Disability and the Soviet Union: Advances and retreats

The second part of “Disability and the Russian Revolution,” which appeared in ISR 102 (Fall 2016).

By the end of October 1917, the Bolshevik Party had won a clear majority of workers and peasants within the nationwide network of soviets (revolutionary councils) to their program of the overthrow of the capitalist, or provisional, government which had replaced the deposed tsar. Almost immediately after carrying out the revolution, the Bolsheviks began reshaping all of Russia. To be sure, their ambitions in these first optimistic years far outstripped the limited means which Russia’s backward economy put at their disposal. Yet, hopeful as they were in the spread of the revolution to the advanced capitalist countries of Europe—bringing with it the promise of direct international aid and an end to the economic siege organized by said capitalist countries—the Bolsheviks began reordering society in a truly revolutionary direction. There were three major areas in which the revolution effected significant change in the area of disability: law and policy; labor and the economy; and health and education. Changes in law and policy were discussed in part one of this article (see ISR #102). The present article will address the impact of the revolution on the latter two categories.


Labor and the economy

The dramatic nature of many of the legal decrees notwithstanding, it is important to note that the Soviet government’s maximum agenda in the first years after the revolution remained largely aspirational. From its inception, the revolution had been fettered by the underdeveloped economic conditions inherited from tsarist feudalism and a disastrous world war; the inception of a counterrevolutionary civil war backed by the imperialist Allied countries of Europe and the United States; and a debilitating economic blockade placed upon Russia by an alliance of imperialist countries. As a result, it was estimated that by 1919 industrial production had declined to a mere one-fifth of its prewar high.1

At best, the revolutionary government could set for itself the initial task of dividing up equally amongst the population the existent accumulated domestic wealth of the landowners and capitalists. Such a measure could provide immediate relief to the population, but could not stave off hunger and the generalization of want for more than a brief period. The Bolsheviks were therefore acutely aware that the eventual success of socialism in Russia hinged entirely upon the spreading of revolution to the wealthier capitalist nations of the world, from whom Russia could obtain substantial economic aid and favorable relations of trade. Failing that, the Russian people were doomed to either remain mired in relative poverty or else face a growing compulsion to proceed down the road championed by the Bolsheviks’ conservative detractors: namely, to act as a kind of surrogate bourgeoisie committed to wealth accumulation via the exploitation of labor. As Engels had long before noted in The Peasant War in Germany, 

The worst thing that can befall a leader of an extreme party is to be compelled to take over a government in an epoch when the movement is not yet ripe for the domination of the class which he represents and for the realization of the measures which that domination would imply. What he can do depends not upon his will but upon the sharpness of the clash of interests between the various classes, and upon the degree of development of the material means of existence. . . . Thus he necessarily finds himself in a dilemma. What he can do is in contrast to all his actions as hitherto practiced, to all his principles and to the present interests of his party; what he ought to do cannot be achieved. In a word, he is compelled to represent not his party or his class, but the class for whom conditions are ripe for domination.2 

For the time being, however, the working class of Russia was simply determined to enjoy the immediate fruits of its victory. The experience of the revolution itself had thoroughly imbued Russian society with seemingly unbounded feelings of hope, solidarity, and comradeship. The watchword of the day was that the welfare and well-being of all trumped all other concerns.

Naturally, the reorganization of the economy proceeded along lines informed by this prevailing mood. Initially, this was done largely spontaneously as workers and peasants took matters into their own hands. They were not waiting for Soviet decrees, but simply proceeding to reorganize their lives, knowing that the soviets—their soviets—would invariably codify their actions after the fact. To this end, a massive wave of factory and workplace takeovers directly succeeded the revolution. The lowest strata of the peasantry likewise engaged in mass seizures and occupations of the former estates and mansions of the landed aristocracy.

Having thus placed the means of production under their own cooperative control, the workers immediately began to freely adapt and accommodate the labor process to their abilities, needs, and desires. This took the following forms: slowing down the pace of work; decreasing the length of the workday; prioritizing the implementation of safety precautions and measures; creating substantially more flexible work schedules; exerting more direct control over the flow and process of the work; and allowing for greater flexibility in the division of labor within the production process. 

The promise of such a socialist reorganization of the economy was, as Lenin wrote in December 1917, to draw “the majority of working people into a field of labor in which they can display their abilities, develop the capacities, and reveal those talents, so abundant among the people whom capitalism crushed, suppressed, and strangled in thousands and millions.” 

Every factory from which the capitalist has been ejected, or in which he has at least been curbed by genuine workers’ control, every village from which the landowning exploiter has been smoked out and his land confiscated has only now become a field in which the working man can reveal his talents, unbend his back a little, rise to his full height, and feel that he is a human being.3

Reminiscing decades later on the practical changes which the revolution in the factories had initially wreaked, the Bolshevik leader Nadezhda Krupskaya wrote, “The revolution had done away with the bullying, swearing and driving class of foremen and bosses, and the worker was glad to be rid of them, glad to be able to sit down and have a smoke when he was tired without anyone driving him. At the beginning the factory organizations readily released the workers to attend all kinds of meetings.” She continues by relating a particularly illustrative anecdote which occurred in early 1918: 

I remember a woman worker coming to me once at the Commissariat of Education to receive some certificate or other. During our conversation I asked her what shift she was working in. I thought she was working in the night shift, otherwise she would not have been able to come to the Commissariat in the daytime. “None of us are working today,” [she said]. “We had a meeting yesterday evening, everyone was behindhand with her domestic work at home, so we voted to knock off today. We’re the bosses now, you know.”4

