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Herbert Aptheker

Herbert Aptheker

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Herbert Aptheker was an American Marxist historian
Marxist historiography
Marxist or historical materialist historiography is a school of historiography influenced by Marxism. The chief tenets of Marxist historiography are the centrality of social class and economic constraints in determining historical outcomes....

 and political activist. He authored over 50 volumes, mostly in the fields of African American history
African American history
African-American history is the portion of American history that specifically discusses the African American or Black American ethnic group in the United States. Most African Americans are the descendants of captive Africans held in the United States from 1619 to 1865...

 and general U.S. history
History of the United States
The history of the United States traditionally starts with the Declaration of Independence in the year 1776, although its territory was inhabited by Native Americans since prehistoric times and then by European colonists who followed the voyages of Christopher Columbus starting in 1492. The...

, most notably, American Negro Slave Revolts (1943), a classic in the field, and the 7-volume Documentary History of the Negro People. Aptheker was a prominent figure in U.S. scholarly
Academia is the community of students and scholars engaged in higher education and research.-Etymology:The word comes from the akademeia in ancient Greece. Outside the city walls of Athens, the gymnasium was made famous by Plato as a center of learning...

 discourse since the 1940s. David Horowitz
David Horowitz
David Joel Horowitz is an American conservative writer and policy advocate. Horowitz was raised by parents who were both members of the American Communist Party. Between 1956 and 1975, Horowitz was an outspoken adherent of the New Left before rejecting Marxism completely...

 described Aptheker as "the Communist Party’s most prominent Cold War intellectual".

Early years

Herbert Aptheker was born in Brooklyn
Brooklyn is the most populous of New York City's five boroughs, with nearly 2.6 million residents, and the second-largest in area. Since 1896, Brooklyn has had the same boundaries as Kings County, which is now the most populous county in New York State and the second-most densely populated...

, New York
New York
New York is a state in the Northeastern region of the United States. It is the nation's third most populous state. New York is bordered by New Jersey and Pennsylvania to the south, and by Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont to the east...

, the last child of a wealthy Jewish family. In 1932, when he was 16, he accompanied his father on a business trip to Alabama
Alabama is a state located in the southeastern region of the United States. It is bordered by Tennessee to the north, Georgia to the east, Florida and the Gulf of Mexico to the south, and Mississippi to the west. Alabama ranks 30th in total land area and ranks second in the size of its inland...

. There he learned first-hand about the oppression
Oppression is the exercise of authority or power in a burdensome, cruel, or unjust manner. It can also be defined as an act or instance of oppressing, the state of being oppressed, and the feeling of being heavily burdened, mentally or physically, by troubles, adverse conditions, and...

 of African American
African American
African Americans are citizens or residents of the United States who have at least partial ancestry from any of the native populations of Sub-Saharan Africa and are the direct descendants of enslaved Africans within the boundaries of the present United States...

s under Jim Crow Laws
Jim Crow laws
The Jim Crow laws were state and local laws in the United States enacted between 1876 and 1965. They mandated de jure racial segregation in all public facilities, with a supposedly "separate but equal" status for black Americans...

 in the South
Southern United States
The Southern United States—commonly referred to as the American South, Dixie, or simply the South—constitutes a large distinctive area in the southeastern and south-central United States...

, and was appalled by what he saw. On his return to Brooklyn, he wrote a column for his school newspaper on the "Dark Side of The South."

Aptheker attended Columbia University
Columbia University
Columbia University in the City of New York is a private, Ivy League university in Manhattan, New York City. Columbia is the oldest institution of higher learning in the state of New York, the fifth oldest in the United States, and one of the country's nine Colonial Colleges founded before the...

 in New York City
New York City
New York is the most populous city in the United States and the center of the New York Metropolitan Area, one of the most populous metropolitan areas in the world. New York exerts a significant impact upon global commerce, finance, media, art, fashion, research, technology, education, and...

, from which he obtained a Bachelor's degree
Bachelor's degree
A bachelor's degree is usually an academic degree awarded for an undergraduate course or major that generally lasts for three or four years, but can range anywhere from two to six years depending on the region of the world...

 in 1936. Aptheker also earned his Master's degree
Master's degree
A master's is an academic degree granted to individuals who have undergone study demonstrating a mastery or high-order overview of a specific field of study or area of professional practice...

 in 1937 and a Ph.D. in 1943 from the same institution.

Aptheker married his first cousin, Fay Philippa Aptheker, in 1942, and the couple was married for 62 years. Their daughter, Bettina Aptheker
Bettina Aptheker
Bettina Fay Aptheker is an American activist, author, feminist, and professor.-Early years and education:Aptheker was born in Fort Bragg, North Carolina to the first cousins Fay Philippa Aptheker and Herbert Aptheker, a radical activist and Marxist historian. She was raised in Brooklyn, New York....

