C.L.R. James 1949

Herbert Aptheker’s Distortions

Source: Fourth International, Vol.10 No.11, December 1949, pp.337-341;
Written: by C.L.R. James under the name J. Meyer;
Transcribed: by Daniel Gaido.

In the last article, Stalinism and Negro History, (Fourth International, November 1949) we showed: 1) that from 1826 to 1831 the Negro people, slave and free, being locked in mortal combat with the slave-owners, were the driving force of what became the political movement of Abolitionism; 2) that Herbert Aptheker’s whole account shows that he sees the historical role of Negroes essentially as predecessors of the National Negro Congress and other Stalinist Negro organizations, that is to say, as groups whose sole function was to organize Negroes as appendages to the anti-slavery coalition. Thus Aptheker reverses completely the political relation of the, Negro slaves and free Negroes to the other revolutionary classes.

This becomes absolutely clear when he touches what he calls “The Pre-Civil War Generation” (The Negro in the Abolitionist Movement). He lists conventions, meetings, articles, speeches, etc. that occupy three pages (pp.36-39). Never once is there the slightest reference to the political perspectives or political line of any one of these organizations, groups or individuals. Just as the Stalinists view the function of the Negroes (and the proletariat) today as being one of abandoning all independent political activity and being simply “anti-fascist,” following docilely behind the CP, so it is sufficient that the Negroes in those days were “anti-slavery,” following docilely behind the Abolitionists.

We must follow Aptheker’s account closely. First, the Negroes meet and organize Negro resistance. Then, in addition to this, they organize “encouragement and assistance for progressive forces.” Thus we are told that certain Philadelphia Negroes, only two months after the launching of the Liberator, met and pledged their support to it, to which is added: “Such gatherings were common in various cities throughout the paper’s life.” The Liberator and the Abolitionists over here; the Negroes over there, pledging support. Under the heading of “United Struggles,” we read that Negroes “did not, of course, restrict themselves to independent work but struggled side by side with white people in the common effort.”

How did the Negroes struggle side by side? These Negroes “wrote many letters to Garrison, giving not only moral stimulation but also ... money and subscriptions.” We are informed that “contributions by Negroes in that paper and other Abolitionist publications were exceedingly common.” Again we can see here the sharp division between the Liberator, Abolitionism, and the Negroes.

Now Aptheker takes a leap. He gives us examples of what the Negroes wrote. “The Liberator for February 12, 1831, gave a third of its space to articles by two Philadelphia Negroes, a call to an anti-Colonization mass meeting in Boston.” Aptheker notes an account of a similar meeting held earlier in New York. He then informs us that these contributions of Negroes to the paper are “fairly typical of the entire thirty-five volumes of the paper.”

The observant reader cannot help being startled and can very well ask himself: Is this all that Negroes wrote about in a paper that lasted from 1831 to 1864? He need not be disturbed. Aptheker’s account is an incredible falsification. But let us continue with more of it. He says that the record of the proceedings of the Abolitionist organizations “is studded with accounts of, or contributions by, Negroes.” Aptheker is always making statements of this kind. But the moment you examine what he says concretely, a different picture appears.

Here, for instance, are the examples chosen at random by Aptheker. The 1849 meeting of one of these organizations was opened by an invocation by the Reverend Sam R. Wood and “the entertainment was furnished by the four Luca boys, Negro youngsters, who sang an anti-slavery song called Car of Emancipation.” Then Aptheker describes for us a Negro lady at a meeting who said that she had, heard of the Abolitionists as inciters to violence, knaves, fools, etc., but she had been sitting and listening and “she knew the Lord would bless them for they were good and righteous folk.” It has been necessary to give almost word for word Aptheker’s account. For it represents as vicious and subtle a piece of anti-Negro historical writing as it is possible to find and infinitely more dangerous than the chauvinism of the Bourbon historian.

The Real Facts of History

Any unbiased person who spends a few hours looking through the Liberator and other Abolitionist papers, and the accounts of Abolitionist societies will see that they are studded with innumerable political contributions, by Negroes to some of the greatest political conflicts that have ever taken place in the United States.

Here are only a few taken at random.

