Is Herbert Aptheker A Historian?

Can a communist tell the truth?

“Should Communists Be Permitted to Teach?”  This question, the title of a 1949 New York Times article by philosopher Sidney Hook, has a quaint ring.  This question has long been settled for practical purposes in favor of an affirmative answer.  A Communist should not be allowed to teach, Hook argued, not because non-Communists disapprove of the Communist’s ideas, but because the Communist Party obliged its members to carry out its political line where they worked.  “It is not his beliefs, right or wrong,” Hook wrote, “it is not his heresies, which disqualify the Communist party teacher but his declaration of intention, as evidenced by official statements of his party, to practice educational fraud.”[1]  

But what about Herbert Aptheker (1915-2003)?  “Columbia would never hire a person with your political views,” William L. Westermann, Aptheker’s dissertation advisor, made clear to his former student in 1945.[2]  Should this Communist, a Columbia University Ph.D. and pioneering researcher of slave revolts in the United States, have been permitted to teach upon his return home from Europe after the War, that is, long before Bryn Mawr College invited him to teach part-time in 1969?  Did that appointment right a wrong that had been done to him and to academic freedom?

Aptheker once asked: “[D]oes it not help to know that the hand which wrote the Declaration of Independence also wrote advertisements for fugitive slaves?”[3]  Yes, and it helps to know that Aptheker, the author of American Negro Slave Revolts (1943), also wrote The Truth about Hungary (1957), which defended the Soviet Union’s brutal enforcement of its control of Hungary, especially since Aptheker taught that “intense partisanship on the side of the exploited and therefore on the side of justice . . . makes possible the grasping of truth.”[4]

Sixty years ago (October-November 1956) Hungarian students stormed the Hungarian parliament in Budapest demanding liberation from Soviet-controlled tyranny.  They sang Sándor Petőfi’s poem Nemzeti dal ("National Song") which had inspired Hungarian revolutionaries in the previous century, but was censored by the Communist “People’s Republic.”  One verse runs: “We vow that we will be slaves no longer!"  Aptheker’s research specialty had been slave revolts in the United States, and yet when Khrushchev sent in tanks to suppress a 20th-century slave revolt, Aptheker immediately produced a footnote-studded book describing that uprising as virtually an anti-Semitic pogrom.  Truth embarrasses many of Aptheker’s academic admirers, but they somehow never deem it fatal to his scholarly reputation. He expressed pride in it as late as 2001.[5] 

Like Aptheker, David Irving may also be described as an industrious researcher and prolific author.  But an historian?  In 1996 Irving brought a libel suit against Penguin Books and Emory University history professor Deborah Lipstadt who, to the alleged detriment of his livelihood, had characterized his writings as Holocaust denial.[6]  Her legal defense was that this description was substantially true, because his writings distorted the truth.  Her lawyers scoured everything he had ever written, not just his initially well-received books on the German high command during World War II.  The net effect of this unforgiving scrutiny was a judgement for the defendants.  Richard Evans, historian of the Third Reich and expert witness at the libel trial, described Irving’s writings in terms relevant to our assessment of Aptheker: “Not one of his [Irving’s] books, speeches or articles, not one paragraph, not one sentence in any of them, can be taken on trust as an accurate representation of its historical subject.  All of them are completely worthless as history, because Irving cannot be trusted anywhere, in any of them, to give a reliable account of what he is talking or writing about. . . . Irving is not a historian.”[7]  The writings of Herbert Aptheker, a lifelong denier of Communist holocausts, have yet to receive the rigorous inspection visited upon Irving’s, but even before that day comes, if it ever does, we can safely conclude that Aptheker was an historical writer, but no historian.

Today Aptheker’s name is mentioned in reviews of Birth of a Nation, a 2016 movie about the 1831 slave revolt of Nat Turner, whose trial for insurrection Aptheker researched for his Master’s thesis at Columbia.  His sympathy for Turner never extended to the defendants of the contemporaneous Moscow show trials in the late 1930s.  Pursuing his studies, he joined the CPUSA in September 1939 just as the ink was drying on the Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact, of which he heartily approved.[8]  Just four years earlier Aptheker had turned a blind eye to Stalin’s oil shipment to Mussolini for his military assault on Ethiopia (which moved many African-Americans to quit the Communist Party).  

