Andy Blunden March 2009

Soviet Cultural Psychology.

It is Petrograd, 6 January 1924 at the Second All-Russian Congress of Psychoneurology. At the First Congress a year earlier, Konstantin Kornilov had deposed Georgy Chelpanov, the father of Russian psychology and Director of the Institute of Psychology, and dedicated the Institute to the creation of a Marxist psychology; everyone looked to one or another variety of behaviorism in which the concept of ‘consciousness’ was understood variously as unscientific, illusory or an epiphenomena of behavior and/or brain physiology. All the sciences were in the midst of such cultural revolutions. There would have to be a revolution in art, in geology, in agriculture, in every domain of social life, including psychology. As Russia already boasted world-renowned figures like Bekhterev and Pavlov, the dominance of behaviorism seemed assured.

To the rostrum steps an unknown young teacher from Gomel, Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky speaks with fluency and confidence, at length and without the benefit of notes (Cole, Luria & Levitin 2006; Kozulin 1990; Levitin 1982). He uses the language of Pavlov’s and Bekhterev’s Reflexology, but calls for consciousness to be given its place as the key concept of psychology (Vygotsky 1997). If everything was a reflex, then consciousness was not a reflex but the organization of reflexes, a process with a social origin, and which the subject themself can control. He went on to advocate such a broadening of the subject matter of psychology which would make untenable the approach to psychology which was current at the time. This was, in fact, an immanent critique of reflexology.

To many listening, this must have sounded very much like a counterrevolution to restore Chelpanov’s dualistic and idealistic psychology, but this was a young man who would have to be listened to. Vygotsky was invited to Moscow to take up a position at the Institute and soon formed a research group (the ‘troika’) with two of Kornilov’s young assistants, Alexander Luria, at the time an advocate of psychoanalysis, and Alexei Leontyev.

The Russian Revolution was more than a regime change; every area of social and intellectual life in Russia was subject to protracted, traumatic and repeated transformation. It certainly transformed Vygotsky’s life.

Vygotsky was raised in Gomel, within the Jewish Pale in Tsarist Russia. He was a brilliant student, reading avidly in history and philosophy, running a reading group amongst his school friends around issues of Jewish and Russian history. His reading evidently included the writings of the founder of Russian Marxism, Georgi Plekhanov. As a Jew, even as a ‘gold medal’ student, he was lucky to be admitted to university in Moscow to study law in 1913.

During his time in Moscow, Vygotsky was deeply involved in struggles within the domain of aesthetics and literary criticism, in which Symbolists and Formalists did battle with Futurists and Constructivists. Engaged in problems of hermeneutics and semiotics as they were being fought out on the European stage, this was a formative period in his intellectual life, and culminated in the writing of The Psychology of Art (1971).

Graduating in 1917, after taking a course in psychology and philosophy at the “People’s University” of Shanyavsky, he returned to Gomel to teach literature and psychology at the school there. He also conducted classes at a drama studio and delivered lectures on literature and science. Moved by the plight of orphans and disabled children he organised a psychology laboratory at the Gomel Teacher’s College where he was engaged in preparation of the new generation of teachers, and wrote a kind of manual for teachers called “Educational Psychology” (1992), a somewhat eclectic overview of the main issues and approaches to the subject at the time.

Alexander Luria was born in Kazan in 1902. His father, Roman Albertovich, wanted him to become a doctor, but Alexander Romanovich preferred the law. Luria’s family had compensated for the restrictions placed on Jews in Russia by frequent travel to Germany where they were able to obtain an education and imbibe the culture of Europe. German was the second language in the Luria household, and Luria retained a lifelong interest in the ‘Romantic Science’ of Goethe, von Humboldt and others. To appease his father, Luria also continued medical training.

With the victory of the October Revolution, the professors were at a loss as to how to teach their subjects, and lectures were overtaken by intense and chaotic student debates. University life came to a rapid end when Kazan found itself the site of the beginning of the Wars of Intervention, but in the meantime Luria’s relentless enquiry into the human condition had led him to Freud. Luria started a psychoanalytic society, attempted some experimental work to test psychoanalytic ideas and in the midst of utter turmoil managed to publish a small book on his ideas using recycled paper. The novel experimental approach to psychoanalytic research reported in this work caught the attention of Kornilov and Luria was invited to join the staff at the Institute in Moscow.

