Helen Keller Reference Archive
Many hearing people, Marxists included, are familiar with Helen Keller in one of two ways. Either we see her as the wild child rescued from the prison of deafness and blindness through the heroic efforts of her "miracle worker" teacher, Anne Sullivan; or as the butt of cruel "Helen Keller" jokes. Neither image bears any relation to the actual, politically active Deaf/Blind woman whom that nearly mythical child became.
In these texts, she explains how she came to Revolutionary Socialism after her graduation from college. Despite her reliance on intermediaries to communicate with the outside world, Comrade Helen Keller is fully her own person.
Helen Keller became a member of the Socialist Pary in 1909 and by 1912, she had become a national voice for socialism and working class solidarity. Her articles and speeches take on a harder edge as the war machine gears up and the reformist tendency in the Socialist Party forced a split with its revolutionary wing. We can see her calling for party unity in 1913, and then breaking publically with reformism and siding wholeheartedly with the IWW in 1916 and taking up the struggle against President Wilson's hypocritical war machine .
Helen Keller's work for the cause of socialist revolution continued through the years of the First World War up until 1921. She had been long active in efforts to reduce the causes of blindess and provide relief for the Blind. With the collapse of the Socialist Party's commitment to revolution and the on-going persecution of the IWW, Keller lost her connections to the workers movement and became increasingly isolated among reformers and government bureaucrats who did not share her political perspectives.
Her own self image was that of a Blind woman who also could not hear. Helen Keller never learned the sign language of the North American Deaf community. Instead she had English sentences manually spelled into her hand and then vocalized her responses. This effectively cut her off from the largely working class Deaf population whose native sign language has a grammar all its own. Blindness at that time often meant unemployment, whereas Deaf workers were integrated into the largely non-English speaking ranks of manual laborers. One can only wonder what might have been if Comrade Keller had found a place in the ranks of politically unorganised Deaf workers in the heady years of the late '20s and '30s.
Sadly, her legacy among Deaf and Deaf/Blind people today is one of opposition to their native language rights. Her name stands for the dominance of spoken English over American Sign Language. This is due to her family's early contact with Alexander Graham Bell and his campaign to wipe out manual communication in favor of the oral education of the Deaf. Her legacy in the larger hearing world today is one of the saccharine sweet triumph of the individual over personal adversity (with the help of a determined educator-hero). Gone is her call for international working-class solidarity and her clear revolutionary vision. Hopefully, this small archive will go some way to recapturing her socialist legacy for the Deaf, Deaf/Blind and hearing workers of the world.