[Marxism] David Laibman, Review of *“The Most Dangerous Communist in the United States”: A Biography of Herbert Aptheker*, by Gary Murrell

Kevin Lindemann and Cathy Campo kklcac at earthlink.net
Mon Jun 27 22:10:13 MDT 2016

Science & Society July 2016, Vol. 80, No. 3: 437-440

“The Most Dangerous Communist in the United States”: A Biography of Herbert Aptheker, by Gary Murrell. Afterword by Bettina Aptheker. Amherst/ Boston, Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press, 2015. Paper, $29.95. Pp. xviii, 444.

Gary Murrell, Professor of History at Grays Harbor College in Washington State, has given us a much-needed comprehensive study of the life and work of Dr. Herbert Aptheker, Marxist historian and political theoretician. Aptheker’s scholarship on the African American people — with dozens of published works, including the monumental Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States — set the direction of historical research in this area, despite being ignored, repressed and vilified in official academia and in the publishing world. His long association with Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois, and his multi-decade editorship of that scholar’s legacy, resulting in another 44 volumes, are yet another signal contribution to U. S. and world letters. His virtual odyssey across the USA’s college campuses, in speaking tours that again spanned decades, became a major element in the counterattack against McCarthy-era repression, and thus in the emergence of the New Left in the 1960s. His testimony in various Smith Act and McCarran Act trials made him a principal voice of reason and the quest for political and intellectual freedom. Finally, his staunch support of the Communist Party USA and his steadfastness in defense of that organization — despite many complexities and tensions in his evolving relationship with the Party’s leadership, and his eventual break with the Party — make him an exceptional, and controversial, figure in the American left in the 20th century and beyond. All of this, and more, is covered in Murrell’s book, based on impressive references, archival study, and many hours of interviews, including centrally with Dr. Aptheker himself.

The story is told in 26 chapters, arranged broadly (if not entirely) in chronological order, covering Aptheker’s early life; his research on slavery and on slave rebellion in the U. S. South; his ever-troubled relationship to the academic and publishing establishment, especially within the history profession; Aptheker’s role in the military in World War II; his defense of the CPUSA during the McCarthy-era attacks; conflicts within the Party concerning control over the publication activities of Party members (including his daughter, Bettina); founding and building of the American Institute for Marxist Studies; running for Congress in the 12th CD in Brooklyn; the trip to Hanoi, with Staughton Lynd and Tom Hayden; the long struggle to publish the Du Bois papers and letters; the movement to free Angela Davis after her arrest, following the events at the courthouse in San Rafael, California, in August 1970; the fateful 25th Convention of the CPUSA in Cleveland, in December 1991 and the founding of the Committees of Correspondence; and the final years in California, during which Aptheker finally achieved some recognition in academia and secured some teaching posts, which had long been denied him.

On the personal level, we learn of Aptheker’s deep and loving relationship with his wife of many years, Fay, and their daughter Bettina. The latter’s recent testimony concerning sexual abuse by her father during her childhood is discussed in a forthright and dignified manner in the Preface, and is also addressed in Bettina’s “Afterword.”

There are many complex, and often troubling, stories packed into this life, and no possibility of recounting them in a short review. Murrell is eloquent in his admiration for Aptheker’s accomplishments, in both their political and their scholarly dimensions: Aptheker is credited with altering fundamentally the historiography of the Black people in the United States; with being a prescient critic of the predatory foreign policy of that country; and with being a singular champion of democracy and human rights. But Murrell is also critical, where he feels the need for criticism. On the latter, here is a summary passage, from the final chapter, “Now It’s Your Turn” (354):

". . . for all his accomplishments, there was a terrible flaw in Aptheker. On the one hand, as the historian Chris Phelps wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education, 'the extent to which Herbert Aptheker could symbolize intellectual freedom . . . was profoundly limited by his habitual excusing of repression by single-party regimes cast in the Soviet mold. . . .' . . . Then, too, members of the CPUSA around the country looked up to Aptheker. They expected that the champion of black rights and the rights of political dissidents . . . was also speaking truth to those in power in the party as well. They were wrong. He didn’t. . . . He indulged in private rages, but his public silence was a profound lie that diminished him and helped to destroy his party." 

Murrell, following some of his sources (Phelps, Healy, Isserman, Bettina Aptheker), casts the CPUSA leadership, especially Gus Hall, in the role of Stalinist bureaucrats and their political positions as inherently noxious. He reserves some singularly (and uncharacteristically) harsh adjectives for Aptheker’s The Truth About Hungary, siding with those who saw the book as “hasty, poorly documented,” etc.

Without being able to enter into details, the present reviewer finds many of these judgments to be not so much wrong as profoundly out of context. It is no trick, for example, for legions of left writers to side with the heroic Hungarian people against the Soviet tanks in 1956. Perhaps the tragic truth is more complex: that a genuine popular rebellion against a suffocating bureaucratic regime could be, simultaneously, useful to powerful capitalist geopolitical forces in their drive to undermine and destroy early socialist regimes and alter the world balance of political forces in their favor. Perhaps, then, there was no good alternative available. Aptheker, as Murrell notes, devoted a large part of the book to establishing the world context: U. S. and German imperialism and their predatory apparatuses — precisely the “prescient” analysis for which Aptheker is praised elsewhere. It is also noteworthy that Murrell misses a crucial, and ironic, point about Truth: the book was rejected by the regular Party press. The anti-CP narrative doesn’t make room for the full complexity and tragedy of this: Aptheker, at once battling for a complex view of the Hungarian (and, later, the Czechoslovakian) events — because he believed that view to be correct! — against the Party leadership, while, later, having to battle them again over their attempted censorship of Bettina’s Woman’s Legacy. The point here is not to mount a full argument; it is just to suggest that the criticism of Aptheker for “excusing . . . repression by single-party regimes” becomes a rather predictable debate with Aptheker over political themes, rather than engaging with his thinking fully in its own terms.

As for the rigidity and repressiveness of the CPUSA leadership, and Aptheker’s failure to confront this, Murrell (along with many others) may be missing a crucial element. The CPUSA, as the visible representative of “Communism” in the country where — uniquely — that political commitment became the central symbol of moral evil in the dominant ideology at mid–20th century, suffered from an unparalleled pressure to internalize the mainstream view of itself, and to protect itself from that by defense mechanisms such as systematic non-communication, ritualized forgetting, almost fanatical (and partially justified!) fear of liquidation, and much else. In short: this party’s “thick skin” qualities had material, social roots, and all this affected everyone involved, including the rank-and-file which Murrell suggests was abandoned by Aptheker.

All of this, however, true or not, enters into a discussion far beyond Murrell’s canvas. We are indebted to him for giving us a valuable recuperation of the life and work of an extraordinary Marxist historian and theoretician — a judgment on which perhaps we all can agree.

David Laibman 
c/o Science & Society 
33 Flatbush Avenue, 4th Floor 
Brooklyn, NY 11217 / USA 
dlaibman at scienceandsociety.com

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