revolutionary reflections | Marxism and childhood

Estelle Cooch, a teacher in South London traces the contradictory history of childhood under capitalism, and argues that Marxists should be putting forward a vision in which people are able to enjoy play and creativity throughout their lives.

Photo from Artivists at Work

This piece is a transcription of a talk originally given to Manchester rs21.

We have misconceptions of children as innocent, as creative, as free from worries, and, increasingly, that is not the case. Children under capitalism are consumers, both directly and indirectly – in terms of persuading adults to buy them things. The global toys and games market is an absolutely massive business today. 

In this talk, I am going to try and cover three things. Firstly, what do we mean by childhood, or what was the state of social reproduction in terms of children pre-capitalism and during that transition to capitalism? It sounds obvious, but the context of childhood is not something that’s always existed. Secondly, what is the state and the role of education today in terms of social reproduction? Finally, how we can organise around some of those issues today?

A brief history of childhood under capitalism

Firstly, what is childhood and what do we mean by that term? It sounds like a simple question because if you have got to this point in life it is because you have had it. To quote the famous historian of childhood Flemming Mouritsen:

Everyone has a childhood in his or her baggage, with the memories and knowledge, the attitudes, the sensory and cognitive mindsets this involves. Some long for childhood, some are stuck in it, some seek to be rid of it. Whatever the case may be, one does not escape the fact that one has had a childhood. 

And so whilst childhood is clearly a developmental stage in our lives, it is one that, perhaps more than any other, is affected by the social positions in which we live. 

So, back to that question: what is childhood and where did this concept come from? The most famous historian of childhood, I think (not to be read uncritically) is the historian Phillipe Aries. He argues that childhood was a concept that was constructed in the sixteenth century alongside the Enlightenment, and he locates it alongside the rise of capitalism. Before that, he argues, children were seen as incomplete adults: so, they were viewed in the way that you might view the difference between a twenty-year-old and a forty-year-old; they have differing experiences but not any qualitatively different development. Aries uses the example of the art of medieval times, where children are portrayed exactly the same as adults, but they are just small adults in adult clothes and doing adult things. He also uses the example of children’s rights or lack thereof. If you did not have enough money to care for a child, that child was simply a functional object, it was an extra worker. If a child was not an extra hand, they were just an extra mouth to feed. 

Lots of liberal historians also locate the beginning of the idea of childhood in the Enlightenment. They argue that what the Puritans believed before the Enlightenment was that humans are born simple, and it was a consequence of mankind’s Fall that meant that childhood was a dangerous period which must be controlled, since the souls of children had to be saved. This way of thinking about childhood became less influential by the mid-eighteenth century, when childhood started to become associated with the positive meanings that we might associate with it today: things like innocence, freedom, creativity, emotion, spontaneity, and most importantly for those charged with raising and educating children (in terms of social reproduction), childhood became associated with the idea of malleability. 

Yet there’s a major problem in giving Enlightenment philosophers the credit for this change in terms of concepts of childhood, in that it is with the rise of capitalism that you see the most intense and exploitative use of children and child labour that the world had ever seen. This was true in the UK but also, of course, on slave plantations across the Americas as well. Therefore, it is particularly ironic that many liberal historians locate the beginning of what they often call the Age of Innocence to the 1660s, which is when the two hundred year-long institution of child chimney-sweeping actually really took off – literally in that decade, the 1660s. This is when particularly boys between the ages of  4 and 10 years old from families in poverty were sold to master sweeps, and given papers of indenture – they were indentured servants – and they were in that role until adulthood. Children were beaten, starved, disfigured, prone to health complications, and liable to die as a result of getting lodged into chimneys. Of course, it would have been incredibly easy for them to create longer chimney brushes. This was exactly what they had to do in 1875, which is when using chimney sweeps eventually became illegal. And so, despite this romanticised view of children as innocent, for the vast majority of children, that was not the reality. 

Barbara Ehrenreich writes, when she’s comparing the American colonial period and children in America today:

…today a four-year-old who can tie his or her shoes is impressive. In colonial times, four-year-old girls knitted stockings and mittens and could produce intricate embroidery. At age six, they spun wool. A good, industrious little girl was called ‘Mrs.’ instead of ‘Miss’ in appreciation of her contribution to the family economy. She was not, strictly speaking, a child.

