Herbert Aptheker: Apothecary for a Red Teenager

In the early 1970s, I was an acolyte of Herbert Aptheker (1915-2003). Known for his writings on African-American history he was also, during the Cold War, a theoretician of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). 

While many of my contemporaries became hooked on pharmaceuticals or alcohol, the apothecary for this teenage rebel was an apologist for the Soviet Union of Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev, and Leonid Brezhnev. Memories of the five years of my Stalinist sojourn are still a source of shame, even though more than eight times that interval has passed.

In November 1969 an ad in the Communist Party’s Daily World newspaper caught my eye. (Why I was reading that rag as a high school junior is a tale for another time.) Later that week Aptheker was scheduled to lecture on W.E.B. DuBois at the Center for Marxist Education (CME), then located on Manhattan’s West 15th Street, on the same block as my Jesuit military high school. (That building, now a co-op, abuts a 21st-century extension of my pre-Civil War alma mater.)

The evening arrived. Exiting the elevator on the fourth floor I made a right turn into the main room. CPUSA General Secretary Gus Hall, who would welcome me into the Party in less than three years, addressed the group of about 75. Then he introduced Dr. Herbert Aptheker.

I remember nothing of the lecture’s content. (I hadn’t then even heard of Du Bois.) The lecturer’s command of his material, however, and the aplomb with which he delivered it impressed this most impressionable of young minds. (One can hear how he sounded then by listening  to this February 18, 1968 Du Bois lecture.) Conservative in fashion and demeanor, Aptheker, then 54, had a military bearing and matching haircut. Appearing to me to be more learned than any five of my teachers or adult relatives combined, he held me spellbound for over an hour. 

I bought Aptheker’s books and pamphlets by the bushel by heading east from my high school across Union Square and entering the CPUSA’s Jefferson Book Shop on 16th Street, just east of Union Square. I scooped up everything of his I could and made time to absorb every line. While I now recognize Aptheker’s political essays as essentially propaganda, they then modeled for me the finest prose. They made the power of rhetoric a topic for me. For the first time I thought, “I’d like to be a writer!”

As Director of the American Institute for Marxist Studies (AIMS) Aptheker had an office on East 30th Street. Visiting it one day I introduced myself as a member of the Young Workers Liberation League, the latest edition of the Young Communist League. I took advantage of its library of Marxism (mostly its Stalinist subdivision). Whenever school was out, I’d make my way to AIMS and get lost in its shelves. Taking a break from reading, I’d catch him typing with two fingers, the aroma of coffee and hamburger wafting into the reading room outside his office. With trepidation at first, I’d ask him a question. 

Over the years I’d glean snippets of Aptheker’s life: his education before, during and after Columbia University; how he came to join the Party; and what it was like to be a Communist in the US Army as a leader of Black troops int he European Theater of War during the Second World War (“We were,” he said, “shall we say . . . fashionable?”) 

Columbia doctorate not withstanding, he couldn’t secure a teaching position outside of the Party-run Jefferson School for Social Science. I had to wait forty years for the publication of Gary Murrell’s “The Most Dangerous Communist in the United States”: A Biography of Herbert Aptheker to fill out the picture I had cobbled together. 

Image result for "The Most Dangerous Communist in the United States – A Biography of Herbert Aptheker,"

When Murrell visited New York in 2005 I gave him materials I had collected, including a bibliography, which he graciously acknowledged in print.1 

Herbert Aptheker was a friend. He could make me laugh as no one else has, before or since, whether at the CME, where I attended scores of his lec­tures, at AIMS, or in his home, where I met his wife Fay, their daughter Bettina, and her son Joshua. When Aptheker covered the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War for the Daily World he made me custodian of AIMS.  The following year he asked if I’d be interested in photocopying articles and tracing down documenting facts for his Du Bois projects. For several months Kraus-Thomson, publisher of the Du Bois’ bibliography, paid me $125.00 a month for about four days’ work.

Aptheker acknowledged the assistance and others.2 A fellow researcher, Hugh Murray (never a Party member) remains a good friend. The trial of the Scottsboro Boys was the subject of Murray’s 1963 Master’s Thesis at Tulane University. On another site I’ve posted many of his papers, many on the Civil Rights Movement. (Hugh was a lunch counter protester in his native New Orleans in 1960.) Before leaving Aptheker’s employ Hugh and I compiled an anthology of Aptheker’s political essays. It remains unpublished, but he read and criticized our introductory essays.

Bettina Aptheker, of UCLA Berkeley “Free Speech Movement” fame (that’s her and FSM leader Mario Savio in a 1964 photo) contributed a “Bibliographical Comment” on her father’s literary corpus for an anthology she edited. She revised and expanded it for another.3 

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 The latter version’s first paragraph caught my eye. It reads in part: “Herbert Aptheker’s first published work appeared in his high school newspaper in 1932.  He was seventeen years old and in his senior year at Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn, New York, when he wrote a series of articles entitled ‘The Dark Side of the South.’”