Another aspect of the revolution that immediately expressed itself throughout the economy was the desire for equality between all sectors of the working class. For instance, whereas in August 1917 the ratio between unskilled and skilled workers’ wages was 1:2.32, by 1920 it had become 1:1.04.5 Historian Marcel Liebman notes that for Lenin and the Bolshevik party, the impossibility of achieving the complete equalization of wages was in fact seen as “one of the constraints imposed by the crisis and by the country’s economic backwardness, and [Lenin] regarded the necessity of giving specialists specially favored rates of pay as nothing less than a setback for the revolution. In the draft program he put before the Eighth Party Congress [March 1919] he repeated: ‘our ultimate aim is to achieve . . . equal remuneration for all kinds of work.’”6

The spirit of equality that attended the democratization of the production process also applied to issues that existed at the intersection of workplace accommodation and gender. For instance, some workplaces established free on-site childcare spaces for the benefit of working mothers, while others implemented regulations allowing working mothers to take off up to two hours out of their normal workday for the purposes of feeding their children.7 

Perhaps one of the most popular new accommodations that Russian workers now enjoyed was the ability to take a near-unlimited number of paid sick days and respites away from work. Because the new revolutionary healthcare system was controlled by the workers, patients, and local soviets—and because the health system was free, universal, and removed from the dictates of market profitability and finance capital—it became easy for a worker suffering from injury or ill health to obtain authorization from a nearby medical center excusing them from work for a given period of time or indicating the necessity of a change in their workload or workflow.8 

In addition to paid sick leave, revolutionary Russia also became the first country in the world where all workers, without exception, had the right to an annual paid vacation of two to four weeks. 9 Moreover, the Soviet government took the added measure of facilitating the widespread enjoyment of this right by seizing the beautiful seaside palaces and country estates of the former aristocracy and bourgeoisie and opening them up to peasants and workers to use for free as therapeutic resorts and communal vacation homes.10

Outside of the immediate sphere of relations pertaining to the workplace, there were a number of broader noteworthy social changes that improved the accessibility of general economic and civic life to all. For instance, important services such as public transit, electrical power, and postal and parcel delivery were provided free of charge to the populace at government expense.11 

Another significant development was the national campaign to establish free communal kitchens, laundries, childcare, and the like; the primary aim being to lift the many tasks of social reproduction off the shoulders of the individual family unit in general, and women workers in particular. Though the scale of these communal experiments was unfortunately limited by overall economic constraints, it is clear that those who especially stood to benefit from such measures were mothers with disabilities and mothers who had children with disabilities. Additionally, with the complete socialization and universalization of many tasks associated with individual daily living, all people with disabilities would be able to more easily obtain all manner of personal (i.e., communal) assistance necessary for meaningful self-development and realization.

Ultimately, a fully accurate depiction of the labor and economic situation in revolutionary Russia cannot be complete without recognition of the exigencies that stymied all but the most halting progress. By the end of 1918, sabotage, economic blockade, and open civil war on the part of the capitalist class and its international imperialist backers was well underway. From 1918 to 1921, the area under Soviet control was a society literally under a state of siege. Famine, unemployment, and the near-total breakdown of railroad transport plagued the cities and countryside alike. This was the period of so-called War Communism (a horribly inexact appellation), in which every nerve and fiber of Soviet society was marshaled toward the fortification and defense of the revolution. In many regards, it marked a significant retreat (or at the very least, an austere detour) from the path of democratic, cooperative, and post-coercive socialist development. As Trotsky put it in retrospect, “War Communism was the regime of a beleaguered fortress.”12

At the war’s conclusion, the peasant-worker alliance which had made the tsar’s overthrow possible began to break down under the weight of generalized scarcity, postwar exhaustion, and industrial collapse. The breakdown of transportation and the outbreak of the civil war crisis prompted the new government in August 1918 to begin sending detachments of workers and poor peasants into the countryside to forcibly requisition grain in order to sustain the Red Army and to forestall the depopulation of Russia’s cities. In 1921, with socialist revolution having failed (at least for the moment) to spread internationally, the Bolshevik government initiated a New Economic Policy (NEP) premised upon the limited introduction of capitalist forms of economy. If the policy of War Communism was one of retreat, then NEP marked a retreat from a retreat. Nonetheless, it was deemed a necessary concession to the demands of the peasantry and even elements of the working class, not to mention the very historical economic conditions obtaining in an isolated, dilapidated, and underdeveloped society.

As the decade of the 1920s wore on, the NEP saw the gradual reintroduction of privatized production, the commodities market, wage determination according to the labor market, social and economic inequality, and regularized unemployment. The Bolsheviks who ran the government during this period often felt that they were hostage to circumstances beyond their control in their implementation of NEP. Lenin, for example, remarked at the 1922 party congress: “It was like a car that was going not in the direction the driver desired, but in the direction someone else desired; as if it were being driven by some mysterious, lawless hand, God knows whose, perhaps of a profiteer, or of a private capitalist, or of both.”13

In reflecting upon the limitations and characteristics of Soviet Russia during these years, it is worth returning to Karl Marx, who in one of his more expansive descriptions of communism, wrote of a society in which, 

After the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly — only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!14

And yet, how far Russia of the 1920s was from a society in which such conditions even remotely obtained. If, as Marx wrote, a political superstructure “can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby,”15 then we are compelled to return to the original Bolshevik assertion that a workers’ state that remained isolated in an underdeveloped Russia would be simply unable to conjure into being a genuine communist, classless society. 

Nonetheless, it is worth pointing out that in certain key respects, the genuinely socialist aspirations of the Bolshevik government and the advanced sections of the working class remained evident even during these years of retreat and dissolution. For instance, the 1920s witnessed, inter alia, the emergence of three important labor-oriented disability advocacy organizations that enjoyed the support of both a large number of disabled Russians as well as the Bolshevik government. 

