I first learned about Herbert Aptheker during the 2000 presidential elections. While in route to Ohio that summer my friend Sam Webb gave me a copy of African American History and Radical Historiography: Essays in Honor of Herbert Aptheker, which – in many ways – introduced me to radical African American history.
As someone who first heard about Herbert Aptheker nearly seventy years after his seminal book American Negro Slave Revolts was first published, I have to say I was immediately captivated. I had learned very little about slave revolts in high school or community college. I think I had assumed that they must have happened. But for the most part, I had not been taught that revolt was a central thread running throughout the entirety of African American history. Aptheker’s work – like Gerald Horne’s today – completely redefined the meaning of African American history for me, and for tens-of-thousands of other young activists, white and Black. I have since read most of Aptheker’s books, pamphlets and articles.
It is in this context that I read with great joy Gary Murrell’s new book “The Most Dangerous Communist in the United States”: A Biography of Herbert Aptheker, recently published by the University of Massachusetts Press.
Make no mistake, this is a political history, a political narrative of a remarkable man, a person who defied mainstream historiography and McCarthyism. A man who openly fought for socialism as a leader of the Communist Party, USA, in which he was a member for fifty-two years. And as a result of his groundbreaking historical research, political insight and open membership in the CPUSA, he was – for most of his political life – shunned by mainstream academia and denied a university teaching position, though he spoke regularly on hundreds of campuses in front of thousands of students.
Aptheker, the son of Jewish immigrants, grew up in Brooklyn, fell in love with and married his older cousin, Fay, who – already a CPUSA member – introduced Herbert to Party members, many of whom were already familiar with his writings on behalf of Black Liberation and African American equality.
While still in college, Aptheker started teaching night classes at the Party’s New York Workers School and writing for various Party related publications, like the Labor Research Association’s Labor Notes and Economic Notes. He would eventually join the Party in 1939, become an editor at New Masses, and then later Masses & Mainstream. He worked with the National Negro Congress – which was probably the largest ‘Popular Front,’ Party-led organization of the time – and after the bombing of Pearl Harbor he enlisted in the U.S. Army, along with an estimated 15,000 other CPUSA members who served during World War II.
After returning home, Aptheker began work on the first volume of his monumental A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States, which covered the early colonial period through the founding of the NAACP. In the introduction Aptheker wrote, “Here the Negro speaks for himself. These are the words of participants, of eye-witnesses. These are the words of the very great and the very obscure; they are the words of the mass. This is how they felt; this is what they saw; this is what they wanted. And that is history.”
W.E.B. DuBois, Aptheker’s long-time friend, would hale the publication of A Documentary History as a “…dream come true…” The Black press called it a “prodigious achievement.” Unfortunately, however, like his American Negro Slave Revolts, the white mainstream press and academia ignored the book – a recurring theme throughout Aptheker’s scholarly career. Later, Aptheker, as DuBois’ literary executor, would publish many volumes of DuBois’ writings, letters, articles, essays, etc., which was also racked with controversy.
Aptheker had been repeatedly shunned for not only challenging the then dominant historical narrative, but also for voluminously documenting the reality of slavery’s brutality and barbarity. He didn’t just challenge the institution rhetorically – though he could definitely be bombastic and exaggerate for effect. Coupled with his rhetorical abilities, however, he provided document, after document, after document, fact after fact, which repeatedly hammered away at the biased, reactionary, racist historical foundation designed to fabricate a historical narrative justifying slavery and racism. Simultaneously, he helped to build an African American identity centered around a history of revolt, self-awareness and liberation.
Aptheker was at his best when he focused on history, especially African American history. However, he wasn’t an arm chair revolutionary. He actively flung himself into turbulent waters; as a witness in McCarran and Smith Act prosecutions defending CPUSA leaders falsely accused of conspiring to overthrow the U.S. government; as a peace activist who lead a delegation to Vietnam in 1965, as U.S. bombs were falling; as a key advisor to Angela Davis’ defense, as she fought trumped-up charges of murder; as an advocate for LGBT rights within and outside of the Communist Party (many Party leaders during this time, unfortunately, held anti-LBGT sentiments); and as the founder and director of the American Institute for Marxist Studies; among many, many other examples.
According to Murrell, during the late 1970’s and 1980’s Aptheker increasingly clashed with Party leaders like Gus Hall and James Jackson. Aptheker would ultimately leave the Communist Party in 1991, along with Angela Davis, Gil Green, Charlene Mitchell, Danny Rubin and others. Years later, after Gus Hall’s death, the Party approached Aptheker about rejoining. Though he declined, he did express interest in working together to build left unity; he also made a modest financial contribution to Political Affairs, the Party’s theoretical journal, which he had once edited.
My only mild criticism of Murrell’s otherwise excellent book is the lack of attention to Aptheker’s personal life, especially his relationship with his wife Fay and daughter Bettina. This is partly remedied, as the biography includes an afterward by Bettina, which touches briefly on Fay and Herbert’s marriage as well as Bettina’s allegations/revelations of sexual molestation at the hand of her father.
Needless to say, Murrell’s biography of Aptheker may re-open an ongoing debate amongst some as to the legitimacy of the charges. I do not wish to enter into that debate.
Herbert Aptheker was a courageous, tireless fighting for African American equality and socialism. He was also very flawed, as we all are. I believe we can continue to respect his work as a Marxist historian, a revolutionary, and a leader of the CPUSA, without in any way obfuscating or ignoring Bettina Aptheker’s memory of abuse.
Murrell paints a vivid, detailed picture of Aptheker’s political life and for this he should be commended. “The Most Dangerous Communist in the United States” is a monumental accomplishment.
“The Most Dangerous Communist in the United States”: A Biography of Herbert Aptheker
By Gary Murrell
University of Massachusetts Press, 2015, 456 pages