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.

Helen Keller’s Beginnings

By the time she was twelve years old, Keller had become something of a national cause célèbre among philanthropic high society. For reform-minded upper-class positivists such as Alexander Graham Bell, who swept down to take the young Keller under his wing for a time, the “success” of Helen Keller seemed to prove the argument that good education, good morals, and good upbringing were all that were needed to overcome societal problems. It was possible to create a society free of poverty, crime, and degeneracy, the argument went — with more than a touch of noblesse oblige and proto-eugenics — if only the problematic, deviant, and unfortunate elements of society could be properly corrected and rehabilitated.

For her part, Keller’s teacher Anne Sullivan chafed at such elite elements and sentiments. The child of Irish immigrants and extreme poverty, Sullivan had experienced firsthand the conditions wrought (or tolerated) by twentieth-century reformism. At ten years old, partially blind, she was abandoned, along with her four-year-old brother, to a grim Massachusetts almshouse run by the State Board of Charities in 1876.

She would later refer to the almshouse in which she was interned as a “house of woe,” a “dead house,” and “a crime against childhood.” When Anne’s brother died three months into their stay, he was only one of twenty-one residents to die that month, half of whom were children under the age of five.

After four years, Anne was finally “rescued” from the almshouse following an aleatory encounter with a visiting member of the State Board of Charities, who turned her over to Samuel Gridley Howe, a prominent reformer, fellow charity board member, and founding director of the Boston-based Perkins School for the Blind, where Anne was enrolled. For this Anne remained grateful. Yet her cynicism and resentment toward the privileged crust of society — whether of the benevolent or malevolent variety — simmered in perpetuity.

Keller’s experience into adulthood was altogether quite different. This difference partially helps explain why her transition from a “parlor reformer” into a “Socialist and a Bolshevik,” as she put it, traced a more deliberate and punctuated arc than Sullivan’s. It may also explain why Keller remained throughout her life the hopeful optimist to Sullivan’s skeptical pessimist.

Born in Alabama in 1880, Keller spent her first eight years on her family’s moderately large country estate. Her father was a newspaper editor and former officer in the Confederate Army; both her parents hailed from upper-class lineages on either side of the Mason-Dixon line. Their household included a small staff of black servants who were most likely formerly enslaved.

Both before and after the total loss of her hearing and vision due to a disease contracted at two years old, Helen Keller wanted for nothing of material import. She was loved by her family and communicated with those around her by means of improvised gestures and a rudimentary form of signed language.

Nevertheless, when Anne Sullivan finally “awakened” the mind of seven-year-old Helen Keller to the realm of universal language and literacy, by spelling words into her hand, Keller described an “ecstasy” that “set my spirit free.” Sullivan deserves credit as a gifted, patient, and frankly democratic educator. Her pedagogy eschewed “all elaborate and special systems of education” that impeded the child’s ability to “go and come freely, touch real things and combine impressions . . . instead of sitting indoors at a little round table.”

In a series of diary entries that she later had published, Sullivan confided:

Since I have abandoned the idea of regular lessons, I find that Helen learns much faster. I am convinced that the time spent by the teacher in digging out of the child what she has put into him, for the sake of satisfying herself that it has taken root, is so much time thrown away. It’s much better, I think, to assume that the child is doing his part, and that the seed you have sown will bear fruit in due time . . . I regard my pupil as a free and active being, whose own spontaneous impulses must be my surest guide. I have always talked to Helen exactly as I would talk to a seeing and hearing child, and I have insisted that other people should do the same.

“Not a Proper Exploitation”

In 1909, five years after graduating from Radcliffe College, the twenty-nine-year-old Keller made the ostensibly surprising decision — at least as far as her family and former philanthropic patrons were concerned — to join the Socialist Party. After it became clear that Keller was serious about publicly advocating for the revolutionary socialist workers’ movement, detractors among the media, political, and economic elite charged that Keller was being manipulated by Sullivan. They claimed that Sullivan and her ilk were “exploiting” this “poor blind and deaf girl” and using Keller as a puppet to advance their own radical agenda.

What these critics could not or would not grasp was that neither Sullivan nor the socialist movement forced Keller down any particular path. Rather, Sullivan simply refused to inhibit Keller’s curiosities and inclinations in the direction of a growing socialist and working-class ferment, both political and intellectual. Keller herself would reemphasize this point ad infinitum over the years.