What we see is this hugely contradictory period in the early stages of capitalism where, for upper-class children, concepts of childhood began to be changed. Children started to be thought of as innocent and free. Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, which was published in 1865, is regularly cited as the first real children’s book. You also see this in the work of the Romantics in writing by authors like Wordsworth and Blake. And yet, for working-class children, they are more likely than ever before to suffer injury or death at the hands of a system that is forcing them to work. 

Marx and Engels wrote extensively about the conditions in which children worked in England, but also the economic use that their labour played for the system. Engels wrote famously in The Condition of the Working Class in England:

The death-rate is kept so high chiefly by the heavy mortality among young children in the working-class. The tender frame of a child is least able to withstand the unfavourable influences of an inferior lot in life; the neglect to which they are often subjected, when both parents work or one is dead, avenges itself promptly, and no one need wonder that in Manchester, according to the report last quoted, more than fifty-seven per cent of the children of the working-class perish before the fifth year, while but twenty per cent of the children of the higher classes, and not quite thirty-two per cent of the children of all classes in the country die under five years of age.

Karl Marx was also an outspoken opponent of child labour. He said in the inaugural address to the First International in 1869 that, ‘British industries could but live vampire-like by sucking blood, and children’s blood too.’ In Capital Volume One, he talked about US capital being financed by the ‘capitalised blood of children’. He particularly focused on children while talking about processes of primitive accumulation and transatlantic slavery in the USA. He said:

…whilst cottage industry introduced child slavery in England, it gave the United States a stimulus for the transformation of the earlier, more or less patriarchal slavery into a system of commercial exploitation. In fact, the veiled slavery of wage workers in Europe needed, for its pedestal, slavery pure and simple in the new world.

Gradually, as the Victorian period came to an end, there was the institution of the family wage, where rather than everyone in the family having to work, a man’s wage became sufficient, enough to socially reproduce the family. There is one interesting example of a striking precedent in the 1840s in Preston Lancashire where you actually see women campaigning for a family wage, campaigning to be released from the workplace because of the horrific conditions in the factories then. This challenges some of our perceptions about women being forced out of the workforce by men. 

When the function of children under capitalism changed, I think we should be under no illusion that the reason that it changed is that the function it performed here in Britain has now often moved elsewhere. Why is it that children in the UK no longer have to work? Because capitalism has arranged it so that children elsewhere in the world will work instead.

The state and role of education today

Moving on: what is the state and role of education today? Today there are 15.58 million young people in the UK under 18. This has grown every year since 2009. Over half of children in state-funded schools are now in academies or free schools. There was a period when I was at school in the 2000s where academies were still quite rare. Now they are not rare at all; they are the vast majority of secondary schools. 20% of children in the UK today are exposed to a language at home that is other than English, so again, there have been huge changes since the establishment of state education at the end of the Second World War. There are 3,400 secondary schools in the UK, 24,000 primary schools, and half a million teachers – which means they have immense power when and if teachers withdraw their labour, and there is a massive economic impact in terms of parents having to take days off work. Yet, of those teachers, around 43,000 are leaving teaching every year. Seven per cent of teachers are now unqualified, so around one in ten teachers has not got any teaching qualification at all, and in academies there is no need to have a teaching qualification and it is one of the ways that the government has attempted to solve the teaching crisis. 

In terms of gender, something important to consider in reference to teachers’ strikes in Oklahoma is the concentration of women in teaching, and it is the same in the UK. Three out of four teachers are female, and four out of five school staff are female. You also see huge numbers of female teachers in support staff working with Special Educational Needs. There have been reports recently about the outrageous pay gaps in education, which are particularly bad in academies. 

