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International Socialism, July/August 1976


Ben Stuntley

Radical Social Work


From International Socialism (1st series), No.90, July/August 1976, pp.27-28.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Radical Social Work
edited by Roy Bailey and Mike Brake
Edward Arnold (paperback) £1.95

Roy Bailey and Mike Brake nail their colours to the mast at the outset. The essays in this book pose questions and raise issues with the intention say the editors, to ‘at least make the practitioners of social work uncomfortable’. If that was their only motive in collecting together essays by these seven radical authors and activists it would almost be a sufficient justification in itself – given that social workers have made the recipients of welfare services squirm often enough. But that’s not all. These wide ranging essays sweep back and forth across a vast canvas from student education and training (an elegant essay by Geoffrey Pearson) to problems of counselling homosexuals (Don Milligan in a perceptive piece); from the theoretical bases of radical practice (Peter Leonard) to political and sociological manifestoes for social action (Stanley Cohen’s critique of deviancy theory and Marxism) and on the sham of community development programmes (Marjorie Mayo). There is more beside, all contributing to the editor’s overall perspective summed up by these words in their introductory essay.

‘Radical work, we feel, is essentially understanding the position of the oppressed in the context of the social and economic structure they live in. A socialist perspective is, for us, the most human approach for social workers.’

Given so lofty a target it is not surprising that some of the essays fail to reach it, nevertheless socialists, especially those employed in social work and those undergoing training in that field will find much of value in the book. Some essays like those by Crescy Cannan and Marjorie Mayo will have committed revolutionaries applauding. The latter for her detailed scrutiny of the ideological roots of community development projects in the colonial context of India. Africa and S.E. Asia: the former for her essay which goes a considerable way to fulfilling her own stricture. ‘Anyone who is serious about social change needs an analysis of the role of welfare in capitalism, and of concepts of poverty.’ But it is an essay which found no such need which impressed this reader as perhaps the most challenging of them all. One began to jeer and if one didn’t stay to cheer, at least one realised that in this essay Stanley Cohen was confronting Marxists with serious issues and criticisms.

The astonishing growth of deviancy theory is in part attributable to its identification with underdogs and the consequent attraction this has for young radicals. Cohen argues that the deviant constituencies – gay liberationists, hippies and druggies – stand to benefit from the social worker taking the insights of deviancy theory and thus avoiding stigmatising them and trapping them further in cycles of rejection. At times it seems that deviancy theory has had the seductive appeal that it has in default of any consistently argued contemporary Marxist analysis of these social groups. An example of this gap in our analysis is seen in the relatively few items going to make up the entries under the sociology of education and welfare in Martin Shaw’s bibliography Marxism vs. Sociology: a guide to reading. Certainly the ‘hip-Marxists’ so justly scorned by Cohen are not the best advocates of the organised left on this issue. But the crux of the problem is whether these deviant groups constitute an actual or potential source of revolutionary socialist opposition to capitalism in a structural sense. No one questions that revolutionary socialists are to be encountered in these groups, but do these groups, either singly or in combination stand in contradiction to capitalism in a structural sense? As members of the working class they do, as separate and distinct oppositional groups to the state’s oppression and its oppressive machinery we would argue, they do not.

Cohen is surely maligning Marxism and the revolutionaries within the social work field in saying that,

‘it seems to me an inescapable conclusion from all their (revolutionaries) writings that in cases like these (a 5 year old with behavioural problems) ... the radical social worker will not only be able to derive very little from his theory, but in fact will also encounter a line of argument that mere practical help is undesirable ... such help by improving the client’s material condition is seen as dangerous because it blunts the contradictions in the system.’ (p.88)

In truth Cohen can point to an article in Case-Con which says some drivel to the effect that community action by improving the material conditions of the working class and blunting the basic contradictions in society has a doubtful revolutionary value. But, this anti-Marxist nonsense apart, revolutionaries do not believe that the working class will come to revolutionary consciousness if one increases the degree of exploitation and oppression: battering people on the head does not automatically produce anything except cracked skulls. On the contrary revolutionaries argue for alleviating the worst excesses of capitalism – More welfare! More hospitals! More family allowance! More nurseries! More, More, More!

Our argument is that the self-emancipation of the working class is the pre-requisite of a socialist society and that in struggling against the bourgeois state for a larger and larger social wage (i.e. welfare services) the confidence of the class will be heightened and its organisational strength will be tested and tempered. The state will not, cannot fulfil the needs of the class given the priorities of the ruling class in protecting its privileges. Consequently revolutionaries agitate to raise the demands and expectations of the working class.

Nevertheless Cohen’s arguments alert us to the weaknesses and shortcomings in our own ranks and in our propaganda.

At a time when the social services are working with inadequate and slashed budgets the radical social worker is often to be found in the front line of the public sector employees revolt. The militancy of these previously semi-passive professionalised workers is only one expression of the turmoil in the social services. The radical social worker who reads this book will be assisted in his ‘understanding of the position of the oppressed’ as Bailey and Brake intend that they should be. Building a socialist party to fight for a socialist society is another question.

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