Alexei Leontyev, the youngest of the group, had only just graduated from Moscow University in 1924, and, attracted by the project of building a Marxist psychology, and displaying a gift for experimental work, had taken up a graduate position under Kornilov.

Among the three of them, only Vygotsky had prior understanding of Marxism (Cole, Luria & Levitin 2006). But Vygotsky’s Marxism was much more sophisticated than that of the people around him. Rather than inserting scraps from the Marxist classics into existing theories of behavior, taken for granted as the materialist line in psychology, Vygotsky had developed an unequalled insight into Marx’s critical methodology, principally through his reading of Capital. So Vygotsky began by asking: what was the subject matter of psychology.

Coming from the highly politicized pre-Revolutionary struggles over aesthetics, and the real problems of education in a country shattered by war and revolution, Vygotsky wanted a psychology which was up to its subject matter: the actual life of human beings, not just laboratory reactions. With early training in hermeneutics and literary criticism, rather than rat-racing and dog training, he approached the various currents of psychology he found around him in Russia critically, somewhat as he would have approached a literary genre, the same way Marx approached political economy. And while everything connected with the old regime and the surrounding capitalist world was under attack, Vygotsky was appropriating European culture. People didn’t know where to put him, he belonged to no-one’s camp and defied categorization.

For all the problems, the old society had been shattered. The Soviet Union in the 1920s was a cauldron of creativity. Physical and intellectual conditions were desperately inadequate. The entire resources of the country which had not been destroyed were mobilized in an ideological atmosphere which was highly charged. But nothing was impossible or out of bounds. History was being made everywhere. These three young men could never have met but for the Revolution, let alone find themselves charged with the task of revolutionizing the entire science of psychology.

Early in 1925, the troika expanded their group with the addition of 5 graduate students, 4 of them women, and began a critical review of the dominant trends in psychology around them in Moscow. Vygotsky took steps to set up an Institute for Defectology, i.e., for the treatment and education of disabled children of all kinds, in his home town of Gomel, and along with Luria went back to school as a student of medicine, side-by-side with teaching and research. This was interrupted however by a serious bout of tuberculosis, the illness which dogged Vygotsky’s life and would ultimate take it from him.

On his return to activity, the group began to work their way through all the theories of psychology which were contesting the field on the world stage: Freud, Piaget, James, ... critiquing them and appropriating the insights each had to offer. The group worked collaboratively, discussing the problems in a group while one of them took notes. To this day it is not possible to be certain about the authorship of much of what the group produced in this period. Even graduate students were invited to experiment on their own initiative and sometimes made key breakthroughs.

In a 1929 manuscript known as ‘The Crisis in Psychology’ (1997a) they critically appropriated the insights of many contending schools of psychology, just as Marx had laboriously worked his way through everything that had been written about political economy.

Vygotsky developed the idea of the ‘unit of analysis’ for a science. As Marx points out in the preface to the first edition of Capital, the commodity relation is the germ or cell of economics. All the phenomena of capitalism can be unfolded from this simplest and most primitive of relations, the exchange of commodities, just like the cell of biology and the molecule of chemistry. This idea originated with Goethe and is a key methodological principle for both Hegel and Marx.

Finding that the relation between thinking and speaking was the central problem for psychology, he concluded that resolving this problem was a microcosm of the whole problem of human consciousness. He went on to conclude that word meaning was the unit of analysis for the study of intelligent speech (1987), and more generally, that the basic unit of psychology is joint, artefact-mediated action, with word meaning a special case.

To make a beginning in their investigations, the group developed a novel approach to psychological experimentation. Vygotsky pointed out that the usual approach which emphasized ‘scientific objectivity’ and observed the behaviour of individual subjects, isolated from interaction with other people, especially the experimenter, was incapable of capturing psychological functions in the process of development, but was limited to the observation of finished process. Treating subjects like laboratory rats in this way, it was impossible to understand psychological processes, which are not innate, but originate from the collaborative use of cultural products.

