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James C. Kincaid

Congealed Marxism

(December 1978)

From Socialist Review, No. 8, December 1978/January 1979, pp. 29–30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Social Work Practice under Capitalism: A Marxist Approach
P. Corrigan and P. Leonard
Macmillan, £2.95p

This book is aimed at a very specific audience, the layer of radicalised young professionals who have entered social work in recent years. Its aim is to counter the fatalism that has overtaken many in this category as their idealism and radical strategies prove ineffective in helping individual clients or in changing the structures of the welfare state.

In a series of case studies, the authors describe the efforts of Pauline, Paul and Pamela to develop radical social work practice. Nothing seems to work. The children end up in care, the families stay in poverty. Destructive family squabbles rage unchecked. No way can be found to alleviate the hopeless loneliness of isolated old people. The area social work team can’t be persuaded to support the claimants union.

The authors, both academics and members of the Communist Party, argue that the perceptions of middle-class radicalism lead to incorrect interpretations of the personal situations of clients – e.g. automatic and uncritical support of wives against husbands, of children against parents and teachers. Radical tactics are condemned as impatient and individualistic – not based on the building of support among fellow social workers, or of alliance within the labour movement.

The core of the book is a set of chapters on basic Marxist concepts, such as class, ideology, family and the state. The gist of the argument is the need to relate the politics of the reproductive sector (claimants, women, community groups etc.) to the politics of production (trade unions).

Also that state employees such as social workers are in a deeply contradictory situation – they are agents of social control, but they can develop organised resistance to ruling class strategies, in alliance with other workers and with welfare dependent groups.

Given that so little writing about social work is informed by any sense of the labour movement, this is a useful book, and deserves to be widely read and discussed. But politically there are fundamental criticisms to be made.

The argument is firmly anchored in a reformist vision. The disillusioned radical is urged to join in a cautious, brick by brick construction of progressive alliances. As portrayed in this book, the revolutionary party is the lifeless cement that integrates the bricks, not as a fighting organisation.

Rank-and-file organisation in the unions is condemned because it leads to attacks on officials and disrupts unity. No reference to the disunity created as officials police their membership on behalf of the system.

Capitalism is portrayed as a static structure, not historically as driven by its own contradictions, and currently in deep crisis. There is no discussion of the impact of world economic dislocation on class-organisation and levels of militancy.

No sense of the rapid ebb and flow of class struggle and consciousness in a period of crisis, nor of the opportunities and responsibilities which socialists must consequently accept.

This is a book which uses pessimism to argue against fatalism. No one reading it could possibly imagine that within two months of its publication, social workers in a number of important areas would be taking determined strike action against their employers. Marxism is summarised by the authors as, ‘the congealed practice of a whole international class’. An accurate description of the politics offered in this text – more like yesterday’s gravy than a weapon of class struggle.

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Last updated: 14 September 2019