Tuesday, September 29, 2009


Harry Targ

(Generally articles in this blog constitute commentary on politics, economics, and culture. From time to time I attend meetings that I believe may have substantive interest for readers beyond those in the organization. Because panelists addressed issues of health care and building a progressive majority, I thought it appropriate to include here my summary of the discussions that took place).

Approximately 28 labor activists, activists for single payer health care, gay rights, an end to mountain top removal, voter rights for ex- felons, students for socialism, and campaigners against racism and war in Afghanistan came together on Saturday, September 19 in Louisville to share information and action plans at the semi-annual Midwest Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism meeting. Participants were young and old, Black and white, long-time grassroots organizers, educators, health care and social work professionals, and a professional musician and published novelist.

Discussion was organized around three broad themes. First, attendees received a report on the national convention of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS) which occurred in late July, 2009 in San Francisco. Report-backs from Marilyn Albert, Harry Targ, and Eddie Davis emphasized the enthusiasm, excitement, and renewed commitments for building a progressive majority and envisioning socialism that came out of the convention. People were informed of the new multi-racial, multi-age leadership that was elected at the convention and how that body engaged in a fully open revision of a “Goals and Principles” statement for the 21st century that was adopted for the years ahead. Eddie Davis presented an exciting slide show of images of the convention which captured the enthusiasm of most people who were there.

Then, the Midwest meeting addressed the two substantive issues of the day. Long-time health care activists initiated morning discussion on the healthcare crisis. Marilyn Albert, founding member of CCDS, registered nurse, labor organizer, and single payer activist since the 1970s, made a powerful argument for supporting HR 676 or other single payer bills. She argued that the various versions of the “public option” will not adequately address the health car needs of the American people and may in fact make the situation of many worse by having a limited and flawed piece of legislation. In addition, if a new program is adopted by the Congress and President that fails to provide affordable health care for all Americans, unencumbered by insurance companies, the single payer movement might be set back for years.

Kay Tillow, Kentuckians for Single Payer Healthcare, reported on the fact that despite mainstream media stories to the contrary, the single payer health care movement is as strong as it has ever been. She reported returning from the national convention of the AFL-CIO that a single payer system is broadly supported within the labor movement. International unions, state AFL-CIOs, local labor councils, and individual locals have publicly endorsed HR 676. She distributed data provided by Physicians for a National Health Program (http://www.PNHP.org) that compared a single payer amendment to HR 3200 as proposed by House democrats. It pointed out that with a single-payer system everyone in the United States would be automatically covered, while the more limited bill would leave 20 million uninsured, and tens of millions underinsured. HR 676 would also cover everyone who needs health care in the United States with no exceptions for undocumented workers.

After the two presentations lively discussion occurred, for the most part involving assessment of the single payer movement in the context of political opposition from so-called Blue Dog Democrats, Tea Baggers, insurance companies, and the mainstream media. The panelists provided much useful information, compellingly made the case that progressives must continue work in the single payer movement, and convinced most participants in the discussion that the single payer movement had come a long way from the 1970s when Congressman Ron Dellums from the Bay area introduced a precursor to HR 676.

Jim Glenn, Kentucky director for Organizing for America, participated in the last part of the morning discussion. He made it clear that many Obama supporters also support a single payer health care system and Obama himself would not be opposed to it either if HR 676 got to his desk for signature.

The afternoon panel addressed “The Crisis and Building the Progressive Majority in the Heartland-Race, Class and Gender.” While the panel presentations were more varied, in the end they led meeting participants to the point of discussing how activists need to come together to address the varied issues that drive our political work. Pem Buck, Professor of Anthropology, Elizabethtown Community College, Kentucky, presented a paper on how “whiteness” and race have been used to divide the working class. An attack on racism, Buck suggested, must involve an attack on whiteness, which in the United States became a juridical concept to justify privilege and class rule. There was discussion from the audience about “white skin privilege” as it applies in a practical manner.

