate (the poet drew his hand across his throat).

Yet shortly after his return to the United States in 1949, Robeson was interviewed by the monthly Soviet Russia Today and took the opportunity to denounce even the suggestion that there might be anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union: “I met Jewish people all over the place. . . . I heard no word about it.” And in 1957, even after Khrushchev’s secret speech acknowledging the crimes of the Stalin period, Robeson refused to sign a public statement concerning the fate of Fefer, the writer Peretz Markish, and their many murdered comrades. Nor would Robeson denounce the frameup of the physicians, mostly Jewish, executed after conviction on the transparently ludicrous charge of having plotted to poison Stalin.

These facts about Robeson’s behavior are hardly surprising. Indeed, his son’s account of the Fefer encounter makes it clear that Robeson, already then in 1949, was well aware of what had transpired in the Soviet Union during the purges of the 1930’s. His was the silence of a disciplined Stalinist. As the son explains, Robeson “had promised himself he would never publicly criticize the USSR . . . he believed passionately that U.S. imperialism was the greatest enemy of progressive mankind. . . . In such a context Paul would not consider making a public criticism of anti-Semitism in the USSR.”

If there is little new insight into Paul Robeson in this grotesque tale, it is of interest simply to consider that his son should now choose to tell it. For in 1976, when the scholar Herbert Marshall published a similar account of the Robeson-Fefer episode in the Bulletin of the Center for Soviet and East European Studies, a vituperative letter to the journal from Paul Robeson, Jr. termed Marshall’s description of the events in question “wholly false . . . pure fiction.” The younger Robeson now concedes that “he certainly did cover up the story” six years ago. It seems that in 1976 he still felt bound by a promise to his father never to reveal these facts during the latter’s lifetime. Today he regards himself as liberated from this vow. But since his father was already dead in 1976, it does not seem inappropriate to seek an alternative explanation.

Most likely, the younger Robeson has at last begun to distance himself from party dogma. Needless to say, his remarks provoked a bitter response from former comrades still in the bosom of the American Communist movement. Writing in the CP’s Daily World, Lloyd L. Brown, once Robeson’s “designated biographer,” delivered a scathing attack on the younger Robeson for perpetrating a “grotesque falsehood.” But for Paul Robeson, Jr. the absolute discipline of the true believer is a thing of the past. Thus it has become possible for him actually to criticize the Soviet Union—for misdeeds past and even present. To be sure, this criticism takes a highly restrained form. In Paul Robeson, Jr.’s presentation, the enduring fact of state-sanctioned anti-Semitism in the USSR, while identified and condemned, is treated as an aberration rather than as a natural by-product of Soviet-style totalitarianism. It remains his contention that the martyrdom of the Yiddish writers was particularly a tragedy “for all those who believe in socialism.”



Still, in his willingness to be specific both about the crimes of Stalin and about contemporary “flaws” in Soviet society, Paul Robeson, Jr. is a good deal more open than certain others who today trumpet their ostensible freedom from Communist orthodoxy. In February of this year, a now famous evening was held at Town Hall at which a sector of the hard Left made a rather belated effort to express solidarity with the workers’ uprising in Poland. The purpose of the meeting was to try to undermine the natural monopoly over the Poland issue, in American political and intellectual life, enjoyed by avowed anti-Communists—in short, to restore a measure of credibility to the Left, even at the price of overt criticism of the USSR and its puppet regime in Warsaw. But Susan Sontag, speaking at the meeting, provoked controversy by going too far for her audience, denouncing her fellow leftists for ignoring or excusing the crimes of Communism over the last three decades and more, and positing the thesis that “Communism is successful fascism . . . fascism with a human face.” In his rebuttal to Miss Sontag in the Village Voice, Alexander Cockburn commented:

The audience and the platform were filled with people who had, for longer than three decades, excoriated the depredations of Stalin as socialists and anti-capitalist radicals. On the platform with Sontag were Paul Robeson, Jr. and Pete Seeger, both well associated in the public mind with that very movement which she decried as “successful fascism,” who could scarcely, given their attendance and commitment to a movement to defend Polish workers, be accused of absolute, ongoing intellectual myopia.

