Is Herbert Aptheker's Past Being Whitewashed in a Way?


Mr. Eisenstadt is an independent historian living in Rochester, N.Y. He was the editor in chief of The Encyclopedia of New York State (Syracuse University Press), and the author of the forthcoming book, Rochdale Village: Robert Moses, 6,000 Families, and New York City’s Great Experiment in Integrated Housing, and, with Quinton Dixie, Howard Thurman in India: The Brotherhood of Man, the Fatherhood of God.

Herbert Aptheker (1915–2003) has always been a controversial figure. For many decades he was a pioneering historian of the African-American experience, writing and editing a number of significant works in the middle decades of the 20th century, when this subject was largely ignored by the mainstream historical profession. And at the same time, he was also for most of his career, one of the intellectual leaders of the American Communist Party, an association that led to his further marginalization within the American historical profession, and, in many circles, an underestimation of his significance as a historian. There have been in recent years a number of efforts to right this neglect, of which the most important was probably the anthology edited by Eric Foner and Manning Marable, Herbert Aptheker on Race and Democracy: A Reader (University of Illinois Press, 2006.) It’s a good collection, a needed collection, and it gives readers a broad overview of Aptheker's historical interests. But its editing gives a somewhat distorted picture of Aptheker's views that undermines efforts to develop a well-rounded understanding of the American Communist Party.

When I consulted the Foner and Marable volume recently, I noticed that one of the works anthologized was Aptheker’s pamphlet The Negro People in America: A Critique of Gunnar Myrdal’s “An American Dilemma” (International Publishers, 1946.) I had occasion to read the original Aptheker pamphlet a few years ago, and one excerpt in particular had stayed with me. In the course of a rather polemical assault on Myrdal’s An American Dilemma, Aptheker wrote (p.28) the “neglect of the Soviet Union, by the way, is an outstanding characteristic of the Myrdal work. Its practical omission from any work supposedly concerned in broad terms with social question—the oppression of minorities—can only be the result, it would seem, of deliberate perversion. For there we have a land of two hundred million people of almost two hundred different ethnic groups where such oppression once was rampant and institutionalized, but where today it is outlawed and non-existent.”

I looked for the excerpt in the Foner and Marable volume, but I could not find it. The volume reprinted only about half of the 70-page pamphlet. They do indicate in the preface that it was too long to reprint in its entirety, which is understandable, but in their reprint there are no indications of the sections that were elided, and it reads, somewhat confusingly, as a single, unedited document.

In their editing of The Negro People in America, in presenting Aptheker to a new generation of scholars, Foner and Marable made him seem more reasonable, and less dogmatically polemical, than he actually was. Foner and Marable's editing of the section of the pamphlet titled “Myrdal’s Philosophy” includes Aptheker's criticisms of Myrdal’s famous notion of the “American Creed.” They left out Aptheker's thoughts about Myrdal's failure to use or properly understand Marxism, which included the quote about the Soviet Union cited above. They also left out other of Aptheker’s riper polemical attacks. One of these links Myrdal’s scholarly sources (and implicitly Myrdal himself) to the arch-racists Theodore Bilbo and John Rankin. Another confused passage, seems to link Richard Wright, John Dewey and Myrdal, if I am reading it correctly, to Joseph Goebbels.

In their volume, Foner and Marable are making an attempt at rehabilitating a reputation. It is entirely understandable that they accentuate the positive in Aptheker's work and draw the attention of readers to what in it is still living and useful. We all as historians hope to be judged by our best and not our worst efforts. There is no question that Aptheker’s dogmatic Marxism and uncritical attitude toward the Soviet Union are aspects of his work which few would continue to find creditable. And there is much that Aptheker has to say about the Myrdal report that remains useful, and has been often echoed, though generally without the rabid rhetoric, in contemporary assessments of An American Dilemma. But by eliminating some of Aptheker’s choicer attacks, Foner and Marable’s excerpt from “The Negro People in America” has the effect of making him sound more reasonable in 1946 than he actually was.