The All-Russian Cooperative of Disabled People (VIKO), All-Russian Union of the Blind (VOS), and All-Russian Union of the Deaf (VOG) were established in 1921, 1923, and 1926, respectively. Insofar as these three organizations were controlled by their members and yet operated with the support and under the aegis of the national government, they were quite without precedent. In fact, it has been argued that VIKO represents the first national pan-disability advocacy organization in modern history.16 VIKO was directly established in December 1921 by a vote of the Council of People’s Commissars.

The structure of VIKO was [that of] a national umbrella disability organization. All decisions were made democratically (in the early ’20s it was still allowed), and only people with disabilities had voting power at VIKO . . . VIKO focused its efforts on providing work opportunities for people with disabilities by creating special production lines, kindergartens, resorts, health retreats, vocational schools and sport centers.17 

Along with VOS and VOG (which operated under the purview of the Commissariat of Social Services), these groups set for themselves the task of integrating disabled Russians into society by helping them find “socially useful work; helping them complete secondary and higher education and find suitable employment; and drawing them into the ranks of active builders of Communist society.”18 Describing the activities of VOS in the mid-1920s, historian Bernice Madison writes, “The effort to do away with illiteracy among the blind began . . . with a cultural revolution of sorts. Clubs, houses of culture, red corners, and libraries multiplied. Night schools were developed; records became available.”19 Of work amongst the deaf, disability studies scholar Sarah Phillips writes, “Thanks to the VOG, which enjoyed the approval of Party functionaries, deaf people were able to nurture a deaf culture and improve the social standing of people with disabilities.”20

Health and education

In addition to (and as a result of) imperialist intervention, counterrevolutionary violence, and economic dislocation, the abysmal state of the general population’s health and well-being presented the new Soviet government with a high-priority crisis demanding immediate and substantial attention. During the entirety of World War I, cholera, typhus, and influenza epidemics claimed millions of lives, as disease raged unabated throughout Russia. With the onset of the post-revolution civil war, waves of disease once again crashed over the Russian population. Additionally, the spread of such epidemic diseases was further inflamed by the 1917–1920 economic blockade imposed on Russia by the imperialist nations. Not only did this blockade have the catastrophic effect of barring Russia from importing any of the food needed to stave off famine sweeping the country (a leading cause of epidemics), it also meant that Russia was unable to import any of the desperately needed medicines to aid in the fight against these epidemics.21 

Given the daunting scale of the obstacles the revolutionaries faced, it is actually quite impressive that the Bolshevik government was able, both in word and deed, to make the health crisis an early priority. As previously noted, much of the professional class of physicians in Russia—aside from that of psychiatry—were initially loath to support the revolution. After the revolution, however, that changed substantially, in large part owing to a number of bold measures taken by the soviets at both the national and regional level. The national government immediately set about centralizing and coordinating the establishment of a free, universal public health system on a mass scale. In fact, revolutionary Russia became the first nation in the world to establish a single, unified federal-level Commissariat (i.e., department or ministry) of Public Health in July 1918.22

Notably, the Commissariat of Public Health also included a neuropsychiatric subsection tasked to centralize the delivery of psychiatric services to the population; official public statements declared the provision of such services a priority and “urgent task” of the Soviet government. Specific attention was also given by this subsection to “the victims of war and revolution,” (the so-called “shell-shocked” soldiers, or “war neurotics”) whose psychological condition had been ignored or even punished by the previous government, but for whom the present government would now assume full responsibility for treatment and support.23

In terms of epidemiology, one of the early significant acts of the Commissariat of Health was to aid in the establishment of local Workers’ Committees to Combat Epidemics in all major districts of Russia, comprised of elected representatives working in conjunction with the local Soviet bodies. Writing in 1920, after the worst of the epidemic tides had been successfully stemmed, the Commissar of Health noted: 

We may say without exaggeration that the epidemics of typhus and cholera were stopped chiefly by the assistance of the workers’ and peasants’ committees. But this is not all. Not a single important problem has been carried out without the assistance of the workers. The question of systematic measures to combat social diseases, such as phthisis [tuberculosis] and venereal disease, was discussed with the representatives of trade unions, Women’s Organizations, Young People’s Unions, etc. The organization of sanitary protection for workers was carried out by special inspectors, elected from among the workers themselves: inspectors of dwellings were organized in the same way.24

A riveting and detailed picture of this process is offered by historian Alexander Rabinovitch in his authoritative book, The Bolsheviks in Power: 

[During] the battle to bring the Petrograd cholera epidemic of 1918 under control . . .  local efforts to educate the public about avoiding infection were headed by medical sections of individual district soviets or hastily formed district soviet “troikas” to combat cholera, supported by epidemiologists, staffs of local hospitals, and pharmacists. The medical sections also established multiple neighborhood cholera first-aid stations and vaccination centers, which functioned around-the-clock, and strove mightily to eradicate sources of contamination. The Commissariat for Public Health . . . formed an Emergency Commission for the Struggle against Cholera which became a citywide coordinating center for anti-cholera efforts.

At the peak of the crisis, [the Emergency Commission] took steps to stop the sale of fruit by street vendors, facilitate the quick adoption of emergency preventative health measures by workers, and mobilize workers to bury a huge backlog of coffins at the city’s cemeteries. Labor conflict associated with the epidemic was minimal and understandable. Grossly overworked grave diggers at the Uspenskii Cemetery demanded an increase in their miserly bread ration. The same was true of employees at the city’s waterworks, especially stokers who themselves became victims of the disease in inordinately high percentages; they insisted on a supplemental ration equal to that granted personnel carrying out high-risk medical duties. These demands were forwarded to the Emergency Commission and, presumably, were met.25

Beyond the purely medical, one measure in particular proved a significant boon to the fight against disease: the dramatic improvement of housing conditions for the Russian working class in the immediate years following the revolution. This was made possible by a process of mass requisitioning and property seizures in which every mansion and large estate of the wealthy class—including the opulent buildings and monasteries owned by various religious institutions—were requisitioned to provide adequate lodgings to the homeless, and especially to homeless and orphaned children and adolescents.26 

This latter population in particular drew special, detailed, and continuous attention from the new Soviet government. Mass fatalities as a result of world war, civil war, famine, and epidemics had created a huge population of children without living parents or guardians. It is estimated that by 1921–1922 roughly seven million children composed a veritable army of homeless, orphaned, and neglected children.27 Before the revolution, such children were forced to rely on scant private or religious charity. After the revolution, however, these children immediately became official wards of the Soviet government itself. Such a mass transfer of orphaned children into state guardianship was near-unprecedented in world history; henceforth, the meeting of their needs was to be a matter of public obligation rather than private caprice. 