On June 8, 1849, Frederick Douglass made the open call for a slave insurrection in the South. Garrison, the pacifist, was sitting on the platform. The whole speech appeared in the Liberator. At the World Convention against Slavery held in London in June 1840, among the delegates representing the United States were Garrison and Charles Lenox Remond, a Negro. The World Convention objected to women being seated and Remond with three other American delegates sat amongst the rejected women and fought the issue through to the end.

During the intense excitement generated by the 1850 Compromise, the anniversary meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society fell due. The notorious Captain Isaiah Rynders, with a band of hoodlums who had the backing of the metropolitan papers and official society, sat in the gallery determined to break up the convention. Garrison’s incendiary speech started the disturbance. Rynders shouted from the organ loft and then marched down the aisle, followed by his band. But as Garrison’s biographer tells us, on that first day, Rynders and his men were “quite vanquished by the wit, repartee and eloquence of Frederick Douglass, Dr. Furness and Reverend Samuel R. Ward whom Wendell Phillips described as so black that “when he shut his eyes you could not see him.”

In the Liberator and other Abolitionist papers and in Abolitionist proceedings, you will find the great debates upon the US Constitution, the reports of tours, at home and abroad, by Douglass, Remend, Wells Brown, Douglass’ defense of having purchased his freedom, the question of political action versus “moral suasion.”

At the May 1855 meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society, Douglass attacked Garrison’s theory of the US Constitution. The New York Daily News reports the meeting as follows: “A grand and terrific set-to came off between Abby Kelley Foster, “Garrison and Frederick Douglass, who defended the Union while claiming rights for his people. He was insulted, interrupted and denounced by the Garrison Cabinet, but stood amid them and overtopped them like a giant among pigmies.”

At the end of the Civil War, when Garrison wanted to disband his society, Douglass, Remend and Wendell Phillips led the attack against him and insisted that the Society should continue until at least the Negroes got the vote.

We cannot go here into the history of the Abolition movement. But enough has been said to show the political mentality of a writer who in this mass of material selects a call for a meeting as typical of thirty-five years of Negro contributions to the Liberator and finds that Negro parsons giving invocations, Negro boys singing, and old Negro women blessing Abolitionism are the most characteristic aspects of Negro contributions to the struggle.

Subtle Form of Prejudice

This is no ordinary, racial prejudice. It is something far worse. It is a political method which compels the writer to place the Negroes in a subordinate category and at whatever sacrifice of historical fact keep them there. Whatever does not fit into this scheme must go out. Aptheker cannot escape the consequences of his political ideas. Any history of the Civil War which does not base itself upon the Negroes, slave and free, as the subject and not the object of politics, is ipso facto a Jim Crow history. That is why even the Negro writers, with all the good work that they have done and their subjective desire to elevate the Negro’s past, seldom escape paternalism or apologies-both of them forms of white chauvinism: paternalism, an inflation, and apologetics a deflation of the subtle chauvinistic poison. But these and the carelessness or traditional ignorance of liberals can be fought and corrected. You cannot correct Stalinist history without destroying Stalinism.

To keep his history within the confines of his politics, Aptheker must not only omit, he must falsify. We cannot pursue all his falsifications. What he have to do, however, is to show the thoroughly reactionary anti-Negro, anti-proletarian and even anti-liberal ideas which stage by stage emerge from the encomiums to the Negroes with which he plasters his writings.

One of the greatest lessons of the Abolitionist movement is the way in which (despite constant accusations of racial chauvinism) the political representatives of the classes, while in perpetual conflict with each other, achieved a racial unity, cooperation and solidarity unknown in the United States up to that time and afterwards, until the formation of the CIO. While it is possible formally and for special purposes to separate Negroes from whites, any account either of whites or Negroes in the Abolitionist struggle is totally false unless it shows this integration. Aptheker, while perpetually talking about the “united struggles” of Negroes and whites, destroys this precious heritage.

In his attempt to show how Negroes contributed to “the progressive forces,” he cites the fact that in the first issue of a popular annual called Autographs For Freedom, there is a sketch of a Scottish Abolitionist John Murray and a sixty-seven page history of a slave rebellion aboard the domestic slave trader Creble by Frederick Douglass. He adds that the second issue of Autographs also had five articles by Negroes. This sounds innocent and can be used as an example of progressive historical writing. But what are the real facts?

