- “Chief theoretician ” of the American Communist Party
- Prolific Communist propagandist and writer
- Founded the American Institute for Marxist Studies
Herbert Aptheker was born in Brooklyn, New York on July 31, 1915. After graduating from Columbia University in 1936, he found employment as an educational worker for the Food and Tobacco Workers Union. He also served as Secretary of the "Abolish Peonage Committee" (peonage is a system where debts are paid off via forced labor). In 1939 Aptheker joined the American Communist Party. He would remain a longtime member of its Central Committee and eventually became the Party's "chief theoretician."
When Joseph Stalin (in August 1939) signed a non-aggression pact with Adolph Hitler, protecting the latter's eastern flank and helping the Nazi dictator to launch World War II, Aptheker, along with Communists everywhere, became a "pacifist," denouncing the "inter-imperialist war" which pitted mainly Britain against the Third Reich. Then on June 22, 1941, when Hitler unexpectedly invaded the Soviet Union, Aptheker suddenly became an anti-fascist again and supported Roosevelt and Churchill in their anti-Nazi war effort.
Aptheker married his first cousin, Fay Aptheker, in 1942, the same year he was drafted into the U.S. military. In 1943, his Ph.D. dissertation was published under the title American Negro Slave Revolts, a book which has been criticized for exaggerating the number and size of those revolts. Aptheker was also an early supporter of Negro History Week, which evolved into what is now called African-American History Month.
By the time he had finished his military tour of duty in 1946, Aptheker was again a passionate critic of the United States, praising Stalin and the Soviet system. He served a stint as editor (1948-1953) of Masses and Mainstream, the Communist Party's literary journal, and then became editor (1952-63) of Political Affairs, the Party's theoretical monthly.
In 1948 Aptheker published Negro People in America. Three years later he published A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States. Over the ensuing four decades, he would produce several additional volumes in this series, including Colonial Times to 1910; Reconstruction Years to the Founding of the NAACP; Beginning of the New Deal to the End of the Second World War; and Alabama Protests to the Death of Martin Luther King, Jr.
In 1956, when Soviet troops crushed the Hungarian government which had declared its neutrality in the Cold War, Aptheker wrote a defense of the Soviet invasion (The Truth About Hungary), claiming that Hungarians rejoiced when they saw the Soviet tanks rolling into their nation.
In the late 1950s Aptheker began to write a Marxist history of the United States, which included volumes called The Colonial Era; American Revolution; and Early Years of the Republic. Additional book titles penned by Aptheker include: Nature of Democracy, Freedom, and Revolution (1968); Unfolding Drama (1979); Afro-American History: The Modern Era (1986); The Literary Legacy of W.E.B. DuBois (1989); and Anti-Racism in U.S. History (1992).
In 1964 Aptheker founded the American Institute for Marxist Studies and served as its Director for the next twenty years. In 1967 he traveled to Hanoi with Tom Hayden and Staughton Lynd, to conduct propaganda for the Communist dictatorship. In 1969 he was hired as a professor by Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, where he taught until 1973. He later obtained professorial positions at the University of California, the City University of New York, and the University of Santa Clara.
In 1978 Aptheker became the editor of Jewish Affairs, a post he retained until the early 1990s. He also edited fifty volumes of the writings and correspondences of W. E. B. DuBois.
Aptheker was a founding member of the Committees of Correspondence (CoC), which was organized in 1992 by Angela Davis and other Communist Party members.
Aptheker died in 2003. He is survived by his only child, Bettina Aptheker, herself a lifelong Communist who now chairs the Women's Studies Department at the University of California at Santa Cruz.