Author and education activist Jennifer Berkshire mocked parental rights as contrary to national interests and promoted the need for state control of your children: does she really not know this has all been done before, and with disastrous consequences?
Educational theorist, activist, and podcaster Jennifer Berkshire doesn’t think you should have oversight of the education of your children. It’s the old everything is done better when done by a bureaucrat philosophy. Writing for The Nation and voicing the radical vision of Leftists everywhere—does The Nation publish anything else?—Berkshire laments the millions of dollars public schools will lose with the rise of school choice; casually dismisses Critical Race Theory as much ado about nothing; assumes the supremacy of government schools without offering any evidence to support her thesis (the data certainly doesn’t support it); and, above all, pushes for the abolition of parental control. Berkshire’s view of parents and the family is encapsulated in a tweet on the subject:
“This kind of thinking—that kids should only be taught what their parents want them to learn—is absolutely anathema to a democracy.”
This is startling mendacity. Or, perhaps, Berkshire is a victim of a government education and simply doesn’t know any better. Regardless, the idea that the state has a kind of ownership of children is not a hallmark of democracies. It is, rather, a central feature of totalitarian regimes from Sparta, where children were, according to Plutarch, handed over to the state at age seven and taught “perfect obedience” to it, to the Soviet Union which sought the complete abolition of the family and religious belief with the goal of replacing them with the state.
Of the two, Sparta and the USSR, the latter is more pertinent to my point in this article for the simple reason that both the USSR and the Leftist vision articulated by Ms. Berkshire have their roots in Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto. There the German pamphleteer declared: “Abolish the family!” Marx made this statement in the context of removing parental control of education: “Do you charge us with wanting to stop the exploitation of children by their parents? To this crime we plead guilty.” Marx, like Berkshire after him (and Democrat fixture Terry McAuliffe in his recent gubernatorial debate with Glenn Youngkin), assumes that what parents want is not in the best interests of their children while those of the [communist] state are. History tells an opposite tale.
Ms. Berkshire is the co-author (along with Jack Schneider who is, unbelievably, an historian) of a new book on the subject: A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door: the Dismantling of Public Education and the Future of School. In it, she invites us to imagine a dystopian, frightening future where—brace yourself—parents actually have educational options other than government schools. Reviewing the book for Jacobin, Jon Shelton says, “Just as with good sci-fi, the authors make a compelling case that, based on our current trajectory, a nightmare future is closer than we think.”
“A nightmare future”? How about a nightmare past?
The Communist Connection: the State as Mother & Father
For more than seventy-five years, the world’s Leftist elites had their way with not only education, but foreign and domestic policy, the military and police, the economy, and the lives of countless millions of people. The result? Seven decades of unremitting turmoil, bloodshed, famine, theft, backwardness, incompetence, and promises of a coming utopia.
The Soviet educational system—which is reflected in the views expressed by Democrat operatives like Berkshire—was largely based on the theories of communist diehards Anatoly Lunacharsky and Anton Makarenko. Orphanages, which dotted the USSR like a Gulag Archipelago for children, became the perfect laboratory to test these whack-job theories.
As Communists go, Lunacharsky is generally regarded as a warm and fuzzy type. This is probably because we have no record of Anatoly shooting anyone. That and the fact that Stalin did not like him, and nowadays this puts you in good standing with the millions of people who believe Communism is a good idea that Stalin perverted. But make no mistake about it, Lunacharsky spiritually assassinated generations of Eastern European children with his soul-destroying communist educational theories.
When the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia in October 1917, Lunacharsky was made Soviet Commissar for Education and the Arts, a post he would maintain until 1929. And while he and Lenin (and, later, Stalin) did not agree on the finer points of their doctrines, they did agree on a few basics: there was no God, no soul, no afterlife, and the supreme responsibility of the state was to make good communists.
In Lunacharsky’s view, the way to make good communists was for the state to usurp the role of parents:
“If we can overcome our poverty, I would say that the children’s home is the best way of raising children—a genuine socialist upbringing, removing children from the family setting and its petty-bourgeois structure.” 1
Compare that statement with a line from Ms. Berkshire’s book on the state’s role in addressing family poverty:
“The argument that public schools have supplanted private institutions, namely churches, and the family is a response to the expanding role we expect schools to play in the care for children.”
