Reflections on Marxism and Welfare: East and West

Video of lecture and text of presentation. The text originally appeared on Paul Stubb’s website, Paul’s thoughts on the multi-level, complex and contested nature of everything.

Presentation for “Marx and the Modern History of Welfare”, University of Trier 24 May 2018


Let me start by saying what an honour it is to have been invited to this event. I hope, however, that the rather pretentious title of my intervention will not raise your expectations too high. In the time available, I really want to present some personal, even idiosyncratic, reflections only on two moments – one involving Marxism as theory and critique – namely the emergence, perhaps even explosion, of Marxist analyses of welfare in the UK in the moment of ‘critical social policy’ in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s; the other addressing the significance of Marxism in the actual functioning of welfare in socialist Yugoslavia, a socialist state from 1945 to, roughly, 1991, marked since the break with Stalin in 1948 by its own particular ‘brand’ of ‘market socialism’, ‘self-management’ for workers and other ‘communities of interest’ but rocked, in the 1980s, by an economic crisis which saw the IMF, amongst others, oversee severe cuts in welfare provisions. If I have time, I will try to tie together, if only very loosely, these two quite different threads, and try to draw some lessons for a critical, at least neo-marxist inspired, understanding of welfare today.

Welfare and the new Marxism in the UK

The rise of new Marxism in the late 1970s in the UK and beyond is not hard to explain. Many student activists from the events of 1968 and its afterlives got jobs in a higher education sector in the UK that was expanding rapidly and, within which, social science was becoming more and more important. Indeed, right-wing commentators at the time wrote about ‘paperback Marxists’ and ‘the rise of the lumpen-polytechnic’. Marxisms flourished under quite specific conditions, a plurality of interpretations of Marx matching the spread of more and more left-wing groupings sometimes more sect-like than analytical or even dialogic in form and content. Many of these radicals, some even belonging to one of these groupings, found themselves teaching prospective social workers, future welfare professionals and front-line bureaucrats, in Departments of Applied Social Studies or Departments of Social Administration. They, and many of their students, rejected the strong belief, deriving from a Fabian tradition, underpinning Beveridge’s ideas for a post-war welfare settlement, and carried on by the first wave of post-war social policy scholars such as Titmuss and Townsend, that ‘facts’ would be enough to convince policy makers to ‘do the right thing’ and eliminate poverty from our midst. This kind of evangelistic empiricism did not sit well with the new generation, many already active in grassroots social movements and in new kinds of radical community politics challenging the hegemonic anti-working-class austerity politics of the first wave of ‘new Labour’ under Wilson and Callaghan, a kind of ‘Thatcherism before Thatcher’ in many ways.

In retrospect, despite the proliferation of Marxisms in the plural, I want to point to four common features of this new wave of Marxist critique. Firstly, it was not always very nuanced, with early work, in particular, dominated by a functionalist determinism seeing welfare as a more or less permanent feature of class rule. What if welfare did not easily fit as either a repressive nor an ideological state apparatus, in Althusser’s terms? Did one really have to believe Philip Corrigan’s assertion, in the midst of his Maoist phase, that “the two most effective weapons of capitalist society are the tank and the community worker”, prompting E. P. Thompson’s famous intervention, at a Ruskin History Workshop, wondering how on earth he could have got his typewriter to type such a thing.

Secondly, with some exceptions, notably the influence of Claus Offe’s work, the Marxist analyses of the welfare state we got, and some of us wrote, were almost exclusively focused on the United Kingdom. We may have been internationalists in terms our political activism but we were ‘little Englanders’ in our academic work. The subsequent growth of ‘comparative social policy’ was either untouched by the Marxist turn or distorted it almost beyond recognition, as in Esping-Anderson’s work on welfare regimes, still dominated by a form of ‘methodological nationalism’ seeing nation states as containers for ‘welfare states’ or ‘welfare regimes’, and giving rise to a new empiricist ‘welfare modelling industry’ much beloved of the kind of social policy scholars still trying to track down the elusive dependant variable.