When Douglass toured in England; he made a vast number of friends for the movement and for himself as a representative of it. Money was subscribed to pay for his freedom, and a substantial sum was given him for the purpose of starting a paper of his own. He finally did so, but the expense was great, he had to mortgage his house and he got heavily into debt.

At this time one of his English friends, Miss Julia Griffiths, and her sister came to the United States, and settled down in Rochester, taking over the management of Douglass’ paper to leave him free to write and carry on his general political activities. A woman of literary ability and great energy, she not only made a success of the management of the paper but in her spare time edited Autographs For Freedom. To characterize Douglass’ article in this publication as an example of how Negroes contributed to “the progressive forces” is to show how alien to the actual struggle is the mentality which Stalinism brings to this striking but characteristic episode in the history of Abolitionism.

Douglass in the Forefront

Let us continue with this aspect of Douglass’ career, for Aptheker’s treatment of Douglass more than anything else betrays his conception of the role of the Negro in politics. In the struggle for women’s emancipation as in all the causes of the day, Douglass was in the forefront. His paper, Frederick Douglass’ Paper, was the official organ of the Free Soil Party in New York State. At the second convention of that party he was elected secretary by acclamation. At the National Loyalist Convention after the Civil War, sponsored by the Republican party, Douglass represented the city of Rochester. The people of Rochester asked him to stand for Congress as a Republican and Theodore Weld made a special visit to Rochester to persuade him. But he refused. Here obviously was no “mere” Negro appendage to the Abolitionist Movement.

Now to return to Aptheker. Undoubtedly conscious of the fact that this account so far had been terribly lacking, Aptheker pulls out all his stops when he comes to the Negro propagandists of Abolitionism. This, he says, is “the most vital part” of the story, and he is correct: it is the most vital part of his story. Again he tosses in one of his misleading phrases about the “decisive role of Negroes.” Close examination, however, shows that as usual here where the phrasing is most radical, the political content is correspondingly reactionary. To see this we must transfer ourselves to the Abolition period and try to catch some of its social atmosphere.

In the middle of the nineteenth century the slaveowners sought to prove that the Negroes loved slavery, and in any case that Negroes were not men. Therefore when escaped slaves denounced the institution with eloquence and logic, they had a tremendous effect. Aptheker quotes Garrison on this. But there was another side to this question. Escaped slaves who gained some education, insofar as they formed a group apart from others, carried on their own political activity. As we have repeated, the fundamental struggle within Abolitionism was the struggle represented by these against the humanitarian tendency of the New England intellectuals.

“Give us the facts – and leave the philosophy to us,” said a Garrisonian to the aspiring young Douglass. Douglass was to say later that these white Abolitionists thought that they “owned him.” Later Garrison fought Douglass with extreme ferocity, not only on his politics but on the very idea that Douglass should have a paper of his own. There were all kinds of conflicts in the Abolition Movement on the chauvinist issue. Yet it must be remembered that Douglass, who stood no nonsense on any slights upon him as a Negro, revered Garrison to the end; to the extent that the accusations of chauvinism were true, they were essentially political; and Garrison’s character, reputation and achievements were such that they could stand the charges, not only today but then.

Aptheker cannot claim similar consideration. The pernicious character of Stalinist politics is revealed by the fact that in the middle of the twentieth century, when even some of the reactionary Southern senators have dropped the argument of organic Negro inferiority, Aptheker’s whole argumentation remains within the confines of the nineteenth century debate. That is why for him, the Negro propagandists are “the most vital part” of the story. Like the Garrisonian who spoke to Douglass, Aptheker has no use for Negro philosophy, i.e., Negro politics. The escaped Negroes by “their bearing, courage, and intelligence” were the most “devastating anti-slavery forces.” This is the politics which sees the share-cropper’s contribution essentially as a recital of his wrongs.

