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Michael Reisch
Daniel Thursz Distinguished Professor of Social Justice University of Maryland, USA

The Complicity of Organized Social Work with McCarthyism

During the New Deal and World War II, social workers in the U.S. played a prominent role in the development of the American welfare state and the burgeoning labor union movement. They were particularly vulnerable, therefore, to the anti-Communist hysteria of McCarthyism. Many social workers lost government jobs when they refused to sign so-called “loyalty oaths;” unions purged them from leadership positions. Others were fired from university faculties and major nonprofit social service organizations. Social work scholars had their work censored or rejected for publication by leading journals, sometimes because of mistaken identity. The organized profession retreated from its advocacy for social justice and turned inward to focus on occupational status enhancement. The mainstream narrative of this dark period, if it receives much attention at all, largely attributes these events to the influence of powerful conservative forces in government, the corporate sector, and the media. What often goes unmentioned in these accounts is the role the profession played to abet or acquiesce to this repressive environment.

Administrators in public and private social service agencies, including the United Way, portrayed those who joined social work unions as Communist-inspired dupes, who placed their self-interest above that of their clients. They refused to respond to legitimate workplace grievances and repeatedly attempted to break unions (Crosby, 1952; Brilliant, 1990; Schrecker, 1986). These administrators opposed such pro-labor concepts as the closed shop and the use of strikes to settle employment disputes (Reisch & Andrews, 2002). In New York City, welfare commissioner Raymond Hilliard blamed unionized workers for increases in the welfare rolls and repeatedly tried to break their union (Crosby, 1952; Gailmor, 1951). He fired union members, including leaders, and investigated workers who demonstrated in favor of expanding benefits. These attacks, coupled with purges by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), led to a dramatic decline in union membership among social workers (Kampelman, 1957; O’Brien, 1968). Mainstream professional organizations, such as the American Association of Social Workers (AASW), severed their ties with unions and repeated unsubstantiated charges of Communist infiltration (AASW, October 1948). The AASW also said little about social service cuts and failed to protest the firing of social worker Jane Hoey from the Bureau of Public Assistance for taking pro-welfare and pro-union positions.

With the exception of organizations like the YWCA, voluntary sector agencies frequently supported or failed to resist the anti-Communist climate of the period. They dismissed staff with suspected leftist politics, volunteered information to the FBI and investigators from the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC), and cut funds for social action programs (Brilliant, 1990; Trolander, 1987). The prestigious Jewish Board of Guardians and the New York City Bureau of Child Welfare cooperated with the government in their investigation of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg and their co-defendant Morton Sobell and even tried to remove the Rosenbergs’ children from the custody of their family and foster parents (Meeropol & Meeropol, 1975).

In higher education, prominent social work scholars, such as Marion Hathway at the University of Pittsburgh, and Harold Lewis and Robert Glass at the University of Connecticut lost faculty positions because of their political views and activities. Although some colleagues and students supported them, the equivocal stance of university administrators failed to stop the pressure exerted by trustees, local politicians, and the media. At Pittsburgh, this produced a massive exodus of prominent faculty. Other private universities, especially those dominated by corporate trustees, fired professors for unspecified “disloyalty.”

A prominent example was the case of Eduard Lindeman, a well-known senior scholar at Columbia University, who confronted accusations of disloyalty because of his advocacy for civil rights, labor unions, and the expansion of the welfare state. Most of his colleagues on the faculty refused to defend him (Chaiklin, 1997). Similar developments occurred at the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Michigan, New York University, Rutgers University, and the University of Washington. Standard histories of the profession, however, make no mention of these incidents or their consequences.

Social workers like Hathway and Inabel Lindsay, Dean of the School of Social Work at Howard University, who supported the 1948 presidential candidacy of Henry Wallace, FDR’s former Vice President, also faced intense criticism within the profession. Bertha Capen Reynolds, one of the most highly published social work scholars in the 1920s and 1930s, and the Associate Dean of the School of Social Work at Smith College lost her job in 1938 due to her political activities. The profession effectively blacklisted her for the remainder of her career and virtually ignored her once prominent theories of practice and education well into the 1960s.

In the mid-1950s, the official organ of the profession, the Social Work Yearbook, nearly expunged the contributions of labor unions from historical accounts. The AASW failed to defend union activists, such as Abraham Flaxer, charged with contempt of Congress. In the late 1950s, its successor, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), assisted the FBI in its investigation of suspected social work radicals, as did the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) (Schreiber, 1995). Social workers who had been prominent members of the New Deal coalition or the Rank and File Movement of the 1930s were particularly vulnerable (Fisher, 1987).

Liberal anti-Communists, including most of the profession’s leadership, were particularly strident in their attacks. Speakers at the National Conference of Social Welfare (NCSW), the leading organizational voice of the social welfare field, made a conscious effort to distinguish their views from radicals inside and outside the profession. This led to their cautious criticism of McCarthyism’s attacks on civil liberties and the personal consequences they produced.

Group workers were among the most frequent targets of these attacks because of their support for participatory democracy. Activists like Verne Weed and Ira Krasner lost their jobs; Sherman Labovitz spent a month in solitary confinement because of his political work. By the mid-1950s, these persistent attacks led group work to shift its primary emphasis from broad social goals toward the “enabling” of clients and, mirroring the emphasis of casework, the therapeutic function of groups. The new journal, Social Work, refused to publish articles on group work for many years. It is also possible that anti-Semitism played a role in this repression as Jews represented a high proportion of group workers.

These attacks from within the profession undermined its social justice mission by focusing primarily on individual needs and the preservation of capitalism regardless of its human consequences. Although they defended civil liberties, liberals in the social work profession accepted the basic premises of McCarthyism. As a result, they were complicit in the repression the anti-Communist fervor produced and ultimately bear some responsibility for its social and personal consequences. These consequences lingered well into the 1960s and beyond. The profession retreated from its previous advocacy for social justice and focused most of its energies on profession building and the refinement of professional technique. Ironically, in so doing social work leaders inadvertently erased the profession’s historical efforts to build the broad-based coalitions required to achieve desired social reforms and made the field vulnerable to partisan attacks. This widened the gap between the profession’s stated social justice goals and the realities of daily practice, a gap that persists today.


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