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Science & Society July 2016, Vol. 80, No. 3: 437-440

“The Most Dangerous Communist in the United States”: A Biography of Herbert 
Aptheker, by Gary Murrell. Afterword by Bettina Aptheker. Amherst/ Boston, 
Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press, 2015. Paper, $29.95. Pp. 
xviii, 444.

Gary Murrell, Professor of History at Grays Harbor College in Washington State, 
has given us a much-needed comprehensive study of the life and work of Dr. 
Herbert Aptheker, Marxist historian and political theoretician. Aptheker’s 
scholarship on the African American people — with dozens of published works, 
including the monumental Documentary History of the Negro People in the United 
States — set the direction of historical research in this area, despite being 
ignored, repressed and vilified in official academia and in the publishing 
world. His long association with Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois, and his multi-decade 
editorship of that scholar’s legacy, resulting in another 44 volumes, are yet 
another signal contribution to U. S. and world letters. His virtual odyssey 
across the USA’s college campuses, in speaking tours that again spanned 
decades, became a major element in the counterattack against McCarthy-era 
repression, and thus in the emergence of the New Left in the 1960s. His 
testimony in various Smith Act and McCarran Act trials made him a principal 
voice of reason and the quest for political and intellectual freedom. Finally, 
his staunch support of the Communist Party USA and his steadfastness in defense 
of that organization — despite many complexities and tensions in his evolving 
relationship with the Party’s leadership, and his eventual break with the Party 
— make him an exceptional, and controversial, figure in the American left in 
the 20th century and beyond. All of this, and more, is covered in Murrell’s 
book, based on impressive references, archival study, and many hours of 
interviews, including centrally with Dr. Aptheker himself.

The story is told in 26 chapters, arranged broadly (if not entirely) in 
chronological order, covering Aptheker’s early life; his research on slavery 
and on slave rebellion in the U. S. South; his ever-troubled relationship to 
the academic and publishing establishment, especially within the history 
profession; Aptheker’s role in the military in World War II; his defense of the 
CPUSA during the McCarthy-era attacks; conflicts within the Party concerning 
control over the publication activities of Party members (including his 
daughter, Bettina); founding and building of the American Institute for Marxist 
Studies; running for Congress in the 12th CD in Brooklyn; the trip to Hanoi, 
with Staughton Lynd and Tom Hayden; the long struggle to publish the Du Bois 
papers and letters; the movement to free Angela Davis after her arrest, 
following the events at the courthouse in San Rafael, California, in August 
1970; the fateful 25th Convention of the CPUSA in Cleveland, in December 1991 
and the founding of the Committees of Correspondence; and the final years in 
California, during which Aptheker finally achieved some recognition in academia 
and secured some teaching posts, which had long been denied him.

On the personal level, we learn of Aptheker’s deep and loving relationship with 
his wife of many years, Fay, and their daughter Bettina. The latter’s recent 
testimony concerning sexual abuse by her father during her childhood is 
discussed in a forthright and dignified manner in the Preface, and is also 
addressed in Bettina’s “Afterword.”

There are many complex, and often troubling, stories packed into this life, and 
no possibility of recounting them in a short review. Murrell is eloquent in his 
admiration for Aptheker’s accomplishments, in both their political and their 
scholarly dimensions: Aptheker is credited with altering fundamentally the 
historiography of the Black people in the United States; with being a prescient 
critic of the predatory foreign policy of that country; and with being a 
singular champion of democracy and human rights. But Murrell is also critical, 
where he feels the need for criticism. On the latter, here is a summary 
passage, from the final chapter, “Now It’s Your Turn” (354):

". . . for all his accomplishments, there was a terrible flaw in Aptheker. On 
the one hand, as the historian Chris Phelps wrote in the Chronicle of Higher 
Education, 'the extent to which Herbert Aptheker could symbolize intellectual 
freedom . . . was profoundly limited by his habitual excusing of repression by 
single-party regimes cast in the Soviet mold. . . .' . . . Then, too, members 
of the CPUSA around the country looked up to Aptheker. They expected that the 
champion of black rights and the rights of political dissidents . . . was also 
speaking truth to those in power in the party as well. They were wrong. He 
didn’t. . . . He indulged in private rages, but his public silence was a 
profound lie that diminished him and helped to destroy his party." 

Murrell, following some of his sources (Phelps, Healy, Isserman, Bettina 
Aptheker), casts the CPUSA leadership, especially Gus Hall, in the role of 
Stalinist bureaucrats and their political positions as inherently noxious. He 
reserves some singularly (and uncharacteristically) harsh adjectives for 
Aptheker’s The Truth About Hungary, siding with those who saw the book as 
“hasty, poorly documented,” etc.

Without being able to enter into details, the present reviewer finds many of 
these judgments to be not so much wrong as profoundly out of context. It is no 
trick, for example, for legions of left writers to side with the heroic 
Hungarian people against the Soviet tanks in 1956. Perhaps the tragic truth is 
more complex: that a genuine popular rebellion against a suffocating 
bureaucratic regime could be, simultaneously, useful to powerful capitalist 
geopolitical forces in their drive to undermine and destroy early socialist 
regimes and alter the world balance of political forces in their favor. 
Perhaps, then, there was no good alternative available. Aptheker, as Murrell 
notes, devoted a large part of the book to establishing the world context: U. 
S. and German imperialism and their predatory apparatuses — precisely the 
“prescient” analysis for which Aptheker is praised elsewhere. It is also 
noteworthy that Murrell misses a crucial, and ironic, point about Truth: the 
book was rejected by the regular Party press. The anti-CP narrative doesn’t 
make room for the full complexity and tragedy of this: Aptheker, at once 
battling for a complex view of the Hungarian (and, later, the Czechoslovakian) 
events — because he believed that view to be correct! — against the Party 
leadership, while, later, having to battle them again over their attempted 
censorship of Bettina’s Woman’s Legacy. The point here is not to mount a full 
argument; it is just to suggest that the criticism of Aptheker for “excusing . 
. . repression by single-party regimes” becomes a rather predictable debate 
with Aptheker over political themes, rather than engaging with his thinking 
fully in its own terms.

As for the rigidity and repressiveness of the CPUSA leadership, and Aptheker’s 
failure to confront this, Murrell (along with many others) may be missing a 
crucial element. The CPUSA, as the visible representative of “Communism” in the 
country where — uniquely — that political commitment became the central symbol 
of moral evil in the dominant ideology at mid–20th century, suffered from an 
unparalleled pressure to internalize the mainstream view of itself, and to 
protect itself from that by defense mechanisms such as systematic 
non-communication, ritualized forgetting, almost fanatical (and partially 
justified!) fear of liquidation, and much else. In short: this party’s “thick 
skin” qualities had material, social roots, and all this affected everyone 
involved, including the rank-and-file which Murrell suggests was abandoned by 

All of this, however, true or not, enters into a discussion far beyond 
Murrell’s canvas. We are indebted to him for giving us a valuable recuperation 
of the life and work of an extraordinary Marxist historian and theoretician — a 
judgment on which perhaps we all can agree.

David Laibman 
c/o Science & Society 
33 Flatbush Avenue, 4th Floor 
Brooklyn, NY 11217 / USA 

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