Sunday, April 26, 2020

The ruling class may not rule -- but the state always rules in the interest of the ruling class

Jacobin recently posted a fascinating thought-piece on the Marxist theory of the state. It is actually a reprint of an article originally published in 1977 by the radical sociologist Fred Block, titled, "The Ruling Class Does Not Rule." (

The article posits an "unorthodox" Marxist analysis of the manner in which the state in capitalist society is always a product of the interaction between the existing economic classes and social forces of society. This is true regardless of the desired political content of the state managers -- be they of the right, the center, or the left.

In other words, as long as society is cleft into opposing classes, and as long as the means of production by and large remain in the hands of one of those classes (namely, the capitalist class), then the state will forever manifest as a bourgeois state -- the state of a capitalist society -- despite the conscious intentions of the major social actors. Or, as Marx puts it, the character of the state is determined by the nature of the existing struggle between the classes so that it appears to take on a form independent of the will of any of the major social actors; that is, the content of the state is formulated "behind their backs," as it were.

The conclusion? As long as there is a capital-owning class arrayed against a working class, the state of such a society will always be essentially capitalist in form and function. Only with the abolition of the classes themselves, through the total appropriation of the capitalist class by a universal working class (which in turn, as a matter of definition, loses the character of a "class" as such), will the state lose its class, i.e., capitalist, character, and become, first, a socialist workers' state, and ultimately, a universal state of simply "the people."

Consider, by way of comparison, a slave society. Any state which exists and abides alongside the existence of a slave-owning class arrayed against a class of slaves will always be essentially a state of slavery. It is only by pitting itself in open and total hostility to the master class, and then proceeding to abolish said master class by "appropriating" or liberating it of its ownership over the capital from which it derives its power and very existence (i.e., slaves, human beings), that the state can be said to completely lose its character as a state of slavery. This can be stated in tautological form thusly: The abolition of slavery is the absolute precondition for the abolition of a state of slavery (i.e., a state influenced by the existence of a slave-owning and enslaved class dialectic).

In sum, as regards the question of capitalism and the state, it means that any movement which seeks to use the state as an anti-capitalist instrument must simultaneously and minimally prepare to pit itself in direct and total belligerence against the capital-owning class (i.e., that class which privately owns the means of production). It must prepare its constituency and convince the working class of the imminent need to appropriate the capitalist class out of existence entirely. Anything less will inevitably end in naught but capitulation to the role of state manager of capitalism, i.e., managing the capitalist state; which is to say, managing the systemic exploitation and oppression of the working class by the capitalist class.

This is why the notion of a Socialist Party governing in a society which exists and abides alongside the existence of a capitalist class is simply a contradiction containing the seeds of its own undoing. Socialists cannot truly pursue a coherent and consistent socialist program while managing a capitalist state. To rephrase the above tautology, the precondition of a socialist state is the abolition of the contending classes of capitalist society. Any socialist party or movement which does not view its road to power as passing through this imminent conquest has, a priori, forfeited the pursuit of a socialist state.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

How a third party helped to abolish slavery in the U.S.

First published on August 10, 2016, at


Are third parties irresponsible "spoilers"? Or a necessary part of challenging a spoiled system? Keith Rosenthal and Alan Maass look back at history for some answers.

FOR MANY people, third-party politics in the contemporary U.S. is a nonstarter at best and downright irresponsible at worst.

One need only observe the torrent of invective currently being leveled against supporters of the Green Party's Jill Stein, who is running a left-wing third-party challenge against both the "lesser evil" Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and the "greater evil" Republican Donald Trump.

The overlooked truth, however, is that third-party election efforts historically played an important part in advancing progressive causes in the U.S. The most obvious example is the abolition of slavery. It was arguably the single-most significant social advance in U.S. history--and it was catalyzed in part by third-party initiatives.

IN THE decades preceding the Civil War, the two ruling-class political parties that dominated the U.S. system were the Democrats and the Whigs.

The Democrats were the party of slavery. They were dominated by the Southern slave-owning master class and consistently advocated the expansion of slavery into newly organized Western states--every issue was viewed through the lens of what would defend and extend the institution of slavery. The Northern wing of the Democrats were built around urban political machines that depended on votes from working people, but the Southern slaveocracy called the shots within the party.