Our theory, be it derived from Althusser, Gramsci, Mandel, or whoever, may have been continental but our focus was almost entirely domestic. Even more importantly, we had to wait much longer for works that tied the rise of welfare states in the capitalist core to imperialist and colonial expropriation in the periphery. It was class relations within the nation state that mattered not, as Fanon would assert, global class relations. Paul Corrigan and Philip Leonard’s classic ‘Social Work Practice Under Capitalism’, published in 1978, introduced me to the work of Paulo Freire but, reinforced in otherwise inspirational classes by Peter Leonard in the radical environment of Warwick University where I was in 1985, this was Freire as a scholar of ‘conscientization’, to be applied in our social work practice in the UK, not Freire as a global, and indeed prototypical postcolonial, actor and activist.

Thirdly, this was a Marxism almost exclusively concerned with ‘class analysis’ and the sphere of production. Refrains of “what about gender”? or “what about ‘race’”? were not always received in a comradely spirit, with those who raised such questions often condemned as contaminating the waters with the distractions of ‘identity politics’. Fiona Williams, whose book ‘Social Policy: a critical introduction’ published in 1989, had suggested that “class, gender and ‘race’ are the most significant divisions in our society from the point of view of understanding the welfare state”, reminded me recently in a soon to be published manuscript, of the concrete manifestation of this in struggles to get oppressions other than class taken seriously in the journal, annual conference, editorial collective and wider movement around ‘Critical Social Policy’.

My own text on the radicalisation of black social workers in some inner London Social Services Departments, published in the journal in 1985, ended with a quote from Cedric Robinson’s 1983 book ‘Black Marxism: the making of the black radical tradition’: “I have investigated the failed efforts to render the historical being of Black peoples into a construct of historical materialism, to signify our existence as merely an opposition to capitalist organization. We are that (because we must be) but much more”. It is also, of course why work from the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, including Stuart Hall’s work, still stands the test of time in producing both more nuanced understandings of particular conjunctures and trying to understand class, gender and race as interconnected material structures.

Fourthly, many of the analyses of the time were a kind of ‘Marxism without Marx’, born of a kind of ‘sociologising’ move in which Marx joined Weber and Durkheim as important social theorists mainly in terms of one or two ideas and for their analytical method. Of course, we also got the opposite tendency of the séance with the dead Marx in which, if we tried hard enough, we would come to know precisely his views on phenomena that did not exist during his lifetime. I am not saying no one working on Marxist social policy read Marx; most of us did, but our readings were already structured by how, for example, Althusser had told us to read him.

So, re-reading a mass of texts that I first encountered over thirty years ago, what can be taken from them that has a use-value, even an exchange-value, in terms of understanding welfare? Although much improved upon later by writers such as Bob Jessop and others, the first wave of new Marxist texts addressed what Fiona Williams has termed ‘a political economy of the welfare state’, seeing welfare as a compromise between capitalists or capitalism, the capitalist state (whether conceived in a Poulantzsian or, if you were not so cool, a Milibandian way), and the working-class or, rather the organised, male, industrial working-class largely. In a sense, this literature took seriously Bismarck’s remarks about needing welfare to produce healthy soldiers and stop the working class from revolting. A literature emerged on human needs and the impossibility of meeting these fully under a capitalist mode of production based on exploitation. Ian Gough, for example, heavily influenced by O’Connor’s Fiscal Crisis of the State (1973), identified three functions of welfare under capitalism: accumulation, reproduction, and legitimation/repression’ (welfare could be both a repressive and an ideological state apparatus after all, apparently).

Fiona Williams’ treatment of this literature is, I think, right to suggest that concepts of contestation and contradiction were brought into the debate through these analyses. Later, in many of the texts published in Critical Social Policy, we were encouraged to think about the possibilities of prefigurative practices, possible within capitalism but ultimately eroding it from within or, as the title of a book by the London Edinburgh Weekend Return Group suggests, we could work ‘in and against the state’, to strive, in Bob Deacon’s terms, for ‘socialist social relations of welfare’.

It now seems rather obvious, looking back, that Marxist analyses were dealing with one particular conjuncture of time and space and reading off from this to a universal theory, precisely at a time when Keynesian welfare states in the core were morphing into what Jessop termed Schumpeterian workfare states. In addition, although gender, family and reproduction were addressed in some Marxist-feminist texts, women’s exploitation was rarely considered outside of a narrow economic determinism and the complex relations between welfare, households, and paid and unpaid work, were rarely considered. In addition, as Nancy Fraser recently put it, there was little recognition, much less analysis, of how “the defense of social reproduction in the core was entangled with imperialism”. There was, also, very little attempt to connect Marxist analyses with emerging Foucauldian understandings of the ‘biopolitical power’ of welfare.