Education is in a huge crisis at the moment, both economically and ideologically. The impact of this crisis is centred around three battles: firstly the battle around workload, second the battle around resources, and thirdly an ideological battle, and I will explain what I mean by that later. In terms of workload, my alarm goes off at 5:45am every day, I get the 6:30am train to work, I arrive at 7:15am and leave around 6 or 7pm every day. For staff who do not have children a 12-hour day is not considered unusual. For staff who do have children, lots of their working hours will be at home rather than finishing work in school, so they go home, they feed their children, they put their children to bed and then they will recommence work at 9pm at night. Receiving emails from colleagues at 1am often does not bat an eyelid. Out of 30 lesson periods a week, I teach 25 – so 25 sessions worth of lessons are expected to be planned within 5 periods. 

To compare this with other social democratic education systems or even other non-social democratic education systems: in Australia, you teach no more than 50% timetables, so you teach 15 hours out of a 30 week. I have a friend who has just moved to teach in America, and he has just started teaching on 20 hours with 13 planning periods a week. A study by the Institute of Education in 2019 confirmed this disparity between working hours in the UK and elsewhere. For many teachers pay is linked to the performance of exam classes. Where union advice isn’t followed, targets set for performance management can be unrealistic and lead to problems going up the pay scale. This means much of performance management can become tracking your ‘interventions’ with classes that help to explain any ‘below-average’ results. 

In recent years there have also been huge changes to GCSEs and the way schools are monitored. Rather than be monitored on attainment (percentage of A*-Cs as in the past) schools are now monitored on progress – a system known as Progress 8. For many, the immediate reaction to that is one of positivity. Surely it is better to be monitored on progress, than on final attainment? The problem is that only 51% of the schools in the country can get a positive progress score because test scores are measured on an average, so 49% of the schools in the country will always have negative progress. This means that you can have a year where your results are better than the year before, but if all the other schools in the country have also done better, you end up with ‘negative progress’ and the consequences which come with that. Measurements based on GCSE A* to C have now been completely scrapped – they do not exist anymore – and GCSEs are marked using numbers. Students now get a grade between one and nine. Nine is the highest you can get, which is the equivalent of an A**. The reason they have structured it that way is so that, as teaching improves and students perform better on exams, they can add a grade ten, and a grade eleven, and so on. 

In terms of judging schools, the former government measure was the percentage of students getting an A* to C, so your purpose as a teacher would be ensuring all students got a grade that gave them an adequate understanding of the subject. Now that the measurement is progress, sadly this means teaching can end up being quite strategic. For example a teacher may choose to spend more effort working with an advantaged child whose parents can pay for extra tuition and who can work independently at home who may progress from a grade 5 to a grade 7, rather than a disadvantaged child who, in the most difficult circumstances may only progress from a grade 4 to a grade 5. 

The impact of the new exams on student mental health is palpable. Student suicides in the last decade have increased by about 56%. There are on average of 200 school students – not university students – who die by suicide every year in this country. So in terms of a crisis of social reproduction, these are things that the NHS would have dealt with, things that social services would have been involved with previously. Now teachers are being trained in dealing with students who are suffering from suicidal thoughts. These are things for which, in the past, we would have had a range of services to draw on. 

Struggles around resources and workload are important but just as important is the ideological battle around education at the moment. People who work with children can have preconceptions about their job which make organising quite difficult. As much as marketisation has impacted education, as much as there are teachers who obsess about exam results at the expense of broader pedagogy, on a day to day basis you are dealing with children, and you are dealing with children that you really care about, children that you see far more than anyone else in your life. I see my A-level class more than I see my actual family. You constantly feel the guilt of letting those children down – you tell yourself, ‘If they don’t get this grade then their life is going to be ruined’. When you’re organising, trying to persuade teachers to take a day off to strike is really about winning the ideological battle: convincing them that this strike is more important in the long term than teaching your Year 11s now. In the lead up to exams, it would be incredibly difficult to win that argument with teachers. 

One of the problems that the NUT (now the NEU) has faced is that when they are only pushing out a one-day strike action, it is very difficult to argue to teachers that actually taking one day off work is a more effective use of their time than going in to teach, because teachers are fairly sure that one day of strike action is not going to solve the problem or to get the changes that we need. Sadly one of the arguments I have heard lots of teachers use for why they will go on strike for one day is because they are going to go home and use that day to catch up on their work, to have a mental health day, or to do their marking. As depressing as that is, that has certainly been one of the reasons why teachers have chosen to strike. In many ways, it is that feeling of guilt, that feeling that however how much work you put in, it is never going to be enough for the system at the moment, which is why so many teachers are leaving the profession.

