Popular social work

Lavalette and loakimidis (2011) use the term ‘popular social work’, to encompass welfare activities organised within social movements, including situations where the state breaks down or during periods of revolutionary war (see Chapter 46 in this volume). There is a rich tradition of communist provision of welfare services as part of anti-capitalist struggles, dating back to Karl Marx, who founded the Committee for the Support of Imprisoned and Emigrated Revolutionaries in 1848. Significant international efforts since then include the International Organisation for the Support of Fighters for the Revolution (MOl’R), known in many countries as ‘International Red Aid’, which was founded in 1922, and more recently Cuba’s international solidarity in education, sport and health care (Kirk and Erisman, 2009). MOPR’s national sections supported communists and their families who had been imprisoned, injured or killed in the course of political activity through ‘legal counselling, social welfare for prisoners [including cash, clothing and food for their families], children’s homes, support for campaigns directed at the liberation of communist political prisoners and support for political refugees’ (Schilde, 2003: 144). By 1933 there were national sections in 71 countries. The largest membership was in the Soviet Union, exceeding 10 million by 1940, whose financial contributions supported tens of thousands of people in capitalist countries as diverse as Germany, India, Poland, Java, and Bulgaria.

Other examples of popular social work informed by Marxism include:

  • • from the 1930s the ‘patriotic and revolutionary Vietnamese tried to build networks of youth, students, workers (horse-cart drivers, carpenters, shoe-makers, porters) in the form of “red relief sendees” to serve the poor and provide mutual assistance’, often forced to operate clandestinely (Oanh, 2002: 85);
  • • from 1940 to 1944 in Greece, the communist-led EAM movement developed popular forms of welfare provision based on grassroots democracy and solidarity as part of their resistance to Nazi occupation, encompassing ‘the fight for survival, popular administration and “holisitic development’” (loakimidis, 2011: 115).
  • • in Nicaragua, following the establishment of a revolutionary progressive state by the Sandinista movement, social workers who were part of the ‘reconceptualisation movement’ facilitated the active participation of the people in the development of society, centred around Freirian methods of popular education (Wilson and Hernandez, 2011; also Tavares, 2013).

• since the 1980s in Brazil, there has been a strongly interventionist current of social work, forming a pole of attraction for professionals in other fields seeking a more critical perspective, and involving social workers as ‘producers of a critical mass in the realm of social, popular and union movements’ (Mota, 2013: 29)

Marxist approaches to social work under socialism

Socialism is a highly contested term, as is its application to specific countries. In this chapter socialism is defined as a form of society in which: social ownership of the means of production predominates; society is consciously organised toward the goal of meeting the needs of humanity and creating conditions for each individual to flourish; and a state exists which is tailored to these ends (Galper, 1980: 29—39). The actual structures and practice of socialist countries has been incredibly varied, including over the last century countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, and North and South America. A full consideration of Marxist approaches to social work under socialism is beyond the scope of this chapter. It would require analysis of the character of welfare provision in each country and during specific periods, the definition of professional social worker roles, where they existed, and other social professions, the welfare functions performed by non-professional mass and party organisations, the relationships and boundaries between these different actors, and the relationship between welfare, cultural, and political arenas, which in many socialist countries have often been closely intertwined.

The fundamentally different character of socialist states, compared to capitalist states, implies a need for a different kind of social work (Galper, 1980: 12). This is connected to:

  • • The absence in socialist societies of many of the social problems that social work seeks to address under capitalism, or at least an increased potential to overcome these problems’ root causes rather than simply to manage their consequences (Strug, 2006);
  • • The role of diverse state, political and ‘mass’ organisations under socialism that aim to tackle the same issues social work seeks to address, and therefore impact on the scope and character of social work (Oanh, 2002);
  • • The potential for a contradiction between the professional ideal of individual autonomy and the socialist ideal of collective political leadership (Ngai, 1996).