I could say more here but time does not really allow it. Suffice to say, as Jacques Bidet suggests in his recent book ‘Foucault with Marx’, the theoretical ambitions of the two were very different but, perhaps, the very processes Foucault referred to as ‘biopolitical’, point precisely to the sphere of reproduction that Marx left, in Bidet’s terms, “in the shadows”. A final point here is that these new Marxist approaches to welfare never stopped for very long to consider the lived experiences, real worlds and active agency of welfare subjects, preferring a highly structuralist understanding of class relations in general terms.

Marxism and welfare in socialist Yugoslavia

Although sections of the British left had an interest, sometimes involvement, and certainly strong views, both positive and negative, on the nature of Yugoslav socialism, I regret to say that I did not. Hence, my work on social welfare in socialist Yugoslavia, now something of an obsession together with attempts to unravel Yugoslavia’s role in the Non-Aligned Movement, means that I have to use a different register, although never quite the rigorous one of a real historian, for this part of my talk. In part because socialist Yugoslavia was established by the Partisan victors of an armed struggle and, even more so after Tito’s so-called “historic no” to Stalin, whenever Yugoslavia is discussed it needs to be treated as ‘an exception’, or at least as an exceptional form of state socialism. Whether it should be termed more properly ‘state monopoly capitalism’ and the fact that, between 1945 and 1948, some of its practices were ‘more Stalinist than Stalin’, and even after 1948 repressive measures continued to be taken against varieties of dissidents, including the revolution’s Trotsky and, perhaps, later, its Bakhtin, Milovan Đilaš, are not of central concern here.

In the longer piece that I hope, one day, to write, my fundamental question is to what extent Marxism was important in the development of the Yugoslav socialist welfare state. It is a question that is easier to ask than to answer and, of course, there is no single answer, with the impact varying in different conjunctures as welfare settlements and the broader economic, political and social context changed over time. What has to be remembered, however, is that it is not just the political economy of socialist Yugoslavia that was very different from the countries of Eastern Europe that remained part of the Soviet bloc – self-management, market socialism, relative freedom to travel and migrate and, crucially, its leading role in the Non-Aligned Movement. In addition, socialist Yugoslavia had, almost throughout its entire existence, a deep commitment to a social welfare state. Parts of socialist Yugoslavia previously within the Austro-Hungarian empire already had, at least in skeletal form, a Bismarckian type insurance-based system. This was extended and expanded in the 1950s, including highly successful mass literacy campaigns, free health and education for all, and a basic safety net of social protection to smooth the path to rather rapid urbanisation and industrialisation, including social housing programmes that gave the new workers tenants’ rights over expropriated property and, more crucially, newly built apartments. It began, and remained, as a dual system of welfare, however, however, with social rights for the new industrial workers far exceeding those of the peasants and farmers in the rural areas.

Within this burgeoning welfare settlement, the issue of gender equality and women’s relationship to work and welfare is particularly worthy of note. In part because of the role of women in the Partisan’s movement and the continuance of the self-organised anti-Fascist Front of Women until its dissolution in 1953, the early years of socialism were marked by a legal system based, at least formally speaking, on equality for women and against any form of gender discrimination, reflecting what Marijana Stojčić has termed “a radical revolutionary position in relation to class, gender and national inequality”. Of course, this was very much a ‘workerist’ equality, largely, although not exclusively – women’s participation in higher education was encouraged – confined to labour rights, in Ksenija Horvat’s terms, women were seen as “an integral part of the proletariat”. After the dissolution of the AFŽ in 1953, there was a kind of suppression of both women’s formal political participation and, in the context of two decades of economic prosperity and a burgeoning consumerism, the women’s question, as part and parcel of the class question, was judged to have been solved. The 1950s and 1960s saw an oscillation between women’s emancipation and a kind of gender essentialism, although women’s dual burden, as workers in the factory and in the home, was never questioned. The 1970s and 1980s saw a rise of new women’s self-organization in the sphere of civil society and around issues such as domestic violence and the survival of patriarchal roles. Not unlike the Praxis philosophers, new feminist scholars and activists developed a progressive leftist critique of Yugoslav socialism, in Dragan Klaić’s terms “criticising its sexist elements” and “the official façade of Yugoslav ideology or jargon”.