A large number of these children had a wide variety of mental and physical disabilities, whose needs drew the attention of a growing number of Soviet agencies.28 By the early 1920s, the Soviet government had established medical and educational facilities specifically for children with disabilities in every provincial capital of Russia.29 The study of the phenomenon of disability itself—particularly disability in children—as it pertained to education, psychology, and sociology, was also raised to a much higher level within academia and civil society generally through encouragement and assistance provided by the government. Historians Jane Knox and Carol Stevens write: 

Concern for . . . abandoned children [led] to the inauguration of a special section of the Commissariat of Education called SPON (Social and Legal Protection of Minors). Beginning in 1923 (that is, after the 1921-1922 famine had reached its peak), more of the new institutions sponsored by SPON were directed toward identifying, housing, and educating children who were physically handicapped or “difficult to educate.” The net result of the general focus on education and the particular concern for abandoned children was a marked increase in facilities for studying and teaching the handicapped and training teachers for them.30

This marked increase in official attention devoted to disability pedagogy took on unprecedented proportions within revolutionary Russia. The Soviet government became one of the very first in the world to make the universal education of children with disabilities—otherwise known as “special education”—a matter of public policy administered through the state.31

Before proceeding to a full discussion of special education within revolutionary Russia, however, it is necessary to contextually establish the nature and scope of the transformation that was being wrought in the field of general education. The goal of placing literacy and education within the full reach of the entire Russian working class and peasantry had long been a cornerstone of the Bolsheviks’ approach to the self-emancipation of the oppressed. After the revolution, this aspiration truly blossomed. Indeed, perhaps more than any other area of reform, the education system in revolutionary Russia underwent a thoroughgoing metamorphosis. These changes had a profound impact on the entire population, but were of particular importance to anyone with divergent learning or cognitive abilities.

As the preamble to the Soviet government’s Education Act of 1918 stated:

The personality shall remain as the highest value in the socialist culture. This personality however can develop its inclinations in all possible luxury only in a harmonious society of equals. We do not forget the right of an individual to his own peculiar development. It is not necessary for us to cut short a personality, to cheat it, to cast it into iron moulds, because the stability of the socialist community is based not on the uniformity of barracks, not on artificial drill, not on religious and aesthetic deceptions, but on an actual solidarity of interests.32

At the primary level, the Soviet government established free, mixed-gender, public education for all children, in which homework, grading systems, and individual high-stakes examinations were abolished. The elaboration of curriculums and methods was entrusted to elected school councils consisting of teachers, students, and other school workers (counselors, etc.). At the level of higher education, entrance examinations and tuition were abolished and universities were unconditionally open to all who wished to enter. At all levels students were encouraged to learn and accomplish tasks in cooperation with each other, rather than through the kind of competitiveness that is the hallmark of capitalist education.33

Such was the vibrant context in which a comprehensive system of special education developed in Russia. The endeavor was organized directly through the Commissariat of Education, and was led and influenced most substantially by the Marxist psychologist and educator, Lev Vygotsky. It is important to note that Vygotsky was uniquely qualified to play a leading role in the education of Russia’s children with disabilities, as he himself had a disability. Throughout the entirety of his adult life he suffered from chronic bouts of tuberculosis—a disease that would ultimately take his life at the age of thirty-seven. In fact, throughout the 1920s when he was at his most influential and prolific in shaping Soviet disability policy, he was repeatedly hospitalized and intermittently spent stretches of time unable to work and on the state disability pension rolls.34 

Before proceeding further in this section, it is worth saying a word about terminology. As it developed in Russia, the field of disability studies went by the official title of “Defectology” (i.e., as in “birth defect,” etc). This unfortunate appellation was carried over wholesale from the prerevolutionary lexicon; and the work of disability studies occurred within this rubric even as its content was undergoing radical alteration.35 To the modern reader, Vygotsky’s use of the term will seem as antiquated as early twentieth century English-language texts which contain then-common terms such as “retarded,” “crippled,” etc. Nonetheless, what’s most important in Vygotsky’s work is not his terminology, but the radical ideas he sought to communicate.

The contribution of Lev Vygotsky

At the heart of Vygotsky’s approach to special education were two general principles, derived from a fusion of the concept of social education and a Marxist understanding of the historical-materialist development of conscious human behavior. First, Vygotsky maintained that “at any given moment, a child is full of unrealized potentials, and these offer a wealth of creative resources on which a handicapped child, or any child, may and must build.”36 Second, that only through collaboration with others can any child, disabled or not, fully develop their total human personality and unique potential: “That which is impossible for one, is possible for two. . . [and] that which is impossible on the level of individual development becomes possible on the level of social development.”37

In a 1925 speech delivered on behalf of the Commissariat of Education at an international conference on the education of the deaf and blind, Vygotsky elaborated, “When we have a blind child before us as the object of education, then we must deal not so much with the blindness itself as with the conflicts which arise for a blind child when he enters life. . . . For a blind or deaf child, blindness or deafness represent normality, not a condition of illness. He senses the handicap in question only indirectly or secondarily, as a result of his social experiences. What then does a hearing loss mean, in and of itself? It must be accepted that blindness and deafness indicate nothing other than the mere absence of one means of forming conditional links with the environment.”38