, was born in 1944 at the U.S. Army Hospital in Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

Aptheker later went back to the South and became an educational worker for the Food and Tobacco Workers Union. Shortly afterwards, he served as secretary of the Abolish Peonage Committee. "Peons", the vast majority of whom were African American, were tied to plantation
A plantation is a long artificially established forest, farm or estate, where crops are grown for sale, often in distant markets rather than for local on-site consumption...

s by the debt they owed to the plantation owners. This practice effectively maintained slavery
Slavery is a system under which people are treated as property to be bought and sold, and are forced to work. Slaves can be held against their will from the time of their capture, purchase or birth, and deprived of the right to leave, to refuse to work, or to demand compensation...

 beyond the Civil War
American Civil War
The American Civil War was a civil war fought in the United States of America. In response to the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States, 11 southern slave states declared their secession from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America ; the other 25...

 in all but name.

In 1939, Aptheker joined the Communist Party USA
Communist Party USA
The Communist Party USA is a Marxist political party in the United States, established in 1919. It has a long, complex history that is closely related to the histories of similar communist parties worldwide and the U.S. labor movement....

, which, he believed, was the U.S. political party that took the strongest position on full economic, social, and political equality for African Americans. During World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

, he joined the Army, taking part in Operation Overlord
Operation Overlord
Operation Overlord was the code name for the Battle of Normandy, the operation that launched the invasion of German-occupied western Europe during World War II by Allied forces. The operation commenced on 6 June 1944 with the Normandy landings...

; by 1945 had reached the rank of Major
Major is a rank of commissioned officer, with corresponding ranks existing in almost every military in the world.When used unhyphenated, in conjunction with no other indicator of rank, the term refers to the rank just senior to that of an Army captain and just below the rank of lieutenant colonel. ...

 in the artillery
Originally applied to any group of infantry primarily armed with projectile weapons, artillery has over time become limited in meaning to refer only to those engines of war that operate by projection of munitions far beyond the range of effect of personal weapons...

, which commission he lost in December 1950 after failing to respond to the U.S. Army’s letter of inquiry about his Communist political activity.

Research in African American history

Aptheker's master's thesis
A dissertation or thesis is a document submitted in support of candidature for an academic degree or professional qualification presenting the author's research and findings...

, a study of the 1831 Nat Turner
Nat Turner
Nathaniel "Nat" Turner was an American slave who led a slave rebellion in Virginia on August 21, 1831 that resulted in 60 white deaths and at least 100 black deaths, the largest number of fatalities to occur in one uprising prior to the American Civil War in the southern United States. He gathered...

 slave revolt in Virginia
The Commonwealth of Virginia , is a U.S. state on the Atlantic Coast of the Southern United States. Virginia is nicknamed the "Old Dominion" and sometimes the "Mother of Presidents" after the eight U.S. presidents born there...

, laid the groundwork for his future work on the history of American slave revolts. Aptheker uncovered Turner's heroism, demonstrating how his rebellion was rooted in the exploitative conditions of the Southern slave system. NEGRO SLAVE REVOLTS IN THE UNITED STATES 1526-1860, published in 1939 by International Publishers, New York, includes a table of documented slave revolts by year and state. His doctoral dissertation, American Negro Slave Revolts, was published in 1943. Traversing Southern libraries and archives, he uncovered 250 similar episodes through exhaustive research. It remains a landmark and a classic work in the study of Southern history and slavery.

Aptheker challenged racist writings, most notably those of Georgia
Georgia (U.S. state)
Georgia is a state located in the southeastern United States. It was established in 1732, the last of the original Thirteen Colonies. The state is named after King George II of Great Britain. Georgia was the fourth state to ratify the United States Constitution, on January 2, 1788...

-born historian Ulrich Bonnell Phillips
Ulrich Bonnell Phillips
Ulrich Bonnell Phillips was an American historian who studied the American antebellum South and slavery. Phillips concentrated on the large plantations that dominated the Southern economy, and he did not investigate the numerous small farmers who held few slaves...

, who cast African Americans as child-like, inferior, and uncivilized; argued that slavery was a benign institution; and defended the preservation of the Southern plantation system. Such works were the consensus in the field until Aptheker's scholarship tore them apart.

Aptheker considered himself a protégé of W. E. B. Du Bois, and long emphasized his mentor's social science scholarship and life-long struggle for equality as an African American.

Post-war activism

In the 1950s, Aptheker was blacklisted
McCarthyism is the practice of making accusations of disloyalty, subversion, or treason without proper regard for evidence. The term has its origins in the period in the United States known as the Second Red Scare, lasting roughly from the late 1940s to the late 1950s and characterized by...

 because of his membership in the Communist Party, and was unable to obtain appointment as a university lecturer throughout the decade. Aptheker served on the National Committee of the CPUSA from 1957 to 1991; for several years in the 1960s and 1970s, he was executive director of the American Institute For Marxist Studies. In 1966, he ran in the U.S. House of Representatives election in New York's 12th Congressional District for the Peace and Freedom Party; he received 3,562 votes.

