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.

How the NYT Misled Readers About Communist Herbert Aptheker

Last week the longtime Brooklyn resident, Communist historian Herbert Aptheker, passed away at the age of 87. The most well known "intellectual" in the old Communist movement, Aptheker’s death was marked by obituary articles in most of the nation’s newspapers. None, however, outdid in hosannas what the March 20th New York Times ran, in an obituary penned by their former literary critic, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt.

If you read the Times’s article, you would have learned only that Aptheker wrote pioneering words on black history, was an "outspoken" defender of civil rights, "one of the first scholars to denounce American military involvement in Vietnam," and that as a result of his views—portrayed unobjectionably as rather decent--the U.S. government threatened to revoke his passport. Columbia University historian Eric Foner was quoted as calling one of his works "a landmark in Afro-American history," and that his editing of the papers of W. E. B. DuBois was "greeted with wide praise."

You would never know from Lehmann-Haupt’s summary of Aptheker’s life that he was in fact the "chief theoretician" of the Communist Party, that all of his writings were completed under the discipline and censorhip of the Party, and that he was given the DuBois papers to edit, because DuBois himself became a Party member at the end of his life. (Eric Foner’s uncle Philip was the Party’s labor historian.)

Lehmann-Haupt’s obit did acknowledge that Aptheker had joined the American Communist Party in 1939, explaining only that "he saw it as an anti-fascist force and a progressive voice for race relations." Lehmann-Haupt did not point out that this was one of Aptheker’s many professional lies, since 1939 is the year of Nazi-Soviet Pact when the Communist Party line did a 180 turn and decided that the war between Hitler and the West was an "inter-imperialist" family quarrel. From Lehmann-Haupt’s deceptive summary readers would be bound to conclude that Communists like Aptheker were simply liberals who were more serious than others about acting on their ideals.

Not surprisingly, Lehmann-Haupt’s obit also misrepresents Aptheker’s propaganda trip to North Vietnam with Tom Hayden and Staughton Lynd in 1966 during the Vietnam War as a "mission to sound out" the North Vietnamese about "the possibility of a negotiated end to the Vietnam War." In fact it was a trip to promote solidarity between the Communist aggressors and the then emerging American peace movement.

Herbert Aptheker was the leading intellectual defender of Stalinism in the American Communist movement. Aptheker defended all of Stalin’s crimes, and led the charge in defaming courageous thinkers on the left, like Sidney Hook, who did not. Throughout his life, Aptheker denounced his own country as an imperialist, racist and criminal society, which made him an icon in the leftwing reaches of the American academy. (He was made a visting law professor at Berkeley and was feted by the History Department of Columbia at Eric Foner’s behest.)

Lehmann-Haupt never mentions Stalin or Aptheker’s constant odes to his reign. In a 1953 screed in the Communist cultural monthly Masses and Mainstream, Aptheker invoked Stalin’s name and wisdom ten separate times in a single ten page article!

In 1956, scores of American Communists were having second thoughts as a result of the Khrushchev report, and were having second thoughts about the life of lies they were living because of the Soviet invasion of Hungary to repress a popular (and Communist-led) uprising against their Soviet oppressors. This crime was reported honestly in the British Communist press by reporter Peter Freyer. The invasion was also protested by the American Daily Worker edited by Communist leader John Gates, who was shortly removed for his good deed. It was Aptheker who responded for the most reactionary and anti-democratic wing of the Communist Party with a vigorous defense of the Soviet invasion.

Aptheker wrote a book, The Truth About Hungary, which was a blatant use of the trappings of historical writing to prove that the Soviet invasion was a progressive coup. As Aptheker described it, the invasion was necessary to defeat a U.S.-manipulated fascist coup against the "people’s" government. As one reviewer of his book summed up the big lie promulgated in the historian’s tract, "Aptheker reiterated, on page after page…that almost all Hungarian workers supported socialism and welcomed the Soviet tanks."

Aptheker’s earliest work, American Negro Slave Revolts (1942) was his Ph.D. thesis at Columbia and is his only actual writing that can remotely be called scholarly. It has been described by Eugene D. Genovese as a "seminal" work that broke "fresh ground," and successfully challenged the views of slave passivity that characterized the old Southern school of history. But the work is also deeply flawed, and highly exaggerates the number and extent of these revolts. Aptheker also exaggerated to the point of falsehood, the influence of the old Southern school for decades afterwards. As historian Aileen S. Kraditor notes, "Aptheker kept repeating that certain turn-of-the [19th] century racist historians of Reconstruction typified academic scholarship in that field, long after this had stopped being true."

Aptheker’s goal, after all, was to maintain the Communist view that the United States was not a democracy, but part of a system he described in his signature style as "so putrid…that it no longer dares to permit the people to live at all." America’s leaders, Aptheker averred, "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." This passage is a an accurate sample of Aptheker’s prose in his heyday.

In 1959, he described the U.S. reconstruction and democratization of Hitler’s Germany as its "renazification," which was the Soviet propaganda line of the day. Aptheker charged Washington with "blocking …democratization," the renewal of anti-Semitism and the creation of a German nation "as thoroughly militarized as ever Germany was under Hitler." The only truth Americans had to understand was a simple one: The Soviet bloc alone stands for "socialism…national liberation…equality and peace."

According to Aptheker, the Soviet Union was a perfect democracy. The only arrests and murders of innocent political opponents took place in the United States. The spies Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs, of course, were innocent victims of McCarthyism. To those like Sidney Hook, who asked publicly why Aptheker never said a word about the Stalinist purge in Czechoslovia that led to the execution of leading Jewish Communists, Aptheker retorted that the Communist government had shown that the defendants themselves were anti-Semitic, and, moreover, the Stalinist government had proved "the defendants’ guilt," while those accused in the United States were clearly innocent. Frame-up, Aptheker said, was an "American word." As for the Rosenbergs, they were being punished merely because they were Jews.

Aptheker is gone but the New York Times remains. How is it possible that the "liberal" Times and its reviewer Lehmann-Haupt, should be promoting American Stalinists at this late point in time?