Keller became a leading public exponent of socialism, enjoying respect and recognition as a comrade in arms among the rank-and-file activists and leaders of the movement alike.

These years marked the inaugural heyday of American socialism. The first two decades of the twentieth century saw the SPA swell to more than one hundred thousand members nationwide, with socialist periodicals reaching an audience of up to one million, at a time when the US population was a third of its size today. Over one thousand Socialist Party candidates were elected to municipal, state, and federal offices, while an incipient and often militant — for it was violently repressed — industrial labor movement was growing in tandem.

Into this efflorescence stepped Keller. In short order, she became a leading public exponent of socialism, enjoying respect and recognition as a comrade in arms among the rank-and-file activists and leaders of the movement alike.

Keller wrote hundreds of articles for the socialist and mainstream press excoriating the ills of capitalism and propagandizing in favor of socialism. She lectured and spoke expansively in support of striking workers and those facing political repression, and she arranged for the widespread distribution of her collected writings on socialism, capitalist disablement, and gender oppression. In socialist newspapers, she wrote as a “militant [woman’s] suffragist,” and in the “women’s” columns of mainstream magazines, she advocated “social transformation” over “social reform” and “superficial charities.”

Through her articles, Keller brought disability into the class struggle, expounding in the socialist press upon the “social causes of blindness” in the “ignorance, poverty, and unconscious cruelty of our commercial society.” She also brought the class struggle into the milieu of disability, arguing in periodicals of blind people that “the welfare of the whole people is essential to the welfare of each,” and that the same “capitalistic” conditions that oppress blind people also “press heavily upon all working people.”

In 1913, the popular magazine Life ran an article titled “Not a Proper Exploitation,” which reiterated the common charge that Keller was “too much exploited in politics” by conniving socialists and suffragists. The article continued by picking up on a new line of attack then emerging against Keller, ruminating on her attraction to radical politics in a grotesque display of paternalistic bigotry:

Perhaps it keeps her interested in life, and is excusable on that ground, but it is not suitable. In spite of all the wonderful things that have been done for her, her knowledge and experience of life are necessarily limited, and her political opinions can hardly be valuable. It is a sort of profanation to put her up to speak Socialist pieces and walk in suffrage parades.

Such direct assaults on the very notion that Keller was a human being in possession of ideas worth listening to in the spheres of politics, society, or history were not only intended to undermine the socialist movement by linking it with the babblings of an ignoramus. They were also meant to fatally disable Keller as an autonomous advocate of socialism by depicting her as an infant occupying itself with objects well beyond its intellectual grasp.

Such attacks came from many quarters and continued throughout her life — one can even find them in modern Keller biographies. However, this was a period in which Keller felt the winds of radical social movements at her back. These were movements that frequently endured ruling-class attacks — by the editor’s pen, the policeman’s club, or the vigilante’s gun — and Keller felt herself in solidarity with and supported by the movements, including those individuals she had come to consider (lifelong) friends and comrades.

In a widely circulated article originally published in 1912 in the New York Call, titled “How I Became a Socialist,” Keller declaimed the hypocrisy of self-styled philanthropic elites who assailed working-class radicalism:

I like newspapermen. I have known many, and two or three editors have been among my most intimate friends. Moreover, the newspapers have been of great assistance in the work which we have been trying to do for the blind. It costs them nothing to give their aid to work for the blind and to other superficial charities. But socialism — ah, that is a different matter! That goes to the root of all poverty and all charity. The money power behind the newspapers is against socialism, and the editors, obedient to the hand that feeds them, will go to any length to put down socialism and undermine the influence of socialists.

The editor of the Brooklyn Eagle leveled a particularly devious attack at her, suggesting that Keller’s “mistakes” arose from “the manifest limitations of her development.” Keller recalled that she had been introduced to the very same editor at a meeting for the blind in New York several years previously:

At that time the compliments he paid me were so generous that I blush to remember them. But now that I have come out for socialism he reminds me and the public that I am blind and deaf and especially liable to error. I must have shrunk in intelligence during the years since I met him. Surely it is his turn to blush. It may be that deafness and blindness incline one toward socialism. Marx was probably stone deaf and William Morris was blind.