Relating the situation in Russia, Vygotsky continues:

Perhaps almost for the first time in the world, our schools are developing an experiment in the self-organization of deaf children. The children create a student self-government, composed of sanitary, economic and cultural commissions, etc., which totally envelop the children’s life. Living skills, social behavior, initiative, leadership qualities, collective responsibility grow and strengthen in this system. Lastly this social educational system is crowned by a children’s communist movement, through which a child learns to see himself as a participant in life on a world scale. . . . [In this way,] the deaf-mute child lives and breathes with his whole country. His pulse, his efforts, his thoughts beat in unison with the masses.39

The significance of Vygotsky’s conceptual reframing of the “problem” of disability as being primarily a social question is quite profound. If the supposed “tragedy” of disability finds its source not in any inherent biological flaw or inferiority on the part of the individual but rather arises out of social circumstances, then the potential for transcendence also resides in the latter. For while the phenomenon of physical and mental impairment is an inalienable, intrinsic feature of human existence, the specific historical-social conditions the bearers of such impairments are compelled to navigate are, by definition, not intrinsic. From such a theoretical vantage point, Vygotsky felt confident in anticipating a not-too-distant future in which, “pedagogy will be ashamed of the very notion of a ‘handicapped child,’ which signifies some unalterable defect in the child’s nature.”

 It is our responsibility to see to it that a deaf, blind, or mentally retarded person is not handicapped. Only then will this notion, which, in itself, is a true sign of our own inadequacy, disappear. Physically, blindness and deafness will still exist on earth a long time. A blind person will remain blind and a deaf person deaf, but they will cease to be handicapped because a handicapped condition is only a social concept; a defective condition is an abnormal extension of blindness, deafness, or muteness. Blindness by itself does not make a child handicapped; it is not a defective condition, an inadequacy, abnormality, or illness. Blindness becomes these things only under certain social conditions of a blind person’s existence.40

Vygotsky approached the education of those with intellectual, cognitive, or other learning disabilities in precisely the same manner. He criticized educators who asserted that the “the goal of the [special] school cannot be the same [as the general school] since the mentally retarded . . .  cannot be builders, or creators of a new life,” and that the most that could be demanded from such children is that they “not keep others from building.”41 Vygotsky countered: 

Initially, when the bourgeois school confronted the problem and the fact of mental retardation . . . it set for itself the negative goals of barring passage into the school for normal children and, with the assistance of this barrier, sought to weed out those children not capable of learning there or who were unwilling to. Anyone will understand the hopelessness of making a selection according to negative indicators. If we undertake such a weeding out, then we risk isolating and consolidating into one general group those children whose positive attributes have little in common. . . . [In fact, it] turned out to be impossible to explain mental retardation on the basis of a purely negative definition. It is impossible to be guided only by what a given child lacks, by what he is not. On the contrary, it is necessary to have some conception, even if the most vague understanding, of what his capabilities are and what he represents. In this vein the bourgeois school accomplished exceedingly little.42

In contrast, Vygotsky pointed to positive outcomes of experimental education models being attempted in Russia. These were premised upon the “social nature of education and the role of the collective in the education of severely retarded children:”

New research has shown that free collectives of severely retarded children form themselves according to an extremely interesting principle. Thus . . . these children have a tendency to create and enter into collectives consisting of individuals of varying intellectual levels. . . . It is obvious that an enormous educational factor is represented by the presence of children of various intellectual levels in collectives, as well as by the cooperation of the children who make up the given collective. In free collectives . . . where the participants do not see themselves as the simple sum of the peculiarities which characterize the individual children, and where each of the members acquires new peculiarities and qualities, as it were re-creating themselves into something whole—in such free collectives, the personality of severely retarded children is represented in an entirely new light.43

In other words, it is precisely through socialized education—and ultimately, socialized existence generally—that not only the sum, but each individual part (person) it comprises, becomes greater than the particular strengths and weaknesses of that person when taken as an isolated individual.

The negation of the revolution

Taken together, the subject matter discussed by Vygotsky abundantly demonstrates the mass optimism and transformation that the revolution wrought in the conditions and politics of disability in Russia. Yet it should be noted that the bulk of this material is drawn from a relatively short period of time, comprising no less than four and no more than twelve years. In fact, as has been extensively documented elsewhere, by the late 1920s and early 1930s, the ruling economic and political system of Russia had in nearly every way become an utter negation of that which obtained in the early post-revolution years.44 Workers’ power over society had been replaced by a bureaucratic ruling class exercising power over the workers. This Stalinist version of “socialism” actually had far more in common with the classical features of capitalist accumulation and exploitation than with the democratic collective ownership of the means of production associated with Marx.

Given that the early advances in the liberation of people with disabilities proceeded in lockstep with the advances of the Russian Revolution in its overall transcendence of capitalist social relations, it should come as no surprise that the retreat and ultimate defeat of the revolution also occasioned regression and mass oppression in the realm of disability. Glimpses of the negative manifestation of this dialectic began to appear even in the early 1920s. Aside from the purely economic obstacles to change discussed above, the austere atmosphere of NEP led to other restrictions within civil society more generally.

The first immigration controls were introduced during these years, in which entry was permitted only to those able to secure a job in advance of their emigration.45 Free health care was phased out and replaced with tiers of service in which many had to once again pay fees.46 By 1926, a period in which Stalin (and the burgeoning bureaucratic ruling class he represented) had begun to exert political hegemony over society through its now-official state doctrine of building “socialism in one country,” certain eugenic measures also began to find increasing expression in government policy. For instance, the updated Civil Code of that year included such measures as the prohibition of marriage between close relatives as well as persons who had in legal form been declared mentally incompetent.47

Ultimately, the experience of the decay of the Russian Revolution demonstrates that even a democratic workers’ state cannot long engage in the task of regulating and even encouraging the development of capitalist social relations (as opposed to abolishing them), before the roles become reversed; before capitalist relations determine the character of the state, rather than vice-versa. Indeed, it was precisely because of this and related factors that a new ruling class was able to come into being at the end of the 1920s under the leadership of Joseph Stalin, violently replacing a workers’-state-regulated-capitalism with simply [state] capitalism. 