In many cases social work as a distinct profession has not existed under socialism but has become established or re-established after a return to capitalism. In some countries a return to capitalism has proceeded through reform with a self-defined communist party remaining in power, further confusing the task of comparison. For the purposes of this chapter 1 present brief case studies of the changing role of social work in a handful of socialist countries, to illustrate the diversity of approaches and make the case for further research.

China’s War of Liberation culminated in 1949 with the establishment of socialism, although as a result of market reforms introduced in the 1980s it is questionable whether China still meets the definition of socialism outlined above. Social work was abolished as a discipline in the 1950s along with other social sciences that were judged as unsuited to socialism, and reintroduced in the 1980s (Ngai, 1996: 289—291). However, the absence of social work as a profession during the socialist period did not mean an absence of social work. Ngai (1996: 293) describes the Ministry of Civil Affairs, the All-China Federation of Trades Unions, the Chinese Communist Youth League, the All-China Federation of Youth and the All-China Federation of Women as all playing ‘social work service’ roles that developed under socialism and continue today. There is also a strong affinity between social work and some ot the innovative approaches to physical and mental health care that developed during the socialist period (see Vickers, 2015). Workers’ Cultural Palaces were established in the 1950s, and provided a plethora of activities for the working class, serving as ‘theatre, concert and cinema’, offering literacy classes, training youth workers, and providing other courses as varied as ‘literature, mechanics, painting, calligraphy, photography, music, dance, sports and gardening’ (Xing, 2011: 822). Since 1985, when the major market reforms began, state funding for the cultural palaces has been significantly reduced and they have been pushed to commercialise their activities.

In Vietnam, Oanh (2002) describes the different forms social work has taken throughout national reunification, the development of socialism, and then the return to capitalism — all of which Oanh witnessed personally as a practising social worker. When Vietnam was divided in 1945 the north had already begun some short-term courses provided by the French Red Cross, but these were suspended. The south, still under French control until 1954, began professional social work training under a government directorate for social welfare and the Caritas School of Social Work set up by the French Red Cross. Between 1954 and 1975 there was a huge expansion of social welfare in the south, including hundreds of foreign NGOs and professional social work training courses, in what Oanh (2002) describes as ‘the other war’, performing a number of functions for the US war effort. During the war, some social workers became radicalised through work amongst poorer sections of the population, and either joined the revolutionary' forces or cooperated with the revolution following the defeat of the US, ‘in the search for an alternative model of development that would reflect the values of social equality and justice’ (p. 87). Some social workers who had been trained prior to or during the war went to work afterwards as teachers, in the ministry of social welfare, in research institutes, or as part of mass organisations, which encompassed the entire population and were responsible for their members’ welfare. The revolution integrated precolonial collectivist approaches to welfare, based on the local ‘Phôôong’, ‘a cooperative organisation where people helped each other to build houses, take care of the weak and the sick and bury the dead’; these continued into the twenty-first century as a basic unit for administration and voluntary labour (p. 85). Under the period of ‘modernisation’ and the réintroduction of the market, social work began to re-emerge as a distinct area of professional practice, in response to the re-emergence of social problems associated with capitalism. Social work was formally recognised by the government as a profession in 2010 (Oanh, 2002; Durst, Lanh, and Pitzel, 2010). As part of this re-establishment of professional social work, many training programmes were set up, involving 33 training providers by 2010, ranging from semi-private universities to the training schools of the Women’s Union and the Youth Union. At university level the social work curriculum includes politics, Marxism and Ho Chi Minh studies, and the inclusion of these subjects is made mandatory by the Ministry of Education and Training. Yet despite the continued presence of Marxism within social work curricula, Durst et al. (2010) suggest social work practice in Vietnam frequently neglects structural factors and prioritises professional expertise over collective empowerment, which could suggest a disconnect between theory and practice, or alternatively different interpretations of empowerment.

