Marxist social work: an international and historical perspective

Tom Vickers


The relationship of Marxism to social work is highly contested and contradictory. Tavares (2013) suggests that social work and Marxism might be considered intrinsically connected and/or diametrically opposed, because both share a concern with the ‘social question’, but social work has often been involved in managing the contradictions of capitalism and thereby sustaining it. This is further complicated by disputes over what ‘Marxism’ means.1 The English-language literature on Marxist social work is mostly limited to the ‘Radical Social Work’ (RSW) tradition, and the experience of socialist countries is neglected. For example, Strug (2006) observes the almost total absence in the international social work literature of “information about Cuban social work, the changes it has undergone, or its relevance for the international social work community” (p. 750). Filling the gaps in the literature is a huge task, beyond the scope of this chapter. Instead this chapter outlines some key features of Marxism as it relates to social work and offers examples of Marxist social work within the varying contexts of capitalist states, popular movements, and socialist states. The chapter is informed by a review of historical and contemporary literature, building on Vickers (2015).

Foundations of Marxist social work

Marxism is many things ... in a state of flux and development, and is subject to highly divergent interpretations . . . Marxism is not simply a theory: it is a political practice which confronts capitalism with an alternative model of a social order.

(Corrigan and Leonard, 1978: xiii—xiv)

This definition, from a classic British RSW text, emphasises Marxism’s unfinished character, containing theory and practice in dialectical unity, or ‘praxis’. This section outlines the Marxist method, often referred to as ‘dialectical materialism’, before applying it to social workers’ relationship to the class struggle and to the state.

Dialectical materialism

Everything is . . . mediated, bound into One, connected by transitions [in a] law-governed connection of the whole (process) of the world.

(Lenin, 1895—1916/1972: 103, emphasis in the original)

The Marxist analytic method involves an iterative movement from holistic and concrete living phenomena to a ‘number of determinant, abstract, general relations’ and from there back to a more complex understanding of the living whole. Throughout this process, sight must be maintained of the primacy of the whole, avoiding confusing the analytic process with the actual formation of concrete phenomena through the action of pre-existing and independent abstractions (Marx, 1857/1973:100—102). For the most part this method is implicit in Marx’s own writing (presented most explicitly in Marx, 1857/1973; 1859/1971; Marx and Engels, 1845/1991).

Marxism directs attention to the way consciousness is shaped by experience, and how experience is shaped in turn by social structures, in particular the processes of production and reproduction. The central premises of Marxism, derived from empirical and historical study, are that people must produce in order to satisfy their needs, that the satisfaction of these needs leads to further needs, that people act to reproduce not only themselves but also their species, and that all of this activity is organised socially, depending on the means of production available (Marx and Engels, 1845/1991: 48—52). In one example of the application of this to social work, Corrigan and Leonard (1978) explore the way migrant families within Britain can be better understood by viewing them in the context of the relations of production in their country' of origin, and how these interact with conditions arising from relations of production within Britain (129—132). Today we must add to this differential treatment by the state based on a combination of immigration status, country of origin and class (Vickers, 2012). Such understandings enhance agency by developing an understanding of the way subjective actions are shaped and limited by objective conditions.

Dialectical materialism is distinguished from crude materialism by its acknowledgement that ideas influence the future development of material conditions. It is not purely the material level that determines the development of history, but also ‘the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic — in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out’ (Marx, 1859/1971: 21), and which interact dialectically with the material base. Human agency plays a vital role but does not operate in a vacuum.

Social workers in the class struggle

Marxism uncovers the political character of social work, which has often been obscured by claims to impartiality and universal human rights. As Galper (1980) says in another classic RSW text:

conventional practice is fully political, whether or not its politics are acknowledged. The ends it serves, however, are conservative ones. Radicals do not seek to introduce politics into an apolitical situation. Rather we mean to challenge the politics of compliance and to introduce the politics of resistance and change.

(p. 10-11)

Mota (2013) makes similar points regarding contemporary social work in Brazil, and warns against the tendency for practice to ‘regress in search of the applied, the effective, presenting itself as a means to prepare for “complex work’”, thereby losing its capacity to engage critically with ‘social macro-processes’, and limiting practice to maintaining the status quo (p. 31).

For Marxists, the necessarily political nature of social work is rooted in the class struggle. Marxism is not the only school of thought that focuses on class, but Lavalette and Ferguson (2011) distinguish Marxist approaches by their attention to inequalities in ownership of the means of production, as opposed to simply in distribution, and exploitation, as opposed to simply domination (p. 128—129). This can inform practice, by pointing to the kind of structural changes that might be needed to more effectively address social problems and by identifying connections between different sections of society who have a shared interest in struggling for change. By defining class as fundamentally rooted in peoples’ relationship to the means of production, oppression based on factors such as gender, ‘race’, and disability can be integrated as part of a holistic analysis.