To translate this elaborate construction into simple English, the very presence at Town Hall of former Communists supposedly belies Miss Sontag’s charge that many on the American Left still refuse to recognize the truth about the Soviet Union. Now, it is true that Seeger, the younger Robeson, and others from the same political tradition did indeed lend their support to this manifestation against the Soviet-installed junta in Poland. And the younger Robeson, as we have seen, has come forward to criticize the Soviet Union on a matter of far greater import to him personally. But Cockburn was speaking of people who had “excoriated the depredations of Stalin” for “longer than three decades,” a period of time clearly inapplicable to his two examples. At most Cockburn may have had a point in the modifier “absolute,” as in “absolute, ongoing intellectual myopia.” No longer are Robeson, Jr., Seeger, and others like them absolute in their refusal to see wrongdoing in the Soviet camp. Limited concessions are the order of the day for this variety of ex-Communist.

During the period when Paul Robeson himself was part of the public face of American Communism, even a development of this sort would have seemed improbable—to Communists and non-Communists alike. There then appeared to be two principal types among ex-Communists: for want of better tags, The God that Failed type and the National Review type. The former—for example, Stephen Spender, Richard Wright, Louis Fischer, and other contributors to the historic volume, The God that Failed—remained highly critical of America, and especially of capitalism, and continued to identify with the Left. The latter—Whittaker Chambers and James Burnham, for example—though distressed about various aspects of American life, were strong patriots and were comfortable on the political Right.

What both groups had in common, however, was an unyielding hatred of the Soviet system and the Communist movement. Both varieties of ex-Communist would likely have recognized an essential validity in this 1961 assessment by Frank S. Meyer, a National Review editor and former party member:

If ever a trained and developed cadre Communist allows himself fully and deeply to acknowledge any reality independent of the Communist cosmos—a fact, an idea, an aspect of an order of being—the whole tense, complex structure is in imminent danger of shattering into bits.

Meyer could not envisage former comrades who had struggled to adapt to every twist and turn in the party line expending a similar intellectual energy to prove merely that their analysis had been “generally correct.” Admittedly, there were always isolated exceptions—individuals unable to continue to conform to party discipline but still entranced by their glimpse into the future. By and large, however, those who had broken publicly with the Communist party assumed a vehemently anti-Soviet mode. As they defected, their universe did indeed collapse like a house of cards. It may have been easy to move from the status of fellow-traveler to that of true believer; to reverse this process had proved nearly impossible, at least among those who broke with American Communism during the purge trials or in the wake of the Hitler-Stalin pact in 1939. Thus for Meyer and others, it was unimaginable that an entire generation of American Communists could leave the party, begin to criticize the Soviet Union, yet continue to identify, in a general way, with the movement of which they had been a part.



Yet this is precisely what has now happened, and it is documented in the recent memoirs and public statements of this entire group of former Communists. Paul Robeson, Jr. is a somewhat atypical example of the type because of the sharpness with which he criticizes the Soviet Union. More characteristic is Jessica Mitford, who published an account of her years in the party in 1977 (A Fine Old Conflict), and who has recently offered her own comments on the Susan Sontag affair. Provoked by Miss Sontag’s equation of Communism with fascism, Miss Mitford tries to attack the issue head-on:

What of the Hungarian freedom fighters of 1956? They seem to have been a very mixed bag: many doubtless inspired by the same drive for a democratic form of socialism as in Solidarity—and others, virulent anti-socialists, collaborators with the CIA, seeking the opportunity to restore Hungary to its prewar fascist rulers.

A personal observation: at the time of the Hungarian uprising, the reaction of my husband’s Jewish relatives was instructive. They were among the very few Hungarian Jews who escaped the Holocaust; they were bourgeois to the core, by no means sympathetic to the Communist regime. Yet they welcomed the Russian tanks as a form of deliverance—fearing above all a return to the Horthy regime of white terror, a renewal of the bitterly remembered pogroms. Did they know something that Susan Sontage doesn’t know, about fascism and Communism?2

As for the Soviet Union itself, in A Fine Old Conflict Miss Mitford insists that when Khrushchev “unfolded in all their grisly detail the horrendous crimes of Stalin,” she was less anguished than many others, having “never been as thoroughly convinced as most comrades of Soviet infallibility.” Infallibility, perhaps not. Yet nowhere in her book is the Soviet Union or Soviet policy even chided. Mostly she devotes herself to excoriating racism and political repression in the United States.