Thus, by 1928 and afterwards, when the Stalinist government embarked on the first of several “Five Year Plans” to strengthen the nation, all semblances of socialist democracy and workers’ power had been completely liquidated. The explicit goal of the Communist Party-led government had become to quickly industrialize and develop the Russian economy at all costs in order to effectively compete with the powerful capitalist nations of the West. Both the working class and peasantry in general, and disabled people in particular, bore the full brunt of the resultant breakneck pace and cutthroat competition which the Five Year Plans introduced into industrial production and the accumulation of capital. Whereas the oppression of people with disabilities in capitalist society is conditioned by the valuation of humans according to the profitability of their commodity-producing labor, we find a strikingly analogous imperative imposing itself in Russia during this period.

On the one hand, piece-rate or piecework payment, in which workers were compensated in direct proportion to the output of their labor, became ubiquitous throughout Russian industry with underperforming workers facing summary termination.48 This resulted in the gap in pay between various tiers of workers reaching unprecedented proportions. In 1928, the ratio between highest- and lowest-paid workers was approximately 3:1, but by 1940, it had increased to 30:1.49 Moreover, it is only possible to guess at the toll in life and limb exacted upon the workers by the rapid increase in the overall rate of exploitation, because the precise figures do not exist. Whereas before 1928 detailed documentation was kept on the rate of industrial accidents and injury throughout Russia (including census figures on the overall disabled population), by 1933 the government simply ceased to report aggregate figures for industrial accidents or occupational disabilities, let alone make note of disability in census reports.50

On the other hand, those straddling the edges or outside of the regular workforce for one reason or another were subjected to equally despotic measures. Three days absence from work in any month was now punishable by immediate dismissal without notice; social security benefits were determined by length and type of employment; the provision of temporary disability benefits was determined by past employment history (i.e., discipline and production history); relief payments to the unemployed were abolished except in ambiguous cases of “serious” disability; length of allowable maternity leave was reduced across the board.51 

If solidarity and cooperative class-consciousness had been the watchword of the revolutionary period, the counterrevolutionary period was marked by selfishness, individualism, and antipathy. For instance, in order to increase productivity by cracking down on absenteeism and “slackers,” the Stalinist managers of the economy actively fostered competitive enmity between workers by installing “red boards” and “black boards” in most workplaces. The former contained the names of the most productive workers; the latter, the least. Moreover, individuals were encouraged to publicly lodge accusations of their own against coworkers through the medium of the black boards. An American author touring Russian factories in 1933 noted some of the contents of these black boards. In one shop a caricature of a woman worker had been drawn next to the indictment: “Why does comrade Aranova so often go on sick leave and will not work like the rest of us?” In other shops derisive pictures were displayed over the workbenches of those who had been disciplined by factory management for alcoholism. In fact, the author reported that every factory he visited had some sort of wall display containing the names and photographs of workers who had been recently treated for alcoholism.52  

Ancillary to the sphere of economic production, the health and education sectors likewise suffered dramatically under the Stalinist counterrevolution. A 1930 decree shredded the remaining vestiges of universal health care by repealing the existing law that guaranteed all Russians equal access to medical resources. Instead, health service resources were now rationed amongst the population according to strictly-defined categories, with those working in the most productive economic sectors enjoying highest prioritization, while the mass of the rural peasantry, those outside of the workforce, and those in the least productive sectors were assigned the lowest prioritization.53 The following year, a decree was issued abolishing special education.54 The Commissars of Education and Health—both old Bolsheviks and close friends of Lenin—were summarily ousted as preconditions for the fulfillment of the foregoing changes.55 Finally, a 1936 decree specifically condemned and essentially outlawed the philosophy, methods, and works of Lev Vygotsky and his associates.56

In sum, all the advances that the working class had made in the course of the revolution to begin to abolish the alienating, oppressive, and exploitative nature of capitalist economic relations were undone so that the emergent Stalinist ruling class could achieve its desired rate of capital accumulation and industrial development. In this respect they were certainly successful; Russia’s overall industrial output rose from 6.9 percent of the overall US industrial output in 1928 to 45.1 percent in 1938.57 Yet, as has been well and widely documented, the human cost of this highly compressed industrial revolution ran into the millions. Moreover, the economic counterrevolution carried out by the Stalinist ruling class required an equally brutal political counterrevolution of terror. By the late 1930s, Stalin had overseen the murder, imprisonment, or exile of the majority of the original Bolshevik party leaders and membership.58 


The Russian Revolution of 1917—both in spite of and because of later events that negated it—continues to stand as an invaluable historical proof of the viability and vitality of socialist revolution. In particular, it represented a qualitative advance in the emancipation of disabled people over anything the modern world has seen before or even since. For insofar as the liberation of people with disabilities is inextricably bound with the liberation of the entire oppressed, exploited majority from the fetters of capitalism, the Russian Revolution remains unrivaled on both counts. Amidst the most unpropitious of circumstances and leanest of means, the working class and oppressed of Russia took hold of their collective destinies—if only briefly—and proved to the world that another mode of human existence is possible. The possibility was tragically choked off by the failure of European revolution.