Aptheker does not merely mention the suitability of the ex-slaves as propagandists and then pass on. This is his main theme. “Had none of these people existed but one, his existence and participation in the Abolitionist movement would justify the assertion that the Negro’s role therein was decisive. That man is Frederick Douglass who ...” This is what Aptheker means by the role of the Negroes – not their politics, but their heroic deaths, the contributions of money, songs and stray articles to the Liberator and Abolitionist agitation. Thus he no sooner touches Douglass than he defiles him. He says that Douglass “from his first public speech in 1841 to his organizing and recruiting activities during the war against the slavocracy was the voice of America’s millions of slaves.” Completely one-sided and therefore totally wrong.

From 1841 to his recruiting for the Northern army, Douglass was the voice of the American Revolution. Stage by stage he embodied its development until in 1860 he gave critical support to the Republican Party while defiantly proclaiming that he was still a radical Abolitionist. It was precisely when the bourgeoisie took over that Douglass became primarily a leader of the Negroes. (And at this time also, Wendell Phillips, who had been for a time eclipsed by Douglass, rose to his greatest heights and spoke superbly for a revolutionary conduct of the war and the revolutionary settlement of the Southern question.)

Question of Racial Equality

Had that been all Aptheker had to say, it would have been bad enough. But Aptheker then spends almost a page on Douglass as follows: He was a magnificent figure of a man, impregnable, incorruptible, scars on his back, African prince, majestic in his wrath, grand in his physical proportions. A tailor in England who heard him had never been so moved in his life, etc., etc. Why all this? Why? When there has not been a word about Douglass’ politics?

Aptheker gives the show away when he quotes a famous incident in Douglass’ career. Captain Rynders once baited Douglass with the taunt, that Negroes were monkeys. Douglass turned to him and asked him: “Am I a man?” Aptheker relates: “the effect was nothing short of stupendous.” No doubt it was. The reader, however, cannot help noting, after all these “African prince” paragraphs, that the effect on Aptheker in 1940 is still stupendous.

American racial prejudice is usually crude but at the same time can be a very subtle thing. To understand how unhealthy is Aptheker’s ignoring of Douglass’ politics and his excitement at the Rynders episode, we must see how Douglass himself treated the question.

Douglass personally fought race prejudice wherever he met it. But in discussion he treated the purely racial attacks of his enemies not only with counter-arguments but with a certain humorous contempt. Thus in this very debate he switched the problem aside by saying if he was a monkey, his father was a white man, and therefore Rynders was his half-brother. Twice he called Rynders his half-brother. On another occasion, after speaking very movingly in England on this question of Negroes being considered monkeys in the United States, he broke the tension by relating that a few days before a big dog had come up to him and stared him in the face, and, said Douglass, I could see in his eyes that he recognized humanity.

He used to relate how when sleeping space was limited on the benches aboard ship, he would simply show his face and say to newcomers “I am a Negro,” hoping they would go along. But one man said to him: “Negro be damned, you move down.” So concluded Douglass, my being black is no longer of any use to me.

Some hecklers who asked him if it was true that his wife was a white woman, were treated to a long discourse as to the irrelevance of the question, what business was it of theirs, etc., and were constantly led up to the point where they expected him to make the admission. He never admitted anything but soon went on with his speech, leaving them to find out afterwards that his wife (his first wife) was Negro.

This sort of thing occurs in many speeches and was obviously habitual with him. The reason is not far to seek. Douglass was not only a sensitive Negro, but a highly political person. And despite the powerful social pressure, he would not allow this question to occupy any status more than was absolutely necessary. He dealt with it, brushed it aside often with a smile, and then went on to politics.

Exactly the opposite is Aptheker’s Stalinist method. The politics he ignores and therefore reaches the most genuine pitch of enthusiasm when he is proving that Negroes were not only men but some Negro slaves were marvelous men and did wonderful work side by side with “the progressive forces.” This is not merely popular writing. A portion of this pamphlet appeared in the Stalinist theoretical journal, Science and Society, replete with footnotes and references.