The Whigs were the second main party from 1833 onward, appealing primarily to the Northern ruling class that was becoming more powerful on the basis of industrial production. But while the Northern industrialists clashed with the Southern slave power over a range of political issues, from trade and tariffs to spending on infrastructure development, the Whigs stood for a "measured" policy of compromise and conciliation, prizing national unity above all else.

Probably the best-known national leader of the Whigs was Henry Clay--who was even known as the "Great Compromiser" for his role in brokering a series of legislative compromises that papered over the divisions between North and South.

On the all-important question of whether slavery should be legal in new Western territories as they became states, the Democrats were unreservedly in favor of the expansion of slavery, while the Whigs at most argued that the question of whether a state should be slave or free should be decided by popular vote.

Still, if you apply the logic of the current liberal scolders that anyone who questions a vote for Hillary Clinton is helping the Republicans, the Whigs would still represent the "lesser evil" compared to the Democrats.

But the most determined opponents of slavery in this era viewed the Whigs as one wing of a political system that was completely committed to upholding the institution of slavery.

In fact, abolitionist sentiment in the Northern states was sharpened most of all by the compromises negotiated by the Whigs to hold the North and South together. For example, the Compromise of 1850 curbed some of the South's ambitions for slavery's Western expansion, but the cost was a strengthened Fugitive Slave Act that essentially made the federal government responsible for capturing and transporting free Blacks to any Southerner who claimed to have owned them as slaves.

Far from viewing the Whigs as the "lesser evil," the dominant attitude among abolitionists in this era was to reject any participation in the U.S. political system. They believed that the Constitution itself was "infected with the pestilence of slavery," as the abolitionist agitator William Lloyd Garrison put it, and any involvement in politics would corrupt the participants and turn them into compromisers, too.

Gradually, though, some opponents of slavery--Frederick Douglass among them--started moving toward a different strategy. They wouldn't choose between the two evils, Democrats and Whigs, but would support independent parties committed to confronting the slave power more directly.

THE FIRST such challenge came in the 1840 presidential election, and the results were modest. Abolitionist James Birney, running as the candidate of the newly formed Liberty Party, won 0.3 percent of the popular vote.

Undeterred, Birney ran again for the Liberty Party ticket in 1844--this time with Douglass a vocal supporter. He won only 2.3 percent of the popular vote, but the contest between the Whig candidate, Henry Clay, and the Democratic candidate, James Polk, was very close. Polk won the popular vote by less than 40,000 votes.

Birney and the Liberty Party were accused of winning enough support in New York that would have otherwise to Clay to swing that state to Polk--and its 36 electoral votes at the time were the margin of victory for Polk in the Electoral College.

Did that make the abolitionists election "spoilers"? There's no doubt that James Polk was one of the most rabidly pro-slavery Democratic presidents. He launched the U.S. into the Mexican-American War on the strength of the slaveocracy's fantasy of annexing an entire nation's worth of territory where slavery would be legal. The justices he nominated to the Supreme Court were reliably pro-slavery, responsible for such obscenities as the Dred Scott decision in 1857.

But the Whigs, with their compromises, were just as responsible for admitting new slave states into the union. And the pro-slavery laws that the Supreme Court was upholding had been passed by Congress with support from the Whigs.

So those who wanted to see an end to slavery continued to support third party efforts that would actually challenge slavery--first the Free Soil Party formed in the wake of the 1844 election, and finally the Republican Party, founded in 1854.

The Republican Party, like the Free Soil Party before it, was firmly opposed to the expansion of slavery westward, but it didn't stand for abolition.

Much of the party leadership was more moderate than the abolitionists on the question of slavery itself. Their opposition to expansion of slavery was about challenging the power of the Southern ruling class, which, through its control of the federal government, pursued policies that hampered the development of Northern industry and agriculture.

The third party challenges over several decades contributed to a political crisis for the Whigs. By 1856, now running under the name American Party, they fell behind the Republicans in the presidential election, winning just 21 percent of the popular vote to the Republicans' 33 percent.

A more clearly anti-slavery third party had beaten the Whigs and taken its place in the two-party system. But many abolitionists were disappointed in what they saw as compromise and conciliation among Republicans, like their presidential nominee for the 1860 election, Abraham Lincoln.

As Frederick Douglass wrote:
The Republican opposed to the political power of slavery, rather than to slavery itself. It would arrest the spread of the slave system...and defeat all plans for giving slavery any further guarantee of permanence. This is very desirable, but it leaves the great work of abolishing slavery...still to be accomplished. The triumph of the Republican Party will only open the way for this great work.
Nevertheless, Douglass challenged abolitionists who called for boycotting the 1860 election to set aside their doubts. His argument was that a victory for Lincoln and the Republicans really would "open the way for this great work"--by putting the federal government in the hands of a party that would stop the expansion of slavery into new territories, and thereby fatally undermine the power of the South.

