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Harry R. Targ, professor of political science and American studies at Purdue University, and conference director John T. McCartney, professor and head of government and law at Lafayette, spoke on “Marx and Engels’ Influences on the Development of Robeson’s Intellect” (see conference schedule). The moderator was Kevin Cameron, visiting assistant professor of government and law at Lafayette.

John T. McCartney and Harry R. Targ teamed to discuss the influence of Marx and Engels on the development of Robeson’s intellect, a presentation which resulted in groundbreaking research, according to Paul Robeson, Jr.

Several key concepts in Marxist philosophy influenced the development of Robeson’s political theory and practice, Targ explained, and are key to understanding him as a political theorist and a political activist:

  • Robeson saw the socio-economic condition of people’s lives as shaping their consciousness; he understood material conditions of lives changed as the economics system changed.
  • Robeson saw class struggle as a fundamental force for social change, and for him, class and race were inextricably linked.
  • Understanding imperialism was critical to understanding international relations, and Robeson saw it as a central structural feature of relations between states, ruling classes, and peoples in general.
  • Robeson saw socialism as the next stage of societal development, and he envisioned the elimination of racism.

In Targ’s view, the most important thing in understanding Robeson’s intellectual development is to understand that Robeson saw a connection between theory and practice.

“Robeson’s commentaries on contemporary affairs from the mid-1930s reflect a growing theoretical sophistication,” Targ said. “Armed with these insights, Robeson committed himself to action.

“As Robeson’s consciousness was changed by exposure to Marxism, the socialist vision, anti-colonial struggles, and the working class, his conception of his art as well as his conception of his connection to his audience changed significantly,” Targ continued, noting that Robeson realized his “strongest connections as an artist were with the working class, the people ‘in the gallery.’”

“Robeson developed a theoretical framework that helped him to understand domestic and international relations; politics, economics, and culture; and the vital links between class, race, and gender. He embraced the Marxist approach, which was historical, materialist, and dialectical.”

“Early is his career he believed that as an artist he was not supposed to be politically engaged. But the events of the 1930s changed his mind, and throughout his remaining years he referred to himself as a fighter against fascism,” Targ concluded.

McCartney argued that Robeson had developed and practiced “eclectic socialism,” a mixture of “elements of orthodox communism, U.S.-style liberal-democratic pluralism, New Dealism, and anti-Imperialist sentiments,” rather than orthodox communism.

McCartney argued that Robeson’s writings indicated he had a firm understanding of orthodox Marist theory and agreed with Stalin’s view of monopoly capitalism and view that imperialist wars between powerful Western industrialized nations would occur.

“Robeson viewed capitalist society from a class perspective, and believed that in America the capitalist class especially profited from the exploitation of blacks,” McCartney said.

Robeson also adopted from orthodox communist theory the notion that Western monopoly capitalism was exploiting the non-industrial world—which was leading to wars. He admired Marxism for its philosophy on equality and self-determination of people of the Soviet Union, which he saw as “opportunities for growth and expansion of cultures in the Soviet Union,” exactly opposite the conditions for blacks in the United States.

“Paul Robson was committed to the view that the American political system with its democratic constitution provided the ideal framework through which progressive changes could be made,” McCartney said, citing Robeson’s references to the Constitution, “the America of Lincoln and the abolitionist,” and that despite its problems, “America gives her minority groups more of a chance than just about any country on Earth.”

“Robeson was a supporter of Roosevelt and the New Deal. In short, Robeson used elements of scientific socialism to enhance the vision of American democracy.”

In his conclusion, McCartney said “Robeson’s eclectic socialism enabled him to appeal to variety of peoples in different settings. His liberal democratic values attracted liberals in the United States and elsewhere, the strong belief in anti-imperialism and the right to self-determination resonated with the people in the Third World, and the elements of scientific socialism appealed to socialists. His world outlook, combined with his principled and warm personality, made Robeson a symbol of hope and dignity for people all over the world.”

What Robeson failed to see, McCartney said, was that “progress rarely comes in a straight linealigned forces may turn against each other when the goal is at hand,” while sometimes “progressives become reactionary.”

“He underestimated the degree to which class ties and allegiances change over time,” McCartney said, citing African leaders who became reactionary once their independence was won.

“In Robeson’s writings [about certain African leaders] their sincerity is assumed. It has been suggested that Robson missed an identical process of class ossification that took place in the USSR and the African American civil rights leadership cadre.”

In the discussion that followed, Robeson Jr. praised McCartney and Targ.

“What you two have done has never been done before and opens up a whole new epoch of discourse.”

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