Anti-Fascist Not Anti-capitalist

Aptheker’s politics not only in relation to Negroes but in relation to the American workers is pitched at the very lowest level. He is busy proving to the American proletariat, to labor bureaucrats and liberals that the Negro is a man and a brother, will struggle hard, and can produce many brilliant men who will speak for the Negro far more effectively than any white man can. At the same time he is offering to the Negro leaders place at the table of the anti-fascist coalition. Aptheker by the way does not hide this. Here is the conclusion of his book Negro Slave Revolts:

“An awareness of its history should give the modern Negro added confidence and courage in his heroic present-day battle for complete and perfect equality with all other American citizens. And it should make those other Americans eager and proud to grasp the hands of the Negro and march forward with him against their common oppressors-against the industrial and financial overlords and the plantation oligarchs who today stand in the way of liberty, equality and prosperity.

“That unity between the white and Negro masses was necessary to overthrow nineteenth-century slavery. That same unity is necessary now to defeat twentieth-century slavery-to defeat fascism.”

See how swiftly in the last paragraph capitalism is pushed aside and fascism is substituted for it. This is vital for the whole scheme. To talk about the overthrow of capitalism would destroy the concept of the anti-fascist coalition; it would bring on to the scene independent proletarian politics and independent Negro politics. Aptheker maintains an unrelenting hostility to any such manifestation among Negroes either today or in the Civil War.

Aptheker, writing on “Militant Abolitionism” in the Journal of Negro History (Vol.26, p.463) had to refer to Douglass’ call for a slave insurrection. That a Negro should consciously call for insurrection! God forbid! Aptheker writes that Douglass “found himself saying ...” The magnificent African prince could do much, but that he could stand on a platform and out of his own head consciously speak of insurrection – that Aptheker simply could not stand. He makes it into a visitation from on high. Douglass just “found himself saying” it. In To Be Free, where he article reappears, the damning phrase is omitted but Aptheker cannot get rid of his whole reactionary conception of Negroes in American history which this phrase embodies without withdrawing every line he has written.

Stalinist Sleight of Hand

Stalinism tries to manipulate history as a sleight-of-hand man manipulates cards. But unlike the conjurer, a stern logic pushes Stalinism in an ever more reactionary direction. For five years Aptheker covered up his anti-Negro concepts with constant broad statements about the “decisive character” of slave insurrections, Negro agitators etc. in the Civil War and the period preceding it. In 1946, however, in The Negro People in America, Aptheker broke new ground. He put forward a new theory that at one stroke made a wreck of all that he had said before. Let his own words speak:

“It was the development of increased agitation on the part of non-slaveholding whites prior to the Civil War for the realization of the American creed that played a major part in provoking the desperation that led the slaveholders to take up arms.” (p.41)

Upon the flimsiest scraps of evidence, the theory is elaborated that it was the withholding of democracy from non-slaveholding whites that pushed the South to the Civil War.

“In terms of practice, as concerns the mass of the white people of the South, this anti-democratic philosophy was everywhere implemented. The property qualifications for voting and office-holding, the weighing of the legislature to favor slaveholding against non-slaveholding counties, the inequitable taxation system falling most heavily on mechanics’ tools and least heavily on slaves, the whole system of economic, social and educational preferment for the possessors of slaves, and the organized, energetic, and partially successful struggles carried on against this system by the non-slaveholding whites form – outside of the response of the Negroes to enslavement – the actual content of the South’s internal history for the generation preceding the Civil War.”

It is clear that only at the last minute Aptheker remembered the slaves and threw in the phrase about their “response.” Historically this is a crime. The non-slaveholding whites who supposedly pushed the South into the Civil War were not in any way democrats. They were small planters and city people who formed a rebellious but reactionary social force, hostile to the big planters, the slaves and the democratically minded farmers in the non-plantation regions.

What particular purpose this new development is to serve does not concern us here. What is important, however, is its logical identity with the hostility to Negro radicalism and independent Negro politics which has appeared in Aptheker’s work from the very beginning to this climax-pushing the Negroes aside for the sake of non slaveholding whites in the South.

However fair may be the outside of Stalinist history and politics, however skillful may be the means by which its internal corruption is disguised, inevitably its real significance appears. There is no excuse today for those who allow themselves to be deceived by it. For all interested in this sphere, it is a common duty, whatever differences may exist between us, to see to it that the whole Stalinist fakery on Negro history be thoroughly exposed for what it really is.


Last updated on: 11 April 2009