The Most Dangerous Communist in the United States: A Biography of Herbert Aptheker by Gary Murrell. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press: 2015, 444pp.

Gary Murrell, an historian and teacher, has written a passionate and eloquent biography about a passionate and eloquent man, Herbert Aptheker, who spent his entire adult life as a revolutionary scholar and intellectual, an open member of the Communist Party of the United States and an influence on generations of the larger revolutionary Left movement in the U.S. of which the Communist Party USA was and is a part. Initially, Murrell had hoped to write a thesis about Aptheker but was dissuaded from that and was coaxed into writing a thesis about a less-than-significant Republican governor of Oregon.

Murrell has opened up in a significant way both the history of the CPUSA in the second half of the twentieth century and also of the larger Left. He has alsoconnected  Aptheker to the ongoing struggle over the history of the African-American people, a segregated field called “Negro history” by those who recognized its existence when Aptheker began his research in the 1930s.

As someone who did not know Aptheker well, but who was his comrade from 1978 on, I will analyze this work as a scholar of modern anti-radicalism in the U.S. and also a participant in the movement and then the party of which Aptheker was an important part [1].

Murrell’s work adds to a growing scholarship in recent decades which has shown the achievements of Communist Party, USA, activists during the Depression in the struggles to build industrial unions and win strikes, challenge institutional and ideological racism at all levels of society, a scholarship that has yet to study the postwar history of the CPUSA and take it up to the present.[2] What has emerged as of now in general surveys of the Left is an ecumenical “official story” that the CPUSA lost the bulk of its members after 1956 and the ensuing leadership conflict and ceased to exist for all practical purposes.

In that conflict, the opponents of the leadership led by Daily Worker editor, John Gates, are praised, while the leadership, led by William Z. Foster, a major figure in Left struggles even before the Russian Revolution, is usually condemned. [3] In most histories of the U.S. Left in the postwar era, the memories and interpretations of former Communists are duly noted while the memories interpretations and work of ongoing Communists are ignored. This can only be seen as a continuing ritual of self-censorship. That official story continues to unite both old Cold War liberals and contemporary historians of “New Left” radicalism, one in which both “McCarthyism” and the CPUSA fade into oblivion as “new movements” for civil rights, peace, and later women’s and gay rights create a “New Left.”

Murrell’s research shows that the postwar history of the CPUSA is neither that simple nor accurate. First, “McCarthyism,” that is, systematic public and private institutional repression directed against the CPUSA, did not fade into oblivion. In 1961, after the national leadership of the CPUSA had been released from prison, the Supreme Court in effect upheld  major parts of the Smith and McCarran Acts. The Kennedy Administration was if anything more zealous than the Eisenhower Administration in its willingness to violate the Bill of Rights in order to harass the CPUSA.

And of course, J. Edgar Hoover, FBI director since 1924, continued to violate existing laws to deny CPUSA leaders and members’ basic civil liberties, to force them to lead a semi-underground existence, to sustain a subculture of fear. In the early 1960s, for example, when the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Earl Warren, said with respect to Communist speakers that one should respect individuals of different views, the FBI agents contemplated actions against him.

Death threats were not uncommon as a way to force Aptheker from speaking. Aptheker, though, never sought to “hide” his own face or the face of his party. Nor did he give ground to the views of its enemies and rivals.

Aptheker, the son of Jewish immigrants from the Russian Empire , began his involvement with  the Communist movement and African–American history during of the Great Depression and the rise of fascism in Europe. Graduating from high school in 1933, he wanted to go to Columbia University, but Columbia had an open exclusionary quota system aimed first at New York’s large Jewish population, and then at Italian-Americans. Aptheker wound up at Seth Low Junior College, a two-year school that Columbia had established for those who fell outside its quota system.[4] Aptheker eventually made his way to Columbia and to its graduate program, where he began his lifelong study of the history of what was then called the Negro people, a history which was largely invisible in establishment academic scholarship

The existence of Communist-supported organizations and publications interested in this work nurtured him and he gave to them his writings and research, even though the larger atmosphere in the Columbia University history department was less than enthusiastic about any of his work.

World War II interrupted his studies but gave him an experiential knowledge of fascism, as he interrogated members of the Gestapo and other pillars of the Hitler regime who sought to hide their crimes in the U.S. zone of occupation in Germany. In spite of his distinguished wartime service, after the war, Aptheker had his commission in the reserves taken away because of his Communist activism.

Murrell often criticizes CPUSA positions, but he lets Aptheker explain his ideas and what he considers to be the position of Communists like himself. Aptheker admits to errors in judgment, but does not repudiate his major ideas.

