About the Herbert Aptheker Sexual Revelations


Mr. Lemisch is Professor of History Emeritus, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York.

My first reaction to the shocking news in Bettina Aptheker’s book that her father, Herbert, sexually abused her as a child (as described in Chris Phelps’s article in the Chronicle of Higher Education), was contained in my October 3 letter to Chris (see the end of this note). 

The first thing to say is that what Herbert did to his daughter Bettina was just awful, and Bettina has my sympathy. The second thing is that it was dead wrong for me to use careless language that suggested that this news pleased Ron Radosh, whose first reaction was honorable and humane (see below) despite the immense political distance between him and Herbert. 

I continue to wish for discussion as to how the attitudes expressed in Herbert’s awful acts might have been reflected in books like the centrally important American Negro Slave Revolts and/or the truly terrible The Truth about Hungary. I can’t see it, but discussion may bring out some continuity. I think Chris implies but does not show a connection. 

There is much to be said about the Communist Party and issues of sex and gender. Women (including my mother) played significant roles in the Party, and Red Diaper Babies were brought up believing that women had achieved equality in the USSR – an utter fiction, as I found experientially in academic visits to Moscow in 1978 and 1991. It’s my impression that many Second Wave feminists were Red Diaper Babies who had picked up something important from this ambiguous heritage but that the Party was not friendly to feminism and the Women’s Liberation Movement: the everyday life of the Party was hardly as egalitarian as its expressed ideals, and it clung to the notion that class trumped gender, and saw discussions of, for instance, orgasm, as trivial and selfish. And Betty Friedan’s attack on lesbians – the “lavender menace” – are certainly relevant. Nonetheless, many Communist women were and are immensely supportive of younger feminists. 

There is no doubt that there was a very repressive side to the Party. Personal things, including illness, were sometimes thought to be self-indulgent luxury as against the Larger Struggle, e.g, “How can we speak of our individual mortal illnesses when the President has resumed the bombing?” (Not from Herbert.) Herbert lived a life blacklisted and under fire, with horrendous insult from a wide range of people, including Eugene Genovese and the Liberal Southern Gentleman C. Vann Woodward. Coming under a little fire myself, about thirty years ago I asked Herbert, “How do you take it?” He answered with Communist courage but with utter blindness to the emotional costs of a life under fire, “You redouble your efforts.” The New Left had some of this, but of course the Women’s Liberation Movement, originating in rebellion against organizations like the CP, SNCC and SDS, had a deeper connection to the emotions and their importance. And that connection (as well as other important insights), expressed in one of the most influential political movements of the twentieth century, made American culture radically better (despite all the present horrors); who would want to go back to the 50s? 

I see I’m not getting to Herbert’s acts. I won’t attempt to psychoanalyse. And I don’t think that the life of the Party was any worse than the lives of other Americans. (Certainly the events of the day remind us that such acts seem to be very much in the American grain.) But as I suggested in my letter to Chris Phelps, I think some of the lefts that I have been in have been less than candid with Americans about uncomfortable truths, and building a radical and just movement for a better America -- and keeping it off the backs of the rest of the world --- requires total candor with Americans, acknowledgement of faults and errors, admissions of failures as well as successes.

October 3 Letter to Chris Phelps

Good for you, Chris, and good for Bettina [for speaking these truths]. This is an awful and amazing story, reading like something in Doctorow's Ragtime.

As you know, I have always said that the left should speak uncomfortable truths, even if they please Ron Radosh [Radosh had sent Chris’s article to his list under the subject heading “Another side of Comrade Aptheker,” but with the notation, “Of course, she should have done this when he was alive, so he could answer. Who knows if it’s true. But what a shock!”]… This material certainly sheds light on Aptheker, and by extension on the gap or connection between the personal and the political in the US CP (of which we have much evidence). It's full of irony that this comes out at the time of the delayed [Representative] Foley revelations. 

But. I think you are a little too agnostic in your rhetorical question, "To what extent should disheartening revelations about a scholar's conduct be held against his oeuvre?" 

Without positing a major disconnect between the personal and the public, I can't see how these revelations of despicable sexual behavior make American Negro Slave Revolts or the horrifying Truth about Hungary any more true or false. But I am interested in seeing what connections people might be able to sketch in. There might be some. 



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    More Comments:

    Robert Lyle Aptheker - 5/24/2008

    I have never known this to be true.
    I am Herbert's great-nephew.
    I am a folksinger-songwriter, with the abitity to move emotions, through
    poetry and syntax.
    Please give me the facts on these acusations.
    You can hear my songs by googlin'
    "Rob Aptheker Music Myspace".
    'Take It Easy but take it'.

