Fifty-seven years ago this month Joseph Stalin died in Moscow, on March 5, 1953. I was a sociology graduate student, aged 26, just recently married, not yet a father (though expecting). Those Stalinists in New York, whom I had encountered at CCNY and elsewhere, were of professional interest to me (as were Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Plymouth Brethren, etc. etc.). How would the Stalinists react to the death of their “great leader” ? I decided to make some observations.
By coincidence, a large public meeting had previously been planned by one of the Communist front organizations to take place on what turned out to be a day or two after Stalin’s death. The venue was a large hall in Harlem, and Paul Robeson (whom the Communists had not yet revealed as a secret party member) was the scheduled speaker. I decided to attend. Would there be tears for the newly-late leader ? Would there be great public grief ? I wanted to know and I went up to Harlem to find out.
What a surprise ! The comrades arrived on time, maybe a couple of thousand, and sat politely through routine speeches without there being a single mention of Stalin. Finally Paul Robeson got up, and in the first sentence of his speech declaimed the death of “the great Stalin.” Well, at that moment there was loud applause, a standing applause, but applause no different from that accompanying other points that the various CP speakers had emphasized.
I concluded that these New York Stalinists were devoted to their party and its discipline, but that they lacked any warm emotional tie to the man whom they had seen praised, so many times, in the Daily Worker and elsewhere, as Coryphaeus of Science, Father of Nations, Brilliant Genius of Humanity, Great Architect of Communism, Gardener of Human Happiness. The cult of personality, I concluded, was thin and arid, at least among the New York comrades.