The team developed what they called the ‘functional method of double stimulation’ (Vygotsky 1987): the subject was given a task to perform; then they were offered some artefact which they could use to complete the task. By assisting the subject to use an artefact, such as an aide mémoire, to complete a task, the researchers could actually foster the development of a new psychological function, such as ability to memorize. The use of a ‘psychological tool’ allows the subject to modify their own psyche. The fact is that a universal characteristic of human psychology is the disposition of human beings to use cultural products to control their own behaviour. By collaborating in this, the researcher can unlock the developmental processes of the psyche.

The cultural psychologists were making a name for themselves and earning respect, but at no point were they able to challenge behaviourism as the dominant current in Soviet ‘psychology’. Behaviorism is the science of prediction and control of other people’s behaviour, based on the S?R (Stimulus-Response) model, and this was the kind of science which met the needs of the Soviet bureaucracy. And political conditions were changing. When Leontyev published a book in 1929, the publisher inserted a preface denouncing his ‘errors’, and in 1930 he was forced to leave his post at the Krupskaya Academy of Communist Education. With Lydia Bozhovich and others, Leontyev set up a center in Kharkov where they might be able to work more freely, this later becoming the Neurosurgical Institute.

In the meantime, Vygotsky worked prodigiously, as if in a hurry, and in the early 1930s gave lectures (transcribed by his students) and wrote the manuscripts in which his scientific legacy, the foundations of cultural psychology, were set down, focusing mainly on questions of methodology, the areas of child development, emotions and learning and ‘defectology’. The Institute for Defectology in Gomel provided a refuge for Vygotsky’s students to continue their work as the political pressure continued to mount.

In 1931, with Vygotsky’s help, Luria carried out an expedition to Uzbekistan to investigate the changes taking place in the thinking of people who were being drawn directly from a feudal lifestyle into a modern planned economy, a unique opportunity to observe cultural psychology in motion. They found that even limited schooling or experience with collective farming brought about dramatic changes in people’s thinking. There were some flaws in Luria’s methodology and his interpretation of the results, but officialdom missed the point entirely. The data was interpreted as in itself insulting to Soviet nationalities and Luria came under severe political fire as a result. The affair made cross cultural research in the Soviet Union politically impossible and cultural differences in learning and cognition could not be even discussed thereafter.

Vygotsky was overtaken by another bout of tuberculosis and died in 1934, but his friends were able to publish “Thinking and Speech” (1987) which remained in print for just 12 months before being banned, and then did not see the light of day for 30 years.

Central to “Thinking and Speech” was a critique of the eminent Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget, in which, rather than advocating that instruction trail along behind development, realizing capacities as they matured according to a nature-given program, Vygotsky claimed that instruction leads development. Teachers need to recognise not what a child can do unaided, but rather what they cannot do alone, but can do with assistance. Focusing on those psychological functions which entailed structural development of the child’s psyche, educational activity could be directed to facilitate the child’s healthy development.

Further, Vygotsky criticized Piaget’s interpretation of infants’ egocentric speech. Piaget thought that the child ‘talking to herself’ was a kind of autism which eventually died away. But as Vygotsky saw it: first the child used speech to gain the help of adults, and then to control their own actions, and then vocalization gradually faded away as the vital function of controlling their own behavior through speech turned inwards. Vygotsky demonstrated that there is speech before intelligence and intelligence before speech, but it is only when the trajectories of these two functions intersect, creating intelligent speech, that the characteristic human psychology is formed. Written speech then entails a qualitatively new psychological function, as the person must make an object of their own thought, i.e., an unvoiced word, and then implement a series of visual motor operations under the control of their thought. So written speech in turn becomes a new tool for the control of one’s own thinking and behaviour. At every point, the motor control and sense perceptions of the entire body, interacting with real artefacts and internalized reflections of these artefacts, are involved in thought. Both developmentally and ontologically therefore thought is tied up with material objects (tools, symbols or other people) and the practical activities through which people use them and give meaning to them.

