Herbert Aptheker (1915–2003) has always been a controversial figure. For many decades he was a pioneering historian of the African-American experience, writing and editing a number of significant works in the middle decades of the 20th century, when this subject was largely ignored by the mainstream historical profession. And at the same time, he was also for most of his career, one of the intellectual leaders of the American Communist Party, an association that led to his further marginalization within the American historical profession, and, in many circles, an underestimation of his significance as a historian. There have been in recent years a number of efforts to right this neglect, of which the most important was probably the anthology edited by Eric Foner and Manning Marable, Herbert Aptheker on Race and Democracy: A Reader (University of Illinois Press, 2006.) It’s a good collection, a needed collection, and it gives readers a broad overview of Aptheker's historical interests. But its editing gives a somewhat distorted picture of Aptheker's views that undermines efforts to develop a well-rounded understanding of the American Communist Party.
When I consulted the Foner and Marable volume recently, I noticed that one of the works anthologized was Aptheker’s pamphlet The Negro People in America: A Critique of Gunnar Myrdal’s “An American Dilemma” (International Publishers, 1946.) I had occasion to read the original Aptheker pamphlet a few years ago, and one excerpt in particular had stayed with me. In the course of a rather polemical assault on Myrdal’s An American Dilemma, Aptheker wrote (p.28) the “neglect of the Soviet Union, by the way, is an outstanding characteristic of the Myrdal work. Its practical omission from any work supposedly concerned in broad terms with social question—the oppression of minorities—can only be the result, it would seem, of deliberate perversion. For there we have a land of two hundred million people of almost two hundred different ethnic groups where such oppression once was rampant and institutionalized, but where today it is outlawed and non-existent.”
I looked for the excerpt in the Foner and Marable volume, but I could not find it. The volume reprinted only about half of the 70-page pamphlet. They do indicate in the preface that it was too long to reprint in its entirety, which is understandable, but in their reprint there are no indications of the sections that were elided, and it reads, somewhat confusingly, as a single, unedited document.
In their editing of The Negro People in America, in presenting Aptheker to a new generation of scholars, Foner and Marable made him seem more reasonable, and less dogmatically polemical, than he actually was. Foner and Marable's editing of the section of the pamphlet titled “Myrdal’s Philosophy” includes Aptheker's criticisms of Myrdal’s famous notion of the “American Creed.” They left out Aptheker's thoughts about Myrdal's failure to use or properly understand Marxism, which included the quote about the Soviet Union cited above. They also left out other of Aptheker’s riper polemical attacks. One of these links Myrdal’s scholarly sources (and implicitly Myrdal himself) to the arch-racists Theodore Bilbo and John Rankin. Another seems to link Richard Wright, John Dewey and Myrdal, if I am reading it correctly, to Joseph Goebbels.
In their volume, Foner and Marable are making an attempt at rehabilitating a reputation. It is entirely understandable that they accentuate the positive in Aptheker's work and draw the attention of readers to what in it is still living and useful. We all, I hope, will be judged by our best and not our worst efforts. And there is no question that Aptheker’s dogmatic Marxism and uncritical attitude toward the Soviet Union are aspects of his work which few would continue to find creditable. And there is much that Aptheker has to say about the Myrdal report that remains useful, and has been often echoed, though generally without the rabid rhetoric, in contemporary assessments of An American Dilemma. But by eliminating some of Aptheker’s choicer attacks, Foner and Marable’s excerpt from “The Negro People in America” has the effect of making him sound more reasonable in 1946 than he actually was.
And this, I would maintain, is at the heart of the tragedy that is postwar American communism. Foner and Marable do reprint from Aptheker’s critique of Myrdal his conclusion, wherein Aptheker outlines his suggestions for bringing about the racial change that America so badly needed. His prescriptions include “immediate outlawing of Jim Crowism,” a national FEPC, full and legal and voting rights for all minorities, elimination of inequalities in education, outlawing restrictive covenants, and paying attention to the growing problem in northern ghettos. Who in 1946 could have objected? Certainly not most non-Marxist liberals, who shared with Aptheker all of these ideals.
But rather than trying to make common cause with natural allies, Aptheker seems to have had problems distinguishing between civil rights liberals, Bilbo and Goebbels. Despite this Aptheker, and the post-war Communist Party in general, had much to say and do that was helpful and useful in the area of civil rights. How sad it was that they were generally better at alienating potential allies than in advancing the good cause they so fervently believed in.