Ms. Berkshire is not so bald-faced as Lunacharsky, but the meaning is one and the same: the socialist state is the best parent of all. Note the “we” in her statement. You must remember that destruction of the family is a core tenet of Marxism because it is deemed to be the primary pillar of capitalism. Thus, it is no surprise that Ms. Berkshire’s subtle attacks on the family are accompanied by attacks on capitalism and a full-throated support of socialism as a path to true enlightenment. (The Black Lives Matter website was, at first, quite open in its Marxist and anti-family objectives. Discovering this was bad marketing, this language has since been removed.)
Overcoming national poverty is something socialists have never accomplished. Indeed, their economic policies achieve something akin to the opposite of the Midas touch, creating want where there had previously been none. Even so, the Commissar, intoxicated by his grand vision, hoped to build a whole network of homes for all Soviet children, not just the orphaned or abandoned ones. He genuinely believed that the state could do a better job of raising children than mothers and fathers.
Orphanages as Laboratories: “State Children”
Soon it became clear to Soviets, however, that the gap between the state’s enthusiasm for this plan and its actual ability to carry it out was oceanic. The children who were without homes—a result of World War I, the Bolshevik coup d’état, the Russian Civil War, and a state-induced famine—numbered in the millions. Any plans that called for the seizure of children who already had a home were obviously unworkable. Not that practical considerations have often restrained bad governments from implementing bad policies, but this time the bureaucrats couldn’t avoid noticing the scale of their problem. Homeless children, called besprizornye (A derogatory term, it literally means, “ones without oversight,” but the pitiless nature of the word is lost in translation from the Russian), roamed the streets, begged in train stations, and slept in trash bins. “Who has not seen them?” complained one old Bolshevik. 2
State-run homes for these children were established with the view that the government would rehabilitate and eventually graduate their charges as communists ready to serve the collective. (Ms. Berkshire, like all socialists, loves the word “collective.”) Proper socialist indoctrination was all that these children really needed, or so the thinking ran. Once again, the shadow between socialist Utopianism and the realities of human needs proved longer than expected. Facilities were often overcrowded, understaffed, and characterized by shortages in food and clothing. Discipline was either severe or lacking altogether. So bad were conditions in these homes that many children preferred life on the streets. “I declare without exaggeration that we have, not children’s homes, but children’s cemeteries and cesspools in the literal sense of the words,” wrote one observer. 3
Life on the street invariably meant a life of crime, usually petty theft. The prevailing attitude about besprizornye was one of hostility. A 1935 law decreed that when these children were arrested, they were to be tried as adults. By 1937, some 65 percent of besprizornye between the ages of twelve and fifteen who fell afoul of the law were sent to labor camps. Others were simply shot, particularly if they were found to have venereal diseases. 4
The Soviets were right about one thing, though: it did produce children who were useful to at least one government agency: the KGB. “According to scattered claims,” writes historian Alan Ball, “‘state children’ also gained employment in the secret police, thereby exchanging the roles of defendant and inmate for those of guard, interrogator and executioner…. They purportedly carried out the security force’s commands without hesitation.” 5
For a time, Lunacharsky’s views fell out of favor. They were replaced by those of Anton Makarenko, who was, like Lunacharsky, a Ukrainian. A Stalinist educational theorist, Makarenko differed with Lunacharsky in style, not substance. He, too, saw it as the chief end of man to serve and worship the Soviet state forever. Experience taught him, however, that this could not be done by the state alone. Families would be needed, but a new Soviet-centric family, not the traditional pre-1917 version.
