[Marxism] Letters to Chronicle of Higher Education on Aptheker

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Nov 6 16:20:47 MST 2006

To the Editor:

I read with personal interest Christopher Phelps's "Herbert Aptheker: 
the Contradictions of History" (The Chronicle Review, October 6). I 
was a freshman at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 
1963 when Herb Aptheker was invited to speak at the student union. 
Alerted that Aptheker was a Communist, and spurred to action by a 
Raleigh TV journalist named Jesse Helms, the state legislature passed 
a hasty and ill-conceived law against any known Communist speaking on 
any public property.

Lectures at the student union typically drew around a hundred 
students. ... Aptheker addressed a crowd of about 2,000 students on 
the other side of a wall from the campus. Surrounded by policemen 
ready to arrest him if he crossed the wall, he spoke not about black 
history in America, as he had been invited to do, but about freedom 
and the odiousness of any authority's attempt to suppress it. It was 
a defining moment for a southern white boy from a conservative, 
segregated farm town. ...

What Bettina Aptheker has revealed about her father is horrible even 
in light of her apparent courage in getting beyond it. ... But a 
point to take away from all this is that just as there are 
contradictions in people of stature, such as Aptheker, there will 
always be contradictions in our attempts to deal with them.

We try to hold the intellectual in high regard, while loathing the 
lecherous abuser of his own daughter. And a legislature that tries to 
protect its people from an evil ideology is capable of becoming the 
embodiment of that evil.

Joseph T. Barwick
Carteret Community College
Morehead City, N.C.


To the Editor:

Christopher Phelps, writing about Bettina Aptheker's book on her 
father, states, "Incest is only the most painful of a series of hard 
truths about Herbert Aptheker that we confront in Intimate Politics." 
No, incest is only the most painful of a series of disturbing 
allegations about Herbert Aptheker that we confront in his daughter's memoir.

I would have thought a journal devoted to higher education would have 
retained some grasp of the concept of evidence.

Michael Neumann
Professor of Philosophy
Trent University
Peterborough, Ontario


To the Editor:

Over a span of four decades, my wife and I enjoyed a warm friendship 
with Herbert and Fay Aptheker. The news that Bettina now contends 
that her father sexually molested her in her childhood years was 
quite disturbing. What is also disturbing is that Christopher Phelps 
accepts Bettina's claims on face value, apparently in the absence of 
corroboration by any other evidence.

Bettina writes that the molestation ended when she was 13, and that 
she only recalled these events when she began writing her memoirs. 
This seems to be a case of "recovered memory," a much-debated 
psychological technique.

Those of us who work as historians are constrained to follow the 
evidence. Here the evidence is limited to what Bettina now says she 
remembers. No human witness or documentation, so far as is known, exists.

My wife and I find the accusations quite unbelievable, both in terms 
of Herbert's moral character and the unlikelihood that Fay, a most 
perceptive woman, would have seen nothing grievously amiss in the 
relationship between father and daughter.

What has also been called up in this matter is a challenge to the 
essentials of Herbert Aptheker's scholarship. If Bettina Aptheker 
holds, as Phelps writes, that her father was "foolish and 
condescending" in failing to see that in the African-American 
experience, weakness and betrayal were just as common as undaunted 
heroism, what we have is a distortion of Herbert's work. Herbert 
Aptheker did not ignore weakness, but he found that, as a people, 
blacks manifested a tradition of resistance to oppression and that 
this resistance was heroic. This thesis has found wide acceptance in 
the historical profession.

Herbert Shapiro
Professor Emeritus of History
University of Cincinnati


To the Editor:

In his review of Bettina Aptheker's new memoir, Christopher Phelps 
describes my profile of Aptheker in The Professors as "replete with 
errors." This repeats a canard that Professor Aptheker herself is 
responsible for.

Jacob Laksin has reviewed and refuted every one of Aptheker's claims 
about alleged errors in my text except one. I mistakenly described 
her as having been expelled from the Communist Party in 1991, with 
Angela Davis and others. I accept Professor Aptheker's correction 
that she resigned from the party 10 years earlier.

However, Professor Aptheker has not denied that in 1991 she joined 
the Communist splinter group, the Committees of Correspondence on 
Socialism and Democracy, which was formed by Angela Davis and others 
who had been expelled. This hardly makes my account "replete with errors."

Laksin's article about this is available online 

David Horowitz
David Horowitz Freedom Center
Los Angeles


The Author Replies:

Joseph T. Barwick reminds us that Herbert Aptheker, simply by 
speaking to student audiences in the 1960s as a Communist, helped 
dispel the McCarthyist fog that denied radicals a hearing. Bettina 
Aptheker also contributed to the overturning of paternalistic 
restrictions on campus freedom as a Free Speech Movement leader in 
Berkeley in 1964. The extent to which Herbert Aptheker could 
symbolize intellectual freedom, however, was profoundly limited by 
his habitual excusing of repression by single-party regimes cast in 
the Soviet mold. This moral double standard was tragic, not only for 
American Communism but for the whole of the American left.

Michael Neumann and Herbert Shapiro inject skepticism about Bettina 
Aptheker's story. I understand why, but having read Intimate 
Politics, I find it believable. A specificity of detail about the 
abuse is accompanied by raw honesty about her own shortcomings, and 
she states that she and her father discussed this terrible private 
history candidly in front of a witness, her lover. Furthermore, her 
portrait of her father is redolent with mixed feelings, including 
love -- not sheer rage or cold vengeance.

Should we dismiss a memoir because private experience cannot be 
corroborated more than 50 years later? Should we deny testimony of 
abuse because the abuser had other sides? Disputation of "recovered 
memory" of child sexual abuse refers, to my knowledge, to suggestive 
interrogations of children, not to adults who recall their own 
repressed memories -- a widespread experience in therapy.

I used the word "truths" because legalistic terms such as 
"allegations" do not harmonize well with the generous, tender spirit 
in which the devastating problem of incest is addressed by Bettina 
Aptheker. In a curious way, as I wrote, she honors her parents. 
Ultimately readers must read her deeply affecting memoir -- not, as 
Neumann has it, a "book on her father" -- for themselves and draw 
their own conclusions.

David Horowitz objects to my characterization of his entry on Bettina 
Aptheker in The Professors as "replete with errors" and says that my 
source for this was Bettina Aptheker herself. I have never had any 
contact with Bettina Aptheker in my entire life. I was unaware of any 
response by her to his book. My judgment was strictly my own.

Here is why I found fault with Horowitz's book. He states that 
Bettina Aptheker was expelled from the Communist Party; she resigned 
from it. He declares that this rupture happened in 1991; it happened 
in 1981. He holds that her father was expelled from the Communist 
Party; he resigned. He asserts that she joined an organization, the 
Committees of Correspondence, to which she has never belonged (and 
whose full name, the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and 
Socialism, he here botches). In short, the entry is replete with errors.

Christopher Phelps
Associate Professor of History
Ohio State University
Mansfield, Ohio

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