If Miss Mitford is more reticent about attacking Moscow than Paul Robeson, Jr., others are more inhibited still. Pete Seeger (Alexander Cockburn’s second counter-example to Susan Sontag) has published an as-told-to autobiography, How Can I Keep from Singing: Pete Seeger (with David King Dunnaway).3 The book jacket is enticing: “Here, for the first time, [is] an inside history of . . . Seeger’s involvement with the Communist party.” But all the reader learns after plowing through this almost 400-page narrative is that Seeger never really “broke” with the party. It seems that the folksinger dropped his membership during the blacklist period, “more from an instinct of self-preservation than any political difference.” In fact, Seeger, true to the spirit of his mentor Paul Robeson, has over the years abstained virtually entirely from public criticism of the Soviet Union (and the American CP). Attending the Town Hall rally thus appears to have been a new departure for him.

In this memoir, published only last year, Seeger is as silent about the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia as he was at the time, as silent about Hungary as he was in 1956. What Seeger has long been vocal about are perceived American misdeeds, around the world and here at home. During the brief period of the Hitler-Stalin pact, while he was still very much a party man, he and his fellow Almanac Singers toured the United States as part of the CP’s American Peace Mobilization and denounced President Roosevelt as a warmonger:

Oh, Franklin Roosevelt told the
   people how he felt.
We damn near believed what he
He said, “I hate war and so does
But we won’t be safe ’till every-
   body’s dead.”

In the summer of 1940, it appears, Seeger was alarmed about the “fat defense contracts given Ford and other companies” and about the war fever he sensed as he traveled across the land: “An unpleasant irrational violence moved throughout the country.” Needless to say, these concerns disappeared quickly the following summer when Germany attacked the Soviet Union.

Seeger does find it necessary to acknowledge that reports of Stalin’s crimes reached him, although they “fell on deaf ears.” But even now, the worst he will say about the Stalin era is that it involved “an awful lot of rough stuff.” This critique at least improves upon Lillian Hellman’s reference in Scoundrel Time to the “sins of Stalin Communism . . . that for a long time I mistakenly denied,” and is, in fact, a model of how a still sympathetic former comrade deals with difficult historical moments.

Even more than Jessica Mitford, Seeger refuses to confront the reality of the Soviet Union. His sole recorded objection to Soviet society—which he has seen at first-hand a number of times while on tour—turns on “a few polluted lakes and the Siberian weather.” His collaborator, David King Dunnaway, concludes delicately that “Pete has always had a blind spot to the excesses of socialism in the making.”

A number of characters afflicted with the same blind spot appear in Vivian Gornick’s The Romance of American Communism, published in 1977. Some of these seem to be ex-Communists only technically. Among the more interesting is “Eric Lanzetti,” Miss Gornick’s pseudonym for a well-known historian and political theorist. “If you meet him today and in his presence attack the party or Stalin or the Soviet Union,” Miss Gornick writes of “Lanzetti,” “he flies into a passion and cries: ‘Don’t talk to me about the atrocities of Stalin! He only killed Russians! We kill everyone. Don’t talk to me about Vietnam, the energy crisis, and Watergate, and then dare to tell me what is wrong with . . . the party. . . .” “Lanzetti,” like Pete Seeger, Jessica Mitford, and Paul Robeson, Jr. (and indeed like the CP itself), acknowledges the criminal aspects of Soviet history, but unlike them he does not consider this a fit subject for discussion in any public context. He would thus be unlikely to be found at events like the one at Town Hall.



Steve Nelson, a long-time member of the CP’s national committee, was an apparatchik of considerably greater consequence than “Lanzetti,” and the publication of his memoirs last year was a noteworthy event for students of American Communism. Steve Nelson, American Radical4 traces Nelson’s entire political career—from his days as an activist with the unemployed councils in the eastern Pennsylvania coal region during the Great Depression, through his tenure as political commissar of the Abraham Lincoln battalion in the Spanish Civil War, and back to the U.S. as a party organizer in San Francisco (where he befriended J. Robert Oppenheimer and other West Coast academicians with CP ties) and Pittsburgh, among other places. Nelson left the CP in 1957 after his “reformist” faction—which argued for a major reappraisal of party orientation in the wake of the Khrushchev revelations—failed to take over the leadership.

