Bettina Aptheker is a well-known American radical who in the 1960s was a leader of the campus Left, and now, like so many of her peers, is a tenured activist on the faculty of a major university. Her father, Herbert Aptheker, was the Communist Party’s most prominent Cold War intellectual and, as the Party’s “leading theoretician,” a noted enforcer of its orthodoxy. The author of a notorious tract justifying the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary, Aptheker earned academic credentials as the author of a Columbia University doctoral thesis on American Negro Slave Revolts and was appointed editor of the papers of fellow Communist and friend, W.E.B. DuBois, and eventually executor of his literary estate. These achievements made Aptheker an unwitting intellectual forerunner of the ethnic and gender “identity politics” that would capture the allegiance of his daughter’s generation and supplant the economic Stalinism that was his own window on the world. “The Party was everything” for him, his daughter tells us in a newly published memoir – “glorious, true, righteous, the marrow out of which black liberation would finally come.” His truth was not that of the scholar and skeptic but of the priest, framed “in absolutes: Loyalty, loyalty to this movement above all else.” It was a mantle the daughter aspired to put on: “To inherit a father’s dreams makes you the eldest son. To further his ambitions makes you heir to the throne.” The apercu is quoted from an anthology of lesbian writings and appears on the very first page of her memoir, provocatively titled Intimate Politics: How I Grew Up Red, Fought for Free Speech, and Became a Feminist Rebel.
I sat down to read this memoir expecting to learn little or nothing from the effort. The low expectations were not personal but a response to the genre of Communist memoirs, with which I was all too familiar. Political missionaries such as Bettina Aptheker and her father are self-confined prisoners of a religious faith, a fact she unexpectedly acknowledges early in her text: “While some families embraced religion to believe in and guide their lives, we had Communism.” It is this fact that makes such reminiscences normally unrewarding. The moral compass of an ideological faith requires a flattening of the human landscape and the reduction of its complexities to the formulas that enable its pilgrims to chart their earthly progress.
In the Apthekers’ household, this moral rectitude routinely required the suppression of facts inconvenient to their cause and the occlusion of perspectives that questioned its truths. The father’s apologetic for the Soviet outrage in Hungary was an obvious case in point. By her own account, the daughter rigidly followed his ideological footsteps. Indeed despite her claim to be a “feminist rebel,” she owes to him every achievement of notoriety in her own political career. By her own account the Aptheker daughter was not even aware of the ideas of non-Party Marxists like Herbert Marcuse and Maurice Merleau-Ponty before encountering them in graduate school in her late twenties. “There was a whole world of ideas out there about which I knew almost nothing,” she observes in her text, “because my reading had been so (self-) censored.” It is an even more striking admission in that she had spent the previous 10 years as a student and political actor in an environment – Berkeley – which was the capital of the “New Left” and thus the center of a veritable renaissance of unorthodox radical ideas.
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