Revolutionary Reverberations

The tumultuous historical currents of the years between 1910 and 1920 both buoyed and tugged at Helen Keller. As the socialist movement radicalized, with the class struggle becoming more explosive in the face of capitalist violence and mass workers’ resistance, Keller reflected the context of military cataclysms and world-historic revolutions in her politics.

“We, the people, are not free,” she argued in a 1911 article:

Our democracy is but a name. We vote? What does that mean? It means that we choose between two bodies of real, though not avowed, autocrats. We choose between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. We elect expensive masters to do our work for us, and then blame them because they work for themselves and for their class.

Addressing a sociological conference in 1913, she sounded a similar theme:

Some of us have imagined that we live in a democracy. We do not. A democracy would mean equal opportunity for all. It would mean that every child had a chance to be well born, well fed, well taught and properly started in life. It would mean that every woman had a voice in the making of the laws under which she lives. It would mean that all men enjoyed the fruits of their labor. Such a democracy has never existed. . . . But some of us are waking up. We are finding out what is wrong with the world. We are going to make it right. We are learning that we live by each other, and that the life for each other is the only life worth living.

When World War I erupted in 1914 and the US ruling class began making military preparations to join the European bloodbath, Keller threw herself into the anti-imperialist wing of the American socialist movement, delivering a series of widely reproduced speeches. As she proclaimed in 1915, seeming to channel the Communist Manifesto:

Nothing is to be gained by the workers from war. . . . No conqueror can beat down his wages more ruthlessly or oppress him more than his own fellow citizens of the capitalist world are doing. The worker has nothing to lose but his chains, and he has a world to win. He can win it at one stroke from a world empire. We must form a fully equipped, militant international union so that we can take possession of such a world empire.

In 1916, she delivered perhaps her most famous antiwar speech at a mass rally held at Carnegie Hall in New York City, which was reprinted in the New York Call under the title, “Strike Against War.” Keller issued a lyrical, staccato appeal to the working class:

Strike against all ordinances and laws and institutions that continue the slaughter of peace and the butcheries of war. Strike against war, for without you no battles can be fought. Strike against manufacturing shrapnel and gas bombs and all other tools of murder. Strike against preparedness that means death and misery to millions of human beings. Be not dumb, obedient slaves in an army of destruction. Be heroes in an army of construction.

By 1916, Keller’s accelerating radicalism had begun to push her beyond what she considered to be the staid bounds of the Socialist Party’s electoral strategy. In an enormous spread published in the New York Tribune, Keller announced to the world her recruitment to the cause of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

Founded in 1905 by such left luminaries as Eugene Debs, Lucy Parsons, “Big Bill” Haywood, and James Connolly, the IWW was conceived as an explicitly revolutionary syndicalist movement. While the new movement was openly opposed to what its organizers condemned as the narrow, craft, and opportunistic approach of the American Federation of Labor, the IWW had a more complicated relationship with the Socialist Party. Most of the early members of the IWW were cross-enrolled in the Socialist Party, yet the two organizations came to be associated with two different approaches, one militant, revolutionary, and based on direct action, the other more electoral, gradualist, and reformist.

In an article with the headline “Helen Keller Would Be IWW’s Joan of Arc,” and a subhead that read “Labor’s Blind Champion Declares She Is Done With Half-Radical Measures and Espouses the Cause of Revolutionists,” Keller declared:

I became an IWW because I found out that the Socialist Party was too slow. It is sinking in the political bog. It is almost, if not quite, impossible for the party to keep its revolutionary character so long as it occupies a place under the government and seeks office under it. The government does not stand for interests the Socialist Party is supposed to represent.

While conceding that the work of the Socialist Party was a step in the right direction, she had concluded that “the true task is to unite and organize all workers on an economic basis, and it is the workers themselves who must secure freedom for themselves.”

A Shaft Sundering the Dark

The years 1916 and 1917 witnessed a dramatic increase in working-class strike activity and organization across the country, inaugurating a nationwide strike wave that would continue through 1919. The intensification of the class struggle in the United States during this period was matched in Europe, even as its capitalist nations continued sending workers in uniform into the slaughter of the war, while the US ruling class finally calculated a profitable percentage to be earned from entering the fray.