“It [is] possible that the Revolution will fail,” wrote the British author and journalist Arthur Ransome, upon touring Russia in 1918. “If so, then its failure will not mean that it loses its importance. . . .  Let the revolution fail. No matter. If only in America, in England, in France, in Germany people know why it has failed, who betrayed it, who murdered it. Man does not live by his deeds so much as the purpose of his deeds. We have seen the flight of the young eagles. Nothing can destroy that fact, even if, later in the day the eagles fall to earth one by one, with broken wings.”59

Nearly one hundred years later, modern capitalist society stands more pregnant than ever with the potential of socialism—and with it, genuine disability liberation. The sheer scale of wealth, technology, and global intercourse created by over two centuries of world capitalist development all but guarantee it. Rather than be used for the further enrichment of the few and the exploitation of the many, the vast products of accumulated human labor can be used to ensure the free development of each and every human. The workday could be transformed, shortened, more equitably divided, and better accommodated to the needs and abilities of the actual worker. Technology could be employed both at the point of production and throughout society for the benefit of all, rather than merely in order to expedite the mass manufacture of commodities or for the personal enjoyment of only those who can afford it. With the chaotic, competitive, and cruel drive for profit removed from the equation, humans could freely rearrange their social affairs on the principles of solidarity, cooperation, and mutual well-being. Our individual strengths and weaknesses could be combined so as to complement one another, rather than destructively set against one another. 

As a result of the pyrrhic advances of capitalist development, humans have gained the ability to fly, though we have no wings; travel deep under sea, though we have no gills; move mountains, though our physical forms remain fragile; compute vast amounts of data at lightning speeds, though our brains remain sluggish and obtuse by comparison. In a word, we clearly have the capacity to advance far above the level of our organic potential. Yet simultaneously, capitalist relations have determined that those humans amongst the oppressed majority who happen to lack a given physical or mental faculty are doomed to remain mired at a level of personal development painfully below that of their social potential. It is this incongruity, this needless stifling of human beings, which constitutes the true tragedy of disability. In a word, the problem with disability is an historical problem of structural origin, not individual maladaptation or misfortune. Hence, the fate of people with disabilites in the modern world rests far more on our collective ability to overcome capitalism than it does on the (in)ability of disabled individuals to overcome themselves.

