Professional Poison: How Professionals Sabotage Social Movements, and Why Workers Should Lead Our Fight (2009)

by Susan Rosenthal

While professionals who defend the capitalist order are clearly not on our side, most social-change organizations are also led by professionals who believe that they can manage the system better. That is not a solution when the problem is the system itself – a system that puts profits ahead of human needs.


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Professionals tend to head progressive organizations and also to hold them back, because the skills professionals acquire to manage an oppressive system are the opposite of those required to challenge that system.

— Susan Rosenthal


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ISBN: 978-0-9959854-6-9
Pages: 28
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Table of Contents


About the Author

What’s a Professional?
Conservative Professionals
Liberal Professionals
Professional Activists
The Truth is Not Enough
Class-Divided Unions
The Power of WE


by Patricia Campbell

Overworked nurses often complain that nurses are their own worse enemies. We are trained to accept our lot, while senior nurses plan the policies that keep us oppressed.

Nurses cannot understand this. I often hear my coworkers say, “Don’t they know what it’s like on the floor? Haven’t they been here?”

Professional Poison explains why nursing supervisors are more loyal to employers than to their former colleagues.

Professional Poison confirms my own experience that union officials are also professionals who help employers to manage the workforce.

Once, when I was a workplace representative in a mainstream union, my coworker and I waited for a senior union official to join us for a meeting with management. After waiting for some time, we were finally ushered into the manager’s office. We were astounded to find that our union official had been meeting with the employer while we were kept waiting outside!

Understanding is empowering. I recently represented a union member against two professional managers in the health service. Having read Professional Poison, I was ready for them.

As I heard their tale of woe, “there is no money” and “things are different now,” I thought, “Oh yes! Things are different now.”

We told them that our union would not tolerate budget-driven decisions that compromise patient care. How can there be no resources, when a private dental company in Northern Ireland has just been given £17 million from the National Health Service?

Rosenthal is right. Rank-and-file workers must lead the fight for improved conditions.

We are the many; they are the few. The arguments in this pamphlet are essential to tipping the balance in our favour.



What is class?

The capitalists insist that class is irrelevant and that everyone has the same opportunity to rise in the system. The fact that so few actually do is attributed to biology or genetics – that some people are simply more ‘fit’ than others. Or it is attributed to character – that some people are more ambitious and work harder. These ‘explanations’ justify the way things are, and that is their purpose.

In fact, with few exceptions, the class in which we are born is the class in which we will die. I was one of those exceptions. I was born in an industrial, working-class area of Toronto. At age 11, my family moved to a middle-class suburb. It was a different world.

In my old neighborhood, children played in the street while adults sat on their front porches and socialized. In my new neighborhood, there were no front porches. Children did not play in the street but were enrolled in structured activities outside the neighborhood. People were polite, yet removed. There was a strange (to me) emphasis on appearance, manners, and status. I felt inferior, with my hand-me-down clothes and my less-than-gentile way of speaking and moving.

In the 1960s, professional education was made accessible to working-class youth. After graduating from medical school, I was given a license to exert power over others.

As a physician, I had the legal right to make decisions about other people’s lives, to provide or restrict their access to medicines, treatments, and social resources. I had social status, and my opinion was valued over that of others.

Power over others is corrupting. It leads to the mistaken belief that one is superior, better able to make decisions or to assume a leadership position. This created a conflict for me, because I firmly believe that everyone should have whatever they need to direct their own lives. I now understand this as a class conflict.

It has taken a lifetime to clarify my understanding of how the professional and non-professional wings of the middle class manage society on behalf of the capitalist class. Professional Poison (2009) marks an early step on this journey. A more complete analysis can be found in Rebel Minds (2019).

I welcome your comments.

– Susan Rosenthal, Author



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