Disability and the left

Has Red Disability made a mistake supporting socialism, and believing a socialist society is the best way to obtain equality for people with disabilities? To answer these criticism, we must look not only at how disability is seen by socialist groups, but also at what people often see as examples of socialism.

State capitalist regimes

"Nobody says that capitalism is perfect, but are you seriously suggesting that the oppressive socialist regimes that we have seen in the USSR and China, to name but two, are better?" bemoans one entry on the Red Disability guest book. In reality, all the so-called "socialist regimes" we have seen to date, are actually variants of state capitalism. For true socialism, a revolution carried out by the working class, in which the working class gains control, is a pre-requisite.

In the case of the USSR, there was a genuine workers revolution in 1917. However, the ensuing civil war, invasions by foreign armies, and famine, effectively wiped out the working class for long enough for the revolutionary government to decay. As a result, an elite gained control of the ruling Bolshevik Party (previously the political organ of the working class) and imposed a variant of state capitalism, known as Stalinism after Josef Stalin, the tyrant who usurped control of the USSR following Lenin's death. Satellite states of the USSR, notably in eastern Europe, imposed variants of Stalinism on their populations.

China, Cuba, various African states (notably Zimbabwe) and others, were not true socialism either. They were closer to "national liberation" revolutions, in which small guerrilla armies took control on behalf of the mass of people, and tended to collaborate with the local ruling and middle classes as a means of defeating the occupying imperialist regimes. Some of these are more benevolant than others, but all have a class-based society and - as a result - none can be called "socialist".

Reformist left parties

The reformist left, most popular in Europe and the West, have not brought us socialism either. This is because "reformist left" parties have tended to work within the framework of capitalist democratic structures, in which only a small amount of real control is afforded to elected governments - the real power still lies in the hands of the bosses of big business, and the unelected bureaucrats who run the banks, civil service, army, police, etc. This has led many "reformist left" parties (notably the Labour Party in the UK) to kow-tow to the capitalist Establishment, and stab the workers who elected them, in the back.

Charities moving left ?

A number of charities, including disability charities, have been forced by public pressure to accept, at least in part, that society is at fault. An increasing number of Thord World charities are turning towards looking at the root causes of poverty, notably unfair trade and massive debt, and Oxfam have even started taking the oppression of Palestinians by Israel seriously. Likewise, disability charities now see society's attitudes as a major barrier to the rights of disabled people. Since the mid 1990s, a number of disability charities - notably RADAR - have supported government legislation against disabled-ist discrimination.

However, the role of charities will always be a ambivolent one. To this day, many disability charities, especially the established ones (eg RNIB, RNID, Scope, Leonard Cheshire) are mostly run by non-disabled directors, who take decisions on behalf of - and not necessarily accountable to - the people with disabilities who they are supposed to be acting in the interests of. Even those charities whose leadership does contain a large percentage of people with disabilities, still have a leadership which is more accountable to themselves and to a small number of large donors, than to the people with disabilities who allegedly stand to benefit from them.

Even where those in charge of charities are genuinely accountable to their community (are there any?), it is worth noting that charities tend to employ a few people at the top, in relatively priveleged positions. As a result, they would like the organization which gives them their salary and offices - the charity - to stay intact, and will tend to oppose any real change which will undermine the charity's reason to exist. They will, therefore, not tend to push for the complete eradication of inequality, poverty, and oppression which afflicts people with disabilities - it would put them out of a job if this was ever achieved !

Role of the revolutionary left

Occasionally, even revolutionary socialist groups have made mistakes on the issue of disability rights. One of the main mistakes has been the emphasis on reducing the incidence of disability, and the "curing" of disabilities. This tends to take an anti-capitalist form, such as the viewpoint that less people would become disabled if war and industrial accidents were eliminated. While this is true, and none of us want war, it is still a mistake to believe that disability is inherently a problem - the problems associated with disability are caused by capitalism, but disability itself is not an inherent problem.

There have also been those on the left who believe that people with disabilities are mistaken in wanting to retain their disabilities rather than be "cured". At Marxism 1999, a speaker said about deaf people, that anyone who had heard music would not consider it better to be deaf. (Depends what type of music, I guess!) Seriously, though, the deaf community have made mistakes in trying to ban the availability of some types of treatment, such as cochlear implants. However, we cannot deny that deaf culture is a rich and varied culture, from which hearing people could learn a lot.

It has also been argued by some in the revolutionary left that the oppression of people with disabilities does not serve the "divide and rule" role, as offered by racism, sexism and homophobia, to the ruling class. The argument behind this is that people with disabilities are not concentrated in areas, but are widely dispersed across the UK. Yet this means that disabled-ism does serve a "divide and rule" function in many areas, particularly more rural areas, where there are not many black or Asian people, and where there are not many openly gay people.

Thankfully, these images of disability do seem to be disappearing from the revolutionary left. At Marxism 2003, there was a decent meeting on disability rights which mentioned, in some detail, the views of Vic Finkelstein and his Social Model of disability. As we move closer to a revolutionary situation, it is imperative that we understand what causes disability prejudice and discrimination, and all forms of oppression, so we are most able to fight against them - and the capitalist system which breeds them.

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