And this, I would maintain, is at the heart of the tragedy that is postwar American communism. Foner and Marable do reprint the conclusion from Aptheker’s critique of Myrdal, wherein Aptheker outlines his suggestions for bringing about the racial change that America so badly needed. His prescriptions include “immediate outlawing of Jim Crowism,” a national Fair Employment Practices Commission, full and legal and voting rights for all minorities, elimination of inequalities in education, outlawing restrictive covenants, and paying attention to the growing problem in northern ghettos. Who in 1946 could have objected? Certainly not most non-Marxist civil rights liberals, who shared with Aptheker all of these ideals.

But rather than trying to make common cause with natural allies, Aptheker seems to have had problems distinguishing between liberals and people like Bilbo and Goebbels. Despite this Aptheker, and the post-war Communist Party in general, had much to say and do that was helpful and useful in the area of civil rights. How sad it was that they were generally better at alienating potential allies than in advancing the good cause they so fervently believed in.

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vaughn davis bornet - 5/5/2009

Readers of this useful article may want to read a long review article I wrote for the Jounal of Negro History, July 1952, pp. 304-324, entitled "Historical Scholarship, Communism, and the Negro." In it I gave the results of some careful counting and reviewed Wilson Record, The Negro and the Communist Party (UNC Press, 1951) and William A. Nolan, Communism versus the Negro (Regnery, 1951).

At the time I had a year's Ford grant and a new doctorate, and apparently all kinds of time. I was also informed on Communist history, for I was freshly back from an extended tour of Socialist, Communist, and AFL archives all over the place, so to speak. See bib. in my Labor Politics in a Democratic Republic, in Questia.

In the article two phrases were dropped out: p. 313, "praised it for showing the role of the Negro, a role he" kubw 10 from bot.; and p. 318, "favorite designation for the communist agitators was 'those'." (After "energy. Their" in exact middle.)

How I wish these ancient printer's errors might be correct at LC, Harvard, NYPL, Wisconsin and elsewhere, even now....

The Journal had been charged with Communist bias in the 1930s; I demonstrated conclusively that this was false.

May I quote my idealistic peroration (p. 324)when 35?

"Thus it appears that the research scholar here, as elsewhere, seeks the truth. (ital.) His determination to tell the truth, all of it, coupled with a physical capacity for long research and an ability to profit mentally from the examination of the record, will facilitate an approach to the definitive exhaustion of the 'Communist Party versus the american Negro' topic. The truth will be evasive, as always, but it will be worth getting, for the story of the rejection of Communism by the Negro is one of the truly significant aspects of American history in the twentieth century."

Vaughn Davis Bornet Ashland, Oregon

Elliott Aron Green - 5/4/2009

I'm sure that Aptheker did valuable work in his field of Black American history. However, I remember a rather umpleasant Aptheker. I heard him lecture at Penn State U circa 1964. Whatever the exact subject of the lecture was, I recall him telling us that all the intellectuals and artists of any worth were aligned with the CP in their various countries. He mentioned Joseph Needham of the UK, as I recall, as well as Nazim Hikmet, who --Aptheker insisted-- was the greatest poet of modern Turkey [I'm not quite sure about Aptheker's ability to appreciate Turkish poetry].

I don't think he went so far as to claim that the CPUSA had all the answers to all the problems, which the CPUSA used to insist on in pamphlets from the Thirties that I have read, but he came close to it. A speaker like that is obnoxious to many, although no doubt some might be convincewd. The Aptheker that I remember was more or less the writer of the passage quoted by Peter Eisenstadt from 1946 --missing from the book reviewed-- which hilariously showers praise on the Soviet treatment of national minorities. It was just a few years later that the Soviet govt began a murderous purge of Jewish cultural figures in the USSR, Yiddish poets, novelists, actors, and later, in 1953, the notorious Doctors' Plot.