Thomas Lambert, Lecturer, Department of Economics, Indiana University Southeast, New Albany, Indiana, presented results of a study he had done that showed the continued relevance of Marx’s theory of exploitation. Using contemporary national and global data, the Marxian formula that emphasizes capitalism’s expropriation of the surplus value produced by workers remains an excellent predictor of levels of inequality within countries and in the international system. Higher rates of exploitation in the Marxian sense, he concluded, lead to greater inequality. (The papers presented by Pem Buck and Thomas Lambert can be found at the Midwest Regional meeting link at http://www.cc-ds.org/ ).

K.A. Owens, chairperson, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and co-chair of the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, spoke of the historical election of Barack Obama and what it has meant to African-Americans, gays and other sectors of the society who have lived in discrimination. He then suggested that there is much work to still to be done. Along with grassroots activism, progressives need to work to revise our language and how we relate to each other. He used as an example the typical way in which people great each other for the first time. People are asked “what do you do?” Along with visible codes communicated physically as to race, and gender, “the what do you do question” signifies class. And, as with responding to people by virtue of race and gender, responses to the job/employment question shapes peoples reaction to others in class terms. Owens argued that we must transcend race, gender, and class in our organizing.

Bob Sloan, East Kentucky author who has written such novels as Nobody Knows, Nobody Sees: A Novel of Appalachia, described the horrific consequences of mountain top removal for workers and communities in East Kentucky and West Virginia. He described how he and other artists were mobilized by Wendell Berry to launch a campaign to stop this odious practice. He claimed that the campaign is having some success. He urged all of those who are engaged in building a progressive majority to use whatever media outlets they can to get the word out about health care, the devastating consequences of war, racism, and sexism, and issues like mountain top removal. Even though the national media is a monopoly, Sloan said, local media, public broadcasting, and other print and electronic outlets have open spaces for news and views. They are eager to fill their spaces and we on the left can help them in that regard.

In the final brief period, participants in the meeting thanked the Kentucky hosts and organizers of the panels. All agreed that progressives from the region need to continue meeting regularly to share insights and plan more collaborative political work. The next meeting was tentatively set for March 27, 2010. Participants agreed to discuss the feasibility, travel and expenses, for hosting the next meeting in Cleveland, or whether Eastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania should host their own regional meeting while Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois CCDS members meet in West Lafayette, Indiana.

Pem Buck’s book on class, race, and gender in Kentucky is called Worked to the Bone: Race, Class, Power and Privilege in Kentucky, Monthly Review Press.

Bob Sloan’s web site is at http://www.bobsloansampler.com/

An interview with Bob Sloan on mountain top removal can be seen at

Friday, September 25, 2009


Harry Targ

All different kinds of data suggest that the economic circumstance of American workers has been declining since the current recession began in 2007. More troublesome is data that suggests that most workers have experienced declining economic security for at least thirty years. Increasing unemployment and shrinking wages, despite modest employment and wage gains in the 1990s, has been persistent.

-For most workers, including the college educated, real wages today are lower than they were in the 1970s.

-Rates of unemployment have grown over the years, doubling between 1999 and 2009. Unemployment rates are a third higher for African Americans and Latinos.

-There has been a sea change in employment as manufacturing labor has dipped below 15 percent of the work force. The sectors with most employment growth include health care, fast food, hotel work, and transportation. Generally higher paying manufacturing work is being replaced by low wage service labor.

-During the last forty years most manufacturing jobs have been transferred to other countries where wages are low, the right to form unions is limited, and costs for health and retirement benefits are minimum.

-There has been a qualitative shift in investment to financial speculation and away from manufacturing.

-Meanwhile, worker productivity in the United States has increased.

Rick Wolff, University of Massachusetts economist, reported that worker productivity increased by over 6 percent in 2009 as unemployment increased. He wrote that “…these numbers show that employers got a huge increase in output from each employee, while what they paid to their employees imposed on them a decrease in the goods and services they could afford.”

In addition Wolff reports that in July, 2009, factory utilization has declined to 65 percent (compared to 79 percent from 1972 to 2009). In other words, thirty-five percent of our current manufacturing capacity is lying idle.

