Helen Keller's fight to overcome her disabilities made her life an inspiration for millions of people. Her story is taught in schools around the world. But what is not so well known is that Helen Keller was a committed and active socialist.
'A phantom living in a no world' is how Helen Keller described the first eight years of her life. Helen was born in Tuscumbia, Alabama, in 1880. At the age of 19 months a fever left her deaf, blind and without speech. Doctors said she was doomed to live out her life in silence and darkness. But Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone and a family friend, advised Helen's parents to employ a teacher to attempt to bring her out of her prison. The Kellers employed a young working class woman, Anne Sullivan, who herself had limited sight. Anne taught Helen to communicate by placing her hand under a water pump. As the cool water gushed over Helen's hand Anne spelled out on the other hand w – a – t – e – r.
For the first time Helen was able to give meaning to the world around her. She stopped and touched the earth, and demanded its letter name. By the end of the day she had learnt 30 words. Helen quickly mastered braille, and by the age of ten she learnt to speak by associating the vibrations in her throat with letters. The first thing she said was, 'I am not dumb.' At the age of 20 she attended university.
Throughout all these years Anne Sullivan was by Helen's side, laboriously spelling book after book and lecture after lecture into her hand. Helen became internationally famous when her autobiography, The Story of My Life, became a bestseller. During this period Helen began to argue that disability was not just about an individual's personal misfortune but was often connected to poverty and working conditions. She wrote, 'To study diseases and accidents by which sight is lost, and to learn how the surgeon can prevent or alleviate them, is not enough. 'We must strive to put an end to the conditions which cause disease and accidents. 'Doctors diagnose many blind people as suffering from ophthalmia. But what they don't say is that it is caused by dark, overcrowded rooms and by the indecent herding together of human beings in insanitary conditions. 'I was told of the fact that one worker lost his eyesight because of a busting wheel. 'The real cause was the employer's failure to safeguard his machines-because their adoption would diminish the employer's profits.'
Helen Keller joined the US Socialist Party in 1909. She soon became a leading figure in the socialist movement and wrote for a number of left wing newspapers. She fought for equality for women and was an active opponent of racism. But her most inspirational writings and speeches were those in support of workers' struggles. She never failed to publicise the dreadful conditions workers faced at the time. At a rally of striking lace makers she said, 'The white lace which we wear is darkened by the fading eyes of the lace maker.' Helen became one of the most vocal opponents of the slaughter of the First World War. She wrote, 'How can our rulers claim they are fighting to make the world safe for democracy while here in the US negroes may be massacred and their property burned?' The press, which had previously treated her as a heroine, now turned against her. An editorial published in the Brooklyn Eagle was typical: 'Her mistakes spring out of the manifest limitations of her development.' But Helen fought back. Her response was not only a scathing attack on the paper's attitude towards her disabilities. It was also a passionate defence of socialism.
Her reply was printed in countless newspapers: 'So long as I confine my activities to social services and the blind the newspapers compliment me extravagantly, calling me an 'arch – priest of the sightless' and 'wonder woman'. 'But when I discuss poverty and the industrial system under which we live that is a different matter. 'It is laudable to give aid to the handicapped-but to advocate that all human beings should have leisure and comfort is a utopian dream, and one who seriously contemplates its realisation must indeed be deaf, dumb and blind!' One of the biggest influences on Helen during this period was the strike by textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1912.
One big union
A doctor described the terrible working conditions in the Lawrence textile mills: '36 out of every 100 of all the men and women who work in the mill die by the time they are 25 years old.' Workers walked out on strike when their poverty wages were cut and approached the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) for help. The IWW, or the Wobblies as they came to be called, were formed by a group of socialists, anarchists and radical trade unionists in 1905. Their aim was to organise US workers into one big union.
The IWW organised mass meetings and parades. The strikers had to provide for 50,000 people. Support poured in from all over the country. Helen toured northern cities raising money. Wobblies were jailed and company thugs murdered pickets. But the strikers' resolve was not broken. The textile bosses gave in and the workers won a magnificent victory. In 1913 the Socialist Party expelled leading IWW member Bill Haywood from its executive committee for being too radical. Helen led a campaign to get Bill reinstated. In 1915 Joe Hill, a leading IWW organiser, was accused of murder. Helen joined the campaign for his release. Despite a massive international campaign, Joe Hill was executed by firing squad. Just days before his execution Joe wrote, 'Don't waste any time in mourning. Organise.' The IWW's fighting spirit and commitment to working people inspired Helen. She shocked the US establishment in 1916 by declaring in the New York Times newspaper that she had joined the IWW. She wrote, 'I became an IWW member because I found out that the Socialist Party was too slow. It is sinking into the political bog. The true task is to unite and organise all workers on an economic basis. It is the workers themselves who must secure freedom for themselves.'
The New York Times asked Helen whether she was committed to education or revolution. 'Revolution,' she replied. 'We have tried education for 1,900 years and it has failed. Let us try revolution and see what it will do now,' she added. IN 1917 the Russian Revolution swept away the old order. For a few brief years the working class set about creating a socialist society. Helen supported the revolution. In her office she hung a red flag with a hammer and sickle on it. She wrote numerous articles defending the Russian Revolution. She also led the campaign to end the US economic blockade of Russia, which was designed to strangle the fledgling workers' state. In 1929 she wrote an essay, 'The spirit of Lenin'.
The spirit still flickered
But the collapse of the Wobblies and Stalin's destruction of the Russian Revolution took their toll. Helen gradually withdrew from politics and concentrated more and more on helping deaf and blind people. But the spirit of socialism still flickered in her soul. During the 1930s she wrote several articles defending socialism. After the Second World War she helped finance a socialist education centre in New York. In the late 1940s and 1950s the US government persecuted Communists and socialists. Hundreds were imprisoned for their beliefs. One of those imprisoned was former IWW member and leader of the US Communist Party, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.
Despite failing health, Helen regularly visited and wrote to Flynn during her three years in prison. Helen sent a letter to the US president calling on him to release Flynn. This was a time when making a public statement in defence of a Communist was a brave act. Helen Keller's life is an inspiration for everyone, as a Cleveland journalist discovered in 1919.
Helen was to give a speech to a rally of striking print workers. The journalist's brief was to paint her as a 'trouble maker' and 'red'. But instead he was moved to write, 'Helen Keller is blind, deaf and 'dumb'. Yet in her blindness she sees oppression, in her deafness she hears the cry of outraged humanity and in her speeches she voices the demand for justice.'
Find a selection of Helen Keller's writing at: www.marxists.org/reference/archive/keller-helen/