Nineteen thirty-six was also the year Stalin’s jurists tried Leon Trotsky in absentia, to the bloodthirsty glee of Stalinists everywhere.  Two years later C. L. R. James, a disciple of Trotsky – a Black Trinidadian writer fourteen years Aptheker’s senior – published The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, the first full-length study of the only successful slave revolt in the New World.   Aptheker could not have missed the reviews it garnered in scholarly journals and the mainstream press.  And yet in the few pages he devoted to that revolt in American Negro Slave Revolts, he neither cited Black Jacobins nor even listed it the bibliography.[9]  For any a card-carrying Stalinist like Aptheker, however, there was no lower form of life than a Trotskyist.  In 1949 James, writing under the pseudonym “J. Meyer,” charged Aptheker with imposing the party line on the historical evidence:  “[I]n the work of a dozen years [1937-1949], Aptheker has never once stepped outside the bounds of the limits prescribed by Stalinism for Negroes-as-manpower, as shock-troops and as deserving of ‘recognition.’  So organic to present-day Stalinism is this attitude and so Stalinized is Aptheker that he can find in his quite extensive explorations only what fits this pattern, infinitesimal as it may be; and is blind to everything else . . . .”[10]  Party discipline would have barred Aptheker from taking notice of Black Jacobins in the classroom.[11]  

Some noteworthy academics apparently think this is all right.  Columbia University history professor Eric Foner once praised Aptheker in the New York Times for editing W. E. B. Du Bois’s correspondence, calling it “a milestone in the coming of age of Afro-American history.”[12]  When a participant of a roundtable discussion of Aptheker’s work, led by Foner, brought up James’s contribution to history and the Stalinist refusal to acknowledge it, Foner gave the game away: “As an active member of the Communist Party one would not expect Aptheker to be influenced by Trotskyist history.”[13]  That is: one cannot reasonably expect a Stalinist, not even a Columbia Ph.D, to suspend his Stalinism to engage a work of history, no matter how germane to his field of specialization, if written by a Trotskyist.  I’ll let others evaluate Foner’s evaluation of Black Jacobins as “Trotskyist history.”

Aptheker’s seven-volume A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States contains not a word of James’s.  Was that because he was from Trinidad and therefore outside of the project’s geographical scope?  If so, then its fourth volume should not have included an essay from the Trinidadian Eric Williams, James’s one-time friend and jailer, but it did.  That series understandably inspired many, yet we cannot trust it implicitly for the reasons Professor Evans gave for not trusting David Irving’s books.  The Documentary History was edited by a man who penned encomia to Stalin, praised North Korea in 1950 as a democracy (that’s why, he explained, there were “no revolts” there[14]), and denied the anti-Semitic aspect of the Slansky trials in Czechoslovakia in 1953.[15]  The Truth about Hungary was no aberration, but continued a pattern.

Twenty years after Hook’s article Aptheker’s Party membership was no longer an obstacle to his attaining an academic position, not even after having recently returned from a Cold War hot spot, to show solidarity with his North Vietnamese comrades.[16]  In the 1990s the United States Postal Service honored Aptheker’s friend and comrade, W. E. B. Du Bois, a co-founder of the NAACP and eulogist for Stalin, with two stamps.[17]  In the 1970s, as Aptheker taught at Bryn Mawr, another Stalinist, Frank Marshall Davis, was mentoring a future president.[18]  As David Horowitz and many others have documented, little Apthekers and kindred malevolent spirits have been long been permitted to teach on America’s campuses.  Aptheker, the chief theoretician of the Communist Party during the Cold War, has been mainstreamed.

Notes:

[1] Sidney Hook, “Heresy, Yes—But Conspiracy, No,” The New York Times, July 9, 1950. Available online. https://www.dissentmagazine.org/wp-content/files_mf/1390433798d15Hook.pdf  Hook’s 1952 letter to Herbert Aptheker is germane to this essay.  The Letters of Sidney Hook: Democracy, Communism and the Cold War, edited by Edward S. Shapiro, 211-215.  Aptheker’s 1953 reply was published as “Communism and Truth: A Reply to Sidney Hook,” in Aptheker, The Era of McCarthyism, New York, Marzani & Munsell, 1955, 89-103.

[2] Interview of Aptheker by Fred Zimring, July 5, 1977, quoted in Gary Murrell, “The Most Dangerous Communist in the United States”: A Biography of Herbert Aptheker, University of Massachusetts Press, 2015, 60.  See my review in American Communist History, 2016, 15:1, 163-175.

