Helen Keller: The Radical Socialist
This article is a companion piece to episode 1.5 of Y’all Ain’t Alone, a podcast available on Soundcloud and YouTube about leftist ideology and leftists living in the South. Most of what’s written here is covered in the episode, so check it out if you’d rather listen than read, but definitely check out the sources for further information.
Helen Keller is an Alabama native who is well-known for her perseverance despite an illness that caused both deafness and blindness when she was only 19 months old. The remarkable thing about Keller is that she is a figure taught about in schools across the US, but her political activism is often left out of the story.
Keller was a prolific socialist, often cited as being well ahead of her peers in the early 1900s leftist movement. She fought for disabled rights before the concept existed, even in the communist and socialist circles of her day. Keller fought for women’s suffrage and birth control, she was highly anti-war, and helped to found the ACLU. Despite her radical political ideology, Keller met every US President between Grover Cleveland and Lyndon B. Johnson. She was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) as well as the Socialist Party. Keller was absolutely a radical leftist for much of her life, but somehow that information was not important enough to put into the myriad of history textbooks and biographies about her we all read as children.
The best thing about Keller’s rise to fame was the media’s reaction to it. She was famous during her life, which explains why she was meeting Presidents (they’ve been obsessed with celebrity for a while, it seems). At the time, Keller was exploited by the press and her story was used to show that perseverance was possible even when faced with what seemed like insurmountable odds. Her intelligence was praised often; she must be a genius to overcome such hardships and be the first deaf-blind person to earn a bachelor’s degree, right?
However, when it came out that Keller was a radical socialist, the capitalist and anti-socialist press immediately turned on her. Obviously, she was being exploited by the left, there’s no way Keller could have come to these conclusions on her own. Poor deaf-blind Keller was just being used to promote the radical socialist agenda that we so often hear about even today. Of course, she wasn’t being used at all and Keller was an absolute genius of her time and she was more than capable of coming to her own conclusions politically.
Let’s look at a few of the things said about Keller in the press, as well as her responses to them. These are excerpts from an editorial by Keller titled How I Became a Socialist.
“First — How did I become a Socialist? By reading. The first book I read was Wells’ New World for Old. I read it on Mrs. Macy’s recommendation. She was attracted by its imaginative quality, and hoped that its electric style might stimulate and interest me. When she gave me the book, she was not a Socialist and she is not a Socialist now. Perhaps she will be one before Mr. Macy and I are done arguing with her.”
Here Keller states blatantly that she’s a socialist and she became one simply by reading, by educating herself on the topic. I absolutely love this answer because it also speaks to Mrs. Macy not being a Socialist and that Keller often attempted to radicalize her. Why would Keller phrase it this way? Well, in an editorial titled Common Cause, which Keller refers to as anti-socialist, they wrote an article about her, starting with the headline:
“SCHENECTADY REDS ARE ADVERTISING; USING HELEN KELLER, THE BLIND GIRL, TO RECEIVE PUBLICITY.”
The best part about this headline is that they are literally doing what they’re accusing the “reds” of doing and using Keller’s name to receive publicity. Moreover, they Common Cause doesn’t seem to recognize their own hypocrisy; they go on to write:
“It would be difficult to imagine anything more pathetic than the present exploitation of poor Helen Keller by the Socialists of Schenectady. For weeks the party’s press agencies have heralded the fact that she is a Socialist, and is about to become a member of Schenectady’s new Board of Public Welfare.”
“There’s a chance for satirical comment on the phrase, ‘the exploitation of poor Helen Keller.’ But I will refrain, simply saying that I do not like the hypocritical sympathy of such a paper as the Common Cause, but I am glad if it knows what the word ‘exploitation’ means.”
So, she’s got that clapback down. A little long for Twitter maybe, but Keller makes an excellent point about exploitation. Capitalism is, after all, exploitative by design. Keller obviously takes issue with their faux sympathy for “poor Helen Keller” and won’t be taking their shit. I love this woman, by the way.
“For twenty-five years Miss Keller’s teacher and constant companion has been Mrs. John Macy, formerly of Wrentham, Mass. Both Mr. and Mrs. Macy are enthusiastic Marxist propagandists, and it is scarcely surprising that Miss Keller, depending upon this lifelong friend for her most intimate knowledge of life, should have imbibed such opinions.”
To which Keller responds:
“Mr. Macy may be an enthusiastic Marxist propagandist, though I am sorry to say he has not shown much enthusiasm in propagating his Marxism through my fingers. Mrs. Macy is not a Marxist, nor a socialist. Therefore, what the Common Cause says about her is not true. The editor must have invented that, made it out of whole cloth, and if that is the way his mind works, it is no wonder that he is opposed to socialism. He has not sufficient sense of fact to be a socialist or anything else intellectually worthwhile.”
I’m just happy to know that the capitalist press has continued their tradition of fabrication about leftists. Keller doesn’t shy away from pointing out their falsehoods and again, does it in a way that almost makes me feel sorry for the poor Common Cause editor.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention something I discovered while researching this episode of Y’all Ain’t Alone. Helen Keller was apparently a proponent of eugenics, to the point of writing an article about the famous Bollinger baby. Here’s an excerpt:
“Surely they must admit that such an existence is not worth while. It is the possibilities of happiness, intelligence and power that give life its sanctity, and they are absent in the case of a poor, misshapen, paralyzed, unthinking creature.”
Obviously, Keller’s views on eugenics had a lot of nuance, more than I’m going to present here, but perhaps I’ll do a future episode and/or article just on this topic. For now, I’m running a bit long and I’d like to finish up here. Remember that your heroes can be villains and history is often taught in a way that excludes the gritty details; the radicals become beloved children who overcome disabilities and all their revolutionary actions get tossed aside and forgotten.
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