An examination of data on mergers and acquisitions, rates of profits, and aggregate profits would suggest that since the 1980s many of the largest corporations and financial institutions have been the beneficiaries of declining worker standards of living. It seems that the trajectory of the U.S. economy is towards a high profit/limited jobs and wages economy.

In recent days politicians, economists, and pundits are indicating that the recession may be coming to an end. Financial institutions have recovered, their CEO salaries are going up, and some have resumed their risky loan practices. Daily stock market reports indicate that stock prices rise on days when corporations announce large worker layoffs. At the same time we are told that unemployment might stay the same or even rise for the foreseeable future.

It appears that without significant change most jobs will become obsolete due to capital flight, increased financial speculation, declining investment in manufacturing and infrastructure, the indiscriminate application of new technologies, and declining purchasing power and consumer demand.

All this suggests that those who argue that the capitalist system creates a system of growing gaps between wealth and poverty and as a consequence induces the general immiseration of the population have historical experience on their side.

Leaving aside a discussion of the long-term consequences of capitalism, there is a need to act now to create and maintain high wage jobs. The call for “industrial policy,” which some policy analysts introduced in the 1970s, needs to be revisited. Industrial policy signifies a concerted government policy to revitalize old industries and create new ones.

One kind of industrial policy that would be appropriate for the twenty-first century is the green jobs agenda. This approach would combine our massive environmental and job needs. To use an historical analogy, to save the lives of millions of Americans, a New Deal green jobs agenda must become part of our future.

Today our discourse on the global economic crisis, at the G20 meeting, in the halls of Congress, and at presidential press conferences, is all about finance capital, not about jobs and wages. In reality there are now two economies; one, the economy of finance capital; the other, the peoples’ economy.

The former economy is all about resuscitating a high profit/limited jobs and wages economy. The project of a progressive majority is to raise to the level of debate how to resuscitate a peoples’ economy.

Monday, September 21, 2009


Harry Targ

Leaders of 20 developed and developing countries, the G20 countries, will meet on September 24-25 in Pittsburgh to continue dialogue on the global economic crisis and financial regulation. One way to think about the G20 is to see it as an emergency response to an emergency situation, not necessarily a byproduct of the long and contradictory development of the global political economy.

Most of us ordinarily would not see the connection between contemporary economic problems and the complex global history that has brought us to where we are. Most importantly, we are not likely to realize that fixing the problems of immediate concern might require addressing the long-term structural developments that have led to the crises of our own time.

Some time ago, L.S. Stavrianos wrote a large history of the global economy, Global Rift: The Third World Comes of Age. In it, the author developed a detailed discussion of the conflictful evolution of the global political economy from the dawn of commercial capitalism to the 1980s. Bringing the story up to the present would entail describing the emergence of neo-liberal globalization, the immediate “cause” of the global, largely financial crisis of our own time.

Stavrianos suggests that we can conceptualize the history of capitalism as the result of the conflict between what he calls “centers” and ‘peripheries.” Center nations have been those that accumulated economic, political, and military power, often aided by technological advances and military prowess. Through these elements center nations gained disproportionately from interactions with most of the world’s nations and peoples. Periphery nations by virtue of their limited power, control, access to technologies, lost from their interaction with the powerful countries of the world. In a sense, much of the value of goods and services and natural resources produced by peoples in the periphery were expropriated by those in the center. The 500 year history of the global economy has been based on the expropriation of value from the periphery to the center.

During the era of commercial capitalism (1400-1770), a rising merchant class, supported by state armaments and mercenaries seeking riches, traversed the globe, trading, investing, and extracting gold and other riches wherever they could. Central to the rise of global capitalism was the trade of commodities made in Europe for African slaves. Kidnapped slaves were brought to recently conquered western hemisphere lands to cut sugar, grow tobacco, cultivate dyes, and produce other agricultural commodities. The products derived from slave labor were brought back to Europe, processed, and sold on the world market. Therefore, the slave system was basic to the development of the global capitalist economy.