    Jason Blake Keuter - 10/7/2006

    first, sorry for all the typos....

    the person of less than great intelligence, by the way, is probably the security guard at the hospital who has to come in an physically restrain the empowered borderline patient as they are overtly threatening othrs with harm. At this point, those who defended the borderline, having invested so much energy in propping them up as sane, must now either admit they were wrong or descend into a greater depth of delusion and explain away the psychotic episode. In other words, they themselves face a choice between sanity and madness. Sadly, most choose madness.

    People like Eugene Genovese choose sanity.

    Jason Blake Keuter - 10/7/2006

    A very tricky question. Generally speaking, the connection is pretty weak. I would argue, in fact, that the real connections between personality and politics rests more in looking at those who are intensely interested in politics and those who are not. To paraphrase Eric Hoffer : the communist is not at the opposite pole of the fascist, although both parties insist that they are. The communist and fascists are at opposite ends from the moderate.

    Communists today (who flee from the label to dissemble and fool - perhaps themsevles but definitely others - the historical legacy of their doctrine) go to great legnths to make themselves appear rational and sane.

    In this sense, they are very much like borderline personalities. Stupid crazy people become village idiots; smart crazy people are conscious enough of their madness to successfully hide it from a great many people (they fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time). The borderline patient is not a village idiot.

    The most interesting thing about the borderline personality is that they typically divide staffs in mental hospitals. Because of their intelligence and manipulative skills, many people on the staff come to believe that they are sane. Eventually, the staff ends up in discord - with those who stick to the obvious and insist the borderline is crazy and those who say they have their flaws, but overall their rational.

    The key is this: when the borderline patient appears lucid and sane, they're actually still crazy. They are appearing lucid and insane not because they slip in and out of madness, but because their madness knows it can't survive if they are unambigiously crazy.

    They thus depend on useful idiots support them and given them a stage to speak on and contribute to marginalizing and questioning the sanne people who know that the person with the microphone is indeed mad.

    The effect the borderline has on whatever society they're a part of is to polarize it and dominate it.

    Communism, fascism and islamist radicalism in a nutshell----pun intended.

    Ironically, intelligent people are most susceptible to this type of manipulation. It is usually average people who walk in and say "you're crazy", wrap them in a straight jacket and put them in the rubber room. In other words, they don't "sit down" and "engage" and come up with a "diplomatic solution" that will address "the concerns and needs of both parties" because doing so only empowers the mad.

    Duke Martin - 10/4/2006

    I agree with the statement that once a person is dead he can be accused of anything without a grain of evidence. She has a known agenda and a known near hysterical pursuit of her goals and I for one will not believe anything she says without supporting evidence

    art eckstein - 10/4/2006

    I have a question for Jesse Lemisch:

    Professor Lemisch, your entire premise is that this terrible abuse of Bettina Aptheker by her father Herbert Aptheker actually happened. But as I read the Chronicle of Higher Ed piece, I was struck by the fact that Bettina Aptheker is relying solely on "recovered memory" of the alleged abuse. This means that for some very significant period of time, she says, she "forgot" that for fully ten years she was sexually abused by her father, even though incidents occurred when she was as late as 11, 12 and 13 years old. She only recovered her memory of this many years later (I assume as the result of therapy, but perhaps I'm wrong). I am sure you realize that many lawyers and psychiatrists are highly dubious about this sort of "recovered memory," and juries have recently not always accepted "recovered memory" as good evidence. And there are several outstanding cases of obvious miscarriages of justice that have been based on "recovered memory"--in California (the hideous MacMartin Preschool case), in Oregon (the grotesque Wenatchee cases, which smacked of the Salem witch trials), in Massachusetts, in North Carolina (the "Little Rascals" preschool case.) I am not saying that this terrible thing DIDN'T happen with Bettina Aptheker. But perhaps we should not rush to judgment here, and convict Herbert Aptheker of this horrible crime on the basis merely of Bettina Aptheker's "recovered memory." Rather, we should reserve some scholarly skepticism about it.

    It is also unfortunate that Bettina Aptheker waited until her father was dead for three years before accusing him of this terrible crime. On the one hand, maybe, admirably, she wanted to spare her father the pain. But on the other hand, the fact is that he is no longer here to defend himself.

    This doesn't mean, either, that I'm accusing Bettina Aptheker of lyng--either consciously or unconsciously. I'm just saying we should be very careful.

    John D. Beatty - 10/4/2006

    What does any of this have to do with the study or teaching of HISTORY?