Feeding the Kids in the House of the Future

Karl Marx Hof, 2009.

Karl Marx Hof, 2009.
Karl Marx Hof, 2009.
WHO NOW REMEMBERS “Red Vienna”? Pounded to rubble by the Austrian army in 1934, the extraordinary achievements of the Viennese working-class have faded from the world’s memory to the point where, today, they are all but forgotten.

What it was like to grow up in a city run by socialists? What could a child expect going to school in Red Vienna?

Well, for a start, everything was paid for. The uniforms, the textbooks, even the stationery – the pupils’ paper and pencils – were supplied by the municipal government. The city authorities went to enormous lengths to ensure that all distinctions attributable to class and/or wealth were, as far as was humanly (and humanely) possible, erased.

Since an education was every citizen’s right, argued Otto Glôkel, the radically progressive Education Councillor, it was the responsibility of the City to ensure that it was delivered to every child in equal measure.

That the wealthy could afford to equip their children with uniforms and textbooks and stationery was irrelevant. The city’s working-class children were not receiving these items free-of-charge because they were poor, but because they were necessary to the process of learning. Any attempt to ration learning materials according to parental income would stigmatise their recipients as “children of the poor” – charity cases – and the items would end up being devalued and resented.

But, if you think Vienna’s wealthiest citizens were being given a free ride by the socialist city council’s policies, then think again. When it came to devising ways of extracting money from the rich and redistributing it to the poor, Red Vienna’s Finance Councillor, Hugo Breitner, proved to be a fiscal genius.

In addition to the funding Vienna received from the Austrian government, vast amounts were raised by Breitner’s steeply progressive Housing Construction Tax. Even today, says Wikipedia, it is possible to find many municipal housing blocks in Vienna still bearing the inscription: “Erbaut aus den Mitteln der Wohnbausteuer (built from the proceeds of the Housing Construction Tax).” Breitner also introduced “luxury taxes” on large private motor cars, riding horses, and many other items of conspicuous consumption.

Julius Tandler was another radical councillor of Red Vienna. Responsible for health and social services he took the position that: “What we spend for youth homes we will save on prisons. What we spend for the care of pregnant women and babies we will save in hospitals for mental illnesses.” Under his guidance the city provided free kindergartens and “children’s spas”. To assist working mothers, the city ran “afternoon homes” where children could be cared for professionally until their parents’ return.

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Once again quoting Wikipedia: “Medical services were provided free of charge. Vacation grounds, recreational holidays, public baths and spas and sports facilities were offered to enhance fitness.”

This was Red Vienna. Not surprisingly it attracted the admiration of progressive politicians from all over the world. The housing complexes, in particular, were hailed as a vision of the future. Given names like Karl Marx House (pictured above) and George Washington Court, their design was as revolutionary as their purpose.

Red Vienna was proof of what a city led by courageous, visionary and (most crucially) democratic socialists could achieve. The contrast between their extraordinary achievements and the limited vision of even the most radical of New Zealand’s left-wing politicians is as stark as it is depressing.

As still happens in Finland today, the school-children of Red Vienna were given both breakfast and lunch, free of charge, by the city authorities. For the benefit of Hone Harawira and the Mana Party, that was ALL the children of Red Vienna – not just those who hailed from the 1920s Austrian equivalent of Deciles 1-4.

I must confess to being utterly astounded by Mana’s decision to limit the provision of breakfasts and lunches to the “children of the poor”. Was there no one in its ranks who could see how stigmatising such a policy was bound to be? Surely, if an education to the level of his or her full potential is every citizen’s right, and if effective learning is impossible if a child is hungry, then feeding kids when they’re at school is the community’s – not the parents – responsibility?

The Left must stop buying into the Right’s argument that everything relating to children’s welfare is, first and foremost, their parents’ responsibility. It’s a ridiculous notion – and a very new one.