  1. Marcel Liebman, Leninism Under Lenin (London: Merlin Press, 1980), 347. For a brief summary of the devastating impact of the civil war and blockade on Russia’s economy, the peasantry, and its working class, see E. H. Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution, 1917–1923, vol. 2, 194–99 and Tony Cliff, “War communism,” in Lenin: Revolution Besieged (Chicago, Haymarket Books, 2014), also available at Marxist Internet Archive https://www.marxists.org, hereafter cited as MIA.
  2. Frederick Engels, “The Peasant War in Germany,” in Marx-Engels Collected Works,
  3. vol. 10 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1978), 469–470.
  4. V. I. Lenin, “How to Organize Competition,” December 24–27, 1917, Collected Works, vol. 26 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975), 404–415; also available at MIA.
  5. Nadezhda Krupskaya, Reminiscences of Lenin (New York: International Publishers, 1970), 460–461.
  6. Liebman, Leninism Under Lenin, 352–353.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Kevin Murphy, Revolution and Counterrevolution: Class Struggle in a Moscow Metal Factory (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2007), 124.
  9. Sally Ewing, “The Science and Politics of Soviet Insurance Medicine,” in Susan Gross Solomon and John F. Hutchinson, eds., Health and Society in Revolutionary Russia (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1990), 69–96.
  10. Arthur Ransome, Six Weeks in Russia in 1919 (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1919), 117.
  11. Nikolai Semashko, “The Work of the People’s Commissariat of Health,” Soviet Russia, vol. 3, no. 2 (September 18, 1920), 278; Arthur Newsholme and John Adams Kingsbury, Red Medicine: Socialized Health in Soviet Russia (New York: Doubleday, 1933), 253–259.
  12. Liebman, 352.
  13. Leon Trotsky, First Five Years of the Communist International, vol. 2 (London: New Park Publications, 1953), 266.
  14. Lenin, “Speech in the Opening of the Congress, March 27,” Collected Works, vol. 33 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1965), 238. 
  15. Karl Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Program,” Marx-Engels Collected Works, vol. 24 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1989), 87.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Roddy Slorach, A Very Capitalist Condition: A History and Politics of Disability (London: Bookmarks, 2015), 127.
  18. L. N. Indolev, “A Brief Historical Account of the Disability Movement in Russia,” Disability World  3 (June–July 2000).
  19. Bernice Madison, “Programs for the Disabled in the USSR,” in William McCagg and Lewis Siegelbaum, eds., The Disabled in the Soviet Union: Past and Present, Theory and Practice (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989), 176–177.
  20. Ibid., 177–178.
  21. Sarah D. Phillips, “‘There Are No Invalids in the USSR!’ A Missing Soviet Chapter in the New Disability History,” Disability Studies Quarterly 29, no. 3 (2009).
  22. Semashko, “The Work of the People’s Commissariat of Health,” 276-277.
  23. Semashko; Neil B. Weissman, “Origins of Soviet Health Administration: Narkomzdrav 1918–1928” in Solomon and Hutchinson, eds., Health and Society in Revolutionary Russia.
  24. Irina Sirotkina, “The Politics of Etiology: Shell Shock in the Russian Army, 1914–1918,” in Angela Brintlinger and Ilya Vinitsky, eds., Madness and the Mad in Russian Culture (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007), 128.
  25. Semashko, 277.
  26. Alexander Rabinovitch, The Bolsheviks in Power (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2007), 257–258.
  27. Weissman, “Origins of Soviet Health Administration,” 106–107; Liebman, 346; Lenin, “To A. V. Lunacharsky,” March 1920, Collected Works vol. 44, 366a, MIA.
  28. Jennie A. Stevens, “Children of the Revolution: Soviet Russia’s Homeless Children (Besprizorniki) in the 1920s,” Russian History/Histoire Russe, vol. 9, pts. 2–3 (1982), 246.
  29. Jane Knox and Carol B. Stevens, “Vygotsky and Soviet Russian Defectology: An Introduction,” in Robert W. Rieber and Aaron S. Carton, eds., The Collected Works of L. S. Vygotsky, vol. 2: The Fundamentals of Defectology (New York: Springer Science + Business Media, 1993), 3.
  30. Semashko, 278; Lenin, “The Prosecution of Minors: Notes and Amendments to the Draft Decree,” March 4, 1920, MIA; William McCagg, “The Origins of Defectology,” in The Disabled in the Soviet Union, 28–30.
  31. Knox and Stevens, “Vygotsky and Soviet Russian Defectology: An Introduction,” 3.
  32. Knox and Stevens, 2–3; Vygotsky, “Principles of Social Education for the Deaf-Mute Child,” 1925,Collected Works of Vygotsky (hereafter cited as CWV), 120–121; McCagg, “The Origins of Defectology,” 28–29; John Parrington, “All in the Mind,” Socialist Review 176 (June 1994).
  33. Cited in Chanie Rosenberg, Education and Revolution: A Great Experiment in Socialist Education (London, 1972),  MIA. 
  34. Megan Behrent, “Literacy and Revolution,” in Jeff Bale and Sarah Knopp, eds., Education and Capitalism: Struggles for Learning and Liberation (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012), 233–241; Liebman, 330–331; Rosenberg, Education and Revolution.
  35. Ibid., 3; Commentary on Vygotsky’s notebook from the Zakharino Hospital (1926) in E. Zavershneva, “The Key to Human Psychology,” Journal of Russian and East European Psychology 50, no. 4 (July–August 2012).
  36. McCagg, 28–29.
  37. This is not a direct quote from Vygotsky, but rather an eloquent summation of Vygotsky’s thought proffered in Knox and Stevens, 13.
  38. Vygotsky, “Introduction to E. K. Gracheva’s book, The Education and Instruction of Severely Retarded Children,” 1932, in CWV, 219.
  39. Vygotsky, “Principles of Social Education for the Deaf-Mute Child,” in CWV, 111.
  40. Ibid., 120.
  41. Vygotsky, “The Psychology and Pedagogy of Children’s Handicaps,” 1924, in CWV, 83–84.
  42. A.S. Griboedov, “Pedological Work and the Auxiliary School,” The New School no. 2 (1926), 99, cited in CWV, 49.
  43. Vygotsky, “Compensatory Processes in the Development of the Retarded Child,” 1931, in CWV, 122–123.
  44. Emphasis added. Vygotsky, “Introduction to E. K. Gracheva’s book,” 217.
  45. Tony Cliff, State Capitalism in Russia (London: Bookmarks, 1988); Anthony Arnove, ed., Russia: From Workers’ State to State Capitalism (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2003); Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed (1937), MIA.
  46. Yuri Felshtinsky, “The Legal Foundations of the Immigration and Emigration Policy of the USSR, 1917–27,” Soviet Studies 34, no. 3 (July, 1982): 332.
  47. Samuel C. Ramer, “Feldshers and Rural Health Care in the Early Soviet Period,” in Solomon and Hutchinson, eds., Health and Society in Revolutionary Russia, 132.
  48. Nikolai Krementsov, “Eugenics in Russia and the Soviet Union,” in Alison Bashford and Philippa Levine, eds., The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 413–429.
  49. N. I. Sinev and I. F. Engel, “Promyshlennyi travmatizm v SSSR,” Gigiena, bezopasnost i patologiia truda no. 3 (1929), 65, cited in Lewis H. Siegelbaum, “Okhrana Truda: Industrial Hygiene, Psychotechnics, and Industrialization in the USSR,” in Health and Society in Revolutionary Russia (hereafter cited as HSRR), 229–230.
  50. Cited in Boris Meissner, “Social Change in Bolshevik Russia,” in Boris Meissner, ed., Social Change in the Soviet Union (Notre Dame, Ind.: Notre Dame Press, 1972), 44.
  51. McCagg and Siegelbaum, eds., The Disabled in the Soviet Union, 89–90, 283.
  52. Vicente Navarro, Social Security and Medicine in the USSR: A Marxist Critique (Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Company, 1977), 42–43
  53. Newsholme and Kingsbury, Red Medicine, 44, 49–50, 104–107, 135.
  54. Christopher Davis, “Economics of Soviet Public Health, 1928-1932,” HSRR, 154–157, 160.
  55. Knox and Stevens, 6–7.
  56. Susan Gross Solomon, “Social Hygiene and Soviet Public Health, 1921–1930,” HSRR, 189.
  57. Knox and Stevens, 7–8.
  58. Alexander Gerschenkron, “The Rate of Growth in Russia,” Journal of Economic History no. 7, supplement (1947), 161, 166, cited in Navarro, 37.
  59. Roy Medvedev, Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism (London: Macmillan, 1972), 234–239.
  60. Arthur Ransome, “A Letter to America (May 1918),” in Radek and Ransome on Russia (New York: Socialist Publication Society, 1919), MIA.


Issue #99

Winter 2015-16

The Left after Syriza

Issue contents

Top story




  • Slavery, capitalism,
 and imperialism

    Sandy Boyer reviews The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E. Baptist; Empire of Cotton: A Global History by Sven Beckert; River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom by Walter Johnson; and The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism, 1815-1860 by Calvin Schermerhorn
  • The roots of the deep state

    Joe Cleffie reviews Phantom Terror: Political Paranoia and the Formation of the Modern State, 1789–1848 by Adam Zamoyski
  • Revolutionary parliamentarism?

    Todd Chretien reviews Lenin’s Electoral Strategy from Marx and Engels through the Revolution of 1905: The Ballot, the Streets—or Both by August H. Nimtz and Lenin’s Electoral Strategy from 1907 to the October Revolution of 1917: The Ballot, the Streets—or Both by August H. Nimtz