This brought to mind a discussion he and I had about his bibliography. Aptheker said his first published piece was an entry in a contest run by The American Hebrew, a Brooklyn newspaper. I made it my business to find it in the New York Public Library’s Jewish Collection. Aptheker-like, I transcribed his second-prize winning entry by hand. It had been published in 1928 when he was eleven years old. You may read the text of it here

One lively conversation he and I had concerned his effort, against the sensibilities of most of his American comrades, to get his book-length apologia for the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary published within a few months of its occurrence. In the foreword to The Truth About Hungary, published in 1957 by Mainstream Publishers (two ironies for the price of one), he thanked several well-known Communists who had little to lose by being acknowledged.Image result for aptheker the truth about hungary

But Aptheker told me he depended on the support of two men whom he did not list: Harlem Councilman Benjamin J. Davis, Jr. and Lincoln-Brigadier and Distinguished Service Cross recipient Robert G. Thompson. His reference to the “[indispensible] assistance of some Hungarian comrades” only heightened this operation’s clandestine atmosphere.  The book was printed on a Hungarian newspaper press.

It took his expulsion from the Party for Aptheker to renounce what I called in  the Journal of American History his Communist holocaust denial. When he had an opportunity to tell the world what his renunciation amounted to, that is, when someone challenged him about Hungary, he only doubled down. See my letter in the March 2001 issue of that Journal, followed by Aptheker’s intemperate reply. You can read both here.

While isolated from my fellow Stalinists I gave myself permission to examine what I had taken on faith. I remember Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror was decisive. Belatedly I concluded that turning a blind eye to mass murder wasn’t what I had signed up for. I retreated into my study. 

Sometime in 2012, however, the name of C. L. R. James floated into my mind, as it had on and off for forty years. “Didn’t he write a book on the Haitian slave revolt?” When I remembered that he did and that Black Jacobins was the title, it occurred to me that I could not also remember James’s name coming up in any conversation I had had with Aptheker or in any of his writings (which I thought I knew completely).

I began searching for the possibly overlooked reference. After all, Black Jacobins was reviewed in The Journal of Negro History, Time Magazine, and The New York Times, periodicals that were almost certainly familiar to Aptheker in 1938.

To undescore the politically correct irony: Aptheker was a professedly anti-racist Marxist. But he was not Black. The author of Black Jacobins, however,  was. Furthermore he was also a Marxist, fourteen years Aptheker’s senior, who had published a book-length study in his specialty, slave revolts. It was, in fact, about the only successful slave revolt in the Americas.  James did this in New York where they were both then living, indeed, while Aptheker was pursuing doctoral studies in history at Columbia University. One would think that such a book would have attracted Aptheker’s comment.

C.L.R. James speaks in London's Trafalgar Square in support of the Ethiopian anti-colonial struggle

 

C. L. R. James addressing crowd protesting Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, Trafalgar Square, 1935(?)

 

 

In my library I could only find a citation of James’s The History of Negro Revolt, an issue of a 1938 London periodical, in the bibliography of American Negro Slave Revolts, Aptheker’s 1943 dissertation.

But not a word about Black Jacobins. Further research turned up not a single sentence in which Aptheker acknowledged it. Surely, I thought, scholars who admired both writers must have commented on this silence.

Wrong again. I believed I had material for an article, and the editor of The C. L. R. James Journal agreed. “C. L. R. James: Herbert Aptheker’s Invisible Man” was published in 2013. No one has yet challenged its thesis: Aptheker could never bring himself to acknowledge James simply because he was a Stalinist and James a Trotskyist. 

After my life ceased to interact with Aptheker’s, due to my leaving the CPUSA, I slowly began replacing Marxism-Leninism with a series of, shall we say, less untenable worldviews. Still, my mind would sometimes turn to the question of his place, not only in historiography, but also in the history of our times.

Even after facing the facts of Stalinism, I resisted the impulse to renounce him. Disowning a writer who had been formative in one’s education, even if one later deems it miseducation, seemed disingenuous.

Yet breaking out of Marxism-Leninism had initiated an inexorable sequence: I had been a Communist chiefly due to Aptheker’s influence; when I stopped being one, maintaining a relationship with him became difficult, if not pointless.

In 1979, during my interior de-Stalinization, I discovered the writings of Bernard Lonergan. He taught (among many other things) that objectivity is the fruit of “authentic subjectivity.” Authentic subjectivity is achieved when, with both one’s natural though imperfect commitment to truth and God’s supernatural assistance, one wages a spiritual battle against one’s own bias. 

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Bias impedes the subject’s grasp of the object. In this life purification of bias is never final, but commitment to purification can be. But purification is not achieved by declaration and solves no problem. We must daily perform our intellectual and rational obligations responsibly. 

 

Notes

1 See my review, “Willful Blindness,” in American Communist History, 2016, 15:1. On Aptheker’s fitness to teach, see my “Is Herbert Aptheker a Historian?,” Frontpage, December 13, 2016.

2 The Annotated Bibliography of the Published Writings of W. E. B. Du Bois, Millwood, NY: Kraus-Thomson, 1973. The Correspondence of W. E. B. Du Bois: Volume II: Selections, 1934-1944, Amherst, MA: UMass Press, 1976.

3 The Unfolding Drama: Studies in U. S. History by Herbert Aptheker, ed. Bettina Aptheker, New York, International Publishers, 1978, 165-169. In Resistance: Studies in African, Caribbean, and Afro-American History, ed. Gary Y. Okihiro, Amherst, UMass Press, 1986, 210-220.