The years 1916 and 1917 witnessed a dramatic increase in working-class strike activity and organization across the United States.

Helen Keller, along with most anti-imperialist socialists in the United States, despaired when the US government began committing troops and materials to the war in the middle of 1917. However, the Russian revolutionary process that began in February 1917 and culminated in October of that year filled Keller with a renewed sense of hope, “like a shaft sundering the dark!”

For Keller, the emergent Russian workers’ state, with Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks at its head, was an inspiring harbinger of the path that humanity might follow out of the prevailing morass of capitalist war, exploitation, and oppression. It was a vindication of the revolutionary socialist and “historic materialist” ideology.

She committed herself at once to spreading and defending the gospel of this new form of society, as she did at a packed assembly of seven hundred people in Brooklyn, New York, in 1918:

While the nations of the world are measuring with arms the struggle for liberty, an equally important struggle — the economic struggle — is disturbing the world. Everywhere a movement has been launched for social and economic equality, but it has been the country of the Russians that has taken the first step toward social revolution. . . . No true democracy has ever been known to the Allied nations. The Russian revolution is the first step toward democracy. It is like a magnificent sun which is rising splendidly in a distressed world. . . . Already the Soviets have nationalized land; have begun, under Socialistic principles, the management of industries, have established social insurance, benefits for sickness, accident and old age.

It is hard to overstate how important the example of the Russian Revolution was to remain for Keller. Throughout the many political turns she would make over the subsequent forty years of her public life, one thing that never wavered was her belief in the essential rightness of the revolution and the first steps it represented toward emancipation of the working class and global humanity.

She wrote to a friend describing how the “world-calamity” of the war had darkened her life “as blindness has never done” until the “glad tidings” of the revolution in Russia:

It came like dawn through the long night of humanity! It filled me with joy unutterable, akin to the ecstasy I had experienced when as a little child I discovered the meaning of language, and understood that finger-spelling was the key that would unlock all treasures to me. As that knowledge had set my spirit free, so would the Revolution break down all prison-walls and liberate the soul of mankind!

Keller did not equate any other event before or after the Russian Revolution with the advent of her education under Anne Sullivan. This ought to reframe the iconography that has come to define Keller. If the first act of Keller’s life were to end with her young hand under a water pump, as it does in The Miracle Worker, the second would culminate with Keller in her late thirties, face alighted euphorically as her fingertips traced a page of braille newsprint detailing the efforts of the world’s first socialist workers’ republic.

Contradictions at Eventide

By 1924, much had changed for Keller and the world. During the years of war and revolution between 1917 and 1920, the US ruling class directed massive and mortal repression against the Socialist Party, the IWW, and the restive vanguard of the working class.

The key moments in this repressive wave included the Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917 and 1918, the “Red Scare” Palmer Raids of 1919 and 1920, and the drawn-out show trial and execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti between 1921 and 1927. There was also the vigilante violence of countless lynch mobs and sheriff’s posses, centered largely in the Midwest and Southwest.

By the mid-1920s, the revolutionary upsurge had been crushed. Although the Communist Party USA had been formed in 1922, drawing largely upon the hardened activists of the IWW and the left wing of the Socialist Party, it did not experience any significant gains in size nor influence until the 1930s.

Keller found herself cut off from the movement, concerned about her financial subsistence and that of her companion-assistants, and increasingly surrounded by the philanthropic-reformer types who once again flowed into her life as the revolutionary wave ebbed. Her public advocacy of socialism diminished — though never ceasing entirely — in the years after 1924.

Keller’s understanding of socialism was also increasingly protean during this final act of her life. She could wax in an intimately religious idiom or express views that were nearly indistinguishable from official liberalism. At some points she sounded like an Americanist, at others like a postcolonial or Third World nationalist. Sometimes she just sounded woefully out of touch.

There is certainly much that she did throughout these years of economic depression, fascism, world war, genocide, nuclear bombardment, racial segregation, and McCarthyism that displayed a uniquely laudatory firmness of principles. She openly protested the anti-communist witch hunts of the federal government and the House Un-American Activities Committee. Working alongside Communist Party formations, she supported the antifascist fighters and refugees of Spain, Italy, and Germany. She spoke out against the scourge of racial segregation and lynchings, and she reproached the United States for its “barbarities” in unleashing atomic “demons” and “horrors” upon the people of Japan.

