Sidney Hook: a halfway house for a recovering Stalinist

“That monster!”

Such was Herbert Aptheker’s reaction when I mentioned my having enrolled in “The Philosophy of History and Culture,” a course to be taught by his nemesis, Sidney Hook (1902-1989).  That was in 1972. I was a New York University (NYU) philosophy undergraduate. The class would be Hook’s last in an NYU teaching career that began in 1926 (including chairing its philosophy department from 1948 to 1969).Picture

I was checking in with Aptheker, the Communist historian, literary executor of W. E. B. Du Bois and, at the time, my “boss,” at his AIMS office to see if he had research tasks for me. The casual announcement was my idea of chit-chat.

Herbert ApthekerEarlier that year I had dropped into Hook’s office at 25 Waverly Place to ask about the class. As a young Red, I couldn’t pass up the chance to meet this infamous anti-communist in the flesh.

A letter of mine in support of Angela Davis, then on trial for aggravated kidnapping and first degree murder, appeared recently in the student newspaper. I had forgotten about it.

After a few minutes of chit-chat I rose and turned to leave. But before reaching the door . . . 

“What did you say your name was?”

Busted. I complied.

“This should be very interesting.”

“Yes,” I muttered.

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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. 

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