As extraction of natural resources, trade, and production advanced, an era of industrial capitalism emerged. In countries such as Great Britain, the industrial revolution occurred. A factory system was created which brought masses of workers together to produce goods more cheaply. This generated more and more goods for sale on the world stage. Center nations experienced an increasing thirst for markets in and resources from the periphery for the production and sale of goods. With industrial capitalism, powerful and wealthy center countries grew and most of the rest of the world experienced arrested development.

The expansion of industrial capitalism led to monopolies, individual or small numbers of corporations controlling larger and larger shares of individual industrial sectors. In addition small numbers of corporations and banks expanded their domination of the global economy at large. During the era of monopoly capitalism, as Stavrianos called it, stretching from the 1870s until today, smaller and smaller numbers of corporations and banks controlled more and more of all production.

Three particular changes shaped the late nineteenth and twentieth century global economy. First, banks became independent and interdependent actors in economic life connected to the corporate sector. Second, corporations and banks (and thus their governments), became increasingly dependent on the export of money capital, direct foreign investment, in comparison with trade in goods and services in prior eras. The seeds of modern financial speculation were planted. Third, from the 1880s until the 1950s, powerful center countries acquired colonies such that by the time of the Spanish American (Cuban) war, 70 percent of the land mass of the world was controlled by European and North American colonial powers.

After World War II, periphery countries won their political independence but remained neo-colonial countries; that is their economies were dominated by traditional center nations. The only exceptions to this continuing center/periphery structure of dominance and subordination was that reflected in the rise of the Socialist bloc, Chinese, Cuban, and Vietnamese revolutions, and countries organizing to pursue a “non-aligned” foreign policy.

As the socialist bloc and the non-aligned movement lost their power, traditional capitalist powers, assisted by international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the General Agreements on Trade and Tariffs (later the World Trade Organization), demanded a renewed system of center/periphery relations to expand the expropriation of surplus from peripheries to centers. So-called neo-liberal policies were imposed on poor and debt-ridden countries requiring them to downsize their governments, de-regulate their economies, privatize public corporations, and shift their economies from producing goods and services for domestic use to exports.

Part of the economic crisis the G20 leaders and peoples all over the world face is the result of the expropriation of wealth from the periphery to the center (concretely from workers, farmers, and peasants), the excess accumulation of wealth in the center with decreasing capacities to use it to make greater profit, and overproduction and dramatically declining abilities of peoples of the globe to purchase what is produced. The root cause of this economic crisis, like others, results from the accumulation of enormous wealth at one pole, the center, and growing human misery at the other pole, the periphery.

Among the conclusions that can be gleaned from this brief history are the following:

-The contemporary period in global economic/military and political history is the byproduct of historic transformations in world history, from feudalism, to commercial capitalism, and then the industrial revolution, and finally the rise of a monopoly and a financially driven world system.

-Economic transformations have been intimately connected to transformations in military power (access to sea power, land armies, air war, and nuclear weapons) and technological advances.

-Human history, at least since the fifteenth century, has been shaped by the inequitable distribution of power and wealth, creating center and periphery nations and peoples.

-Periphery countries have been shaped economically, politically, and culturally by their connections to center nations.

-This global system of centers and peripheries has stimulated integration (what now is called “globalization”) which has been connected to violence, hunger, disease, and human misery.

While Stavrianos suggests that most of the world’s people have been shaped by their connection with the rich and powerful he also argues that the center/periphery relationship impacts on both actors. Peripheries always have resisted their domination. Sometimes they have achieved significant victories, other times not so much.

It will be interesting to see if voices of change at the G-20 summit can begin to restructure the global economy away from the historic center/periphery structure that has so influenced world history.