Murrell criticizes the policies of the CPUSA leadership’s unwavering support for the Soviet Union, particularly under Stalin. However, as the research of Murrell and most others show, the relentless repression CPUSA had next to nothing to do with Soviet actions. If Communists
in the U.S. had broken with the Soviet Union and condemned “Stalinism,” as the CPUSA’s rivals on the Left, including the “Left Communists” or Trotskyists, had long done, would that have permitted the CPUSA to weather the postwar political repression more effectively? I don’t see how.

The Socialist Party led by Norman Thomas, who eventually lent his name to the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Congress for Cultural Freedom, made no political comeback as the CPUSA faced massive repression. Neither did the other primarily Trotskyist groups, from the Socialist Workers Party, those who had long rallied around the cultic leader Max Schachtman. This “non-Communist Left,” as Murrell calls it, became an important center for the support of first global imperialist policies and later reactionary policies in the U.S. Since the 1930s these groups also have been part of an anti-Communist Party left, which often functioned in the high-handed authoritarian manner of which they accused Communist parties. Their background and experience explain why so many of them became important “professional anti-Communists” in the Cold War period.

Aptheker and other Communists who refused to denounce both the Soviet Union and the world Communist movement believed that to do so, to agree with their persecutors and to apologize to their jailers, would have been the height of opportunism and cowardice.

While Aptheker was never imprisoned, unlike much of the CPUSA’s national leadership, the harassment that he faced from the FBI, mass media, and the entire academic establishment for half a century was unprecedented.

The Cold War everywhere produced what French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre referred to as a “conspiracy of silence” against Communist parties in the capitalist media, even when those parties had mass memberships and large parliamentary representations, as in France and Italy.

In all capitalist countries this led to the establishment of what Sartre called a “ring of fire” between Communists and their fellow citizens. In France and the countries that Sartre was writing about,  there were no formal anti-Communist laws, no imprisonment of leaders, no massive blacklisting of party members, no public designation as “fellow travelers,” and “sympathizers,” no lists of names disseminated to employers, local police, various vigilante groups—in effect there was no “ring of fire” comparable to that around Communists in the U.S. In the U.S. context, the segregation of Communists mirrored the ongoing racist segregation in the South.

In the academic world from which Aptheker had been long barred from employment even though he was a credentialed Ph.D. with a distinguished scholarly record, there were in effect many “little J. Edgar Hoovers” defending the historical profession from the dangerous Aptheker. These ranged from distinguished Southern liberal historian C. Vann Woodward, to August Meyer and Elliot Rudwick, to the novelist William Styron and many others. They over decades denigrated Aptheker’s classic American Negro Slave Revolts, and worked to block his initiatives to advance the study of African-American history and the publication under his editorship of the papers of his friend and ultimately fellow Communist, W.E.B. Dubois.

The important post WWII history of the CPUSA and its relationship to a wide variety of  Left groups, from SNCC and the Black Panther Party, to the anti-Vietnam War Peace movement, has still to be written. What exists today is a vacuum, a largely uncritical and undocumented narrative of the CPUSA Cold War repression and disappearance — a narrative which privileges the statements of “ex-Communists” as somehow accurate and trustworthy and deems untrustworthy Communists who remained in the party. Murrell’s work is a great advance in moving away from that simplistic narrative not because of the answers it gives but because of the questions that it opens up for critical discussion.[6]

Murrell provides interesting albeit controversial insights on Aptheker’s personal and political conflicts with the leadership of the CPUSA. These conflicts that arose over Aptheker’s sympathetic response to African-American radicalism in the 1960s and 1970s and his leading role in the creation of the American Institute for Marxist Studies (AIMS). Murrell takes Aptheker’s side, but he does not present the positions of party leaders with whom Aptheker disagreed.

These sorts of conflicts are of course very common. One finds them in parties and mass organization in the history of all political parties, not just Marxist parties and left organizations. One for example might look at the British Labour Party or the Democratic Party of the USA today, not to mention the Republican Party as it faces the Donald Trump hostile takeover.

In principle the structure of democratic centralism in Communist parties was supposed to overcome internal conflicts by establishing a democratic procedure that would elect at the various levels a leadership reflecting its base. But it did not really end the infighting and manipulation from the top, although it was a major advance against factional struggles that led to splinter groups and factions  undermining the party leadership  to gain power for themselves. For the CPUSA leadership, keeping the party together in an unending state of siege after WWII, produced a special situation.

That Aptheker, given his personality and commitments, fought for positions in conflict at times with leadership within his own party and in the outside world is also not remarkable. It is what he should have done in the best traditions of democratic centralism, and it was what many of his comrades have always done.