However, her freedom of expression was greatly curtailed in her capacity as official fundraiser, or “beggar,” as she put it, for the philanthropic American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), a paid position she occupied from the mid-1920s to the late 1950s. The AFB promoted her as an ambassador for the sightless, an “Arch-Priestess of the Blind,” and she rubbed shoulders with presidents, corporate executives, and financiers. There is a certain bitter irony in the fact that Keller had long decried the systemic oppression that forces disabled people into base pauperism, yet she herself had been impelled into a sort of gilded pauperism.

The 1930s and ’40s witnessed the historic emergence of organized working-class disability activism. While Keller was appealing to Rotary Clubs and businessmen to make tax-deductible donations to private charitable agencies for the blind, self-identified disabled socialists and communists were protesting, picketing, striking, and sitting in to demand economic, social, and political equality and justice.

The League of the Physically Handicapped, for instance, and the Blind Workers’ Union, comprising hundreds of radical disabled workers and activists, are noteworthy for the public attention and material gains they won during mass struggles in New York City in the 1930s. The 1940s and ’50s also saw the emergence of the National Federation of the Blind and the American Federation of the Physically Handicapped. These two organizations were far more “grassroots” and working-class than the AFB, and occasional policy disputes brought them into direct conflict with the latter.

In fact, on several occasions during the 1930s and ’40s, disabled workers went out on strike for union recognition, better wages, and better treatment in “sheltered workshops” run by private agencies that Helen Keller and the AFB were either directly connected to or otherwise supported financially. In 1946, one group of thirty-five blind workers demanding union recognition were locked out by the executives of a workshop associated with the AFB. They wrote a letter directly to Keller, asking for her public support.

The executive director of the AFB, however, counseled Keller as a matter of policy not to let the AFB “get mixed up in any controversy between blind employees and the employing agency,” which is “much like mixing up in a family row.” In a far cry from the days of being labeled “labor’s blind champion,” Keller pursued the issue no further.

Disability Politics and the Tides of Revolution

The aspect of Helen Keller’s life and legacy that has recently elicited the greatest controversy has to do with the politics of disability. Especially for radical or radicalizing disabled activists and individuals, there is much to resent and reject in the vapid Keller iconography propagated throughout the dominant institutions of society. This Keller is little more than a myth instrumentalized for public consumption as an essentially quietist paragon of liberal “advocacy” within a bourgeois framework.

Yet even the real Keller advanced a paradoxical and at times conservative set of disability politics. “Learning from comrade Helen Keller,” then, involves learning from what she did and what she did not; what she was and what she was not. We can and should appreciate the advances to which she gestured in the development of a revolutionary conception of disability oppression and liberation.

However, there is also much to be gained from studying the distance between what she contributed and what has been contributed by disabled activists and movements since. The contemporary works of Marta Russell, Ravi Malhotra, and Nirmala Erevelles, and the organizational experience of groups like Sins Invalid, ADAPT, and the Harriet Tubman Collective, among many others, are essential to this end.

Keller’s socialist politics likewise invite fruitful critical appraisal. In many ways, Keller’s trajectory can be viewed as a barometer of the destabilizing variability inherent in the class struggle under capitalism. As the revolutionary wave of the early twentieth century swelled around her, Keller was swept up to immense heights of hope and promise. Even as the wave peaked and then crashed on the shore, it left an indelible historical artifact betrayed in the quenched sands hitherto beyond the reach of the high-water mark. Although the retreat of the wave and the ebbing of the tide necessitated the surrender of just-conquered redoubts of shoreline, it does not necessitate the abjuration or obliteration of the significance of that which had been achieved. The diminution in Keller’s radicalism and the mass character of the socialist movement, which attended the recession of class struggle, does not erase the demonstrative proof that a vast expansion of revolutionary possibility exists at that juncture in which a rising historical tide amplifies a cresting wave of struggle capable of overwhelming the breaches of capitalist invincibility.

Such revolutionary crescendo may have faded over the years into Keller’s and our own distant past; yet still it remains our future. 

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