How could the oft-quoted aphorism: “It takes a village to raise a child” ever have qualified as wisdom if the education and social integration of the next generation has only ever been the responsibility of the nuclear family which spawned them? Quite apart from anything else, the huge expectations which this “it’s all the parents’ responsibility” argument places upon those mothers and fathers who may simply not be equipped to shoulder so crushing a burden is as unwise as it is unjust.

How far we have come since the 1970s, when just about every liberal arts student had a copy of Kahil Gibran’s The Prophet on their bookshelves. How many of those bright-eyed young baby-boomers have forgotten the messages contained in his gentle poetry?

    Your children are not your children.

    They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.

    They come through you but not from you,

    And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

    You may give them your love but not your thoughts,

    For they have their own thoughts.

    You may house their bodies but not their souls,

    For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

The children of Red Vienna – and a great many of their parents – believed they were engaged in building the House of Tomorrow: and that with solidarity and co-operation they would soon be dreaming reality.

Alas, it was not to be.

The same irrational hatred of the poor that prevents the National Government from offering New Zealand children the food they need to learn and grow, also festered in the Austria of the 1930s. The secular socialists of Red Vienna incensed the deeply religious and profoundly reactionary farmers and small businessmen of provincial Austria. Impoverished by the Depression, and encouraged by the Catholic Church, the old aristocracy, the big capitalists and the Army to blame the “Reds” for all their troubles, these groups were eventually goaded into making war on their own capital in 1934. Soldiers brought up artillery and, at point blank range, pounded the working-class quarter of Vienna – the wonder of the progressive world – into submission.

The work begun by the Right in 1934 reached its final culmination in 1938 when Adolf Hitler’s Nazis rolled across the Austrian border. From that moment, Red Vienna began its long retreat into the unreliable terrain of human recollection.

Looking back on such examples, I sometimes wonder what it will take for today’s leftists to rediscover the imagination and courage that from 1919 until 1934 made Red Vienna so much more than a memory.

If we must send our children to the House of Tomorrow, should we not, at least, make sure they’re equipped to build a house worth living in?


  1. The intent of the feed the kids bill was to immediately feed decile 1-4 children as those in the gravest condition as a generalisation. The intention to spread the feed the kids policy to all schools was always clear. I spoke on many debates to that effect and never encountered any resistance. Just because you intend a wealthy school does not make you so, nor are children of the wealthy above neglect.

  2. The most successful social program that was rolled out in our schools, IMO was the school dental service. Generations of kids rich, poor, brown, white took that long slow walk to the dental clinic that was tucked away on the outer edges of the school. There they get their teeth checked, cleaned, and if need be, filled. In this poster’s case after a threat to use the mothballed drill if he didn’t shut up and have his injection. The smell of disinfectant filled the air, and even in dental clinics that are now closed and falling apart, have the faint whiff of it.

    Anyway, when it was brought out, young kids had very poor dental health. Having a dental clinic in every school helped turn that around. Though, it has been the victim of cut backs over the past 20 years, with the closure of dental clinics and replacement with mobile clinics and what people call ‘hubs’. I note with despair that the dental clinic at my old primary school, now branded a low decile school, which the middle classes have seen fit to avoid, has closed, a stupid move given that the children in this community probably need a dental clinic.

    There is really no difference between the school dental service, and a programme to feed the pupils (which can come with education about healthy eating, etc). Right down to the arguments against it. “Feeding children should be the responsbility of parents”, can be turned into “Parents should take their kids to their own dentist”.

  3. i cannot agree more with the notion that “They [children] are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.”
    We seem to have developed a culture of our children being our property, and often the means by which our own egos can be extended. When the hell did this happen? It’s a very Waspish phenomenon – something I always remember in childhood and youth as being rejected by the early immigrant families (certainly in my own).
    There was of course always a degree of snobbery as far as a parent’s aspirations towards things such as their child’s future career, etc. but we’ve definitely lost our sense of community and of village.
    The commodification of anything and everything and that constant demand for obtaining what people think is their ‘share’.

  4. The Left must stop buying into the Right’s argument that everything relating to children’s welfare is, first and foremost, their parents’ responsibility

    The Left has also bought into the Right’s modus operandi. The State paying for meals in schools is yet another extension of the Right’s belief in the public public purse subsidising private industry.

