How the NYT Misled Readers About Communist Herbert Aptheker

Fact & Fiction

As a young high school student, Ronald Radosh took American history from Herbert Aptheker at the Communist Party’s New York school, the "Jefferson School of Social Science."

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?


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Peter Malmgren - 11/28/2003

This is a distorted assortment of pseudo-historic trash. I'll stick with the Times interpretation and you can stick it in your ear.

Mark McGrew - 7/27/2003

American Communists may be down, but they are far from out. They were showing up at every anti-war protest with their insults for George W. Bush and capitalism in general, complete with a propeganda table.

Girish Mishra - 5/7/2003

The comments of the NYT Obit. on Aptheker is well written. I was fortunate to meet him and talk to him long ago when he came to New Delhi. It was informal chat at a friend's house. His great learning and commitment impressed me. I still treasure the memory of the two evenings we spent together.
Girish Mishra
M-112 Saket, New Delhi - 110017 (India)

John Williams - 4/4/2003

Radosh writes about Aptheker with the tone of a bitter son and as if American Communist Party thought mattered. Mr. Radosh, if that body of thought EVER mattered, that time is long past.

Bill Heuisler - 4/1/2003

Mr. Morgan,
My two cents were about to be donated, but you stated the case with such thorough elegance that my poor efforts died unborn. Well said, sir.
Bill Heuisler

Richard Henry Morgan - 4/1/2003

Literacy seems to be a problem here. Had Stalin wanted to build a popular front against Hitler, he would not have sold out the anarchists in Spain, nor the socialists in Germany. Yet that is not the point of my post. Aptheker propounded the ridiculous notion that Stalin bought time through the Hitler-Stalin pact to organize his industry and forces for the coming struggle with fascism -- time which he put to good use. I'm surprised that somebody would go to such great lengths to sell such a fantasy at such a late date.

In fact, Stalin provided raw materials to Hitler without which Germany would have been hard-pressed to mount an offensive of great weight and duration. Stalin also allowed the German general Kurt Student to train German paratroopers on Soviet territory. He also purged his forces of competent professional soldiers, and replaced them with party hacks. And despite warnings from Soviet intelligence, Stalin failed to redeploy his forces to better withstand a German attack. In short, the Soviet Union was by many, even most, measures worse off vis-a-vis its ability to withstand invasion post Hitler-Stalin Pact than it was before. Only a serial liar like Aptheker, or a fool, would assert otherwise. Perhaps it is permissible to absolve Aptheker of lying to others on the grounds that he went to such great lengths to lie to himself first. It is indisputable that Aptheker's early contribution to history is noteworthy, but just like Hobsbawm, he ended up a party hack. Hobsbawm claimed that the Soviet Union was not totalitarian, and that the cold war was the golden age. Like Aptheker, Hobsbawm wrote in defense of the Soviet invasion of Hungary. He even went so far as to parrot the line that the Berlin Wall was to keep the fascists out rather than to stop the flow of people out of the GDR. Sorry, but the two are really two of a kind: brilliant men with a gift for history and an even greater talent for lying. This does not invalidate their good work, it merely points out the depths of intellectual dishonesty one finds in the New York Times, where never will you see printed a discouraging word about those two. To repeat, Aptheker did not have a cavalier attitude toward facts later in life -- he merely thought them supremely irrelevant.

Sean Mulligan - 4/1/2003

Aptheker was right. Stalin wanted to build a popular fron with the western powers against Hitler but Britain and France wanted a strong Germany to contain communism. Stalin decided to make a deal with Hitler only after the Munich Pact convinced him that Britain and France were not serious about opposing Naziism. The pact bought time for the Soviet Union to build up it's defences to that it would not fall to Hitler.

ephraim Schulman - 4/1/2003

April 1, 2003
What else would you expect from a renegade who reneged from the idealism of his younger days. You would think people like that would slink into deserved oblivion. However there is a market to be tapped.
Ephraim Schulman

Linda Civitello - 4/1/2003

"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.'"

You cannot exaggerate how racist white American historians were about Reconstruction until Foner's "Reconstruction" in 1988. Before that, standard college textbooks like Thomas A. Bailey's "The American Pageant, Second Ed." (Boston: D.C. Heath and Company, 1961) followed the old Southern party line. Bailey described the freedmen as "simple-minded," "hapless," "immature," and "insolent." He made statements like "The average ex-slave . . . was esentially a child" and "The fancy-free ex-slaves were undoubtedly a menace" (463-464) while the "high-spirited" planter aristocracy "fought gallantly" (462). Bailey's explanation for the origins of the KKK: "Goaded to desperation, respectable Southern whites resorted to savage measures . . ." (477). Bailey believed, as Southerners did, that giving "Negroes" the vote was a cruel thing (463). And Bailey wrote this seven years after the "Brown" decision.