As Douglass wrote a few months before the election, "The slaveholders know that the day of their power is over when a Republican president is elected."

Douglass was exactly right. Lincoln won the 1860 election with a 39 percent plurality of the popular vote. The Democratic vote was split between two candidates, one representing the Southern wing of the party, and the other representing the Northern wing. Lincoln won easily in the Electoral College.

Before he had even taken the oath of office, the secession of Southern slave states from the union had begun. The slave power did indeed understand "that the day of their power is over when a Republican president is elected."

LINCOLN, OF course, didn't "free the slaves" by himself. Primary credit goes to the resistance of slaves themselves in carrying out countless revolts, escape plots, confrontations with "fugitive slave" catchers and building up the Underground Railroad.

Blacks in the North were, in turn, leaders of an abolitionist movement that began small, but grew in influence and political strength because of the determination of its supporters to accept no compromise in the struggle to end slavery.

And ultimately, the slave system was only demolished after a four-year-long Civil War--still the deadliest military conflict in U.S. history. Lincoln deserves credit as the commander-in-chief, but the North's victory depended on the sacrifice and commitment of the more than 2 million Union soldiers--10 percent of whom were Black by the war's end--and their families and communities.

Still, Lincoln and the Republicans were a part of the struggle that ended slavery. Their victory in 1860 was both a signal of the strong influence of abolitionist ideas after decades of organizing and a ripening of the deeper conflict between North and South past the point of no return.

Abolitionists were only one factor in the third-party challenges in the decade before the Civil War, but their understanding of what they were fighting for and how they should conduct the struggle holds lessons today. They understood that organizing a political challenge to slavery might mean temporarily tipping the balance in favor of the "greater evil" against the "lesser evil"--but that retreating in the face of this threat would only perpetuate the pro-slavery duopoly.

As the late socialist and veteran Green Party candidate Peter Camejo wrote of the Liberty Party in the 1840s:
[A]mazing as it may sound, the Liberty Party received some of its most hostile reception from people who claimed to oppose slavery, including some committed and active abolitionists. They attacked the new party because of what they perceived as a "spoiler" factor that could take votes from the Whigs, allowing the Democrats to win in close elections. 
The Liberty Party responded by saying it was a matter of principle not to vote for political parties that supported slavery. They dared to raise the idea that abolitionists should seek to win control of the U.S. government to abolish slavery.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

E-Book Release | "CAPITALISM AND DISABILITY: Essays by Marta Russell," ed., Keith Rosenthal

The electronic version of the new book I edited is now available for immediate download through the Haymarket Books website!

Capitalism and Disability 
Selected Writings by Marta Russell 

Edited by Keith Rosenthal

This book comprises a collection of groundbreaking writings by Marta Russell on the nature of disability and oppression under capitalism. 

Spread out over many years and many different publications, the late author and activist Marta Russell wrote a number of groundbreaking and insightful essays on the nature of disability and oppression under capitalism. In this volume, Russell’s various essays are brought together in one place in order to provide a useful and expansive resource to those interested in better understanding the ways in which the modern phenomenon of disability is shaped by capitalist economic and social relations. The essays range in analysis from the theoretical to the topical, including but not limited to: the emergence of disability as a “human category” rooted in the rise of industrial capitalism and the transformation of the conditions of work, family, and society corresponding thereto; a critique of the shortcomings of a purely “civil rights approach” to addressing the persistence of disability oppression in the economic sphere, with a particular focus on the legacy of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990; an examination of the changing position of disabled people within the overall system of capitalist production utilizing the Marxist economic concepts of the reserve army of the unemployed, the labor theory of value, and the exploitation of wage-labor; the effects of neoliberal capitalist policies on the living conditions and social position of disabled people as it pertains to welfare, income assistance, health care, and other social security programs; imperialism and war as a factor in the further oppression and immiseration of disabled people within the United States and globally; and the need to build unity against the divisive tendencies which hide the common economic interest shared between disabled people and the often highly-exploited direct care workers who provide services to the former.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Archive of articles written for

15 March 2018

PEOPLE ARE sharing around stories about how lax our gun laws are in regard to people with mental illness. In particular, they are criticizing Trump's decision in February 2017 to overturn one of Obama's last executive orders, which placed increased restrictions on the ability of people with mental illnesses to obtain guns.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Disability and the Soviet Union: Advances and retreats (Part 2 of 2)

This article originally appeared in ISR #103.

