A Study in Willful Blindness
Herbert Aptheker: Studies in Willful Blindness. By Anthony Flood. Independently published, 2019. I +93 pages.
Anthony Flood tells that in “the early 1970s, I was an acolyte of Herbert Aptheker(1915-2003). Known mainly for his writings on African-American history he was also, during the Cold War and even after, a theoretician of the Communist Party USA (CP).” (p.1) Flood became Aptheker’s research assistant and friend, but he eventually turned in disgust from his mentor, repulsed by Communist tyranny and atrocities.
Flood has documented a striking example of the way Aptheker’s rigid adherence to the Stalinist line corrupted his historical writing. Aptheker is best known as a historian for his American Negro Slave Revolts, his doctoral dissertation, published in 1943. In that book, he never cites the West Indian Marxist C.L.R. James’s Black Jacobins (1938), a study of the San Domingo Revolution of 1791 that overthrew the slave regime and established the Haitian Republic. Aptheker fully recognized the significance of the event; why then does he ignore James’s book? “What scholars virtually never even mention. . .is Aptheker’s life-long practice of rendering James invisible.”(p.15)
The answer, Flood suggests, is that James was a follower of Leon Trotsky. “Aptheker could not have missed the reviews it garnered in scholarly journals and the mainstream press. And yet in the few pages he devoted to that revolt in American Negro Slave Revolts, he neither cited Black Jacobins nor even listed it in his bibliography. For a card-carrying Stalinist like Aptheker, however, there was no lower form of life than a Trotskyist. “(p.80)
By no means did James ignore Aptheker. To the contrary, he attacked Aptheker for downplaying the role of blacks in abolitionist organizations. The Stalinists, James claimed, viewed blacks as subordinate shock troops of a prospective revolution rather than independent actors, and this Stalinist line Aptheker faithfully followed. True to his policy of treating James as an invisible man, Aptheker never responded to James’s criticism.
Flood discusses a number of other examples of the corrupting effects of Aptheker’s Communist bias, such as his tendentious The Truth about Hungary, approving the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, and his claim in a newspaper article written in 1950 that the lack of revolts in North Korea showed that the Communist regime in power had popular approval.
Flood’s book is enlivened by stories of his conversations with Aptheker and Aptheker’s bitter enemy, the philosopher Sidney Hook, who was one of Flood’s professors. His careful account of the “invisible man” in Aptheker’s historiography is a valuable contribution.