Vygotsky demonstrated Marx’s aphorism: “The eye has become a human eye, just as its object has become a social, human object - an object made by man for man. The senses have therefore become directly in their practice theoreticians.” (Marx 1975) The human organism is born with a range of functions each resting on distinct biological structures. In the course of development these basic functions which we share with animals are subsumed into higher psychological functions, developed through the social use of cultural products. As a result, new, specifically human, psychological functions successively differentiate themselves, each of which mobilize the entire range of biological formations in a new Gestalt. This allows to human beings voluntary use of different functions, such as memory, speech, visual perception and so on, which is unavailable to animals. This also explains the contradictory results of investigations in brain localisation of psychological functions: every human psychological function utilises a multiplicity of regions of the brain, as well as the whole body.

At the time of his death, Vygotsky was working on a theory of child development in which he traced development through a series of distinct stages. Each stage corresponds to a specific set of relationships between the child and those around them, in which the child is cast in a certain role and her needs met in a certain way, with one or another psychological function playing the leading role in her development. This mode of activity forms a Gestalt in which a way of thinking and a mode of activity and a system of immediate social relationships form a single whole. As certain psychological functions mature, this mode of activity actually becomes a barrier to the child who must, if she is to develop, rebel against the very system by which her needs are met and by an act of will, emancipate herself from this relationship and establish a new identity, entering a new stage in personal development and role in their immediate social environment.

These studies emphasise that Vygotsky’s psychology was concerned not with the technology of social control, but with the means of human self-emancipation.

Political conditions rapidly deteriorated as the Moscow Trials got under way, during which almost the entire leadership of the Soviet state, the Army and the Party were denounced as saboteurs and shot (Sedov 1980; Khrushchev 1956). Terror penetrated every workplace, every family.

First was the Pedology affair, in which Vygotsky’s work on the education of disabled children was denounced, and his works banned. Thereafter, there would be no psychological testing of children in Soviet schools and with a misconceived egalitarianism, all students were to be treated ‘equally’ in the Soviet education system, with no special measures, regardless of intellectual or sensory disability or cultural difference.

In 1936, S. G. Levit, Director of the Institute in Kharkov, was denounced and shot. Luria was lucky to slip away and departed the field of psychology, adopting medicine for his own health. Life was hardly risk-free as a Jewish doctor in Stalin’s USSR, but Luria concentrated his attention on the treatment of brain damage, and very soon, the Nazi invasion brought plenty of opportunity to contribute to the war effort while doing important research for which he would become world famous, even whilst remaining almost unknown in his own country.

Luria can be counted as the founder of modern neuropsychology, and it is hard to estimate the damage that was done to science by this world-famous Soviet neuroscientist being forced to conform his public comments on psychology to reflexological absurdities in which, for example, speech was the “speech reflex” as if language use could be understood in terms of stimulus and response. In fact, the idea of cultural psychology could be summed up by saying that they replaced the S → R (Stimulus → Response) model of behaviorism with a model: S → X → R, with a mediating element introduced between the stimulus and the organism’s response. S → X and X → R are both stimulus-response reactions, but X is a ‘psychological tool’, introduced into the neurological system through participation in social practices. Thus, like any artefact, the organism obeys all the laws of physics and chemistry, but is at the same time a product of human activity, constructed so as to meet human ends.

Luria had an abiding interest in what he called ‘romantic science’, in reference to the ideas of people like Goethe, Freud and Marx who pursued ‘the romantic aim of preserving the manifold richness of the subject’ (Luria 1979), rather than dissecting the subject and reassembling it out of bits, in the manner of positivist science. Connected to this idea was his use of the idiographic rather than nomothetic method in medicine. This meant following a single individual or group through their life, studying the entire personality and its development, rather than generalizing superficial observations of a large numbers of observations to formulate general principles, as is done in nomothetic science. Luria’s study of an eidetic individual, S, reported in “Mind of a Mnemonist,” (1987) demonstrated that the cognitive functions were comprehensible only as part of an integrated Gestalt.