Marxist analyses of the state

The state is of crucial significance, both for the class struggle and for social work, and for Marxist social workers it is therefore decisive (Bailey and Brake, 1975: 2). Marxists analyses of the state vary, including its capacity for reform, and if it must be abolished then what should replace it? Lenin (1917/1972) defines the state as an institution emerging in the midst of class struggle as a means of holding in check irreconcilable antagonisms in order to stabilise the system. In this view the state emerges as a set of institutions representing the economically dominant class, who, through the exercise of a state apparatus specifically tailored to its needs, maintains itself as the politically dominant class within a given geographical territory (p. 8—14). Another important Marxist theorist of the state is Gramsci (1929—1935/1982), who analyses the dialectical relationship between consent and coercion in the modern capitalist state. Disagreements with the Leninist conception of the state typically concern arguments that the capitalist state either enjoys ‘relative autonomy’ from capitalist pressures, and is neutral with regard to class, to be fought over by competing interest groups, or that it is not coherent, with different interests served by different sections of the state. The latter argument sometimes differentiates between a ‘good’ side of the capitalist state, including social services, health, education and nationalised industries, and a ‘bad’ side, including defence, law and order, and aid to private industry (London Edinburgh Weekend Return Group [LEWRG], 1980: 52—53). Differences follow from this regarding whether a transition to socialism is possible while the capitalist state remains intact, or whether a revolution is necessary.

Among revolutionary Marxists, there is a divergence between those who define themselves as ‘libertarian’ or ‘autonomous’ Marxists, who reject the need for any kind of state, and those who argue a state of a special kind is needed, a socialist state, in order to facilitate a transition to a classless society. There is a further division within the latter as to what constitutes a socialist state, with different Marxists defining the same states as ‘socialist’, ‘state capitalist’, ‘degenerate’ or ‘deformed workers” states (Galper, 1980: 29—39). Where Marxists tend to agree, is in viewing the class character of a specific state as of great importance in creating the conditions under which social work operates.

Marxist approaches to social work under capitalism

Marxist social work under capitalism is not always recognised as such because the threat Marxism poses to the capitalist state means social workers may jeopardise their employment by openly declaring their Marxism. Other Marxist-informed practice is simply never written about, and this is particularly likely when practice occurs within non-professional settings. Although social work academics often have greater freedom than practitioners, there has still been a tendency to avoid explicitly discussing Marxist influences.

The most public face of Marxist social work under capitalism has been as an influential strand within ‘Radical Social Work’ (RSW), which has existed in most advanced capitalist countries since at least the 1970s (Ablett and Morley, 2016). In the United States, Reisch and Andrews (2001) trace its history further back, through the 1930s Rank and File Movement led by Marxists such as Bertha Reynolds, who ‘warned that unless New Deal policies moved beyond “offering palliatives to assuage the miseries of poverty and racism”, social workers would do little more than “carry out the designs of the ruling class and victimize clients’” (p. 79). RSW became prominent again in the early twenty-first century through the Social Work Action Network (SWAN) and publications such as Lavalette (2011) and the journal Critical and Radical Social Work, founded in 2013. RSW has come to involve practitioners and educators in a wide range of countries (Lavalette and Ferguson, 2011). In Britain a separation of social work and community work since the 1960s gave rise to a distinct strand of radical community work (e.g. Craig, Derricourt, and Loney, 1982; Cooke and Shaw, 1996), covering forms of practice which would be considered social work in many countries. The following discussion will focus on Britain and the US, both because they have a more extensive RSW literature and because of their significant impact on RSW internationally. I focus here on the more explicitly Marxist elements within the radical tradition, while acknowledging Marxism’s wider influence, for example within some feminist, green and anti-racist approaches, and that not all Marxist social work writers explicitly discuss Marxist theory'.

The contradictory character of capitalist state welfare has been a central concern and point of debate within RSW. State welfare benefits capitalists by helping to ensure a healthy and compliant workforce and plays a role in managing the behaviour of the working class, which might be considered oppressive. Yet at the same it offers services and resources that benefit working class people. Focusing on the US, Stevenson (1978) points out that while elements of control and service are inherent in all ‘human services’, including social work, the balance is different for different groups, with the example that:

the service aspect is dominant in New York City schools when teachers teach white middle-class students. The control aspect is dominant when they teach black and Latino working-class students.