Part two of a two-part article (see part one here).

By the end of October 1917, the Bolshevik Party had won a clear majority of workers and peasants within the nationwide network of soviets (revolutionary councils) to their program of the overthrow of the capitalist, or provisional, government which had replaced the deposed tsar. Almost immediately after carrying out the revolution, the Bolsheviks began reshaping all of Russia. To be sure, their ambitions in these first optimistic years far outstripped the limited means which Russia’s backward economy put at their disposal. Yet, hopeful as they were in the spread of the revolution to the advanced capitalist countries of Europe—bringing with it the promise of direct international aid and an end to the economic siege organized by said capitalist countries—the Bolsheviks began reordering society in a truly revolutionary direction. There were three major areas in which the revolution effected significant change in the area of disability: law and policy; labor and the economy; and health and education. Changes in law and policy were discussed in part one of this article. The present article will address the impact of the revolution on the latter two categories.


Labor and the economy
The dramatic nature of many of the legal decrees notwithstanding, it is important to note that the Soviet government’s maximum agenda in the first years after the revolution remained largely aspirational. From its inception, the revolution had been fettered by the underdeveloped economic conditions inherited from tsarist feudalism and a disastrous world war; the inception of a counterrevolutionary civil war backed by the imperialist Allied countries of Europe and the United States; and a debilitating economic blockade placed upon Russia by an alliance of imperialist countries. As a result, it was estimated that by 1919 industrial production had declined to a mere one-fifth of its prewar high.1
At best, the revolutionary government could set for itself the initial task of dividing up equally amongst the population the existent accumulated domestic wealth of the landowners and capitalists. Such a measure could provide immediate relief to the population, but could not stave off hunger and the generalization of want for more than a brief period. The Bolsheviks were therefore acutely aware that the eventual success of socialism in Russia hinged entirely upon the spreading of revolution to the wealthier capitalist nations of the world, from whom Russia could obtain substantial economic aid and favorable relations of trade. Failing that, the Russian people were doomed to either remain mired in relative poverty or else face a growing compulsion to proceed down the road championed by the Bolsheviks’ conservative detractors: namely, to act as a kind of surrogate bourgeoisie committed to wealth accumulation via the exploitation of labor. As Engels had long before noted in The Peasant War in Germany, 
The worst thing that can befall a leader of an extreme party is to be compelled to take over a government in an epoch when the movement is not yet ripe for the domination of the class which he represents and for the realization of the measures which that domination would imply. What he can do depends not upon his will but upon the sharpness of the clash of interests between the various classes, and upon the degree of development of the material means of existence. . . . Thus he necessarily finds himself in a dilemma. What he can do is in contrast to all his actions as hitherto practiced, to all his principles and to the present interests of his party; what he ought to do cannot be achieved. In a word, he is compelled to represent not his party or his class, but the class for whom conditions are ripe for domination.2 
For the time being, however, the working class of Russia was simply determined to enjoy the immediate fruits of its victory. The experience of the revolution itself had thoroughly imbued Russian society with seemingly unbounded feelings of hope, solidarity, and comradeship. The watchword of the day was that the welfare and well-being of all trumped all other concerns.
Naturally, the reorganization of the economy proceeded along lines informed by this prevailing mood. Initially, this was done largely spontaneously as workers and peasants took matters into their own hands. They were not waiting for Soviet decrees, but simply proceeding to reorganize their lives, knowing that the soviets—their soviets—would invariably codify their actions after the fact. To this end, a massive wave of factory and workplace takeovers directly succeeded the revolution. The lowest strata of the peasantry likewise engaged in mass seizures and occupations of the former estates and mansions of the landed aristocracy.
Having thus placed the means of production under their own cooperative control, the workers immediately began to freely adapt and accommodate the labor process to their abilities, needs, and desires. This took the following forms: slowing down the pace of work; decreasing the length of the workday; prioritizing the implementation of safety precautions and measures; creating substantially more flexible work schedules; exerting more direct control over the flow and process of the work; and allowing for greater flexibility in the division of labor within the production process. 
The promise of such a socialist reorganization of the economy was, as Lenin wrote in December 1917, to draw “the majority of working people into a field of labor in which they can display their abilities, develop the capacities, and reveal those talents, so abundant among the people whom capitalism crushed, suppressed, and strangled in thousands and millions.” 
