J. Edgar Hoover may have called Herbert Aptheker “the most dangerous Communist in the United States” in 1965, but an attentive reader of Gary Murrell’s interesting but very flawed biography will come away with a picture of an ideological fanatic who squandered his talents as a historian, gave slavish devotion to a monstrous regime, and lacked the intellectual courage to say publicly what he wrote privately. Overreaction by anti-Communists turned a hardworking Communist party hack into a mini-celebrity, and gave undeserved attention to a dishonest and flawed human being.
Born in 1915 in Brooklyn, the son of a wealthy garment manufacturer, Aptheker was radicalized while observing racism during a trip to Alabama as a teenager and began writing for Communist publications at Columbia University in the mid-1930s. While working on his master’s degree, he began a romantic relationship with his decade-older, divorced first cousin, herself a party member. They kept their relationship secret for six years, until his mother died, whereupon they married. Herbert Aptheker joined the American Communist party (CPUSA) in August 1939, after the Nazi-Soviet pact, just as thousands of other disillusioned Jewish Communists were leaving. In speeches and articles for the rest of his life, he defended the pact, denied that antisemitism existed in the Communist world, and slandered as crypto-Nazis those who provided voluminous evidence of its existence.
Apart from his fierce devotion to the CPUSA, the other constant in his ideological life was a refusal to admit that the Soviet Union had any significant flaws. The Russian revolution had been the “greatest event in human history.” When Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s crimes, Aptheker briefly wavered, but quickly launched attacks on those American Communists who wanted to create a more independent political party. One of them pointed out that, as a historian, Aptheker had a special responsibility to speak out about the falsification of history. Instead, he wrote The Truth About Hungary, a mendacious defense of the 1956 Soviet invasion of that country in which he misused and distorted sources to argue that the Soviet Union had no choice but to intervene to put down a fascist uprising.
Gary Murrell calls The Truth About Hungary “arguably the most offensive and contentious of his books” and admits that it did significant “damage to his reputation.” Murrell speculates that Aptheker’s fear of war and his anger at American policy were responsible. But a much simpler explanation is that a man who, late in life, in an interview published in the Journal of American History, denounced “objectivity” as a goal for historians consciously lied to serve his cause. (He wrote a similar screed about the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia.)
Murrell has an unfortunate penchant for denouncing Aptheker’s anti-Communist critics as right-wing reactionaries and suggesting that he successfully exposed their distortions about communism. For example, Murrell excoriates Sidney Hook, who insisted that Communist teachers could not be free intellectual agents. In fact, Aptheker’s reply to Hook was thoroughly dishonest, equating anticommunism with fascism, insisting that Lenin and Mao were opposed to conspiracy, and that communism was democratic.
To demonstrate that Communist teachers were not under Communist discipline, Aptheker triumphantly noted that the policies of the party they were obligated to support “are designed to serve the best interests of the masses.” He defended the Soviet imposition of Lysenkoism on biologists because it “was in accordance with scientific truth.” And in the very same article demonstrating just how open-minded Communist historians were, he ridiculed Hook’s argument that there was any antisemitism in the 1952 Czechoslovak purge trials. (He even had the gall to state that the overwhelmingly Jewish defendants had been exposed as antisemites and insisted that the Rosenberg case was rife with it.) Like a good party member, Aptheker knew what the truth was regardless of the evidence.
Aptheker enlisted in the Army after Pearl Harbor. While stationed in the South, he combed through archives to write a dissertation, later published as American Negro Slave Revolts, arguing that far from being unique, Nat Turner’s rebellion had been one of many such uprisings. Aptheker deserves credit as a pioneer in the field of African-American studies—although his work later came under sustained attack by far more accomplished historians who argued that he had overemphasized the significance of slave revolts and misjudged the militancy of most slaves. Even his fellow Marxist, Eugene Genovese, who praised Aptheker and sought to integrate him into the historical profession, offered a devastating critique of his thesis.