My Letter To Bettina Aptheker

Saturday, February 4, was one of my greatest days in years. First, Betty Friedan celebrated her 85th birthday by dying. Second, Bettina Aptheker sent me a letter. I had looked forward to the first event for 37 years and the second for at least 41. I went out to dinner to celebrate.

I first responded to Friedan in my 1971 article in The Freeman, “The Feminine Mistake,” which was the first article in the January issue. What I did not know at the time — few people did — is that Betty Friedan had been a dedicated Stalinist in college. She had also been the mistress/lover/sweetie-pie of Manhattan Project director J. Robert Oppenheimer, which does not prove that Oppie was a Communist — only that he had excruciatingly bad taste in women. This information became public knowledge with the publication of Betty Friedan and the Making of the Feminine Mystique (1999), by Professor Daniel Horowitz. David Horowitz — no relation — then told the world about this in a 1999 book review published in Salon. On his website, David Horowitz adds this:

The actual facts of Friedan’s life — that she was a professional Marxist ideologue, that her husband supported her full-time writing and research, that she had a maid and lived in a Hudson river mansion, attending very little to household duties — were inconvenient to the persona and the theory she was determined to promote.

She was the primary founder of the National Organization of Women. I referred to her as “The Nose” in my summary of my proposed home school course on the ‘sixties, published on on February 2.

In that article, I also referred to Bettina Aptheker. I mentioned her importance in the Free Speech Movement at the University of California, Berkeley — specifically, her role on October 1 in preventing a police car from taking away one of the demonstrators — she and 3,000 other protestors.

This produced a response from one of the old FSM participants, who told me that I had the facts wrong. I referred him to the Wikipedia account of the event, where Ms. Aptheker was described as the leader in this event. I suggested that if this is incorrect, that he should correct it. Wiki’s software allows editing. I sent my letter to him and the other people to whom he had sent a copy of his letter to me, whose e-mail addresses he had included. Within an hour, I had responses from several of them, all insisting that I had my facts wrong.

Then, I received a letter from Ms. Aptheker, insisting that she really had not been all that important — only a person who had been standing immediately next to the police car in question when it was surrounded by the students.

It seems that the old FSM crowd has an active list of participants who stay in contact with each other constantly. Someone had contacted her, and she then contacted me.

This was the opportunity of a lifetime. To most readers of this page, all this is ancient history. Well, it isn’t when you’re ancient. Why, I could tell you stories. . . .

Sorry. My mind wandered for a moment.

Anyway, this was a communication from The Real McCoy. Ms. Aptheker was no fellow traveler, no hanger-on, in 1964. She was the daughter of Herbert Aptheker, who in the 1960s could legitimately lay claim to the title of senior theoretician of the American Communist Party. Lest you think I am exaggerating, let me cite the article on him that appears on the Spartacus School website — a site devoted, not to finding “Commies under the bed,” but instead devoted to honoring all those Communists who actually got there.

In 1939 Aptheker joined the American Communist Party. During the Second World War he served in the United States Army and took part in Operation Overlord and by 1945 had reached the rank of major. . . .

Aptheker was editor of Masses and the Mainstream (1948—53) and Political Affairs (1953—1963) and served as executive director of the American Institute for Marxist Studies. . . .

After the listing [lifting] of the blacklist Aptheker held posts at Bryn Mawr College, the University of California, City University of New York and the University of Santa Clara.

There were always university posts available in the 1960s for academically certified people who shared Prof. Aptheker’s worldview. He died in March, 2003. The laudatory obituary in the New York Times (March 20) by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt drew an immediate response from David Horowitz.

Herbert Aptheker was the leading intellectual defender of Stalinism in the American Communist movement. Aptheker defended all of Stalin’s crimes, and led the charge in defaming courageous thinkers on the left, like Sidney Hook, who did not. Throughout his life, Aptheker denounced his own country as an imperialist, racist and criminal society, which made him an icon in the leftwing reaches of the American academy. . . .

