Remembering Helen Keller’s Socialism
One of the ongoing challenges in building social movements is how to keep up the pressure and commitment to a cause. Given the scale and ferocity of the opposing forces, the risks of demoralization are high. When change around a particular problem doesn’t happen after a year or two of concerted effort, people naturally get discouraged and may even give up the fight. Among other uses, the study of history brings a perspective, a vision of the long game. We see, for example, that practically all the rights that a society possesses were the consequence of a considerably long and painful struggle, often marked. by setbacks along the way. We come to understand that the present is based on the successes and failures of these battles.
Even in the darkest of times, it can be instructive to look to the past for nourishment to move forward. One of my mentors in Boston, in addition to Noam Chomsky, was the late historian and radical activist Howard Zinn, his work having been the direct inspiration for my film. The motivation for profit and the wind blowing.
One of the stories Howard would tell had to do with his time in the southern United States in the early 1950s. During this time, when he spoke to African American men and women, he asked if they could consider ending segregation. The response, Howard said, was usually, “Well, maybe my grandchildren will see this,” or it was still a distant dream. And yet, in a seemingly sudden turn of events, in 1954, you have the cue Brown vs. School BoardSupreme Court case declaring racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional. The following year, you have the action of Rosa Parks refusing to cede her bus seat to a white man, triggering the Montgomery bus boycott, leading not only to another Supreme Court ruling that would incorporate the Montgomery bus but, apart from this demonstration, that of Martin Luther King. the emergence on the national scene and the rapid rise of the civil rights movement during the 1960s which resulted in significant legislation and social gains.
Howard’s point was that even when the landscape of change seems unlikely, if there is some fomenting underground, the circumstances can suddenly align to allow these troubles to shatter and build momentum and pull towards progress. History can feed us with such lessons. It can provide other types of insight as well.
For me, it is helpful for the public, especially here in the United States, to know that socialism had a respected and, at times, even robust place in the political discourse of our nation’s history. While studies reveal a growing number of young people today expressing support for a certain conception of socialism, efforts are underway within the Republican Party and the conservative media to foster a new Red Scare. Aside from the fact that many politicians and politicians considered socialist would not at all conform to an honest definition of the term, it is believed that it is enough to brandish the epithet socialist to tarnish any individual or progressive initiative. In fact, even within the Democratic Party, there are a lot of people who quickly shy away from any suggestion that they could be considered a socialist, including our current president and vice president.
When Helen Keller wrote in 1912 about the Republican and Democratic parties as simply the two sides of the “big capitalist party”, it is easy to think that little has changed. But the landscape is changing. The unexpected popularity of a self-proclaimed democratic socialist, Bernie Sanders, is just one indicator, and it reveals how his posts found support from voters who had yet to be reached by mainstream politics.
Also, as we were talking about Chomsky, and given my penchant for quotes, here is a which comes to mind: “Historical amnesia is a dangerous phenomenon not only because it undermines moral and intellectual integrity, but also because it lays the groundwork for crimes that still await us.”
In efforts to deprive people of their own history, as can be found in all corners of the globe, the dominant narrative becomes that of those in power, narratives that serve the interests of power. The experiences and wisdom of all who have come before are stripped, especially when it comes to the lessons of those who contribute to the long historical struggle for a more just and egalitarian society. And when not fully erased, they’re decidedly softened, all of the harsh and sweeping edges removed, as evidenced by the popular image of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and Helen Keller. I am happy to say that I see that also changing.