Herbert Aptheker, Marxist historian and political activist, has passed away at age 87. Few have matched his output of books, pamphlets and articles, all marked by great scholarship, exactingness, intellectual and political integrity and partisanship in the struggle for peace, equality, democratic rights, social progress and socialism. Aptheker authored over 50 volumes, most notably in the fields of African American history and anti-racism, and U.S. history generally. These include his American Negro Slave Revolts (1943), his doctoral thesis which is considered a landmark work in the field, the Documentary History of the Negro People (3 volumes) and a number of volumes of early U.S. history.
One of his most notable achievements was editing of some 50 volumes of the correspondence and writings of W.E.B. Du Bois, the great scholar and leader of the African American people, who joined the Communist Party, USA at age 94. Pulitzer Prize author of the Du Bois Biography, David Levering Lewis, writes in that volume, “… Herbert Aptheker had become indispensable to Du Bois. Du Bois designated him as the ‘best fitted person’ to edit his letters, a decision that would make a comprehensive biography of Du Bois possible.”
Aptheker was no armchair intellectual. He worked in North Carolina and Virginia as an organizer for the Food & Tobacco Workers (1938-39). In 1939 he joined the Communist Party. He served as secretary of the Abolish Peonage Committee associated with the International Labor Defense (1939-40), and was active in Georgia.
During World War II he rose from private to major in the artillery, fighting in Western Europe. In 1966, Aptheker traveled to Hanoi with Staughton Lynd and Tom Hayden during the U.S. bombardment, out of which the book, Mission to Hanoi was written. Aptheker served on the Presidium of the World Peace Council 1960-74. In 1966 he ran for Congress on the Peace and Freedom ticket and for the Senate in 1976 as candidate of the Communist Party against Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
His activity included editor, Masses & Mainstream (1948-52), editor, Political Affairs (1952-63). In 1964, Aptheker and others founded the American Institute for Marxist Studies (AIMS), with Aptheker as director. A whole number of books, scholarly monographs by a wide range of Marxist and left authors and a newsletter were among the products of these years. At a 1984 AIMS dinner fund-raiser on the occasion of Aptheker’s 20th anniversary as its director, speakers and artists such as Leith Mullings, Johnnetta Cole, and Henry Winston, Ernest DeMaio, Ruby Dee, Vinie Burrows paid tribute in person, and eminent African-American scholars such as E. Franklin Frazier, John Hope Franklin, Manning Marable and Cornel West sent messages of appreciation.
Aptheker was the editor of Jewish Affairs from 1978 to the early 1990s. During McCarthyism, Aptheker appeared as an expert witness for the CPUSA in the Smith Act and sedition cases and as a hostile witness before the McCarthy Committee and McCarran Act Board. All through the Cold War years, Aptheker spoke and lectured to large audiences on scores of campuses and such activity continued until the last year of his life.
Barred from formal academic positions until 1969 Aptheker had various associations with such schools as Hostos College, CCNY, University of Massachusetts (Amherst), Yale, University of California Berkeley Law School, Stanford and Humboldt University (GDR).
Aptheker served on the National Committee of the CPUSA from 1957 to 1991. For decades he was among the best known Communists in our country. During the upheaval in the world communist movement connected with the collapse of the USSR, Aptheker left the CPUSA more in sorrow than in anger, with many others and became a member of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism. In the recent period, the relations between Herbert Aptheker and the Communist Party leadership have been cordial.
Herbert Aptheker is survived by his daughter Bettina Aptheker, Chair of the Women’s Studies Department at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and by two grandchildren. His wife and close co-worker of 50 years, Fay, passed away a few years ago.
It is evident that Herbert Aptheker’s prodigious scholarly output and life’s activity will have a profoundly positive influence for generations to come on the struggle for social progress and socialism. Many of his books are still available from International Publishers.