    Surely the main reason that people cannot pay for their children’s food is that do not have enough income.

    “Feeding the kids” is a continuation of the same twisted thinking that brought us “The Accomodation Supplement” and “Working for Families”. They all permit employers (and the State, in the case of beneficiaries) to pay people insufficiently and act as a direct subsidy to those employers.

    Each of these schemes has the insidious effect of creating a new class of the “deserving poor”.

    The Left would do more for more New Zealanders by addressing the root cause of poverty than pissing about on the periphery with schemes such as this.

    • Each of these schemes has the insidious effect of creating a new class of the “deserving poor”.

      It’s universal so there can be no class. That, of course, is why a few people seem to get upset with these schemes – they can no longer brag about their status and they can no longer whinge about the poor.

  5. Vienna in the thirties – during the depression – could afford these things. Britain in the 1940’s – while rebuilding London, Coventry, et al and paying for the war – could afford to do these things. But New Zealand – since the 1980’s – cannot afford do these things. Becasue we don’t have enough money. Right. That’ll be the reason.

    • Yep, it’s not about money but about resources and we have the resources. What we also have are a few sociopaths that want to keep those resources of ours to themselves.

  6. I was born & bred in Japan, where school lunch at primary schools is compulsory across the board, for at least 50 years now.

    They feed all children lunch that is planned everyday by qualified nutritionists, cooked in either council-run kitchen or school kitchen. I think my parents were asked to pay around $15 per month…just googled and it’s around $50 per month these days. Some parents can’t pay but they feed the kids regardless.

    After uni I got a job at a hotel as a receptionist where all employees were given lunch vouchers for free. Then I moved on to work at a hospital, lunch was provided for $2 a day. All very decent 3-course meals with rice, veges and main.

    So clearly Japanese society considers that feeding kids & employees is the society’s responsibility.
    I am amazed how a country without big spend on defense force can’t feed the kids…having said that apparently if Japan bought one less fighter plane each year, all medical fees for senior citizens will be totally free.

  7. We are so use to begging for scraps – we have stopped thinking large.

    The Socialist, Anarchist and Communists in the past argued like cats and dogs. And what happened – good things – that what happened. Now were looking at the soft left a get beat up by Key, and being called radical. There are no radicals on the left – the loony left is dead. There is only wimpy and scaredy left.

    Damn it – It’s time the Left in Aotearoa/New Zealand has vision and a back bone to engage with the people. BACK BONE! What the hell they going to do – they stole all the land, took all the profits, laughed in our faces – it’s all gone already. What ya going to do…

  8. History is so amazing and educating. Yes, I never learned much about Red Vienna, but I learned about other revolutionary achievements in Europe, and it was history lessons that taught me this.

    Much can be done, and while I never supported the Soviet Union and the insincere elite running that country or rather system, it was often lied about by western powers, that they were starving their people to build arms, to one day start a world war with “the west”.

    Of course Stalin was a dictators, of course there were issues with what went on before, then and afterwards in the Soviet Union, and yes, it was never a truly “democratic” country as we understand it now.

    It was for most an authoritarian regime, but had it not been for the Cold War, the fear also to lose a possible real war to the US and the west, the USSR could have had much more resources spent on advancing the welfare and living standards of their people.

    One must respect, that the USSR did develope swiftly and substantially within a short time, from a primarily agrarian country to an advance industrial country in the 1920s and afterwards.

    They would have done a lot better, had there never been the authoritarian system established, and had the Cold War not misled their Stalinist elite to spend so much on armaments.

    So those that like to compare “the left”, Labour and others, to that kind of system, to blame them for inefficiencies, for whatever, to not account for realities in the world, and those will not look nice for Nat supporters and members either, get a fucking life.

    There never was such a bad world, and what happened in parts of Europe, like Vienna, at that time, same in some places in Germany, was a historic example, of how things can be organised and done a lot better than what we get presented these days, especially also by Key and his government here in Aotearoa NZ!

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