Against all attempts to simply read him out of history, Aptheker earned widespread respect from a wide variety of white New Left radicals, Black militants and scholars, even those who did not accept the core concepts associated with Communist and Socialist parties.

Aptheker had his differences on personal and political grounds with Gus Hall, veteran labor leader and political prisoner who emerged as the national leader of the CPUSA.  Murrell takes Aptheker’s position and portrays Hall negatively. This is perhaps the greatest weakness of the biography. Aptheker and Hall were both very strong personalities with different backgrounds and very different roles inside the Communist movement.

Ongoing CPUSA members whom I know and who worked closely with Gus Hall for many years would very strongly disagree with these views. The idea of a personality cult around Hall, when it was brought up in the CPUSA struggle of 1991, was, in my view at the time, frankly ridiculous. Perhaps in the leadership cadre something like that existed (although those that I know would hotly deny it). But it did not exist on any level among the membership. Hall was simply not the stuff out of which any personality cult was made. He was outgoing, sometimes bombastic, someone who was never aloof and withdrawn within the confines of party headquarters, as some other “full-timers” appear to have been.

I have no doubt that personal rivalries and jealousy existed in the leadership cadre. Given the very low salaries and great stresses in keeping the CPUSA together in the U.S, this is understandable. But Hall’s enemies at the 1991 CPUSA convention  sought to demonize him as a cross between Joseph Stalin and Leonid Brezhnev and then bolted the party after their defeat. Such a portrayal  had no foundation. As someone who took part in that convention struggle as a member of the convention majority, my memories and interpretations of it are very different than Murrell’s treatment. I and the other delegates of the majority were not motivated by any personal loyalty to Gus Hall or any belief that he was some sort of hero-leader.

The conflict at the 1991 CPUSA convention, as Murrell fails to note, came at the worst possible time, a kind of miserable postscript to the destruction of the Soviet Union which had already taken place. In the aftermath of the August 1991 coup within his own administration, Mikhail Gorbachev, whose policies of “perestroika” (restructuring) and glasnost (“openness”) had inspired  the Committees of Correspondence group, had yielded to his former appointee, Boris Yeltsin, anti-Communist Russian Federation strongman, outlawed the CPSU, and joined former CPSU leaders in abolishing the Soviet Union and replacing it with something that had the oxymoronic name of the “Commonwealth of Independent States”

I had friends on both sides of that conflict and still do. One individual, with whom I worked closely  and knew well, Danny Rubin, returned to the CPUSA and admitted privately that his leaving was a great mistake. Aptheker also left, but I always thought that in reality, in his heart and mind, he was still there

In the aftermath of the 1991 convention, the CPUSA was once more declared dead along with the end of Communism, the end of history, and the final triumph of the new world order of neo-liberal capitalism, where everyone would live happily  ever after on their investments. This was 143 years after the first obituary for the Communist movement had been written following the revolutions of 1848. There would of courses be many more, written in the blood of the Paris Commune, Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, etc.

If there is an overall interpretation implicit  Murrell’s work, it is that Herbert Aptheker made an enormous contribution to the study of African American history and courageously fought throughout his adult life against the organized, state-sanctioned forces of reaction and repression seeking to subvert, isolate, and destroy both his party and the principles his party advanced. However, in his concusion, Murrell  undermines much of his own work when he quotes approvingly British historian Christopher Phelps that “the extent to which Herbert Aptheker could symbolize intellectual freedom, however, was profoundly limited by his habitual excusing of repression by single-party regimes cast in the Soviet mold. This moral double standard was tragic not only for American Communism but for the whole of the American left.”

Such an arrogant and self-righteous judgment would bring a sneer to Aptheker’s lips.

There is one last point though that should be addressed: That is Bettina Aptheker’s memoir, based on repressed memory, charging her father with sexual molestation. Murrell deals with this charge in his introduction in a non-judgmental way. Bettina Aptheker, Herb’s daughter and a former Communist and New Left radical, deals with it in an afterword.

In the introduction, Murrell quotes scholars and others who knew and respected both Apthekers, who could not and do not believe the accusation.

I do not know Bettina Aptheker. When I first heard the accusation, my response was visceral. I thought immediately of Murray Kempton’ s comment that in the high Cold War period being a Communist was tantamount to being a “child molester.” Other historians of labor and the left, historians who knew Herbert Aptheker and, in some cases, had been very critical of the Communist party, also registered their disbelief. I read what I could about repressed memory, much, although not all of it, negative. But of course, I and the others who knew Herb Aptheker and have expressed disbelief know nothing nor can we know anything objectively about what really happened.