Saturday, September 12, 2009


Harry Targ

Every Labor Day, major media provide a synopsis of the state of the American working class. Spokespersons from the progressive Economic Policy Institute usually are asked to comment about the status of jobs, income, wages, and health care and retirement benefits. EPI is contacted because of their diligence in assembling data on these and other economic issues over long periods of time. Their data is compiled and issued on a biannual basis in well-researched volumes such as the latest called The State of Working America 2008-2009.

The “EPI FACT SHEET: Labor Day by the Numbers” provides a compelling and tragic portrait of the U.S. economy as it pertains to the working class:

-The jobs lost during this latest recession beginning in 2007 total 6.9 million, 2 million of which were from manufacturing.

-The number of workers who are currently unemployed constitute 14.9 million and an additional 16.8% of workers are underemployed. Together 1 in 6 workers are unemployed or underemployed, about 26.4 million workers. Black and Hispanic unemployment is almost double that of white workers.

-Worker productivity from 2000-2007 has increased by 19.2%, but worker wages have remained stagnant or declined during this period.

-Forty-five million Americans have no health insurance

-Only half of workers near retirement age have a 401K balance greater than $40,000.

EPI does note that rates of deterioration of some labor market indicators have declined due to the recent economic stimulus package. However, EPI asserts that government programs, such as extending unemployment benefits, need to be continued and expanded to address the serious problems that endure.

In an EPI press release Heidi Shierholz writes that “unemployment will likely pass 10% by the end of the year and remain elevated for years to come, and unemployment spells for those who have lost their jobs will continue to lengthen from their already record-breaking levels.”

Reflecting on the deeper meaning of data like these suggest a number of disturbing long-term trends. For example:

The United States economy over the last thirty years has shifted dramatically from profit and growth derived from manufacturing to financial speculation. Significant portions of manufacturing jobs that have remained have been exported to low wage poor countries. Currently less than 15 percent of the American work force is employed in manufacturing. And manufacturing jobs have traditionally provided livable wages for most workers.

In addition, worker productivity has dramatically increased over the years (without additional compensation). Fewer workers produce more goods and services.

Major job growth in the twenty-first century has occurred in selected low wage sectors of the service economy; such as in tourism, health care, day care, and fast food.

Putting all this together we see a dramatic transformation of the U.S. economy from one based on manufacturing, which employed relatively high paid workers, to one based on financial speculation, job exports, rising low wage service employment, and significant increases in worker productivity due to technological advances and declining union protection for worker rights in factories and other work sites. The new economy, born in the era of Reaganomics , and culminating in repeated economic crises, is a high profit/low jobs economy.

The number one question for our times is “how to get out of this historic trajectory?” Although thinking about a transformation of the global capitalist economy is justified, the United States government, needs to act now.

One approach to overcoming a high profit/low jobs economy is to develop a long- term public commitment to investment in renewing the basic infrastructure of the United States in conformance with twenty-first century needs for jobs, income and environmental change.

An articulate spokesperson, with a hopeful, realistic plan for overcoming the jobs/income/wages/survival crisis we face is Van Jones, the author of The Green Collar Economy. He and a variety of civil society organizations such as the United Steel Workers of America and the Apollo Alliance believe that the Obama administration, to really address the deep economic crisis we face, must propose, educate about, and lobby for a massive green jobs agenda. We can, Van Jones has argued, develop a New Deal style agenda to put people to work reconstructing the U.S. economy in the twenty-first century to save the environment, construct new forms of energy, reduce global warming, and create a national community that protects the future while providing livable wages for people today.

So while we read the statistical summaries over Labor Day, reflected on the fundamental contradictions of the U.S. economy-high profits, financial speculation, low wages, lost jobs, increased productivity-we may have noticed on the back pages of our newspapers that Van Jones, advocate for a green jobs agenda-which just might save the U.S. economy from the apocalypse-was forced to resign from the Obama administration. Right-wing media spokespersons mobilized a public campaign to smear the man. They resurrected harmless political statements he articulated or endorsed in the past that have no bearing on his current work. The real explanation for the campaign against Van Jones has more to do with his advocacy for the creation of a new economy, an economy based on jobs, livable wages, and environmental sustainability rather than the economy that created this Labor Day economic crisis.

