Reading Material: Payne, Malcolm, 1991, Radical and Marxist Approaches in Modern Social Work Theory: A Critical Introduction, pp. 201-223, London: MacMillan
The article endeavours to explain the key points of Marxism, the importance of the influence of “mode of production”, how it relates to social work, some of its failings and how it differs from more historically traditional methods and approaches to social work. One of the first key points made is that radical social work takes issue with many of the assumptions and practices that traditional theories of social work and its criticisms include the oversimplification of complex social issues, the privatization of problems and victim blaming, and the tendency of traditional social work to reinforce the “oppressive social order”.
Criticisms made by Marxist theories are not just limited to the theories behind social work but also to the method of their applications citing many social work roles as being “fragmented” thus being unable to address the full scope of the problem. Concerns are also raised about the effect of social work funding and how the interests of the parties, both government and private, effect the methods and scope of the community work. The concern links in with the potential interference from those in power to inhibit any social change that could adversely effect their interests. This is not just limited to those funding the social work initiatives but also to the social workers themselves who may find their job in jeopardy if their advocacy of the best interests of their clients in the working classes interferes with the interests of funding of governing bodies.
This potential comprise of the priorities of social work is also addressed further in the article in relation to class struggle. The concept of class struggle is asserted as being the bourgeois attempts to maintain control and the proletariat struggle to change the system. According to Marxist theories there is no neutral ground in this struggles, social workers need to be constantly striving to be catalysts for positive change and elevation of the working classes or they are accepting the status quo and effectively supporting the hegemony of the bourgeoisie.
According to this article it is in the best interests of the ruling classes to perpetuate the myth of the close family unit in order to secure the future of labour but to also alienate and individualise problems keeping the working classes non unified and relatively powerless to challenge the status quo. Social work as an extension of the power of the ruling classes is essentially seen to be, in Marxist theory, is designed to reinforce these values and reign in any nonconformists to these ideals. This theory is useful in as far is it helps to reveal some of the factors that can adversely affect the implication of community development strategies but it fails to take into account the individual motivation of social workers, clients and governing people, with no room afforded for personality, moral and values and how they affect the operation of society.
The extension of Marxist approaches to social work to include Feminist and non-sexist social work shows allows the article to draw parallels between the struggle of the working classes against the ruling classes and the struggle of women in society against the oppression of a traditionally male dominant society. Part of the discussion in relation to non-sexist social work addresses the issue of whether men can undertake feminist social work. The importance of including a feminist approach in Social Work in emphasized by explaining the established sex roles of the genders and how these roles have impacted and marginalized women in a way that, because of the ingrained and socially accepted nature of these roles, may not be immediately apparent to men.
What questions does this reading raise?
If it is impossible for Social workers to serve both as an ambassador for the “ruling class” and as an advocate for the “working classes” can effective state supported social work even exist according to Marxist theories?
Does this mean that social work in a capitalist society must be subversive in order to truly benefit the working classes? If not where do we draw the line between useful Marxist social work approaches and counterproductive self-defeating theorizing?
As this paper was written over 20 years ago how has the role of women changed? Have gender roles merged or are the same oppressive structures still seen to be in place?