Selected writings and speeches
A new light is coming
In the summer of 1913 Helen Keller participated in the annual Sagamore Sociological Conference in Massachusetts. Keller’s address to the conference, which was reprinted in the Socialist Party newspaper, the New York Call, included a forceful assertion that capitalism and democracy are inherently inimical to each other.
Ever since I came here, people have been asking my friends how I can have firsthand knowledge of the subjects you are discussing. They seem to think that one deaf and blind cannot know about the world of people, of ideas, of facts. Well, I plead guilty to the charge that I am deaf and blind, though I forget the fact most of the time. It is true, I cannot hear my neighbors discussing the questions of the day. But, judging from what is repeated to me of their discussions, I feel that I do not miss much. I can read. I can read the views of well-informed people, of thinkers like Alfred Russell Wallace, Sir Oliver Lodge, [John] Ruskin, H. G. Wells, [George] Bernard Shaw, Karl Kautsky, [Charles] Darwin, and Karl Marx. Besides books, I have magazines in raised print published in America, England, France, Germany, and Austria.
To be sure, I have never been a captain of industry, or a soldier, or a strike-breaker. But I have studied those professions, and I think I understand their relation to society. At all events, I claim my right to discuss them. I have the advantage of a mind trained to think, and that is the difference between myself and most people, not my blindness and their sight. It seems to me that they are indeed blind who do not see that there must be something very wrong when the workers—the men and women who produce the wealth of the nation—are ill paid, ill fed, ill clothed, and ill housed. Deaf indeed are they who do not hear the desperation in the voice of the people crying out against cruel poverty and social injustice. Dull indeed are their hearts who turn their backs upon misery and support a system that grinds the life and soul out of men and women.
I am glad so many of you have your eyes open to the questions of the day, and to the great change that is taking place in the structure of society. There is always hope for improvement when people are willing to try to understand. The change will take place whether we understand or not. . . . The workers themselves will work out their own salvation. All we can do is get into the procession. We are marching toward a new freedom. We are learning that freedom is the only safe condition for all human beings, men, women, and children. Only through freedom—freedom for all—can we hope for a true democracy.
Some of us have imagined that we live in a democracy. We do not. A democracy would mean full opportunity for all. It would mean that every child had a chance to be well born, well fed, well educated, and properly started in life. It would mean that every human being had a voice in making the laws and in exercising its privileges. It would mean that all men enjoyed the fruits of their labor. Such a democracy has never existed.
But we are waking up, we are finding out what is wrong with the world, and we are going to make it right. We are finding out that we live by each other and that the life for each other is the only life worth living. A new light is coming to millions who looked for light and found darkness, a life to them who looked for the grave, and were bitter in spirit. We are a part of this light. Let us go forth from here shafts of the sun unto shadows. With our hearts let us see, with our hands let us break every chain. Then, indeed, shall we know a better and nobler humanity. For there will be no more slaves and no one will go on strike for fifty cents more a week. Little children will not have to starve or work in a mill or factory. Motherhood will no longer be a sorrow. We shall be just one great family of sons and daughters.
Helen Keller, “A New Light Is Coming,” New York Call, July 8, 1913, in Helen Keller: Her Socialist Years, Philip Foner, ed. (New York: International Publishers, 1967), 52–54.
Keller’s interest in studying the circumstances of disability predated her entry into socialist politics. Yet shortly after joining the Socialist Party in 1908, she began to fuse the two issues in a truly groundbreaking and innovative manner. As can be seen in the following article she wrote in 1911 for a popular magazine for blind people, Keller came to view the oppression of people with disabilities as inextricably linked to the overall social dysfunction endemic to the capitalist system.
We have been accustomed to regard the unemployed deaf and blind as victims of their infirmities. That is to say, we have supposed that if their sight and hearing were miraculously restored, they would find work. The problem of the underpaid and underemployed workman is too large to discuss here. But I wish to suggest to the readers of this article that the unemployment of the blind is only part of a greater problem.
There are, it is estimated, a million laborers out of work in the United States. Their inaction is not due to physical defects or lack of ability or of intelligence, or to ill health or vice. It is due to the fact that our present system of production necessitates a large margin of idle men. The business world in which we live cannot give every man opportunity to fulfill his capabilities or even assure him continuous occupation as an unskilled laborer. The means of employment— the land and the factories, that is, the tools of labor— are in the hands of a minority of the people, and are used rather with a view to increasing the owner’s profits than with a view to keeping all men busy and productive. Hence there are more men than “jobs.” This is the first and the chief evil of the so-called capitalistic system of production. The workman has nothing to sell but his labor. He is in strife, in rivalry with his fellows for a chance to sell his power. Naturally the weaker workman is thrust aside. That does not mean that he is utterly incapacitated for industrial activity, but only that he is less capable than his successful competitor. . . .