Although a classic state planned, centralised socialist economy until 1948, socialist Yugoslavia latter combined state and local state planning, actually more and more decentralised over time, with the use of market mechanisms, with the direct management of public property assigned to the workforce of enterprises as early as 1950. Property belonged to the people, but workers were considered, in the words of one economist of the time, “a better representative of society and a better defender of its interests than the state”. Workers’ self-management evolved over time, in different ways, more or less compatible with collective ownership of the means of production in the form of social property and never, of course, completely eroding the planning function of the state. Indeed, sociological surveys suggested, over time, a growing concern from workers regarding political interference and its direct incarnation in a cadre of not always competent managerial and political elites.

In a recent text, Milica Uvalić, from an anti-Marxist position, argues that market mechanisms were over-ridden when issues of income and capital were concerned: since labour had lost its commodity character, there should be little or no income inequality other than that related to the success or otherwise of units of production. Further, capital markets were judged to be in contradiction to the Marxist labour theory of value, extending the rights of economic entities at the expense of society as a whole. Reforms introduced by Edvard Kardelj in the 1970s, sought to tie workers’ remuneration to a combination of ‘live’, current, labour and ‘past’ embodied labour in an interesting reworking of some of Marx’s central theses.

Crucially, in the early 1960s, there was a recognition that a redistributive welfare state was not enough, that social problems were not merely going to ‘wither away’ under socialist conditions. At the time, there was increasing concern, even a kind of ‘moral panic’ about the rise of juvenile offending in the big cities largely attributed to rapid and unplanned migration from rural areas.  Training of social workers, originally in high schools and, later at University level, began, alongside the establishment in every municipality across the country, of a Centre for Social Work, staffed by a multi-disciplinary team, and tasked with administering aspects of social welfare but, also, undertaking direct work with those who fell outside of the scope of productive relations. Authors such as myself and Rea Maglajlić, as well as Darja Zaviršek, have noted how the curriculum for the training of social workers was a strange mix of US-led casework, Scandinavian psycho-social work, and Austrian psychology, with textbooks reflecting this but, almost reluctantly, adding a Marxist tinge only in footnotes through rather decontextualized quotes from Kardelj. Much of the thinking behind CSWs was top down, although associations of citizens did emerge and, later, introduced more radical practices ‘from below’.

As Rory Archer, Igor Duda and I argue in the Introductory chapter to our edited book ‘Social Inequalities and Discontent in Yugoslav socialism’, despite the nominally privileged position of the working class and principles of Marxist-Leninism, social stratification remained a rather permanent feature, both within and, crucially, between the constituent Republics. Those who did not fit in to the ‘productivist’ models: the unemployed, including a large group of hidden unemployed, Roma, the homeless or housing deprived, deviants, and so on, were subject to a range of biopolitical and disciplinary practices. Ongoing work by Siniša Zrinščak and myself on welfare retrenchment during the deep economic crisis of the 1980s, suggests that socialist Yugoslavia very much followed Latin America in terms of IMF-led adjustment programmes that saw cutbacks in many areas of welfare, brought back urban poverty for the first time since the Second World War, and reinforced an argument that such an ‘extensive’ welfare state was not affordable in times of economic recession. The rest, as they say, is history.


Let me conclude, very briefly, with three common threads from the two, very different, parts of this story. The first is that, whether under capitalism or socialism, tying welfare too narrowly to productivism is a real problem. This opens up, for me, questions that authors such as Francine Mestrum have raised in trying to articulate a ‘social commons’, not only the extension of care and support for those outside of production but, crucially, adding resource use, and a finite planet, to issues of direct concern for welfare. As Dolenec and Žitko have argued, echoing the London-Edinburgh Weekend Return Group, defending services against commodification is not enough, we must address the contradictions of the state, even within socialism. Secondly, we need to go far beyond ‘methodological nationalism’ and welfare (or socialism) in one country and address what Noemi Lendvai and I have termed variegated capitalist relations and the complex connections between welfare in the core, semi-periphery and periphery, whilst always holding these terms as both relational and contingent not essentialist. Finally, another social welfare, prefigurative and transformative, is only possible through deep politicisation and activism from below, connecting with a politics of recognition, redistribution and rights from above. Forgive me for wondering what the old man might have thought of this. Thankyou.


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