Bettina Aptheker’s afterword shows respect for her father’s work and achievements. She says simply that she told this story to connect the personal with the political, although that comment, deriving from the feminist writer Carol Gilligan, meant that personal relationships and work like housework had to be understood in terms of political power relationships, not that the personal determines or even stands above the political. Whatever the personal meaning  this story may have for Bettina Aptheker, its only political meaning can be to provide her father’s enemies with a new weapon to demonize him once more, at a time when the old red-baiting no longer has the force it had in the past.

Bettina Aptheker mentions that her father did not deny these charges but said that there was her reality as she remembered it and his reality as he remembered it. I interpret that statement not as an admission of anything but as Herbert Aptheker, who spent his life giving as good as he got, never yielding anything to the legions of red-baiters who sought to defame him and his party, but caring enough for his daughter to maintain peace with her. For what it is worth, I choose to accept Herb Aptheker’s reality.

In history, disturbed and destructive people, however successful they may be, are destructive in their work and political life. Gary Murrell introduces his biography with this quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar’s “the evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones.” Let me end this review with another quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “the fault dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves that we are underlings.”

Educating the working class about itself and the central role of the African–American people in its past, present, and future, was the life of Herbert Aptheker, and it was a life heroically spent. There was never any evil in that. And to his legions of critics and those for whom anti-Communism is either a vocation or hobby, I would say the fault was not in him or his party but in themselves that they are underlings of a vestigial Cold War consensus about the history of the CPUSA and the American Left, a history that provides no one but the capitalist class with “a usable past.”[6]


[1] A brief anecdote of my meeting with Herb, soon after I joined the CPUSA ,”recruited” by John Cammett, a leading scholar of Antonio Gramsci and the European left. I  planned to attend an address given by Herb. But I had tickets to the Yankee-Kansas City playoff game. Although I have been a lifelong Dodger fan, encircled by Yankee fans since my childhood in the Bronx, I was looking forward to the game and another Yankee-Dodger World Series. But I gave up the tickets and went to see Herb and spoke to him afterwards. Herb was excellent, better than the Yankees who won the game, the playoff and then beat the Dodgers in the World Series. As Lenin once said, one step forward, two steps backward.

[2] There are a growing number of books that one should consult, beginning with Michael Brown, ed., New Studies in the Politics and Culture of U.S. Communism (1993) which contains important contributions by many scholars including Roger Keeran, Gerald Horne and others. See especially Roger Keeran’s important pioneering work The Communist Party and the Automobile Workers Unions and a literal bookshelf of works by Gerald Horne on African American History, including Black Liberation/Red Scare, Ben Davis and the Communist Party (1994) Black Revolutionary: William Patterson and the Globalization of the African-American Freedom Struggle (2013) along with biographies of W.E. B. Dubois and Shirley Graham Dubois, studies of the Hollywood Blacklist, and many others. Robin D. G. Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists in the Great Depression is also a hugely important work. Finally, in what is a very short list, John Bennett Sears, Generations of Resistance: The Electrical Workers Unions and the Cold War(2008) is an excellent political history of a Communist- led union, its achievements, and its remarkable struggle for survival through the high cold war period

[3] The struggle followed the revelations by Nikita Khrushchev at the 20th Congress of the CPSU of the abuses and crimes of the Stalin leadership and a subsequent “De-Stalinization” campaign, which led to conflicts within Communist parties through the world. The report, supposedly secret, was leaked to the CIA by a defector and then spread by CIA sources through the world. In the U.S., long-simmering divisions concerning the party’s response to the  Cold War repressions then came to the fore. From my own research, I know that the FBI, which had many infiltration agents in the CPUSA, sought to intensify the struggle in order to further weaken the party

[4] When I read this I thought of my own experiences. When I was graduating from high school in 1962, although I was very poor, I naively applied to Columbia, which rejected me outright. When I found out that another student who had lower grades than I did but was not Jewish had been accepted, I actually went down to the Columbia admissions office and asked a young assistant Dean with a crewcut why this had happened (not that I could have afforded to go to Columbia anyway ). He looked at me with condescension and said “you people are very competitive aren’t you.” I had experienced Jew-baiting before, but not from anyone representing the class whose interest that arrogant bureaucrat was serving

[5] A significant exception to this would be Kate Wiegand, Red Feminism: American Communism and the Making of Women’s Liberation (2002)

[6] For a fine review  albeit much shorter review of this work by a young CPUSA activist see Tony Pecinovsky, “Herbert Aptheker Biography is Political Narrative of Remarkable Man” in People;s World, October 8, 2015