Thus, it has come to pass that in this land of plenty there is an increasing number of “superfluous men.” The doors of industry are closed to them the whole year or part of the year. No less than six million American men, women, and children are in a permanent state of want because of total or partial idleness. In a small corner of this vast social distress we find our unemployed blind. Their lack of sight is not the primary cause of their idleness; it is a contributing cause; it relegates them to the enormous army of the unwillingly idle.
We can subsidize the work of the sightless. . . . But the blind man cannot become an independent, self-supporting member of society, he can never do all that he is capable of, until all his seeing brothers have opportunity to work to the full extent of their ability. We know that the welfare of the whole people is essential to the welfare of each. We know that the blind are not debarred from usefulness solely by their infirmity. Their idleness is fundamentally caused by conditions which press heavily upon all working people, and deprive hundreds of thousands of good men of a livelihood.
The facts spread before us show that it is not physical blindness, but social blindness which cheats our hands of their right to toil.
Helen Keller, “The Unemployed,” Ziegler Magazine for the Blind (April 1911), in Helen Keller: Rebel Lives, John Davis, ed. (New York: Ocean Press, 2003), 20–23.
Why men need woman suffrage
Helen Keller maintained a lifelong and outspoken commitment to the emancipation of women from all forms of social, economic, and political oppression. To this end, she actively participated in numerous organizations and protests as part of the struggle for women’s right to vote. In this 1913 article, Keller situates the question of suffrage within the context of the broader struggle of working-class women and men for their mutual liberation from class oppression.
Many declare that the woman peril is at our door. I have no doubt that it is. Indeed, I suspect that it has already entered most households. Certainly a great number of men are facing it across the breakfast table. . . . Women insist on their “divine rights,” “immutable rights,” “inalienable rights.” These phrases are not so sensible as one might wish. When one comes to think of it, there are no such things as divine, immutable, or inalienable rights. Rights are things we get when we are strong enough to make good our claim to them. Men spent hundreds of years and did much hard fighting to get the rights they now call divine, immutable, and inalienable. Today women are demanding rights that tomorrow nobody will be foolhardy enough to question.
When women vote, men will no longer be compelled to guess at their desires—and guess wrong. Women will be able to protect themselves from man-made laws that are antagonistic to their interests. Some persons like to imagine that man’s chivalrous nature will constrain him to act humanely toward woman and protect her rights. Some men do protect some women. We demand that all women have the right to protect themselves and relieve man of this feudal responsibility.
Political power shapes the affairs of state and determines many of the everyday relations of human beings with one another. Women without this power, and who do not happen to have “natural protectors,” are at the mercy of man-made laws. And experience shows that these laws are often unjust to them. The laws made by men rule the minds as well as the bodies of women. The man-managed state so conducts its schools that the ideals of women are warped to hideous shapes.
Legislation made to protect women who have fathers and husbands to care for them does not protect working women whose only defenders are the state’s policemen. The wages of women in some states belong to their fathers or their husbands. They cannot hold property. In parts of this enlightened democracy of men the father is the sole owner of the child. I believe he can even will away the unborn babies.
Economic urgencies have driven women to demand the vote. . . . A majority of women that need the vote are wage-earners. A tremendous change has taken place in the industrial world since power machines took the place of hand tools. Men and women have been compelled to adjust themselves to a new system of production and distribution. The machine has been used to exploit the labor of both men and women as it was never exploited before. In the terrific struggle for existence that has resulted from this change women and children suffer even more than men. Indeed, economic pressure drives many women to market their sex.
Working men suffer from the helplessness of working women. They must compete in the same offices and factories with women who are unable to protect themselves with proper laws. They must compete with women who work in unsanitary rooms called homes, work by dim lamps in the night, rocking a cradle with one foot. It is to the interest of all workers to end this stupid, one-sided, one-power arrangement and have suffrage for all.