Every factory from which the capitalist has been ejected, or in which he has at least been curbed by genuine workers’ control, every village from which the landowning exploiter has been smoked out and his land confiscated has only now become a field in which the working man can reveal his talents, unbend his back a little, rise to his full height, and feel that he is a human being.3
Reminiscing decades later on the practical changes which the revolution in the factories had initially wreaked, the Bolshevik leader Nadezhda Krupskaya wrote, “The revolution had done away with the bullying, swearing and driving class of foremen and bosses, and the worker was glad to be rid of them, glad to be able to sit down and have a smoke when he was tired without anyone driving him. At the beginning the factory organizations readily released the workers to attend all kinds of meetings.” She continues by relating a particularly illustrative anecdote which occurred in early 1918: 
I remember a woman worker coming to me once at the Commissariat of Education to receive some certificate or other. During our conversation I asked her what shift she was working in. I thought she was working in the night shift, otherwise she would not have been able to come to the Commissariat in the daytime. “None of us are working today,” [she said]. “We had a meeting yesterday evening, everyone was behindhand with her domestic work at home, so we voted to knock off today. We’re the bosses now, you know.”4
Another aspect of the revolution that immediately expressed itself throughout the economy was the desire for equality between all sectors of the working class. For instance, whereas in August 1917 the ratio between unskilled and skilled workers’ wages was 1:2.32, by 1920 it had become 1:1.04.5 Historian Marcel Liebman notes that for Lenin and the Bolshevik party, the impossibility of achieving the complete equalization of wages was in fact seen as “one of the constraints imposed by the crisis and by the country’s economic backwardness, and [Lenin] regarded the necessity of giving specialists specially favored rates of pay as nothing less than a setback for the revolution. In the draft program he put before the Eighth Party Congress [March 1919] he repeated: ‘our ultimate aim is to achieve . . . equal remuneration for all kinds of work.’”6
The spirit of equality that attended the democratization of the production process also applied to issues that existed at the intersection of workplace accommodation and gender. For instance, some workplaces established free on-site childcare spaces for the benefit of working mothers, while others implemented regulations allowing working mothers to take off up to two hours out of their normal workday for the purposes of feeding their children.7 
Perhaps one of the most popular new accommodations that Russian workers now enjoyed was the ability to take a near-unlimited number of paid sick days and respites away from work. Because the new revolutionary healthcare system was controlled by the workers, patients, and local soviets—and because the health system was free, universal, and removed from the dictates of market profitability and finance capital—it became easy for a worker suffering from injury or ill health to obtain authorization from a nearby medical center excusing them from work for a given period of time or indicating the necessity of a change in their workload or workflow.8 
In addition to paid sick leave, revolutionary Russia also became the first country in the world where all workers, without exception, had the right to an annual paid vacation of two to four weeks. 9 Moreover, the Soviet government took the added measure of facilitating the widespread enjoyment of this right by seizing the beautiful seaside palaces and country estates of the former aristocracy and bourgeoisie and opening them up to peasants and workers to use for free as therapeutic resorts and communal vacation homes.10
Outside of the immediate sphere of relations pertaining to the workplace, there were a number of broader noteworthy social changes that improved the accessibility of general economic and civic life to all. For instance, important services such as public transit, electrical power, and postal and parcel delivery were provided free of charge to the populace at government expense.11 
Another significant development was the national campaign to establish free communal kitchens, laundries, childcare, and the like; the primary aim being to lift the many tasks of social reproduction off the shoulders of the individual family unit in general, and women workers in particular. Though the scale of these communal experiments was unfortunately limited by overall economic constraints, it is clear that those who especially stood to benefit from such measures were mothers with disabilities and mothers who had children with disabilities. Additionally, with the complete socialization and universalization of many tasks associated with individual daily living, all people with disabilities would be able to more easily obtain all manner of personal (i.e., communal) assistance necessary for meaningful self-development and realization.