But while Luria’s work became known internationally (although he is never given the credit he is due), and A. N. Leontyev was able to continue work in psychology, Vygotsky’s work and even his name was suppressed. By end of the war, Vygotsky’s legacy had been virtually eradicated. Ironically, in a ‘socialist’ country, scientific knowledge has been passed down along family lines and the children and grandchildren of the founding troika had been a key vehicle for the preservation of their original ideas (for example, Lena Kravtsova, Vygotsky’s grand-daughter and Dmitry Leontyev, A. N. Leontyev’s grandson). The Institute of Defectology which Vygotsky founded in Gomel, provided a sanctuary where his students were able to continue his work. But in the social and political conditions created by the purges, these researchers no longer discussed and promoted Vygotsky’s writings, although because they took his works as their founding documents, even though they criticized them, this did not prevent them from constituting a current of Vygotsky’s ideas.

A brief thaw after World War Two which saw Luria made a full professor at Moscow University did not last long. Pavlovian pseudo-psychology was enforced as the compulsory norm along with Lysenkoite pseudo-genetics and there were widespread purges of scientists. Luria was dismissed from his position in an anti-Semitic campaign against ‘cosmopolitanism’.

After Stalin’s death, things did loosen up somewhat. After an interval of 20 years of non-existence, Psychology got its own learned journal. In 1957, Luria was allowed to travel and Leontyev’s work began to receive some appreciation. Both Leontyev and Luria credited Vygotsky as their teacher. But Vygotsky’s name remained unknown outside a small circle, and Cultural Psychology existed only in the memory of a few.

Leontyev made a name for himself with ‘Activity Theory’, an extension of Vygotsky’s work which has its own following across the world today. The task of Activity Theory is to connect up the subject matter of psychology with the subject matter of sociology to lay the basis for an integrated human science. Leontyev defined Activity in terms of a three-level conceptual structure. An Activity is a collective system of actions, driven by a socially determined object and motive. An activity is realized through individual actions which are oriented to goals. The individual’s goals are not the same as the social motives of the Activity, and the formation of a goal is necessarily a complex function of the social system, if individuals are to be mobilized in the reproduction of the society. Actions are in turn are realized by means of routinized operations, dependent on the conditions of the action. An individual is not normally conscious of their operations, unless something goes awry, and it is via actions which pass into operations the pursuit of social goals constructs an individual’s personality. For walking is generally an operation carried out without thought, until some obstacle causes you to bring your limbs under conscious control. Your action of walking to point A is driven by some goal, such as completing your part in a team task and being paid, which makes sense only in terms of the overarching activity, such as delivering the mail.

Leontyev carried out an extensive experimental program which traced the development of the mind from the most primitive organisms up to primates and human beings, supplementing further experimental work on the development of human individuals. He was able to construct a comprehensive theory of mind based on the idea that Marx outlined, in essence, in his 1845 “Theses on Feuerbach” (1975a).

But in the meantime, a new generation had appeared. Alexander Meshcheryakov, a student of Luria’s, took over the work of Professor Ivan Sokolyansky, a pioneer in the education of deaf and blind children. Meshcheryakov developed methods of education of deaf-blind children and opened a school for the deaf-blind in Zagorsk in 1962. He did ground-breaking work, superior to anything to be found in the West in this field. The education of children born without sight or hearing involved the practical construction of human consciousness where it did not previously exist. The paradigmatic lesson for such a child is learning to eat from a spoon, at first with a teacher operating the spoon, and little by little the child taking initiative. Behind the spoon is the entire history of society, and the human way of eating, and learning to use the spoon is the first step to becoming human, being part of a human community, towards consciousness. Many of Meshcheryakov’s students completed higher degrees in mainstream universities and most went on to productive careers in the general community.

Meshcheryakov’s work created a basis for a renewal of Vygotsky’s legacy. Crucial to making this connection was a group of philosophers who recognized the significance of Meshcheryakov’s work. First among them Evald Ilyenkov, taking up Vygotsky’s ideas at an new level, based on a comprehensive critique of European philosophy and an original analysis of the writings of Karl Marx.

