Herbert Aptheker was born in Brooklyn, New York on July 31, 1915. He studied history at Columbia University, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1936, a master’s degree in 1937, and a PhD in 1943. During his college years, Aptheker taught some night classes at the American Communist Party’s New York Workers School; he also wrote for several Party-related publications, like the Labor Research Association’s Labor Notes and Economic Notes.
In 1938 Aptheker published his first work, a pamphlet titled The Negro in the Civil War, and the following year he joined the American Communist Party (a.k.a. the Communist Party USA). A passionate critic of the United States and a loyal defender of Joseph Stalin and the Soviet system, Aptheker went on to become the Communist movement’s most well-known intellectual, a longtime member of the Communist Party’s Central Committee, and the “chief theoretician” of the Party, under whose discipline and censorship he completed all of his subsequent writings.
After serving as an educational worker for the Food and Tobacco Workers Union in 1938-39, and as secretary of the “Abolish Peonage Committee” in 1939-40, Aptheker for many years devoted his time and energy mainly to writing the 50+ books that he would author by the end of his life, chiefly in the fields of African-American history and general U.S. history. He very much desired a career in academia, but his affiliation with the Communist Party prevented him from securing such a position for nearly three decades.
When Stalin (in August 1939) signed a non-aggression pact with Adolf 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. But on June 22, 1941, when Hitler unexpectedly invaded the Soviet Union, Aptheker suddenly became an anti-fascist and supported Roosevelt and Churchill in their war effort against the Nazis.
In 1942 Aptheker published American Negro Slave Revolts, which was his PhD dissertation at Columbia. Historian Ronald Radosh reports that this book highly exaggerated not only the number and extent of the slave revolts, but also the continuing prevalence of racism among U.S. historians of Reconstruction.
Also in 1942, Aptheker married his first cousin, Fay Philippa Aptheker. Two years later, the couple’s only child, Bettina Aptheker, was born.
In 1946 the sociologist and fellow Communist Party member W.E.B. DuBois appointed Aptheker as his literary executor. Seventeen years later, DuBois, shortly before his own death, turned over to Aptheker his vast archives of correspondences, so Aptheker could eventually edit and publish them.
From 1948-53 Aptheker was the editor of Masses and Mainstream, the Communist Party’s literary journal, and from 1953-63 he edited Political Affairs, the Party’s theoretical monthly.
In 1951 Aptheker appeared as a hostile witness before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
Throughout his adult life, Aptheker depicted the United States as an imperialist, racist, criminal society premised on a system “so putrid…that it no longer dares to permit the people to live at all.” America’s leaders, Aptheker added, “have the morals of goats, the learning of gorillas and the ethics of … racist, war-inciting enemies of humanity, rotten to the core, parasitic, merciless—and doomed.” He also accused frenzied McCarthyites in the U.S. of unjustifiably arresting and murdering innocent people—like the spies Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs—for merely political reasons.
Similarly, Aptheker led the charge in defaming leftists like the philosopher Sidney Hook, who spoke out against Stalin’s atrocities in the Soviet Union. In a ten-page 1953 article that he contributed to Masses and Mainstream, Aptheker invoked Stalin’s name and wisdom ten separate times. And when Soviet troops in 1956 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: (a) Hungarians had rejoiced when they saw the Soviet tanks rolling into their nation, and (b) the invasion was necessary to defeat a U.S.-manipulated fascist coup against the “people’s” government.
In the late 1950s Aptheker began to write his multi-volume History of the American People, which he eventually completed in 1976. In the late Fifties as well, Aptheker became the managing editor of the bimonthly Communist Party magazine Jewish Affairs.
In 1959 Aptheker described America’s efforts to reconstruct and democratize postwar Germany as “renazification,” echoing the scripted Soviet propaganda. He also accused the U.S. of “blocking …democratization,” renewing anti-Semitism, and creating a German nation “as thoroughly militarized as ever Germany was under Hitler.” Meanwhile, Aptheker praised the Soviet bloc for nobly advancing “socialism…national liberation…equality and peace.”
In the 1960s Aptheker publicly condemned his country’s military involvement in Vietnam. In 1964 he founded the American Institute for Marxist Studies and went on to serve as its director for the next twenty years. In January 1966 Aptheker traveled to Hanoi and Beijing with Tom Hayden and Yale history professor Staughton Lynd, to promote solidarity between the Communist aggressors of Southeast Asia and the American peace movement.
In 1966 Aptheker ran an unsuccessful political campaign (on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket) for a U.S. House of Representatives seat (from Brooklyn, New York).
As a result of the “reevaluations” about communism following the Vietnam war, Aptheker got some of the recognition that his Stalinism had previously denied him. In 1969 he was hired as a professor by Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, where he taught black history until 1973. Also in the ’70s, Aptheker served as a DuBois lecturer at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, a professor at Hostos Community College of the City University of New York, and a visiting lecturer at Yale, UC Berkeley Law School, and Humboldt University in Berlin.
In his 1971 book, Afro-American History: the Modern Era, Aptheker wrote that “intense partisanship on the side of the exploited and therefore on the side of justice … makes possible the grasping of truth” — an assertion that offers a keen insight into his interpretation of history. While denying the notion that there could be genuine “objectivity” in the study of history, he claimed that such “partisanship is, at least, the highway leading to that accumulation of knowledge that brings one closer and closer to the real but not reachable final truth.”
From 1973-78, Aptheker edited and published the voluminous writings and correspondences of W.E.B. DuBois.
When Aptheker’s daughter, Bettina, resigned from the Communist Party in October 1981, her father was devastated, saying: “The Soviet comrades will never understand it. Never!”
In 1992 Herbert Aptheker was a founding member of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy & Socialism, along with other Communist Party members.
Aptheker died on March 17, 2003.
In her 2006 memoir, Intimate Politics, Bettina Aptheker writes that: (a) “the Party was everything” for her late father, who viewed Communism as “glorious, true, righteous, the marrow out of which black liberation would finally come”; (b) her father was guided by “loyalty to this movement above all else”; and (c) “[w]hile some families embraced religion to believe in and guide their lives, we had Communism.” Ms. Aptheker further describes her father as a man of volcanic temperament, whose “fury was most often directed against those in the party whom he perceived as ‘renegades’” or agents of the “ruling class.” Additionally, she writes that her father viewed such men as “‘bastards,’ and ‘sons of bitches,’ ‘maniacs,’ and ‘liars’” who deserved to end up on “the garbage heap of history.” Ms. Aptheker also reports that her father sexually molested her when she was a child.
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Further Reading: “Herbert Aptheker, 87, Dies; Prolific Marxist Historian” (NY Times, 3-20-2003); “Herbert Aptheker” (KeyWiki.org, Britannica.com, Jewish Currents); “Herbert Aptheker: NY Times Hero, Stalinist Hack” (by Ronald Radosh, FrontPage Magazine, 3-25-2003); “Herbert Aptheker, Marxist Historian, Dies” (People’s World, 4-4-2003); “Bettina Aptheker: A Critique of Her Memoir” (By David Horowitz, 11-10-2006); Intimate Politics: How I Grew Up Red, Fought for Free Speech, and Became a Feminist Rebel (by Bettina Aptheker, 2006).