Wednesday, April 12, 2023

"Learning From Comrade Helen Keller"

 (Originally published at Jacobin as "Helen Keller Was One of the Great American Socialists")

In March 1915, the Workers’ Chronicle ran an article syndicated by Appeal to Reason, the most popular socialist newspaper in the United States, titled “Learning From Comrade Helen Keller.” The Chronicle was a weekly newspaper representing “the center of Socialism” in Kansas, a state in which Eugene Debs had won 7 percent of the vote in the previous presidential election on the Socialist Party of America (SPA) ticket.

Occasioned by a recent lecture Keller gave to the Central Teachers’ Association in Oklahoma City, the article praised the message being spread by “Comrade Keller” as both orator and example. In the lecture, Keller reiterated the stock tale of her journey from an uneducated blind and deaf seven-year-old to a world-famous college graduate, scholar, and author thanks to the innovative pedagogy employed by Anne Sullivan (of latter-day Miracle Worker fame).

She then proceeded to a brief discourse on the subject of happiness: “Not the pleasant things alone that one can get out of life, but the things that can be done for others are the ones worth striving for.”

“Her whole story,” reflected the Chronicle, “speaks eloquently of what can be done for all children everywhere, when sane economic conditions give them a chance to develop.”

This point was more than intimated by Keller herself during the lecture. When an audience member asked if it was true that she was a socialist, Keller — who had publicly accepted an offer of honorary membership in the Pittsburg, Kansas, local chapter of the SPA the previous year — quickly replied: “Oh, yes, because it is the only way out of the muddle humanity is in at the present time.”

Keller’s accomplishments, the Chronicle argued by way of conclusion, ought to both reproach and inspire

those of us who are sometimes discouraged by the seeming great odds against the Socialist movement. When but a fraction of the same willpower and determination that has characterized Helen Keller’s life is infused into the Socialist movement, the Co-operative Commonwealth will not be far distant.

Contradictions at Noontide

Aside from providing a glimpse into the breadth of popularity enjoyed by the socialist movement in the early twentieth-century United States, this vignette captures many of the contradictions that characterized the lives of both Helen Keller and the socialist movement during this period.

These contradictions orbit around questions of disability and the role of disabled people within social movements and society at large; ideology and theoretical conceptualizations of how social transformation occurs; political organization and the role of party formations in bringing about the socialist “commonwealth”; and, finally, intersectional tension and disjuncture in the person of Keller herself along lines of class, gender, disability, politics, and economics.

For many in the SPA during this era, the path to socialism in the United States was a simple, almost ineluctable, matter. They assumed that socialism was a perfectly rational conceptual model of society in contrast to that of capitalism, and that most people would ultimately accede to rational solutions when they were convincingly articulated (hence the title Appeal to Reason). Victory was thus merely a matter of spreading the gospel through an ever-expanding base of members, voters, newspapers, electoral candidacies, and government officeholders.

In this schema, the timetable of socialism mainly depended upon the degree of willpower exerted by its adherents. To this end, one could effectively deploy the archetype of Helen Keller as an impelling challenge to socialist activists. Of course, the unspoken premise behind such inspirational (or reproachful) appeals was that the readership of the Workers’ Chronicle, for instance, did not share Keller’s “endowed” deficits and therefore had little excuse for inactivity.

In a way, this inspiration-laden use of the persona of Helen Keller — as “she who overcame” disability — represents a mere conversion of the disability trope so often instrumentalized in a bourgeois framework: “If this unfortunate handicapped person can succeed in life, then you have no excuse!”

In the context of the socialist movement, such canards are even more jarring, as it is precisely among the lower and working classes of society that rates of disablement are disproportionately high. Moreover, working-class disabled people are far more likely to be impoverished, lacking advanced education and the kind of material resources that made such “miracles” as Helen Keller’s success possible.

While Keller explicitly and conscientiously recognized the difference between her own social circumstances and those of most disabled people, she nonetheless tended to lean into her “branding” as a sort of Wonder of the World. This in turn readily lent itself to such awe-inspired sentiments as were expressed by the Workers’ Chronicle.

It is important to note, however, that Keller had been virtually trained from childhood to play such a role — if not on behalf of the socialist movement, then at least on behalf of the progressive-reformist variant of bourgeois liberalism, which swelled between the 1880s and 1910s.