In 1956, scores of American Communists were having second thoughts as a result of the Khrushchev report [the 1956 “secret speech” to the 20th Party Congress, in which Khrushchev, who had served as the government’s executioner in Ukraine in 1938, accused his former boss of indulging in a deviation he called “the cult of personality” — G.N.], and were having second thoughts about the life of lies they were living because of the Soviet invasion of Hungary to repress a popular (and Communist-led) uprising against their Soviet oppressors. This crime was reported honestly in the British Communist press by reporter Peter Freyer. The invasion was also protested by the American Daily Worker, edited by Communist leader John Gates, who was shortly removed for his good deed. It was Aptheker who responded for the most reactionary and anti-democratic wing of the Communist Party with a vigorous defense of the Soviet invasion.

In 1964, his daughter gained national notoriety as one of the organizers of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, a role that she has openly acknowledged. If you have any doubts, read her speech at the 1984 FSM reunion.

The speech’s introduction is what delights me, for it proves my main point in my letter to Ms. Aptheker: The Establishment co-opts the revolutionaries. It buys them off.

Nancy Skinner: Bettina Aptheker is currently an instructor in Women’s Studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz. She kiddingly said to me that she is still fighting with the Regents and the administration there. She was on the Free Speech Movement Steering Committee; she is very involved in the Women’s Movement now, as she was then. She was very active in Angela Davis’ defense during her trial twelve years ago; and I am very pleased to introduce Bettina Aptheker. [Applause.]

Ms. Aptheker teaches women’s studies at UC Santa Cruz, which also pays Ms. Davis’s salary. (For those who do not remember Ms. Davis, she was an afro-wearing, gap-toothed but otherwise knock-out good-looking card-carrying Communist, who was the female radical of choice on TV talk shows until Gloria Steinem showed up. Blondes may not have more fun, but they get higher Neilsen ratings.) Santa Cruz put Ms. Aptheker on the faculty in 1980, even though she had only a master’s degree, and that was in speech communication, not women’s studies, which she was hired to teach.

Ms. Aptheker has no degree in women’s studies, which actually speaks rather well of her. She earned a Ph.D. in something called the History of Consciousness. Sorry, but I am not familiar with this particular academic niche. I know that at least a dozen of my college professors would not have qualified for inclusion in the curriculum. This fact is worth noting: She got her Ph.D. from the same university that immediately hired her: Santa Cruz. This hiring policy is extremely rare in the United States. A university that hires its own Ph.D. graduates — Harvard excepted — can be accused of academic incest. (This “deviant academic behavior” does not bother me at all. It is the gang-rape of the taxpayer that bothers me.)

To say that the academic Establishment co-opted Ms. Aptheker is putting it mildly. Here is an even better way to put it: The Left takes care of its own. The fact that she helped shut down a campus in 1964 was her departmental free pass in 1980.

Was she a mover and shaker with the FSM in 1964? Unquestionably. In his reminiscences, Michael Rossman — one of the FSM participants who also sent me e-mails to correct my misunderstanding of those antediluvian events — notes the following:

. . . we did treasure the one Commie highest among us, Bettina Aptheker, because she was righteously conservative and wise.

But now they play coy. The Wikipedia article is wrong in attributing so much importance to her, they all insist. Even she does.

What Mr. Rossman, Ms. Aptheker, and the other Medicare-eligible members of their mailing list apparently do not understand is this: Movements have visible representatives, both at the time and in retrospect. Yes, it is true that the organizers in the early few days of the FSM movement were, with one exception, no-name radicals. Subsequently, they spent the rest of their invisible careers proving why they were no-names. But Ms. Aptheker was not a no-name. She was the daughter of a big name. So, she is remembered. The others are not.

Bettina Aptheker has become the representative of the FSM in retrospect because of who she was then: the daughter of the most important Communist theorist in America. This is the “price” of being the daughter of a famous Communist: You get credit for organizing the campus revolution that launched a worldwide campus revolt, one which came close to shutting down France in 1968.

The most famous media representative of FSM at the time, Mario Savio, disappeared shortly thereafter. Two decades later, he earned a bachelor’s degree in physics at San Francisco State University. He later earned a master’s degree. The university system then co-opted him, just as it co-opted Angela Davis (M.A.): by allowing him to teach with no Ph.D. He taught at Sonoma State University. He taught mathematics and philsophy in some capacity for three years, though in neither a permanent nor professorial position, since he had no Ph.D. in either field. Lesson: the Left takes care of its own, usually at taxpayers’ expense. He died in 1996, which the newspaper world greeted with lots of “what ever happened to?” obituaries.

In her eulogy of him, Ms. Aptheker ended with these words.

