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Carlos Montaño
PhD in Social Work Prof. At Universidad Federal de Rio de Janeiro

Marxism and its contribution to Latin American Social Work

Social Work: A New Profession and its Relationship to the Social Sciences

The Social Work profession emerged from and is based within the context of monopoly capitalism, at a time when the manifestations of “social issues” began to be institutionally dealt with by the State through social policies (see Iamamoto, 1997; Netto, 1997 and Montaño, 1998), during the 19th and 20th century, consolidating under Keynesianism. It is based on the philosophical theory of positivism, on its dual segmentation:

  1. segmentation of reality by areas or fields (the “social event,” economic production/marketing, political activity, cultural dimension, etc.), whose objective is a specific social discipline (sociology, economics, political science, anthropology, etc.) (see Lukács, 1986);
  2. segmentation between theory and practice, between knowledge and action, compartmentalising between scientific disciplines and technical disciplines.

The “official culture” is consolidated in this dual positivist segmentation, dominant, that tends to conceal phenomena (isolated, withdrawn from social totality; therefore, from the fundamental principles that explain it) and to naturalise reality (seen as natural processes, always present, not as historical outcomes as poverty is symbolically viewed: as something natural and the responsibility of individual behaviours).

In this field of positivism, Social Work established a technical discipline of social and psychosocial studies. This is how it was created, and how it moved forward for a long period of time, as a profession focused on intervention in the everyday life of people, in order to take action against “social issues” through Social Policies.

Social Work education and practice are directed at “problem/treatment,” based on operating techniques and methods. Therefore, it is focused on applying preconceived techniques and methods, prior and independent from specific realities; without incorporating theoretical and scientific knowledge about reality and the phenomena faced.

Since the 1950s and, more categorically, during the “Reconceptualisation” of Social Work in Latin America, between the mid-1960s and the 1970s, this theoretical knowledge became part of social work education and practice.

The Reconceptualisation and the Incipient Entrance of Marxism into Social Work: “Marxism without Marx”

The “Reconceptualisation Movement in Latin America” (1965-1975) aimed to supersede traditional Social Work and its positivist roots, by attempting to break away from the merely intervention, technical, non-scientific characteristics of the profession, by incorporating the development of knowledge into the methodological process, by considering the professional practice a “specific theory” of Social Work directed towards an “applied theory” (about the criticism of the specificity theory of Social Work, see Montaño, 1998, p. 106 et seq.) This attempt to supersede positivism, does not replace this rationality, instead it conceals it. From the segmentation between “science” and “technique” specific to positivism, we now have the segmentation between “pure science” and “applied science.” Furthermore, the notion of a “specific theory” in Social Work, results in the exclusion of all knowledge that does not arise out of practical experience (disregarding accumulated theoretical knowledge) and all the theoretical knowledge that is not applicable to the professional practice (disregarding universal theories, especially critical theory). Furthermore, it is a theory that at its origin is undoubtedly limited. A theory that is:

  1. undifferentiated, it does not distinguish between Marxist theory and the social sciences;
  2. uncritical, it does not contrast between theoretical formulation and objective reality;
  3. eclectic, it does not differentiate between values, perspective and fundamental principles of each school of thought and of each theoretical formulation, organising them all under “complementary” knowledge;
  4. endogenous, an approach that develops an alleged “specific theory in Social Work,” derived from and focused on the “professional practice,” in a pragmatic and immediate relationship between theory and practice.
  5. reductionist, based on general literature and manuals, and on short essays and papers, and not on seminal authors or basic literature (such as Marx, Weber and Durkheim).

It is in this context of “Reconceptualisation” that Social Work also began to be influenced by Marxist theory. However, it also had profound limitations and deficiencies:

  1. a reductionist and an impoverished Marxism, based on general literature and manuals, such as Marta Harnecker, Mao Tse-Tung, etc.
  2. a dogmatic Marxism, focused on the official doctrine of the “Third International,” referred to as “Marxism-Leninism”
  3. an economistic Marxism , eliminating the perspective of social totality
  4. a highly structural Marxism, approach influenced by different authors, such as Luis Althuser, etc.)
  5. a Marxism invaded by positivism and non-dialectic (see Quiroga, in Borgianni & Montaño, orgs., 2000A, p. 121); essentially
  6. Marxism without Marx.

It is this “Marxism” (without Marx, structural, economistic, dogmatic), that marked and characterised its entrance into Social Work during the Reconceptualisation process, referred to as THE Marxism, and it was to be be strongly rejected by the Social Work ranks after the military dictatorships devastated and persecuted Social Work schools, professionals and students in Latin America.

Revitalising “Orthodox” and “Dialectical Marxism” and its Contribution to Social Work

However, in the context of the restoration of democracy in Latin America, and basically in the mid-1980s and in the following decades, particularly in Brazil, Marxism suffered a significant transformation. The Marxist debate (in professional education and in knowledge production) caused the incorporation of Marx’s seminal work (displacing “Marxism without Marx”), as well as the work by dialectical thinking authors, such as Gramsci and Lukács (displacing the “positivist invasion,” and incorporating dialectical thinking; authors who discussed contemporary capitalism: Lenin, Mandel, Kosik, Sanchez Vazquez, Lefebvre, Heller, Mészáros, Hobsbawm, Adorno, Horkheimer, etc. (displacing the reductionist, economistic, dogmatic approaches; and other authors of the theory of independence (Prado Jr., Marini, Fernandes, Cueva, etc.).

