A desire to change the world: Author Gary Murrell on Herbert Aptheker

In a recent phone conversation, the People’s World interviewed Gary Murrell about his new book, The Most Dangerous Communist in the United States: A Biography of Herbert Aptheker.

Murrell, who teaches history at Grays Harbor College located on the western edge of Washington state, says he researched Aptheker for 16 years. Murrell said his interest in Aptheker started while he was a student at Southern Oregon State College where the Marxist historian conducted a week-long residency. “I agreed with him philosophically,” Murrell said. “His politics and commitment appealed to me.”

Aptheker, a 55-year member of the Communist Party, USA, was well known as a historian, academic and activist who published dozens of volumes on African-American history, civil rights, politics and Marxist philosophy.

During the height of the “Red Scare,” Aptheker was considered by then FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover as the “most dangerous communist in the United States,” as “the Party’s most effective campus speaker,” Murrell added.

According to Murrell, Aptheker was “passionate and straight forward,” which partly explained his appeal to young activists on college campuses throughout the 1960’s. What he said “rang true to them,” Murrell added. “Young people like passion.”

At the height of the student free speech movement Aptheker had been invited to speak at Ohio State University. To demonstrate the absurdity of the school’s crackdown on free expression, Aptheker sat on stage silently while students challenged campus-based censorship by reading excerpts from his many books – all found in the school’s library.

However, it wasn’t only Aptheker’s passion that endeared him to sixties-era young radicals or to African Americans looking to challenge the then-dominant narrative about Blacks in U.S. history.

Instead, it was Aptheker’s “dogged research,” especially evident in his groundbreaking book American Negro Slave Revolts – first published in 1943 – and his nine-volume A Documentary History of the Negro People in America. The latter book, according to Murrell, “absolutely changed the course of Black history.”

Further, Aptheker “worked constantly. He did not rest.” Considering that he had neither the convenient tools of modern technology (scanners, computers, smart phones and the internet) nor the aid of research assistants, his accomplishments become that much more “remarkable,” as he personally “found the sources” and “wrote out his notes long-hand.”

“Every place he went he collected material for his research.” He “collected a body of evidence that most scholars before him either didn’t think about or ignored,” Murrell added.

“No one who studies Black history can start without first consulting Aptheker’s work,” Murrell said pointedly. Specifically referring to Slave Revolts, which has gone through multiple Anniversary printings, Murrell added, “There is no other book that has had the lasting impact on the study of African American history…”

“People were astonished by his organization and academic research” all directed toward one singular goal: “A desire to change the world.”

Aptheker was also a committed socialist and leading member of the Communist Party, USA for most of his life. This partly explains why he was shunned by many of his academic peers – at least, his white peers – and most elite universities. He was widely respected by African American scholars, including his good friend, the author and intellectual luminary W.E.B. Du Bois.

However, by the 1960s, things began to change, as a new generation of historians began to consult Aptheker and his work.

Aptheker wasn’t just an academic, though. He regularly put his body on the line, for civil rights, peace and socialism.

According to Murrell, “most people in the U.S. didn’t think about the history of the Vietnam war until the publishing of the Pentagon Papers.” However, “if they had been reading PA [Political Affairs, the monthly theoretical journal of the Communist Party, which Aptheker edited] they would have read Aptheker’s analysis.” “He wrote about the war. He wrote about government lies.”

Additionally, in January 1966, Aptheker traveled to that war torn country as part of a fact-finding peace mission along with Staughton Lynd and Tom Hayden. Aptheker’s 2003 New York Times obituary characterized the trip as having “stirred a whirlwind of debate over Washington’s travel restrictions to certain countries.” 

He published his first-hand accounts in a volume titled Mission to Hanoi.

After returning, Aptheker went on an extensive speaking tour and “spoke with hundreds of thousands of people” about what he saw. Further, he was one of the first Americans to “link racism and the war in Vietnam,” which became a rallying cry for the Black Power Movement.

Aptheker was also in the forefront of the LGBTQ movement within the Party. He was “conceptually and philosophically opposed to discrimination against gays and lesbians” and the CPUSA’s then-backward stance on LGBTQ rights.

Aptheker would eventually leave the Communist Party in the early 1990’s after the collapse of the Soviet Union and a split in the CPUSA. However, as Murrell said, “he was a member of the Party in his heart until he died” and a committed socialist who firmly believed that it is “only when people act within a dedicated, collectivist movement” is real, systemic change is possible.

Before his death in 2003 at the age of 87, Aptheker continued writing and speaking publicly. He published Anti-Racism And U.S. History: The First Two Hundred Years and wrote regularly for Nature, Society and Thought, a journal of dialectical and historical materialism.

Murrell will speak on Aptheker, his life and work, at the Tamiment Library at New York University on April, 7 from 6 to 7:30 p.m.

“The Most Dangerous Communist in the United States”: A Biography of Herbert Aptheker

by Gary Murrell, with an afterward by Bettina Aptheker

University of Massachusetts Press

Available in hardcover and paperback editions




Tony Pecinovsky
Tony Pecinovsky

Tony Pecinovsky is the author of "Let Them Tremble: Biographical Interventions Marking 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA" and author/editor of "Faith In The Masses: Essays Celebrating 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA." His forthcoming book is titled "The Cancer of Colonialism: W. Alphaeus Hunton, Black Liberation, and the Daily Worker, 1944-1946." Pecinovsky has appeared on C-SPAN’s "Book TV" and speaks regularly on college and university campuses across the country.