Richard Henry Morgan - 4/1/2003

If I remember correctly, Robeson, in Congressional testimony, denied the existence of persecution of Jews in the Soviet Union. This came, of course, after he had been petted by the Soviets, and given prizes. Who knew he could be bought so cheaply?

Richard Henry Morgan - 3/31/2003

I was in California in late 1979 or early 1980 when I opened up a copy of the local rag (I think it was the San Jose Mercury News, but it might have been something else -- Radosh can track it down if he wishes to do a longer piece on Aptheker), and perused the Letters-to-the-Editor section. There, before me, was a letter by Aptheker, proclaiming that Stalin's pact with Hitler was merely tactical -- that Stalin had used it, to great advantage, as a way to build up the defense capability of the Soviet Union for the coming struggle with fascism. I asked myself what kind of man could write such patent nonsense? I concluded only a gifted liar could. The garden-variety liar would content himself with shaveing the truth on this small point or that, but the real artiste (say, Aptheker), the ambitious liar, could never content himself with such half-measures, and thus would have to go for the big lie, one forged in service to an even bigger one still. One thing you can't say of Aptheker is that he had a cavalier attitude toward the facts.

Stephen - 3/31/2003

On suspects that Aptheker got a few things rights, but that he did for all the wrong reasons.

The Nazis got a few things right, too. Notably, they pioneered the development of the modern superhighway and they created the first great economy car, the Volkswagen.

The reds correctly identified several problems, and segregation was one of those. However, time has made it clear that the commies were concerned with those problems for purely nihilistic reasons. The commie campaign against racism was conducted for purely tactical purposes -- the hope that racial discord would lead to the downfall of democratic government.

Mr. Aptheker wasn't crusading for desegregation for noble reasons. He was doing so in the hope that the ensuing racial conflict would pry open the door so that the great people's revolution would tear apart the democratic government of the U.S.

david horowitz - 3/31/2003

Having published Ron Radosh's piece on Aptheker, I would like to make a few small points. The Aptheker event at Columbia was sponsored by the Columbia History Department of which Foner is the chair. Foner was the only host at the event mentioned in the news account. So this is a very minor error on Radosh's part and hardly evidence of a "cavalier attitude" towards the facts. Foner, whose father and uncle were Aptheker's comrades is a relentless apologist for American communism, as witness his recent remark to a reporter covering the Columbia protest that Paul Robeson -- a pawn of the Soviet dictatorship and enemy of his own country -- defined (for Foner) real patriotism.

Eric Foner - 3/31/2003

James Lowen effectively points out that Herbert Aptheker's scholarly contribution goes well beyond American Negro slave revolts. His documentary history of black Americans, his writings on abolitionism and Reconstruction, and his work bringing back into print many volumes of the writings of Du Bois are all of immense value to scholars. Radosh also states that Aptheker was feted by the Columbia history department at my "behest." In fact, that event was arranged by Professor Gary Okihiro. This is obviously a very small point -- I mention it only as an indication of Radosh's cavalier attitude toward facts.

Eric Foner

Jim Loewen - 3/31/2003

Ronald Radosh says some important things about Herbert Aptheker, and some of them are even accurate. He was the "chief theoretician" of the Communist Party USA and did praise Stalin and Stalinism. Indeed, even when he recanted that position, late in his life, the recantation seemed partial and inadequate.

But Radosh also makes two errors, one telling, and one important.

The telling error: he describes Aptheker's trip to Hanoi as "a trip to promote solidarity between the Communist aggressors and the then emerging American peace movement." But WE were the aggressors in Vietnam. To claim "they" were requires several counterfactual assertions, such as that South Vietnam was a country, which the accord that established South Vietnam as a temporary entity specifically denied.

The important error: he describes Aptheker's Ph.D. dissertation as "his only actual writing that can remotely be called scholarly." As someone who has worked in the field of race relations for 30 years, I can state this is ridiculous. I find myself going back to various Aptheker works, such as TO BE FREE and ESSAYS IN THE HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN NEGRO, as well as the edited collection DOCUMENTARY HISTORY OF THE NEGRO PEOPLE. While not perfect, Aptheker's essays on such topics as Charles Caldwell, peonage, and yes, slave revolts were far ahead of their time, an indication also that Aptheker was correct to note the lingering pall of Nadir scholarship over this subfield of the history profession.

Surely we can respect Aptheker for what he got right and also take full note of the important matters that he got wrong.