(p. 459)

In a concise article that moves beyond many of the classic social work texts in its treatment of the political economy of welfare, Stevenson (1978) argues that human services are characterised by:

  • • the simultaneous production and consumption of the ‘product’;
  • • direct contact between producers and consumers;
  • • an incentive for producers to deliver their sendees in a way that maintains dependency in order to maintain demand.

While this suggests social workers have a direct stake in maintaining the oppression of their clients, it also points to the necessity of direct human contact, which creates potential for shared understandings and solidarity. Such an analysis explains the tendencies within capitalist state welfare for social workers to be pulled in contradictory directions, either to side with service users to overturn the basis of their oppression or cooperate with the state in managing service users’ responses to their oppression such that the status quo is maintained. Singh and Cowden (2015) argue that such contradictions are intensifying as capitalism in a period of crisis expands its search for new sources of profit, including “the exploitation of psychological need” (p. 376), and the increasing use of market mechanisms to allocate services. Marxist social workers have responded to these contradictions in diverse ways (see Vickers, 2015).

Some Marxists argue there is not necessarily a contradiction between meeting immediate needs and organising for structural change, but rather that social workers should link the personal and immediate with the collective and the long-term as part of a multi-dimensional practice:

If counselling is required, it must be provided. But if. . . counselling . . . fails ... to link . . . temporary and partial solutions with the larger social transformation that is required for realistic solutions, then it is extremely limited, at best, and deceptive and repressive, at worst. Radical practice ... is another way to look at what it means to take our commitment to meeting [immediate] needs seriously.

(Galper, 1980: 12-13)

Following this approach, standard processes of referral might be reinterpreted to include workers ‘investigating appropriate political resources in the community and determining their relevance to the particular issues faced by those with whom we work’ (Galper, 1980: 137). Social work can also play an important role in supporting people to sustain their involvement in collective struggle. For example, Bailey and Brake (1975) argue for the need to help people overcome the ‘psychological damage’ which may result from resisting capitalist hegemony and struggling for an alternative viewpoint (pp. 9—10). Baldock (1982: 30) draws on work with single parents to argue that RSW can foster mutual caring networks and make demands for state resources, to enable political participation among sections of the working class who are often excluded. The importance of this can be seen in contemporary struggles such as the Focus E15 housing campaign, started by a group of young single mothers and sustained for many years (Watt, 2016).

The relationship between workplace and community struggle has been contested among Marxist social workers. Fleetwood and Lambert (1982: 48—58) discuss the disconnect between socialist community workers’ experience of housing struggles and the orthodoxy of socialist practice in Britain in the 1970s, which ‘scorned non-workplace struggles’ and ‘exhorted activists to link up with trade unions and trades councils in the muscle of the labour movement’, even in a period where ‘the very existence at the moment of a labour movement can be seriously doubted’ (p. 49). Against this the authors propose a form of socialist practice that:

starts and grows with the experience of people in struggle . . . developing techniques, organisational forms and relationships which recognise the personal barriers (constructed by capitalist society) to a class consciousness ... it will entail people to do extraordinary things, to dress up, sing songs, perform antics in council chambers, to travel unprecedented distances.

(p- 57)

These points remain relevant today. In a recent example of the contradictory role of trade unions, in June 2013 Britain’s biggest public-sector union, Unison, issued a circular to its local government branches regarding a cut to welfare payments for social housing tenants, popularly dubbed the ‘bedroom tax’. The circular expressed the union’s opposition to the cut, but nevertheless instructed its members to cooperate with its implementation lest they jeopardise their employment. Tenants themselves showed much more determined opposition, mounting campaigns across Britain and winning some concessions (Owen, 2013).

The Community Development Projects (CDPs), set up by the UK Home Office in 1969, offer an example of paid professionals using state resources to organise with working-class people on a range of initiatives and produce damning reports on the capitalist state. For some workers this was directly connected to revolutionary aims. A group of CDP workers came together to form the Political Economy Collective, drawing directly on Marxism (Craig et ci/., 1982: 3). Armstrong, Banks and Craig’s (2016) survey of PEC bulletins shows that the group’s work was driven by the practical need to understand the structural causes of problems facing working class people, together with CDP workers’ exposure to Marxism through meeting other CDP workers. Blagg and Derricourt (1982) argue for the revolutionary potential of such approaches by drawing on the Marxist Althusser’s analysis of how the class struggle emerges through and draws together a multiplicity of contradictions, facing for example unemployed young people, black people, and women outside waged work, and Gramsci’s analysis of the state penetrating into every aspect of social life and thereby creating multiple fronts for the class struggle. More recent applications of this approach can be seen in community campaigns on issues such as immigration controls (Vickers, 2012, 2015).

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