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Revolutionary childcare shows what’s possible

In times of social upheaval the way we organise changes. Sarah Bates explores how workers’ uprisings have led to transformation in childcare
Issue 2852
Russian Revolution gave a glimpse of how we can uproot women’s oppression

Women march in Russia in 1917

Revolutions don’t just lay the basis for economic transformation. They can penetrate into every area of life. Taking a glimpse at how childcare has been revolutionised during times of struggle proves that there’s other ways to live. With childcare services in Britain falling apart due to skyrocketing costs and marketisation, it’s inspiring to look at examples of ­transformative change implemented by ordinary people.

Questions of childcare and “family life” have been enthusiastically taken up whenever ordinary people struggle together. For example, in 1919 a revolutionary period in Hungary saw dramatic changes to the way work and family life was organised. Workers put factories under their control. At one in Budapest, workers decided that extra rooms in nearby mansions should be “turned into day nurseries for the children of the factory workers”.

Alicia Riggs Hunt, a US journalist reporting at the time, wrote, “The family could therefore come to the factory itself in the morning, deposit the children in pleasantly situated houses nearby, at noon the ­mothers and fathers could spend their two hours of rest with the children and at night the family could again be united in their journey home.”

Alongside these workplace creches, there was a massive effort to quickly roll out serious public health initiatives. It took only six weeks to “establish public baths in each district of Budapest where 70,000 children take one compulsory bath each week,” said Yolan Fried, health of the Child’s Welfare Department.  Fried transformed the orphanages into modern children’s homes, vowed to “take charge of the amusement of children” and address their psychological needs. 

The era sometimes known as “Red Vienna” is another period that saw radical changes to the way children were cared for. Following the First World War poverty and malnutrition raged throughout Austria. Social democrat politician Max Winter described children who “flood the city from the outside districts each day searching for sustenance at the heels of high society”. 

“There, where the happy rich gather to promenade and stroll, small figures in pitiful ­threadbare, dirty clothes ­offering little protection to thin, wretched bodies, slide between rustling silks,” he said. The Viennese social democrats pushed forward a dramatic ­programme of welfare reform, particularly targeted at families. And there was an effort to integrate public health services into ordinary life.

In fact, politician and doctor Julius Tandler argued for an approach that declared ­childcare “the basis of all other forms of welfare.” He led initiatives to train social workers, prevent ­childhood diseases and build maternal centres that offered advice about hygiene and health. 

The scale of resources poured into this was huge. In 1924 some 2 percent of the national budget was spent on building new health centres designed to stop the spread of syphilis.  These examples all occur within just a few short years of each other. That’s not incidental, they were all—directly or indirectly—a result of the revolutionary mood sweeping through Europe at this time.  

What it shows is that during revolutionary upheaval people are given the opportunity to flourish. The Russian Revolution in 1917 provides the most extensive example of socialist transformation, but also more narrowly on the question of childcare. 

Over a century on it remains the most radical attempt by ordinary people to change how families live. Socialists attempted to build a new ­workers’ society from the ruins of the oppressive Tsarist regime, which was finally ­toppled in 1917. They did this in conditions of poverty, widespread starvation and a burgeoning Civil War. 

Changes to women’s role and to family life can perhaps be best seen through the work of key Russian revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai. She, alongside other leading Bolshevik women, was instrumental in constantly agitating over the material questions of women’s liberation both before and after the revolution. 

It was not without serious challenges. Within days of the revolution, Kollontai was battling a working class fed by both desperation at the harsh conditions and confidence fuelled by what they had achieved.  Orphanage ­workers threatened to kidnap the babies unless they were fed, and care home residents were busy organising ­workers’ councils to push for their demands. 

Kollontai fought to give women opportunities to be part of organising politically. Mere weeks after the revolution in October, 500 women delegates representing some 80,000 women gathered to discuss the future. Kollontai set up food, accommodation and a creche for delegates and their children. 

Here she announced that the Bolsheviks would fund free childcare and that women’s participation in the new Russia shouldn’t be jeopardised if they were parents. The grandly named “Palace of Motherhood” was one of Kollontai’s first big projects, and due to open in February 1918. Essentially a mother and baby hospital, it would also include a creche, a medical ­laboratory, a surgery, a dairy and a library. 

It was a far cry from the reality of mass poverty and starvation experienced under Tsarism. Under the Tsar, many ­parents had been forced to give up their children to orphanages, known as “angel factories”. But, after months of work by revolutionaries, The Palace of Motherhood was burned down the night before it was due to open in an arson attack by those loyal to the Tsarist regime. 

They claimed that the Bolsheviks wanted to socialise motherhood and steal children from their parents.  The idea that working people should be in charge informed everything. So a Social Investigation Team made up of women factory workers visited childcare facilities to decide how they could be run best. 

Kollontai’s first official decree centred on protecting working mothers. It promised properly run creches, a maximum four-day working week for new mothers and warm rooms and opportunities to breastfeed their children when returning to work. Most critically it offered some 16 weeks’ paid maternity leave. Today, maternity rights in much of the world remain worse than revolutionary Russia.

In 2023, Germany, the United States, Sweden, Mexico and Norway are among the countries that currently offer less than paid 16 weeks. By December 1918, Kollontai was able to score a “major victory”, by passing a motion that would set up creches and ­canteens in workplaces to ease women’s burden. 

She wanted to set up a society-wide tax to fund Russia’s day nurseries, support for single mothers and homeless accommodation. Perhaps the most impressive thing about how women’s lives changed in 1918 isn’t the scope—but the speed. 

This all took place within days, weeks and months of crushing Tsarism. It had to be that quick, because within a few short years the ­revolutionary hope of Russia in 1917 was smashed apart by the invading armies and eventually, Stalinism. Nonetheless these examples provide a number of lessons for revolutionaries today. 

The process of mass uprisings gives radical change a momentum that doesn’t exist under capitalism. But it also shows how revolutions take on everyday questions of human life—they are not confined to the narrowness of politics under capitalism. 

Working class struggle—at the highest point expressed by socialist revolution—offers fresh opportunities for how human beings relate to each other. This has the potential to transform relationships between parents and children too. Socialists a hundred years ago, as socialists now, think that it is possible to strip away some of the most tedious elements of caregiving under capitalism.

Under capitalism the love and affection that parents have for their children is entwined with the mundane, repetitive, physically and emotionally exhausting task of looking after them. But periods of huge working class unrest show how quickly this work can be rapidly reorganised by and for, working class people. 

To draw on these examples shows is not to say that every part of these uprisings was perfect—or ended in socialist victory. But it provides a glimmer of hope for what is possible for a society unblemished by the limitations of capitalism. 

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