One of my most treasured possessions is a page torn out of the autograph book I had as a child. It simply says ‘I hope to see you next year, Paul” Paul Robeson that is. My father got him to sign my book after I had missed going to his concert in Dundee’s Caird Hall in 1958 because I was in hospital after a wee accident on my brother’s bike. Luckily he came back next year and I got to see him and hear him sing. To this day I can still remember the power of that remarkable voice – it was as if I could feel it in my chest. It was a remarkable and inspirational night. My family and I were there because my parents were Communists and thus supporters of Paul Robeson. People forget but at that time the western media were virulently anti-communist and the 2,000 seater Caird Hall had only a few hundred people gathered that night to hear one of the world’s greatest singers, and I believe one of the world’s great human beings.
Now there is no doubt that Paul, funny how in our family we thought of him as Paul, was an absolute favourite of my father, was blind to the limitations of the Soviet Union. Like may father I have no doubt he was what I would call a real Communist – somebody who believed that human societies should be run on the principles of ‘from everyone, according to their ability, to everyone according to their need’. Probably on his visits to the Soviet Union Robeson only ever met people who assured him that it was in fact an egalitarian and democratic society. His own experience of the western media would have made him dubious of any claims they made to the contrary. My father certainly believed that the Soviet Union was democratic and egalitarian, and dismissed all reports to the contrary in the Western media as propaganda. As someone who has been lecturing in history for a long time now I am well aware that history itself is all too often little more than propaganda, but neither my father nor, Paul Robeson would ever have condoned the brutal dictatorship masquerading as a worker’s republic if they had realised the truth. Truth is a word that is of course amorphous but as an example of the times I recall around that time a new teacher coming to take over our class. She asked if there was anything she should know about as and quick as a flash one of the other kids had her hand up. ‘Yes what is it?,’ she smiled. Dramatically the girl turned and pointed at me and said in a very loud voice, ”Stuart McHardy is a Communist miss.’. She knew even less of what it meant than I did, but clearly had been influenced by her parents. Fortunately it didn’t affect how that teacher dealt with me afterwards but it does illustrate the paranoia of the times.
Now Paul Robeson may have been lulled into a false sense of reality by the apparatchiks of the Soviet Union but it didn’t affect who he was. This was a man who as a fighter for not just black people, but all people he saw as working class, was a shining example of integrity.
It has always struck me that when America is relaxed enough about itself to give respect to the likes of Paul Robeson, that it will begin to fulfil the egalitarian and democratic foundations it was raised on, and with the re-election of the first black president that day should be getting closer. However as long as Fox News and other mainstream media act as cheerleaders for the super-rich, I fear that day is still far off.