Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

109: Paul Robeson and Britain’s secret service 1933-1950s

Paul Robeson had spectacular success in England in the 1930s, following his appearances in Show Boat at the Drury Lane Theatre from 1928 – where he made Jerome Kern’s Old Man River song his very own. He toured theatres and halls, made films, travelled widely including a trip to Egypt in 1938, made many radio broadcasts and sold numerous gramophone records. Attracted to Marxist ideas of a workers’ society, like many on the Left he became committed to the Soviet Union and to its leader Stalin. He first visited Russia in 1934 and sent his son (born 1928) to be educated in Moscow.

The Special Branch of the Metropolitan Police opened a file on Robeson and his wife Eslanda in 1933. Three inches high, released in 2005, they are reference KV 2/1829 and 1830 at the National Archives in Kew. Other KV files have documentation and reports on Fascists — and others who supported radical changes to British life. The Robeson files have transcripts of phone calls to the Communist Party’s King Street offices, and copies of letters and telegrams sent by and to the Robesons and their London associates, notably the West African Desmond Buckle and Barbados-born Peter Blackman.

The files note that at a meeting of the League of Coloured Peoples in London on 5 June 1933 Robeson “startled many of those who heard him by denying that there was any discrimination against coloured people in Britain. Any prejudice, he said, that may exist is due to the pressure of Americans in this country”. In October 1937 the same League heard that Robeson had joined the Unity Theatre, and suggested that “steps should be taken to persuade him not to identify himself so closely with the Communist Party”. One month late Special Branch reported that Robeson had joined the Communist Party when in Moscow and that “up to date he has given the Communist Party of Great Britain well over £1,000”.

The Left supported the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, and in early 1938 both Robesons left London for Spain (they were US citizens: British citizens were no longer free to travel there) and their departure from London was “witnessed by Special Branch officers”. Two weeks later they arrived back, at Dover. In 1939 as war clouds gathered over Europe Robeson went to New York on 10 May, returning on the luxurious Queen Mary on 10 July. On 30 September 1939 they left Southampton for New York, keeping out of the way of the war in Europe — which had Stalin’s USSR allied to Hitler’s Germany, and Soviet forces occupying the Baltic republics and attacking Finland and eastern Poland. As the USSR had backed the Spanish Republicans and fought, in Spain, the military of Italy and Germany, the Hitler-Stalin pact sorely tried Left wingers. Germany declared war on the USA in late 1941 and so the Soviet Union, invaded by Germany in mid-1941, joined the anti-Nazi alliance much to the relief of the Left.

The Soviet Union was based on the greatest lies that history has ever known (Ukraine’s famine halved its population, the 1933 Metro-Vickers trial exposed Britons to Soviet “justice”, the leadership of the army had been murdered, and so on). Robeson as with others continued his support (H. G. Wells and Bernard Shaw did too). On 10 June 1943 the file noted that “Paul Robeson is known to be rather gullible” and to be “slightly anti-British as a result of a social insult sustained at the Savoy Hotel in London. He is a crank on the colour question”. When he decided to visit Trinidad and Jamaica in 1948 the files show that it was decided that nothing could be done (he was an American citizen) that would not create immense negative publicity. Robeson and his wife knew about the tropical empires of Britain and France. He chaired the Council on African Affairs, Inc., of New York from late 1948 (W. E. B. Du Bois was the vice chairman). After the independence of India in 1947 the fact that the Indians did not want Robeson to visit their country must have pleased some at Britain’s security service.

Robeson was in London in February 1949, and in Moscow in June 1949. In May 1950 he was at the London Peace Conference — the file notes he was “singer and propagandist”. Still unwilling to reconsider the nature of the Soviet Union, he attacked the independently-minded Tito-led Yugoslavia “with some ferocity”. But life had changed for him, with the US authorities refusing him a passport, and all of his American concerts cancelled. His recordings continued to sell in Britain, but there was an embargo on sending US$ to America and so his income collapsed.

Robeson’s British concerts in the late 1940s were attended by lovers of music and by committed socialists: not always the same people. The concerts were sometimes arranged by trade unions, but he had a professional London agent. No passport meant no more Robeson tours of course. He voiced criticisms of British and American participation in the Korean War but was mute when German workers were crushed by Soviet tanks in 1953, and supported Soviet military violence against Hungarians in 1956. Many European communists quit at that infamy: but Robeson remained committed to the cause. The London Daily Worker of 30 May 1950 said — correctly — that Robeson was “the most-famous living American” and the Daily Mail of the same date commented: “The outcome of the Cold War will decide whether Paul Leroy Robeson will be remembered longest as a great bass singer or as a Communist foghorn”.

As we know from the Stasi files from the former German Democratic Republic, and Edgar Hoover’s FBI files on subversives, there is a twisted logic to security service reports. That strange ex-imperial police officer and infantryman in the Republic forces in Spain, George Orwell, who knew about internecine disputes of the Left and the nature of power, had a list of Left wingers who he thought might well be treacherous. He did not want Communists to be outlawed: he wanted the insincere to be recognised, and thought that some “are actuated by nothing worse than stupidity” as he wrote in January 1949 — he included Robeson (Michael Shelden, Orwell. The Authorised Biography London: 1991, p 468).

Both files in Kew are worthy of a full investigation. But as those airport and seaport reports said. “nothing of interest to Special Branch” was found in his baggage — which makes one wonder why they looked.

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