This column examines and explores some key words social workers may encounter in their work or training, especially in the area of social justice. Today we will look at “Socialism.”
Socialism is a word that has bounced around in the social work profession for many years. Now it is back, especially because of the current Presidential campaign in which a Socialist is a leading candidate and the current President is disparaged constantly by his detractors as being a closet “Socialist.” But what does this label signify?
Socialism is generally defined as a system of government in which the production, distribution, and exchange of goods and services is controlled and managed by the state or community rather than by private individuals. This definition is extremely broad and can cover a multitude of forms of government, from mild “welfare state” capitalism to ironclad dictatorships like the former Soviet Union. It does have the advantage, however, of hinting at the basic conflict that is uncovered every time this word comes back into prominence in the U.S.: the struggle between the advocates of free enterprise and those who want to rid our society of vast accumulations of private power.
The profession of social work has always teetered on the edges of this dilemma, sometimes veering toward a preference for more and more extensive governmental control of the economy and health and welfare services, and at other times opting for more freedom for private social and economic activity (e.g., our internal debates on the supposed virtues of private vs. “public” social work practice).
The general public has wavered on this edge as well. In the early years of the twentieth century, social work and social welfare programs were generally viewed positively by U.S. society at large, and seeking to solve social problems by governmental intervention was championed by many. It was the heyday of the Progressive Movement and social workers functioned in key positions in the Progressive Party and in government as well following the election of Woodrow Wilson in 1912. In the 1930s a similar phenomenon occurred following the onset of the Great Depression. However, in the late 1940s and early 1950s during the so-called “McCarthy era,” social workers and social work in general was suspected of having “Socialist” (i.e., Communist) leanings and respected social workers such as Charlotte Towle were pilloried for seeming to suggest that government social welfare programs promoted the development of a truly “socialized state.”
Such sentiments eventually led in 1951 to the suppression of Towle’s now classic text, Common Human Needs, and the destruction of the plates for the book by the U.S. Government Printing Office. Today the idea of Socialism is again considered to be a hot topic in this country, especially with the rise in popularity of the Tea Party, various “patriotic” societies, and the increasingly rightward tilt of the Republican Party.
The old debates about government intervention vs. individual freedom once more echo throughout the country about a wide variety of issues, from reproductive rights to gun control and beyond. Social work and its practitioners may again have to rise to the defense of the profession and its values, as it has in past times of social turmoil. It is clear these currents of opinion on this issue won’t quickly fade away, no matter what the outcome of our elections. It could be that unless, as has been urged by some commentators, a new spirit of “progressivism” descends upon the country, we may never be able to count on the widespread acceptance and encouragement of Social work and its mission that once was present in the early years of the profession. But perhaps this current “trial by fire” will be a good thing in the end. Chances are it will make us tougher, and maybe even smarter.