His book is marked by imbalance. Certain subjects are treated in rich and abundant detail, despite the passage of time: the Smith Act trials, for example. Other issues are dealt with glancingly or skipped entirely. Nelson studied at the Lenin School in Moscow and served as an international agent of the Comintern during the early 1930’s, but he makes no mention of the Great Purge, in which millions perished, until he reaches Khrushchev’s secret speech of 1956. In a long chapter on the Spanish Civil War, Nelson acknowledges that party functionaries, himself included, “were wrong to see in anarchist activities a Trotskyist conspiracy,” but fails to note that the Communists resolved these factional disputes by methodically murdering Trotskyists and anarchists—while he himself was in Spain. He has heard it said that “tensions on the Left led factions to divert supplies from their political opponents, and even resulted in murder.” But his own conclusion is vague and inarticulate: “It’s obvious that some irregular things occurred, but by whom I cannot say.”

In view of all that has been common knowledge about the conduct of the Communists in Spain since George Orwell published Homage to Catalonia more than forty years ago, Nelson’s professed uncertainty—he was, after all, a commissar—is absurdly disingenuous. Indeed, it borders on the macabre to read his casual reference to “Bob Merriman [the Lincoln Battalion’s] chief of staff” and “Dave Doran . . . my assistant,” without comment on the fate of these two volunteers. In The Rise and Fall of American Communism, Philip J. Jaffe, long a leading fellow-traveler and confidant of the one-time head of the party, Earl Browder, confirms (what many had hitherto suspected) that Doran and Merriman “had been shot one sunrise without trial by order of . . . André Marty, the Moscow-appointed commissar of the entire International Brigade.” Jaffe also reports that “execution without trial in the International Brigade was a common practice . . . and the Lincoln Battalion was no stranger to this form of discipline.”

Nelson is more forthright about other subjects. With regard to the Hungarian uprising of 1956, he explains that “Soviet intervention was based on a fear of fascism in Hungary, and I felt that the fear was justified.” Nelson would have preferred a “middle course” between “intervention and fascism”; still, “this was not an issue over which to leave the party.” He did eventually break, after concluding that there was no chance of “transforming and reinvigorating” the CP. Pondering events like the purge trials of the 1940’s in Eastern Europe, in which many of his comrades from Spain were destroyed—“Why were executions thought necessary? Why so many ‘mistakes’?”—he theorizes that the problem must have been systemic: “It wasn’t just that Stalin was crazy.” The system that produced Stalinism, Nelson finds himself forced at last to concede, was “essentially undemocratic.” Today Steve Nelson favors the “Euro-communist alternative”—like, as it happens, Jessica Mitford and “Eric Lanzetti.”



The former Communists considered here have far more in common with those who never made the break than with their illustrious predecessors, from Max Eastman to Ignazio Silone. This is not to say, however, that there are no substantive differences between them and the true believer. The prominent screenwriter Lester Cole, one of the famed Hollywood Ten of 1947, illustrates the difference in his new memoir, Hollywood Red5 For Cole there is no anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, period. A friend in Moscow, “Joe Levy,” explains to the visiting Cole that “Jews have it good here if only they don’t worry about millions.” Cole’s autobiography, in which the Hitler-Stalin pact is justified retrospectively as a necessary, even visionary, diplomatic maneuver (from the standpoint of the USSR), suggests just how tortured a process it must be to remain inside the fold.

Steve Nelson, Jessica Mitford, and others like them have stopped torturing themselves. But to a greater or lesser degree, they still find it natural to see the Soviet Union as more sinned against than sinning, and on the whole as a force for justice and peace. To that extent they are still caught in the Stalinist follies of old.

1 “How My Father Last Met Itzik Fefer,” Jewish Currents, November 1981.

2 “Susan Sontag's God that Failed,” Soho News, March 2, 1982.

3 McGraw-Hill, 386 pp., $14.95.

4 University of Pittsburgh Press, 475 pp., $19.95.

5 Ramparts, 450 pp., $12.95.

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