Studies in Herbert Aptheker, Esteemed Expert on Slave Revolts

How a “post-Stalin Stalinist” suppressed slave revolt history.

Anthony Flood, Herbert Aptheker: Studies in Willful Blindness, 91 pages, 2019.

After U.S. recognition of the USSR in 1933, the Communist Party USA made significant gains in America. Many left the Party after Stalin’s show-trials and purges of the mid-1930s, and many others after the Stalin-Hitler Pact of 1939. By contrast, the American Herbert Aptheker joined the Communist Party “virtually because of it,” explains his former research assistant, friend, and comrade Anthony Flood.

Four years before the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Aptheker approved when Stalin shipped oil to Mussolini to aid the fascist dictator’s invasion of Ethiopia, and that drove some African Americans out of the Communist Party. After the war, Aptheker denied the anti-Semitism of the 1952 Slansky trials in Czechoslovakia, which prompted even Party faithful to depart.

Others left the Communist Party in 1956 after Khrushchev partially confirmed Stalin’s mass atrocities that had long been part of the historical record to all but the willfully blind. Still others abandoned the Party that same year, when the USSR crushed a rebellion in Hungary. For his part, Pact-Man Herbert Aptheker championed the Soviet invasion in The Truth About Hungary, a book he defended as late as 2001. And there were no rebellions in North Korea, Aptheker also wrote, because in the Communist dictatorship “the people rule.”

The record of this servile “post-Stalin Stalinist,” would be enough to disregard Aptheker as a scholar. On the other hand, his former “acolyte” Anthony Flood finds another issue of great significance. Though he passed away in 2003, Herbert Aptheker is still esteemed as a historian of slave revolts in the Americas.

The only such revolt that succeeded was Toussaint L’Ouverture’s 1791-1804 uprising in the Caribbean. In 1938, Trinidadian historian C.L.R. James chronicled this revolt in The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. Though hailed by scholars as the definitive account, James’ work nowhere appears in the writings of the esteemed slave revolt expert Herbert Aptheker.

“Aptheker could never bring himself to acknowledge James simply because he was a Stalinist and James was a Trotskyist,” Flood notes. So the white Stalinist, ironically, “rendered James an invisible man.” At one point, The Black Jacobins author weighed in.

“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 he is blind to everything else.”

As Flood notes, “the neglect of The Black Jacobins in Aptheker’s writings mirrored the CP’s embargo on all things Trotskyist, virtually the Soviet Union’s policies in microcosm.” According to Communist Party boss Dorothy Healy, the only role Party leaders permitted intellectuals to play was providing a rationale for whatever the current Party line might be. And according to his former acolyte, Herbert Aptheker was a “leading intellectual” in Party circles.

Party discipline would have barred Aptheker from taking notice of The Black Jacobins in the classroom. That is why, as Flood notes, Sidney Hook asked, “Should Communists be Permitted to Teach?” in his famous 1949 New York Times article. According to Hook, author of Out of Step and other books, the problem was not Party membership but that Communists “practice educational fraud.”

Flood aims to modify the received opinion that Herbert Aptheker was a historian. His former friend and research assistant now finds him “a lifelong denier of Communist holocausts,” comparable to David Irving. And for most of his life, Aptheker “marketed a totalitarian state.” By any standard, Aptheker is not a historian, but might the Stalinist also be a racist?

C.L.R. James charged that, for Stalinists, blacks were only manpower and shock troops, but racism on the left goes all the way back to Communist patriarch Karl Marx. In 1862, Marx derided “the Jewish n--ger Lassalle,” a blend of “negro stock,” whose “importunity is also n--ger-like.” Flood does not explore this theme but his narrative, though on the brief side, does not stop with the back story.

“In the 1970s, as Aptheker taught at Bryn Mawr, another Stalinist, Frank Marshall Davis, was mentoring a future president.” That is another study in “willful blindness,” but here’s the deal. “Aptheker, the chief theoretician of the Communist Party during the Cold War, has been mainstreamed.”

That is why, Flood concludes, “Little Apthekers and kindred malevolent spirits have long been permitted to teach on America’s campuses.” True to form, like Aptheker, Columbia University professor Eric Foner dismisses C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins as “Trotskyist history.”

A New York University graduate, Anthony Flood has written for American Communist History and the Journal of American History. Herbert Aptheker: Studies in Willful Blindness is Flood’s first book, a welcome addition to works on post-Stalin Stalinism, still a malevolent force long after the end of the Cold War.

Based on this thoughtful effort, Anthony Flood should get busy on books exposing those many little Apthekers and kindred spirits on campuses across the country. We are talking about willfully blind professors who got mixed up in Stalinist lies, deceived their students, and got what was coming to them. That’s a terrific story, as Michael Corleone would say. Readers just might like a story like that.

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