[3] Aptheker, The Nature of Democracy, Freedom and Revolution, New York, International Publishers, 9.

[4] Aptheker, Afro-American History: the Modern Era, New York, The Citadel Press, 1971, 52.

[5] See Aptheker’s reply to me in The Journal of American History, March 2001, 1598-1599.

[6] In 2006, facing a jail sentence, Irving conceded that the “Nazis did murder millions of Jews.” “Holocaust denier David Irving is jailed.” BBC News, February 20, 2006.  http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/4733820.stm And as his political world collapsed around him, Aptheker conceded that “massive human extermination” occurred under the Communist regimes he had defended.  “Dr. Herbert Aptheker’s Comments, XXV Convention, CPUSA, December 7, 1991, Cleveland, Ohio.” http://www.nathannewman.org/EDIN/EDINlist/.left/CoC/.aboutCoC/.cpusa/conven25.ha.html

[7] Richard J. Evans, “David Irving, Hitler, and Holocaust Denial,” in Holocaust Denial on Trial: Resources about the David Irving v. Penguin Books Ltd. and Deborah Lipstadt trial. Available online: https://www.hdot.org/evans/#

[8] “I was a leader in the antiwar movement.” He said in 1998. “We made speeches, organized, stopped traffic, and drew thousands to the movement. . . . It was related to my history work, and I continued that throughout my life.”  Robin D. G. Kelley’s interview of Herbert Aptheker, The Journal of American History, June 2000, 155.  He dropped his “The Yanks Are Not Coming!” placard after Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941 and transformed himself into just such a Yank.

[9] In the bibliography Aptheker listed James’s 1938 “History of Negro Revolt,” which formed an issue of Fact, a London periodical, but did not indicate that it covered the subject matter of Black Jacobins.  Even if he had, to list an obscure booklet is not to cite an acclaimed and widely reviewed book.  Aptheker never cited James, and to my knowledge no admirer of both men has ever taken notice of this.  See my “C. L. R. James: Herbert Aptheker’s Invisible Man,” The C. L. R. James Journal, Fall 2013. Available online: http://philpapers.org/archive/FLOCJH.pdf No one has yet come to Aptheker’s defense.

[10] C. L. R. James [“J. Meyer”], “Stalinism and Negro History,” Fourth International, November 1949.  Available online: http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/fi/index2.htm#fi49_11 

[11] That discipline apparently did not prevent Aptheker from debating liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger at Harvard in December 1949, the month James’s critique appeared.  Two months earlier he had published “The Schlesinger Fraud,” reprinted in The Era of McCarthyism, cited above, but never anything on James.

[12] Eric Foner, “Invisible Man,” New York Times, January 7, 1979. Available online: http://www.nytimes.com/books/00/11/05/specials/dubois-correspondence.html

[13] African American History and Radical Historiography: Essays in Honor of Herbert Aptheker, ed. Herbert Shapiro, Minneapolis: MEP Press, 1998, 76.

[14] Aptheker, “The Truth about the Korean War,” Masses and Mainstream, August 1950.  Reprinted in Herbert Aptheker, American Foreign Policy and the Cold War, New York: International Publishers, 1962, pp. 123-43. The quotation is from page 131.

[15] “. . . most certainly the Czechoslovak trials carry no anti-Semitic aspect. In that country, unlike our own, the display of anti-Semitism is a serious crime, severely punished and one of the charges, in those trials, made by the prosecution was that several of defendants had been anti-Semitic.”  Well, I guess that settles it!  Aptheker, “Communism and Truth,” cited above, 100. 

[16] See Aptheker, Mission to Hanoi, New York, International Publishers, 1966.

[17] W. E. B. Du Bois, “On Stalin,” National Guardian, March 16, 1953.  Available online: https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/biographies/1953/03/16.htm

[18] Paul Kengor, “The Washington Post Sugarcoats Obama’s Communist Mentor,” The American Thinker, March 26, 2015. Available online:  http://www.americanthinker.com/articles/2015/03/the_washington_empostem_sugarcoats_obamas_communist_mentor.html#ixzz3VanoJC9E  Kengor is the author of The Communist – Frank Marshall Davis: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mentor. New York, Mercury Ink, 2012.

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