Organising schools: some lessons from the movement

For capitalism, institutions such as the nuclear family and education play a crucial role in reproducing both the working class and also the bourgeoisie. While at school, you learn the curriculum, but there is also a hidden curriculum, which has to do with uniform, punctuality and respect for authority. Liz Truss, who was formerly minister of education and childcare, said of two-year-olds in nursery:

There are too many chaotic settings where children are running around. There is no sense of purpose. We want children to learn to listen to a teacher, learn to respect an instruction so that they are ready for school.   

The American Marxists Bowles and Gintis, who wrote the seminal Marxist work on education, sum up the contradiction that lies at the heart of education in this way: 

Since the mid-nineteenth century, the dual objectives of educational reformers – equality of opportunity and social control – have been intermingled, the merger of these two threads so nearly complete that it becomes impossible to distinguish between the two. Schooling has been at once something done to the poor and for the poor.… The unequal contest between social control and social justice is evident in the total functioning of education.

This contradiction is at the heart of capitalism – that of accumulation and reproduction. In order to grow, accumulate more profits and develop the means of production, capitalists do need a workforce that is highly trained, more intelligent and more self-directed. More young people go to university today than ever before. And yet at the same time, allowing workers time to reproduce means time taken out of the labour process producing surplus value. Increasingly, due to the marketisation of education (especially higher education), there is this overlap between accumulation and reproduction, so I think it is important that we do not think of these things as two distinct and separate processes. Childhood is increasingly contradictory and problematic for capitalism. To quote Susan Ferguson in Social Reproduction Theory: ‘[Children] bend with and against capital’s relentless drive for access to exploitable labour power.’

One of the greatest insights of the Soviet educationalist Vygotsky was to highlight the importance of play in children’s development. This is something that is increasingly unpopular amongst Conservative government ministers. Vygotsky did not say that children are inherently non-capitalist or inherently pure, but he talks about children being in a process of still being alienated. He writes famously about the example of a child who wants to play with a horse. Before the age of three, a child who wants to play with a horse will show signs of frustration that they may not be able to communicate that they want to play with a horse. Around the age of three, a child’s relationship with the world changes and after three a child can pick up a stick, they can stand astride the stick and they can pretend they are riding a horse quite happily. And yet, as you age, as you become an adult, standing astride a stick and pretending you are riding a horse will appear at best strange behaviour and, at worst, close to insanity. 

I want to end with how we can resist some of these attacks on childhood, and by looking at some of the successful campaigns recently. When we talk about schools being part of the reproduction of labour power, we need to remember that contradiction: school is something that is done to children and something done for children. In other words, the battles over curriculum, the battles over the right to teach your class what they want to learn rather than just for the exam, are really important struggles in the short term. 

Secondly, if you look at union struggles involving institutions affecting children, the most successful campaigns are things like the West Virginia teachers, who won $6,000 pay rises. They linked their struggles with other aspects of life in the community – what Jane MacAlevey calls ‘whole worker organising’. So, you are not just organising teachers, you are organising teachers who are parents, who use housing, who need healthcare, and all of those concerns should be part of their campaign. The West Virginia teachers also spent years building up structures, the nitty-gritty of union organising: doing structure tests, not pushing for strike action until they had got 100% backing of the union. These are tactics we need to think incredibly seriously about: not just holding a strike but winning a strike. The big lesson of Oklahoma and West Virginia is that workers, their families and their communities, were able, through these strikes, to win more in a shorter period than any comparable struggle in a hell of a long time. The reason that they won those gains is that they focused on the workplace, they withdrew their labour, they created a crisis and of course there is no better way to create a crisis than a 100% withdrawal of labour. Capitalists have been creating crises for workers for decades. What strikes can do is reverse who is creating the crisis for whom. 

To conclude: the history of class struggle is the history of the conflict between work and leisure and work and play. Fundamentally, what Marxism needs to be about, and what the arguments we need to be putting across are about, are working less, playing more, and creating a world where play and creativity are not limited to children, but something that continues throughout adult life and well into old age.


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