Whatever his reputation now, it should not be forgotten that Makarenko was no less hostile to the family than Lunacharsky. 6 “Family” was redefined in much the same way that “marriage” has been redefined in our own time. Traditional structures and methods were replaced with new Soviet ones. No longer, he said, were parental values and authority to be derived from the Church and the Ten Commandments. (This, too, was like Lunacharsky, whose first move was to close church schools.) “Now we do not deceive children,” Makarenko said. 7
Parents and schools were to model their structures on the Soviet state itself. The whole progression—authoritarian family, authoritarian school, and life as an adult in an authoritarian state—was designed to inculcate discipline and unquestioning loyalty. 8 But not a loyalty to schoolmasters or parents; loyalty was to be to the state alone. Children were encouraged to report politically incorrect teachers or relatives. Thus, tyranny was extended to every aspect of Soviet life.
Predictably, the Soviet Union institutionalized Makarenko’s idiocy, making his theories the guiding principles of the educational system. “Soviet-era policies and practices persist in Russian institutions. Renowned for its centralized control, the sprawling system of internaty [orphanages] for abandoned children was inspired by Soviet philosophy favoring collective organization over individual care, and the ideal that the state could replace the family.” 9
Unfortunately, Lunacharsky’s theories would be revived after Stalin’s death. Both men enjoy a certain posthumous celebrity in the former Soviet Union where the orphanages still bear their indelible imprint.
As with most evil ideas that take root, not all of those ascribed to Lunacharsky and Makarenko are nonsensical, hence their appeal and longevity. These men were, for instance, certainly correct to emphasize a child’s need for structure, purpose, discipline, and self-respect. As atheists and strict materialists, however, they denied utterly that man had a spiritual dimension. This led them to address human needs as one might treat those of a plant: give it water, food and sunlight and poof! You have a healthy, productive yield.
It didn’t turn out that way.
The prospects for graduates of orphanages—“state children”—has hardly improved from the Stalinist Era. According to the Russian Interior Ministry’s own estimates, 30 percent will enter a life of crime, 40 percent will become addicted to drugs or alcohol, 60 percent of girls will become prostitutes, and 10 percent of these children will commit suicide. 10 What of the non-graduates? In Ukraine, 30 percent of those with severe disabilities will be dead by the age of eighteen. 11 In some cases, mortality rates are said to run three and even four times as high as that of the general population. 12 So much for socialist utopia.
Of course, no one really knows what happened to these children. Since they often disappear after they are ejected into the streets, such statistics can only be guesswork. And the government is less than forthcoming with the data, but if they will admit this much, the real figures are probably higher. I am reminded of a line from Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago: “One day Lara went out and did not come back. She must have been arrested in the street, as so often happened in those days, and she died or vanished somewhere, forgotten as a nameless number on a list which later was mislaid …” 13
Progressives Never Give Up On a Bad Idea
It may seem unfair to link progressive educational philosophy with that of communists, but Ms. Berkshire’s views are straight out of The Communist Manifesto. As Richard Weaver famously observed long ago, “Ideas have consequences,” and the ideas of Marxist social engineers like Ms. Berkshire have been tried before with disastrous consequences in the former Soviet Union, to say nothing of the unmitigated disaster that their ideological heirs have made of the American public school system. To suggest that more of the same will somehow yield success is more than Pollyannaism; it is the dangerous human experimentation of ideologues for whom history counts for nothing.
If they ever knew such history in the first place.
1. State Children: Soviet Russia’s Besprizornye and the New Socialist Generation, p. 229. Alan Ball, Russian Review, Vol. 52, No. 2. (April 1993).
2. State Children, p. 229.
3. State Children, p. 234.
4. State Children, p. 246.
5. State Children, p. 244.
6. The Commissariat of Enlightenment, Sheila Fitzpatrick, p. 30.
8. Utopia in Power, p. 286.
9. Abandoned to the State: Cruelty and Neglect in Russian Orphanages, p. 28.
10. Religion in Eastern Europe XXVIII, 3 (August 2008)
11. Abandoned to the State, p. 28.
12. Abandoned to the State, p. 27 “While UNICEF acknowledges that many of these children are at increased risk from their underlying conditions, it attributes part of the high mortality figures to crowding, poor hygiene, and low standards of care.”
13. Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak, p. 449. Translated by Manya Harari and Max Hayward, Everyman’s Library, Alfred A. Knopf New York, 1991.
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