Thursday, September 3, 2009


Harry Targ

On September 4, 1949, an angry crowd surrounded the 20,000 friends of Paul Robeson who had come to hear him in an open-air concert at Peekskill, New York. After the event right-wing, anti-communist inspired mobs attacked supporters who were leaving the event. These attacks included smashing the windows of Pete Seeger’s automobile with several family members inside. Sixty years later we remember the great progressive Paul Robeson, his struggles for justice, and his refusal to bow to the politics of reaction.

The Young Robeson

One of the giants of the twentieth century, a citizen of the world, an actor/singer and activist for justice, Paul Robeson has been virtually erased from popular consciousness, a victim of the vicious anti-communist hysteria of the 1940s and 1950s.

Paul Robeson, an African-American, was born to Maria Louis Bustill and William Drew Robeson in Princeton, New Jersey in 1898, 33 years after the close of the civil war and two years after the United States Supreme Court declared in Plessy vs. Ferguson that separate institutions for Black and white people were constitutional. New Jersey, while not segregated to the extent of the deep South, was hostile to the rights of Black people.

Robeson was born into a family with a long-standing commitment to struggle for justice. His mother’s ancestors participated in the underground railroad, bringing escaped slaves from the South to the North. Her family included ministers, teachers, and artisans in the Northern free Black community. His father was a slave who escaped to the north and joined the Union army. As a minister educated at Lincoln University, Robeson’s father defended the rights of Black people in the New Jersey communities where he worked.

Many years later when he was politically active, Robeson would refer to the experiences of his people struggling against slavery and oppression to be free. He likened the struggles of his ancestors to the Black people of his day, and also to factory workers seeking labor rights, and peoples all round the world who were struggling to overthrow European colonial empires.

The young Robeson studied hard, was coached in elocution by his demanding father and performed so well in school that he was admitted to Rutgers University in 1915, only the third Black ever to enter that institution. Robeson graduated in 1919 as valedictorian, champion debater, and two-time All-American first-team football selection.

Robeson attended law school at Columbia University from 1919-1923 but decided against a law career because of the racism he faced at a preeminent New York law firm.

While he attended law school, Robeson began appearing in plays and found his way to the influential Provincetown Players of Greenwich Village. Robeson’s artistic career was successfully launched by his performances in two of Eugene O’Neill’s most important and controversial plays, “All God’s Chillun Got Wings” and “Emperor Jones.” From there his reputation and visibility spread.

By the late 1920s, he appeared in “Porgy,” “Stevedore” and “Showboat,” where he sang “Old Man River,” a song that would have deep political significance for him later on. On tour in Europe in the late 1920s and starring in a London production of “Othello,” in 1930, Robeson had become a star of worldwide proportions. During the 1930s, he would appear in eleven films, mostly British productions, further solidifying his global reputation as an actor.

As his reputation was soaring in the theatre of the 1920s, Robeson came to the realization that the rich musical heritage of his people, then called Negro Spirituals, needed to be celebrated and performed. He thus launched a singing career that would be his most enduring contribution to U.S. culture and, at the same time, would serve as a vehicle for him to participate in the struggle of Black people to achieve their freedom from racism and Jim Crow segregation. Over the next thirty years, he would learn at least a dozen languages and would celebrate the musical traditions of peoples from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Latin America, as well as the United States.

The Politicization of Paul Robeson

By the mid-1930s, Robeson’s outlook concerning the world around him and how the artist must relate to that world had changed significantly. Always aware of racism and segregation, Robeson began to see the oppression of his people as similar and related to the world of anti-Semitism, colonialism, worker exploitation, and attacks on the first socialist state, the Soviet Union.

Leaving a London theatre after a performance of Showboat in 1928, Robeson encountered a massive march of Welsh miners who had come all the way from Wales to demand better wages and working conditions. Robeson spoke to their group and joined their struggle. The mutual love and respect Robeson and the Welsh miners developed for each other would last for the rest of his life.