Ilyenkov’s most widely noted contribution was his study of the ideal, of how ideals come into being as perfectly material cultural products, the archetype of which is money. His study of Capital, “The Abstract and Concrete in Marx’s Capital” is a masterpiece. Ilyenkov gained a formidable reputation as an interpreter of Hegel even outside of the ranks of Marxism. Ilyenkov was a communist, and the frustration of life in Brezhnev’s USSR became more and more unbearable for him.

Another great philosopher of this generation was Feliks Mikhailov who tackled the seemingly insurmountable philosophical problems that arise as soon as the orthodox Marxist begins to look beyond the simple slogans of philosophical materialism.

During the late 1970s, Leontyev’s work began to come under some criticism, criticism generally basing itself on the work Vygotsky, of which Leontyev himself had been seen as the foremost authority, signaling the development of a new generation of critical Marxist thinking. But in the late 1970s, an entire generation of Soviet psychologists died: Luria and Meshcheryakov died in 1977, Leontyev and Ilyenkov in 1979, Ilyenkov by his own hand.

Creating a Marxist cultural psychology in the post-Stalin USSR faced an almost insurmountable difficulty: Marx had plenty say about the social and psychological problems arising from bourgeois society, but the Soviet Union was supposed to be free of all such ‘contradictions’. Even those who were wise enough to know that this was nonsense had no opportunity to theorise the pathology of Soviet life, being quite unable to talk or write about such things with other people. Science cannot be built without discussion. This meant that there was a firm line beyond which Soviet psychology could not go without descending into hypocrisy. Even a brilliant Soviet psychologist like Vasily Davydov presaged his analysis of child development on ‘really existing socialism’ being a norm, against which the pathologies of other societies were measured (Kozulin 1990). Perhaps Ilyenkov’s solution was the only way out?

But in those precious two decades between a thaw in the suppression of scientific enquiry and the death of the Vygotsky’s continuers, contact was made with the West.

In 1962, a young psychology graduate on a student exchange from Indiana University, Mike Cole, arrived in Moscow for a year of research into ‘reflexes’ under Luria (APA 2006). Cole frankly admitted that the significance of Vygotsky’s work which Luria was urging on him utterly escaped his understanding. Nonetheless, Cole took on the task of translating and publishing Luria and Vygotsky’s work in the US.

Through Cole’s collaboration with Soviet academics, his own research and teaching, and the steady flow of English translations, a current of Cultural Psychology grew up in the US. Other Americans, such as James Wertsch also visited Russia and contributed to the work of interpreting, translating and exporting this conquest of the Soviet Union. Many, many others like Jaan Valsiner, R. van der Veer, Dot Robbins also played an important role. Finland has always enjoyed a close relationship with Russia, and Yjrö Engeström’s group in Helsinki is probably the main vehicle for the transmission of Activity Theory to the West. There has also been an outflow to the West of Russian academics, schooled in “Cultural Historical Activity Theory” (CHAT). After decades of isolation behind an ‘iron curtain’, in reconnecting with the West, the impact of the social movements (feminism, civil rights, etc.) began to contribute to the development of what is fundamentally an emancipatory theory.

There is a great irony here. A Marxist theory of the mind was born in the cauldron of the Russian Revolution, but was repressed precisely because of its revolutionary Marxist character, despite the fact that Marxism was the official state doctrine. After 30 years in hiding, it escaped to take root in the U.S., the bastion of capitalism and anti-communism, where in order to survive it had to keep its Marxism under wraps. But in a double irony, the crisis which befell Marxism in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union left CHAT largely unscathed, because of the non-political shape it had adopted for the purposes of survival in the past.

So CHAT is now a worldwide current in the human sciences, largely overlooked by anyone going in search of Marxism, because it is located in the professional lives of teachers and social workers, linguists and psychologists, almost all of them politically on the Left, but no kind of Party. In the opinion of many, it is the most important intellectual gain of the whole period of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath in the USSR.


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