If you could pick anyone to represent an intelligent man of the American Left from 1930 to 1950, you could do worse than choose Paul Robeson. He was smart, athletic and gifted. And the story of his life touches on all that was good -- and ludicrous -- about the Left. Robeson believed in the equality of man, but believed the Soviet Union offered it -- certainly the segregated America of his time did not. That duality, which was the sensitivity to injustice coupled with the delusion that Marxism offered its solution, gave mid-twentieth century activists their particular character.
Through his writings and speeches, Robeson went on to defend the foreign and domestic policies of the Soviet Union and Joseph Stalin. During the Soviet purges. Robeson allegedly told a Daily Worker reporter that “from what I have already seen of the workings of the Soviet Government, I can only say that anybody who lifts his hand against it ought to be shot!” After the formation of NATO, Robeson proclaimed during a speech at the Paris World Peace Congress in 1949 that “It is unthinkable that American Negroes will go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations... against a country [the Soviet Union] which in one generation has raised our people to the full dignity of mankind.
On the other hand, a relatively unlettered man, the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, who was no less the victim of the racism of his times could see that it was sometimes possible to jump from the frying pan into the fire. That the Negro was oppressed, that was certain. That the Soviet Union offered better, that was a crock.
Sugar Ray Robinson responded to this by saying that although he did not know Robeson he would “punch him in the mouth” if he met him. Even while many former left wing supporters of the Soviet Union learned of the atrocities being committed there and began publicly denouncing their former affiliations, Robeson held firm. In 1952, Robeson was awarded the Stalin Peace Prize. In April, 1953 shortly after Joseph Stalin's death he wrote a eulogy entitled To You Beloved Comrade, in which he praised Stalin's "deep humanity," "wise understanding," and dedication to peaceful co-existence with all the peoples of the world calling him “wise and good”.
It is difficult to ascribe this idolatry for Stalin, a mass murderer who eclipsed Adolph Hitler in every category of villainy to either personal evil or stupidity on Robeson's part. Many of most sensitive, cultured and intelligent men of the 1940s would probably have agreed with Robeson at some point in their lives, including scientists who worked for the Manhattan Project. The clue to this curious blindness lies ironically in the very thoroughness of their education.
An educated man is primarily distinguished from his unlettered counterpart in his ability to structure the world into narratives. Most of these frameworks he gets from books; others from his friends. These he uses to organize the "facts" that he encounters in the world, to make "sense" of seemingly random data. Are the Soviet people starving? Why Harry Truman is starving them. Are there concentration camps in Siberia? These are only necessary to defend the Engine of History from counter-revolutionary activity. The advantage of a boxer like Sugar Ray Robinson lies precisely in that quality which is now being ascribed to the Internet. The facts were "disintermediated" by the lack of book-learning. He saw things for what they were, not as they were depicted. A man who acts like a thug is a thug. A mass murderer -- what else would you call him. Ray Robinson dodged harmful things by instinct, especially when they were coming at him in the form of fists in the ring. If he stopped to analyze a punch through the prism of Stalin's thought he would be out cold. Thus a great man like Robeson could be the prisoner of the wrong narrative and Ray Robinson, great too in his own way, could be free for the lack of those very same intellectual iron bars.
What follows is a YouTube video with Paul Robeson singing the Soviet National anthem in the background. You might find it difficult to stop yourself from laughing while watching it. But remember that for generations of Leftists the scenes depicted therein were enough to move them to tears. They did not know they were weeping for themselves.