- "The Most Dangerous Communist in the United States": A Biography of Herbert Aptheker by Gary Murrell
Two clouds hang over the life and legacy of the late historian Herbert Aptheker. The first—his communist sympathies—cast a shadow on Aptheker throughout his lifetime. The second—his daughter's accusation of sexual molestation—follows him in death. Gary Murrell has the former matter serve as a pivot in his account of Aptheker's life, while treating the latter issue in heavy bookends: the preface and an afterword by Aptheker's daughter, Bettina Aptheker.
Drawing on interviews he conducted with Herbert Aptheker and on Aptheker's unpublished autobiography, Murrell recounts the anticommunism Aptheker faced from the government and from academia. Born in 1915 in New York City to Ukrainian Jewish immigrants, Aptheker joined the Communist Party of the United States in 1939 and remained a loyal member for over fifty years. Aptheker's Ph.D. in history from Columbia University did not land him a professorship at a prestigious university. In fact, no institution of higher learning ever offered Aptheker a permanent position during his long career. As Murrell explains, the academic establishment in effect blacklisted Aptheker because he was a Communist. The biography chronicles episode after episode in which an institution refused to associate with Aptheker through denying him a job, declining to publish his work, or banning him from speaking on campus. Murrell devotes a chapter to a sordid battle at Yale University in the mid-1970s that saw eminent historian C. Vann Woodward, along with other faculty members, block Aptheker from teaching a seminar. The author also documents Aptheker's various encounters with the federal government, which included testifying before congressional hearings on communism, denial of his passport under the McCarran Act, and decades of FBI surveillance. Indeed, Murrell borrows the book's title from FBI director J. Edgar Hoover who, in referring to Aptheker, wrote "that the Bureau considers him the most dangerous Communist in the United States" (p. 167).
Murrell reverses some of the lasting effects of the anti-Aptheker campaigns by helping rescue from obscurity the Marxist scholar's contributions. The history profession buried Aptheker's scholarship. Academic journals rarely reviewed his books, and those historians who did weigh in tended to be dismissive of his claims. Given this blackout, Murrell's intellectual history approach has added significance. In the biography, three of Aptheker's contributions to the study of U.S. history and to black studies stand out: his writings on Nat Turner and slave revolts; his documentary history collection of writings by African Americans; and his efforts to preserve and share the work of W. E. B. Du Bois. Murrell [End Page 479] examines the importance of Aptheker's American Negro Slave Revolts (New York, 1943), the work most closely associated with Aptheker. In pointing to a record of nearly 250 slave revolts in the history of American slavery, Aptheker's book challenged the dominant notion that enslaved people had been docile. Despite the profession's disregard for the thesis, the intervention had been made and would remain for later scholars to build on.
Murrell's treatment of the most sensitive issue addressed in the biography—Bettina's accusation—mirrors Herbert's approach to his differences with the Communist Party. Aptheker registered his criticisms within the party while withholding them from the public, as one might do with a family matter. Although Murrell was deeply troubled by the molestation accusation, he did not make it a central part of the book. Both Aptheker and Murrell appear to have been guided, at least in part, by a concern about the misuses of information in the hands of others. Aptheker had dedicated his life to a communist vision and did not wish to see the party destroyed. Similarly, Murrell does not want Aptheker and his work to be dismissed.