Mario loved the wind. He loved water. He loved mountains. He loved the night sky. With each breath he was connected to all of life. Mario, Mario with each breath now, as we breathe for you, together we will look, watch, gather ourselves together. We will move towards the sighting that was on the horizon of your life, hold you in memory and walk with you, holding each other in our grief, until dawn.

When the daughter of America’s supreme Communist theorist and Stalin apologist adopts touchie-feelie rhetoric like this to say goodbye to the catalyst of the student revolution of the ‘sixties, and then posts it on the Web, we old-time anti-Communists should take heart. It is clear to me that when the Good Ship Soviet Union went down in 1991, there was an insufficient number of rhetorical lifeboats on board.

I refer in my letter to Jerry Rubin. He was the #1 media master of the ‘sixties revolutionary era. The media could not resist him, as he fully understood. He used to dress in a Che Guevara-style beret, Viet Cong trousers, and carry a toy AR-15 machine gun. He told huge college-sanctioned assemblies of students to kill their parents. He got his start in the FSM, where he was a graduate student. There, he co-founded the Vietnam Day Committee in 1965. After radical chic became radical passé, he became a stock broker. He died in 1994 when a car ran over him. He had been jaywalking.

Without further background material, here is my February 4, 2006 letter to Bettina Aptheker.

My Dear Ms. Aptheker:

How nice to hear from you!

I shall of course include your update in my curriculum. I want it to be accurate. No need to exaggerate when you’re the winner in a 150-year struggle between the vanguard of the proletariat and the forces of reaction. As you no doubt noticed, Wal-Mart won. Sam Walton danced, not on Marx’s grave, but on Wall Street — in a hula skirt.

My theory of social change is that there is always some low-level bureaucrat who makes some bonehead decision based on the official rules, and this decision triggers a public cataclysm, though rarely spontaneous. My poster girl for this has always been Katherine Towle. Two decades ago, I wrote about her decision to shut down the campus radical recruiting zone at Berkeley, in my book, Unholy Spirits. [Oops — a senior moment. It was Foundations of Christian Scholarship.] After the bonehead bureaucrat has done his/her work, skilled troublemakers, whether revolutionaries like yourself or right-wing termites like me, can then get to work. The Establishment spends its resources either quashing or co-opting the revolutionaries. Co-option works best. The most recent strategic success is discussed in Bobos in Paradise. The poster boy of this process of co-option is of course Jerry Rubin, who wound up selling stocks and bonds. Sadly for him, in his lifelong outrage against his parents, he ignored their words: “Look both ways before crossing.”

Who would have thought in 1964 that it would wind up like this? Not I, surely. I had been an anti-Communist all my life. My father was an FBI agent devoted to monitoring Dorothy Healey until she defected. Then he was transferred to the Trotskyite watch. I was a 14-year-old convert by Fred Schwarz before even your father had heard of him. A dozen years later, I wrote Marx’s Religion of Revolution (1968). So, I sat in utter amazement and delight on August 19—21, 1991, watching an inebriated claque of Party hacks surrender the Marxist paradise-in-making to the drunken Boris Yeltsin. From tragedy to farce, as old Karl himself said it — the only major prediction that he ever got right. It forced Yakov Smirnoff to develop a new routine. All I could think was, “What a specter!”

I only wish Kaganovich had lived to see it. He died just a few months too early.

Overnight, the “books for a buck” bins across America filled up with What Marx Really Meant and similar titles. Nobody cared what he meant any more. Sad — I had 2,000 copies of an updated 1988 version of my Marx book in inventory. Marxism went from being feared and respected in academia to being laughed at on campus from then on. There is nothing like a little derisive laugher to remind a verbal revolutionary with leather patches on his tweed jacket that he bet on the wrong horse.

It’s nice to know you old leftists still keep the network going, still dreaming of the good old days, still arguing over what might have been.

Just between you and me, I always liked Pete Seeger, especially when he played his 12-string.

Ironic, isn’t it? The S.D.S. had planned Kent State for over a year, got Jerry invited to speak on April 10, and yet the resulting event put all of you out of business within four months, permanently. The Me Decade had arrived, radical chic had departed, and within a decade, Reagan was elected.

The correlation of forces never did quite pan out as expected by you guys.

Oh, well. Win some, lose some.

February 7, 2006

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit He is also the author of a free 17-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

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