In Cuba, social work since the 1959 revolution can be broadly grouped into three phases, each adding to those that went before without replacing them: the first phase involved activities by mass organisations that were not always explicitly defined as social work but would meet most definitions; the second added explicit social work roles as part of community health infrastructure; and the third focused on support for democratic participation. As an example of the first phase, the Cuban Federation of Women:

provided an orientation for thousands of its activists in how to work with community members, especially women and children. The FMC called these activists ‘empirical social workers’. They facilitated the entry of women into the labor market, promoted their economic, political and social involvement with the Revolution, and organized community members for participation in major educational and public health initiatives.

(Strug, 2006: 251-252)

Technical social work training institutes were created in 1973, with social workers playing an auxiliary role to health care practitioners. A shift in focus took place in the 1990s, in response to the extreme hardships of the ‘special period’. The collapse of the Soviet Union and consequent loss of favourable trade terms combined with a tightening economic blockade imposed by the US and the expansion of tourism to drive the growth of social problems including drugs and prostitution. Part of the revolutionary leadership’s response was the ‘Neighbourhood Movement’, including construction, environmental and other community development projects, with enabling legislation creating People’s Councils as a bridge between municipalities and local communities, ‘comprised of community delegates, mass organizations and administrative entities’ (Strug, 2006: 753—755). Social workers became increasingly involved in the People’s Councils, building community members’ capacity to participate in the new structures, advocating for specialist services for at-risk members of society and helping with community organising. Strug (2006) cites an interview with a Cuban social work educator who described how this drove reforms of social work education, including the creation of a six-year social work degree programme for advanced social work within the Department of Sociology at the University of Havana in 1998. This was followed by the creation of a series of paraprofessional social work schools to train out-of-school and unemployed youth. Social workers in Cuba also play a role in more targeted interventions, where young people have been involved in petty crimes or anti-social behaviour. Informed by a Marxist perspective, the existence of such behaviour is understood socially and used to drive social change while also responding to the individual. This is coordinated by the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of the Interior, with participation from provincial government and representatives from mass organisations including the Federation of Secondary School Students and the José Marti Pioneers Organization (Mendoza Diaz, 2002). In this way young people have a direct voice and vote in decisions relating to the treatment of young people.

The examples outlined above show the potential for fundamentally different roles for social workers as organisers that support members of society in meeting one another’s needs as part of a socialist process that also involves the state. This contrasts with the need under capitalism for social workers to support people in resisting attacks from the ruling class and often the capitalist state, or to mitigate their most damaging effects.


This survey of Marxist approaches to social work shows that social work can make an important contribution toward movements struggling for structural changes that will benefit society, but also that social work is inherently limited in achieving its goals by itself and may even perpetuate the problems it seeks to address. Marxism emphasises that realising subjective agency is dependent on analysing the constraints imposed by objective conditions, and this calls for a consciously political practice that reflects on the relationship between the state and class forces, and the role of social work within this. Under capitalism, social work can include activities to offer political education, build alliances between oppressed groups, and help people survive the alienation and exploitation caused by capitalism long enough to transform it. Under socialism, a radical shift in approach is needed if social work is to retain its relevance, as RSW’s goals of organising society to meet human needs are no longer marginal or oppositional but are also pursued by a socialist state and political and mass organisations tailored to that purpose, and professional autonomy threatens to compete with the political leadership of the revolution. Approaches to social work and welfare in countries where Marxist-led revolutions have tried to build socialism offer a rich source of experience but are under-documented in English (e.g. the influence of Gramsci on the reconceptualisation of social work in Brazil). Recent steps toward broadening what constitutes social work, through the concept of ‘popular social work’, represent a step forward but there is much still to be done in documenting and sharing a wider range of experience accumulated by Marxist social workers internationally.


1 This chapter is not simply about Marxism, but is written from a Marxist, specifically Leninist, perspective, which acknowledges that there is no such thing as neutral knowledge. I have attempted however to give a fair account of other trends, and to be open about my own perspective to support a critical engagement with my account.


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Critical social work in the U.S.

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