Nearly all the opportunities, educational and political, that woman has acquired have been gained by a march of conquest with a skirmish at every post. . . . First of all, we must organize. We must make ourselves so aggressive a political factor that our “natural protectors” can no longer deny us a voice in directing and shaping the laws under which we must live.
We shall not see the end of capitalism and the triumph of democracy until men and women work together in the solving of their political, social, and economic problems. I realize that the vote is only one of many weapons in our fight for the freedom of all. But every means is precious and, equipped with the vote, men and women together will hasten the day when the age-long dream of liberty, equality and brotherhood shall be realized upon earth.
Helen Keller, “Why Men Need Woman Suffrage,” New York Call, October 17, 1915, in Helen Keller: Her Socialist Years, Philip Foner, ed. (New York: International Publishers, 1967), 64–68. (Also accessible at http://www.marxists.org/reference/archiv...)
From a friend
In 1916 Helen Keller sent a donation along with a message of support to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). This message was subsequently published in the official NAACP magazine, The Crisis, edited by W. E. B. Du Bois. When news of this story broke, Keller and the NAACP were viciously attacked by white Southern newspapers, including the Selma (Alabama) Journal, which wrote: “The people who did such wonderful work in training Miss Keller must have belonged to the old Abolition Gang, for they seem to have thoroughly poisoned her mind against her own people.”
I am whole-heartedly with you and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. I warmly endorse your efforts to bring before the country the facts about the unfair treatment of the colored people in some parts of the United States. What a comment upon our social justice is the need of an association like yours! It should bring the blush of shame to the face of every true American to know that ten millions of his countrymen are denied the equal protection of the laws. Truly no nation can live and not challenge such discrimination and violence against innocent members of society.
Nay, let me say it, this great republic of ours is a mockery when citizens in any section are denied the rights which the Constitution guarantees them, when they are openly evicted, terrorized and lynched by prejudiced mobs, and their persecutors and murderers are allowed to walk abroad unpunished. The United States stands shamed before the world whilst ten millions of the people remain victims of a most blind, stupid, inhuman prejudice. How dare we call ourselves Christians? The outrages against the colored people are a denial of Christ. The central fire of His teaching is equality. His gospel proclaims in unequivocal words that the souls of all men are alike before God. Yet there are persons calling themselves Christians who profit from the economic degradation of their colored fellow-countrymen.
Ashamed in my very soul I behold in my own beloved southland the tears of those who are oppressed, those who must bring up their sons and daughters in bondage, to be servants because others have their fields and vineyards, and on the side of the oppressor is power. I feel with those suffering, toiling millions. I am thwarted with them. . . . My spirit groans with all the deaf and blind of the world. I feel their chains chafing my limbs. I am disenfranchised with every wage-slave. I am overthrown, hurt, oppressed, beaten to the earth by the strong, ruthless ones who have taken away their inheritance. The wrongs the poor endure ring fiercely in my soul, and I shall never rest until they are lifted into the light, and given their fair share in the blessings of life that God meant for us all alike.
Let all lovers of justice unite; let us stand together and fight every custom, every law, every institution that breeds or masks violence and prejudice, and permits one class to prosper at the cost of the well-being and happiness of another class. Let us hurl our strength against the iron gates of prejudice until they fall, and their bars are sundered, and we all advance gladly towards our common heritage of life, liberty and light, undivided by race or color or creed, united by the same human heart that beats in the bosom of all.
Helen Keller, “From a Friend,” The Crisis, 11.6 (April 1916): 305–306.
Strike against war
In 1914, war broke out between the powerful nations of Europe, threatening to engulf the world in a military conflagration. Though the United States stayed out of the conflict until 1917, American politicians and capitalists had been steadily making war preparations for years. In January 1916, Keller gave the following speech at an antiwar rally hosted jointly by the Socialist Party and the Women’s Peace Party. She called upon workers and soldiers to eschew the empty promises and appeals to patriotism made by the nation’s ruling elites, and instead take matters into their own hands to stop the juggernaut of imperialist war.
To begin with, I have a word to say to my good friends, the editors, and others who are moved to pity me. Some people are grieved because they imagine I am in the hands of unscrupulous persons who lead me astray and persuade me to espouse unpopular causes and make me the mouthpiece of their propaganda. Now, let it be understood once and for all that I do not want their pity; I would not change places with one of them. All I ask, gentlemen, is a fair field and no favor. I have entered the fight against preparedness and against the economic system under which we live. It is to be a fight to the finish, and I ask no quarter.