Ultimately, a fully accurate depiction of the labor and economic situation in revolutionary Russia cannot be complete without recognition of the exigencies that stymied all but the most halting progress. By the end of 1918, sabotage, economic blockade, and open civil war on the part of the capitalist class and its international imperialist backers was well underway. From 1918 to 1921, the area under Soviet control was a society literally under a state of siege. Famine, unemployment, and the near-total breakdown of railroad transport plagued the cities and countryside alike. This was the period of so-called War Communism (a horribly inexact appellation), in which every nerve and fiber of Soviet society was marshaled toward the fortification and defense of the revolution. In many regards, it marked a significant retreat (or at the very least, an austere detour) from the path of democratic, cooperative, and post-coercive socialist development. As Trotsky put it in retrospect, “War Communism was the regime of a beleaguered fortress.”12
At the war’s conclusion, the peasant-worker alliance which had made the tsar’s overthrow possible began to break down under the weight of generalized scarcity, postwar exhaustion, and industrial collapse. The breakdown of transportation and the outbreak of the civil war crisis prompted the new government in August 1918 to begin sending detachments of workers and poor peasants into the countryside to forcibly requisition grain in order to sustain the Red Army and to forestall the depopulation of Russia’s cities. In 1921, with socialist revolution having failed (at least for the moment) to spread internationally, the Bolshevik government initiated a New Economic Policy (NEP) premised upon the limited introduction of capitalist forms of economy. If the policy of War Communism was one of retreat, then NEP marked a retreat from a retreat. Nonetheless, it was deemed a necessary concession to the demands of the peasantry and even elements of the working class, not to mention the very historical economic conditions obtaining in an isolated, dilapidated, and underdeveloped society.
As the decade of the 1920s wore on, the NEP saw the gradual reintroduction of privatized production, the commodities market, wage determination according to the labor market, social and economic inequality, and regularized unemployment. The Bolsheviks who ran the government during this period often felt that they were hostage to circumstances beyond their control in their implementation of NEP. Lenin, for example, remarked at the 1922 party congress: “It was like a car that was going not in the direction the driver desired, but in the direction someone else desired; as if it were being driven by some mysterious, lawless hand, God knows whose, perhaps of a profiteer, or of a private capitalist, or of both.”13
In reflecting upon the limitations and characteristics of Soviet Russia during these years, it is worth returning to Karl Marx, who in one of his more expansive descriptions of communism, wrote of a society in which, 
After the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly — only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!14
And yet, how far Russia of the 1920s was from a society in which such conditions even remotely obtained. If, as Marx wrote, a political superstructure “can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby,”15 then we are compelled to return to the original Bolshevik assertion that a workers’ state that remained isolated in an underdeveloped Russia would be simply unable to conjure into being a genuine communist, classless society. 
Nonetheless, it is worth pointing out that in certain key respects, the genuinely socialist aspirations of the Bolshevik government and the advanced sections of the working class remained evident even during these years of retreat and dissolution. For instance, the 1920s witnessed, inter alia, the emergence of three important labor-oriented disability advocacy organizations that enjoyed the support of both a large number of disabled Russians as well as the Bolshevik government. 
The All-Russian Cooperative of Disabled People (VIKO), All-Russian Union of the Blind (VOS), and All-Russian Union of the Deaf (VOG) were established in 1921, 1923, and 1926, respectively. Insofar as these three organizations were controlled by their members and yet operated with the support and under the aegis of the national government, they were quite without precedent. In fact, it has been argued that VIKO represents the first national pan-disability advocacy organization in modern history.16 VIKO was directly established in December 1921 by a vote of the Council of People’s Commissars.
The structure of VIKO was [that of] a national umbrella disability organization. All decisions were made democratically (in the early ’20s it was still allowed), and only people with disabilities had voting power at VIKO . . . VIKO focused its efforts on providing work opportunities for people with disabilities by creating special production lines, kindergartens, resorts, health retreats, vocational schools and sport centers.17 
Along with VOS and VOG (which operated under the purview of the Commissariat of Social Services), these groups set for themselves the task of integrating disabled Russians into society by helping them find “socially useful work; helping them complete secondary and higher education and find suitable employment; and drawing them into the ranks of active builders of Communist society.”18 Describing the activities of VOS in the mid-1920s, historian Bernice Madison writes, “The effort to do away with illiteracy among the blind began . . . with a cultural revolution of sorts. Clubs, houses of culture, red corners, and libraries multiplied. Night schools were developed; records became available.”19 Of work amongst the deaf, disability studies scholar Sarah Phillips writes, “Thanks to the VOG, which enjoyed the approval of Party functionaries, deaf people were able to nurture a deaf culture and improve the social standing of people with disabilities.”20