A fervent opponent of the Vietnam War
Vietnam War
The Vietnam War was a Cold War-era military conflict that occurred in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from 1 November 1955 to the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975. This war followed the First Indochina War and was fought between North Vietnam, supported by its communist allies, and the government of...

, Aptheker lectured on the subject on college campuses nationwide. He saw U.S. conduct in Vietnam as a war of aggression
War of aggression
A war of aggression, sometimes also war of conquest, is a military conflict waged without the justification of self-defense usually for territorial gain and subjugation. The phrase is distinctly modern and diametrically opposed to the prior legal international standard of "might makes right", under...

 against an exploited peasant
A peasant is an agricultural worker who generally tend to be poor and homeless-Etymology:The word is derived from 15th century French païsant meaning one from the pays, or countryside, ultimately from the Latin pagus, or outlying administrative district.- Position in society :Peasants typically...

ry determined to win their independence and control of their land. He saw many parallels between African American slaves and sharecroppers in the South, and the Vietnamese working class
Working class
Working class is a term used in the social sciences and in ordinary conversation to describe those employed in lower tier jobs , often extending to those in unemployment or otherwise possessing below-average incomes...

 and peasantry, from which the guerrilla
Guerrilla warfare
Guerrilla warfare is a form of irregular warfare and refers to conflicts in which a small group of combatants including, but not limited to, armed civilians use military tactics, such as ambushes, sabotage, raids, the element of surprise, and extraordinary mobility to harass a larger and...

 fighters of the National Liberation Front
National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam
The Vietcong , or National Liberation Front , was a political organization and army in South Vietnam and Cambodia that fought the United States and South Vietnamese governments during the Vietnam War . It had both guerrilla and regular army units, as well as a network of cadres who organized...

 (known in the U.S. as the "Viet Cong") drew most of their ranks.

From 1969 to 1973, Aptheker taught a full-year course annually in Afro-American History at Bryn Mawr College. Aptheker died at age 87 on March 17, 2003, in Mountain View, California
Mountain View, California
-Downtown:Mountain View has a pedestrian-friendly downtown centered on Castro Street. The downtown area consists of the seven blocks of Castro Street from the Downtown Mountain View Station transit center in the north to the intersection with El Camino Real in the south...

. His wife had died in 1999.

Accusations of sexual molestation

Aptheker's wife, Fay, was also a union organizer. Their daughter, Bettina, was raised as a "red diaper baby
Red diaper baby
Red diaper baby describes a child of parents who were members of the United States Communist Party or were close to the party or sympathetic to its aims.-History:...

". Bettina Aptheker
Bettina Aptheker
Bettina Fay Aptheker is an American activist, author, feminist, and professor.-Early years and education:Aptheker was born in Fort Bragg, North Carolina to the first cousins Fay Philippa Aptheker and Herbert Aptheker, a radical activist and Marxist historian. She was raised in Brooklyn, New York....

 is now a professor of feminist studies
Feminist Studies
Founded in 1972, Feminist Studies was the first scholarly journal in women’s studies and remains a premier journal in the field. It is currently an independent nonprofit publication housed at the University of Maryland in College Park, Maryland....

 at the University of California, Santa Cruz
University of California, Santa Cruz
The University of California, Santa Cruz, also known as UC Santa Cruz or UCSC, is a public, collegiate university; one of ten campuses in the University of California...

. In her 2006 memoir, Intimate Politics, she claims that she was sexually molested
Sexual abuse
Sexual abuse, also referred to as molestation, is the forcing of undesired sexual behavior by one person upon another. When that force is immediate, of short duration, or infrequent, it is called sexual assault. The offender is referred to as a sexual abuser or molester...

 by her father from the age of 4 to the age of 13. However, her charges are based on recovered memory
Recovered memory
Recovered memory is the description given to the apparent resurrection of the memory of events that had been forgotten or suppressed for a relatively long time. Retrograde amnesia secondary to physical or emotional trauma , or the suppression of painful memories from any cause, is an accepted concept...

 and dissociation
Dissociation is an altered state of consciousness characterized by partial or complete disruption of the normal integration of a person’s normal conscious or psychological functioning. Dissociation is most commonly experienced as a subjective perception of one's consciousness being detached from...

 and so have been called into doubt. For example, Mark Rosenzweig writes "the truth about Herbert and Bettina is inaccessible to us." She also tells about their highly emotional reconciliation several years before his death. In addition, she claims that her father's celebrations of black resistance were attempts "to compensate for his deep shame about the way, he believed, the Jews had acted during the Holocaust" (which has been criticized as "possibly antisemitic").


  • “Imperialism and Irrationalism”. TELOS
    TELOS (journal)
    Telos is an academic journal published in the United States. It was founded in May 1968 to provide the New Left with a coherent theoretical perspective. It sought to expand the Husserlian diagnosis of "the crisis of European sciences" to prefigure a particular program of social reconstruction...

     04 (Fall 1969). New York: Telos Press

Research resources

External links