A dialectic and orthodox Marxism (loyal to Marx’s method, as per Lukács, 1970) with a perspective of totality, and developing radical criticism of contemporary reality, directed towards social transformation.

It is this “revitalised” Marxism, loyal to Marx’s dialectic method, but deeply critical and aware of the new determinations of contemporary capitalism and the peripheral and dependent condition of Latin America that will drive the production of knowledge in this theoretical-methodological approach. Without the defects and limitations of this “Marxism without Marx,” of structuralism, etc., in the orthodox, dialectical perspective of Marxism, the debate of Social Work, particularly in Brazil, will create some quality leaps and inflections in the analysis of certain essential topics related to the profession.

Critical understanding of the profession’s nature, fundamental principals and social roles.

Based on the seminal paper written by Iamamoto, originally published in 1982 (included in Iamamoto, 1997), and then various contributions, for example, by Netto (1997), Montaño (1998), as well as Faleiros (1972), based on Marx’s understanding of history, where the phenomenon is not isolated from the totality, but included based on historic determinations, a completely new interpretation is developed about the fundamental principles of Social Work. The main theses here may be summarised as shown below:

  1. Social Work – emerges and develops from its inclusion (in the “sociotechnical division of labour”) in the implementation of government social policies, “when it decides to intervene in the refractions of ‘social issues’ – it establishes a mechanism in the reproduction of social relationships and of the dominant system;
  2. notwithstanding the foregoing, Social Work develops its intervention in spaces of tension and contradiction between its function of reproducing the system (based on the dominant capital interest) and the defence of social rights and needs (based on subordinate and working class demands and struggles), transforming social work practice into an essentially political practice. Finally,
  3. Social Work, without eliminating the foregoing determinations, may have a prominent role and a relative margin to manoeuvre by guiding its professional action, directed towards a practice that, without eliminating the systemic conditions, prefers to guarantee social rights.

Critical assessment about the methodological debate in Social Work.

Based on the inflections involved in the critical understanding of the fundamental principles and nature of Social Work, a critical reflection process was applied to overcome the a priori methodology that guided the discussion between the 1960s and the 1980s. Leila Lima’s work was probably the turning point, in the self-critical paper “Methodology, the Upheaval of an Era,” that incorporates other critical contribution by, for example, Marilda Iamamoto, José Paulo Netto, Vicente Faleiros, Nobuco Kameyama and Franci Gomes Cardoso (see Borgianni & Montaño, orgs., 2000a). This debate can be summarised as follows:

  1. displacing the identification and/or derivation between the knowledge method and the intervention method
  2. displacing the identity between social practice and professional practice
  3. displacing the assumption that a “scientific” intervention method, considered correct, would be enough to produce an “efficient” and “transforming” practice
  4. the understanding that theory cannot be understood as a mere “reflection on experiences” or “rationalising practices”; and
  5. the clear differentiation of the Social Work instrumentality, of its “operating instruments” (see Guerra, 2007).

Critical understanding of the capitalist social system, the role of the State and of social policies.

This approach includes the works of different authors, such as Faleiros, Yazbek, Pereira, Behring (see Borgianni & Montaño, orgs., 2000), Iamamoto, Netto, Spozati, Mota, Menezes and Boschetti. The main hypotheses, related to the State and Social Policies, may be summarised as follows:

  1. the real key to understanding Social Policies is basically studying the unequal relationships in the production sphere, and it is unacceptable to just connect Social Policies to the distribution, consumption, circulation sphere
  2. similarly, it is wrong to only focus social policy studies on the analysis of the State, as a (relatively) autonomous authority, and also having to learn about the relationships in civil society, class struggles, social movements. Social Policies are not logical-formal mechanisms of a “welfare” State irrespective of class, or of a State only just functional to capital, but to a tense, contradictory outcome of these struggles
  3. in this sense, social policies serve at least three types of functions:
    1. Social Function: answers to certain specific needs, existing in the population
    2. Economic Function: workforce production, reduction of workforce reproduction costs for capital, and consumer market expansion; and
    3. Political Function: the fragmentation of class struggles, the transfer of struggles from the production sphere to the state sphere, from an economic contradiction to a merely political confrontation, from capital/labour contradiction to State requirements, legitimising the current social system. Hence, Social Policies are an instrument that is essentially focused on controlling the population and expanding capitalist accumulation, as a contradictory mechanism that incorporates certain working class demands and conquests.

Critical understanding of the capitalist crisis and its neoliberal restructuring.

Based on the foundations of bourgeois society, it was possible to clearly and critically understand the crisis in the capitalist world and the response of capital (financial) in the neoliberal project. These analyses were inspired on Marxist studies, such as, the fundamental principles of the capitalist crisis (Trotsky, Mandel, Mészáros), restructuring production (Antunes, Harveyel), neoliberalism (Harvey, Anderson, Borón), financial globalisation of capital (Chesnais), and ontological foundations of work (Lukács).


It is the contribution of Marxist thinking to Social Work, very recent from a historic perspective, that represents a nonlinear process, starting from Marxism “without Marx,” invaded by a structural and dogmatic positivism, but more recently, displaced by a rich dialectical approach of orthodox Marxism, to a certain extent loyal to Marx’s method, radically critical. In this approach, and in this perspective, Marxism’s contributions to Social Work are profound, varied and fundamental for critical knowledge of reality, its structural fundamental principles, its dynamics and phenomena, the fundamental principles of the profession, as well as the critical position of the profession against this reality.