With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

About the Herbert Aptheker Sexual Revelations

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. 



Related Links

  • Clare Spark: Doubts about his daughter's story of incest