The future of the world rests in the hands of America. The future of America rests on the backs of 80,000,000 working men and women and their children. We are facing a grave crisis in our national life. The few who profit from the labor of the masses want to organize the workers into an army which will protect the interests of the capitalists. You are urged to add to the heavy burdens you already bear the burden of a larger army and many additional warships. It is in your power to refuse to carry the artillery and the dreadnoughts and to shake off some of the burdens, too, such as limousines, steam yachts and country estates. All you need to do to bring about this stupendous revolution is to straighten up and fold your arms.
We are not preparing to defend our country. . . . Yet, everywhere, we hear fear advanced as argument for armament. You know the last war we had [the 1898 Spanish-American war] we quite accidentally picked up some islands in the Pacific Ocean which may someday be the cause of a quarrel between ourselves and Japan. I’d rather drop those islands right now and forget about them than go to war to keep them. Wouldn’t you?
Congress is not preparing to defend the people of the United States. It is planning to protect the capital of American speculators and investors in Mexico, South America, China, and the Philippine Islands. Incidentally this preparation will benefit the manufacturers of munitions and war machines.
American labor is exploited almost to the limit now, and our national resources have all been appropriated. Still the profits keep piling up new capital. Our flourishing industry in implements of murder is filling the vaults of New York’s banks with gold. And a dollar that is not being used to make a slave of some human being is not fulfilling its purpose in the capitalistic scheme. . . .
Every modern war has had its root in exploitation. The Civil War was fought to decide whether the slaveholders of the South or the capitalists of the North should exploit the West. The Spanish-American War decided that the United States should exploit Cuba and the Philippines. The South African War decided that the British should exploit the diamond mines. The Russo-Japanese War decided that Japan should exploit Korea. The present war is to decide who shall exploit the Balkans, Turkey, Persia, Egypt, India, China, Africa. And we are whetting our sword to scare the victors into sharing the spoils with us. Now, the workers are not interested in the spoils; they will not get any of them anyway.
Every few days we are given a new war scare to lend realism to their propaganda. They have had us on the verge of war over the Lusitania, the Gulflight, the Ancona, and now they want the workingmen to become excited over the sinking of the Persia. The workingman has no interest in any of these ships. The Germans might sink every vessel on the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, and kill Americans with every one—the American workingman would still have no reason to go to war.
[Such a] terrible sacrifice would be comprehensible if the thing you die for and call country fed, clothed, housed and warmed you, educated and cherished your children. I think the workers are the most unselfish of the children of men; they toil and live and die for other people’s country, other people’s sentiments, other people’s liberties and other people’s happiness! The workers have no liberties of their own; they are not free when they are compelled to work twelve or ten or eight hours a day. They are not free when they are ill paid for their exhausting toil. They are not free when their children must labor in mines, mills and factories or starve, and when their women may be driven by poverty to lives of shame. They are not free when they are clubbed and imprisoned because they go on strike for a raise of wages and for the elemental justice that is their right as human beings.
As civilization has grown more complex the workers have become more and more enslaved, until today they are little more than parts of the machines they operate. Daily they face the dangers of railroad, bridge, skyscraper, freight train, stokehold, stockyard, lumber raft and mine. Panting and training at the docks, on the railroads and underground and on the seas, they move the traffic and pass from land to land the precious commodities that make it possible for us to live. And what is their reward? A scanty wage, often poverty, rents, taxes, tributes and war indemnities.
The kind of preparedness the workers want is reorganization and reconstruction of their whole life, such as has never been attempted by statesmen or governments. . . . It is your business to force these reforms on the Administration. It is your duty to insist upon still more radical measure. It is your business to see that no child is employed in an industrial establishment or mine or store, and that no worker is needlessly exposed to accident or disease. It is your business to make them give you clean cities, free from smoke, dirt and congestion. It is your business to make them pay you a living wage. It is your business to see that this kind of preparedness is carried into every department of the nation, until everyone has a chance to be well born, well nourished, rightly educated. . .
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 being! Be not dumb, obedient slaves in an army of destruction. Be heroes in an army of construction!
Helen Keller, “Strike Against War,” Speech at Carnegie Hall, New York City, January 5, 1916, under the auspices of the Women’s Peace Party and the Labor Forum, in Helen Keller: Her Socialist Years, Philip Foner, ed. (New York: International Publishers, 1967), 75–81. (Also accessible at http://www.marxists.org/reference/archiv...)