But it was the escalating Spanish Civil war, fascist armies fighting to overthrow a democratically elected government, that led Robeson to declare his commitment to political struggle on behalf of the dispossessed. In a speech given before the National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief at Royal Albert Hall on June 24, 1937 he proclaimed: “I have longed to see my talent contributing in an unmistakably clear manner to the cause of humanity. Every artist, every scientist, must decide NOW where he stands. He has no alternative.” The artist he said “must elect to fight for freedom or slavery.”

Robeson spoke out for workers, walked their picket lines, and sang to gatherings of trade unionists in auto, steel, shipping, meat packing, electrical, and mining industries who were demanding the right to form unions during the massive organizing drives of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). He sang of that great IWW labor singer/ organizer, “Joe Hill.” And he sang songs championing racial justice.

Red Scares

After World War II, Robeson met with President Truman and demanded that he take a stand against segregation and support anti-lynching legislation in the South. He already had spoken out against the exclusion of Blacks from major league baseball. Opposing the Cold War and Truman’s refusal to stand against segregation in the South, Robeson joined the campaign of third party candidate Henry Wallace, of the Progressive Party of America, who was running for president in 1948.

Robeson had often visited the Soviet Union, befriended the great Soviet film maker Eisenstein and had spoken with admiration about what appeared to be the lack of racism there. After World War II and as the Cold War was heating up, the U.S. government and rightwing groups launched a campaign to stifle the voice of Paul Robeson because of his sympathies for the Soviet Union and his strong advocacy for racial justice in the United States. He was called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Thugs vandalized and beat attendees at the summer Robeson concert in Peekskill, New York. Government agents pressured concert impresarios to stop sponsoring Robeson concerts. And when his public access to audiences declined in the 1950s, even Black churches were pressured to cancel Robeson visits. The centerpiece of the effort to muzzle Robeson was the decision of the State Department to revoke his passport in 1950. He was forbidden to leave the United States even though he still was a beloved worldwide figure. His passport was not reinstated until 1958 when the Supreme Court ruled that the State Department did not have the right to confiscate the passports of citizens..

Despite his not being able to travel, working people around the world continued to support Robeson. Canadian trade unionists from 1952 through 1955 organized four Robeson concerts at the border between the state of Washington and Canada. Robeson performed from the U.S. side and Canadian workers listened to his music from their side. Robeson welcomed the Canadian workers at the 1952 concert singing his signature song, “Old Man River,” from Showboat. He sang the lyrics he had revised from the original version in the 1928 musical-from stereotyping of Black people as docile to Black people as fighters for their freedom. Robeson began to insert the newer progressive lyrics in the 1930s when his own political consciousness had begun to change and for the rest of his life he saw the new lyrics as emblematic of his own political transformation.

In 1957, Welsh miners organized a chorus in a London studio and sang to Robeson listening in New York using the then new long distance telephone lines. They always remembered his support for their struggle and they wanted to demonstrate to him and the world their opposition to the efforts of the United States to stifle the voice of Paul Robeson.

After Robeson’s passport was reissued he resumed worldwide travel in the late 1950s. He fell ill in 1961, returned to the United States and for the most part retired from public life.

Robeson believed that peoples everywhere shared common musical forms and common struggles: workers, peoples of color, colonized peoples, women. He celebrated their differences but insisted on their human oneness. Perhaps we need to rediscover that vision again today. He died in 1976 but his spirited call for human solidarity is just as precious today as it was in his lifetime. And, as at Peekskill, those who support human solidarity must be prepared to “hold the line” against reaction.

"Hold The Line”:

Let me tell you the story of a line that was held,
And many brave men and women whose courage we know well,
How we held the line at Peekskill on that long September day!
We will hold the line forever till the people have their way.

Hold the line!Hold the line!
As we held the line at Peekskill
We will hold it everywhere.
Hold the line!Hold the line!
We will hold the line forever
Till there’s freedom ev’rywhere.
Words by Lee Hays; Music by Pete Seeger (1949)