A month or two ago, I accidentally discovered that Stalin banned sociology from the Soviet Union. It was declared a Bourgeois pseudoscience. This fact fascinated me, and I wanted to read the story. Although I read a few articles, I thought that picking up a book on the subject would be a good idea.
This book, from 1974, was written not so long after the 1956 Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union allowed sociology to be taken up again. But why was it banned in the first place? The first two chapters tell us—and I should make clear that they are the only chapters I actually read.
As Weinberg tells it, in the 1920s and 1930s, the disciplines were being progressively refitted to reflect Marxist thought, as if one were refurnishing rooms in a house. “The old idealist furnishings were to become materialist: the new structure was to be based on the Weltanschauung [worldview] of Marxism. … Marxist sociology was subsequently entrusted with applying the method of dialectical and historical materialism to social relations and with further developing historical materialism. At the same time, it was charged with popularising and propagandising the ideas of historical materialism and with teaching the masses about the construction of socialism” (p.3). This task was set “as early as 1918” when Lenin defined “the programme of the Socialist Academy of the Social Sciences.” From Lenin’s perspective, social research should involve a short list of subjects, including “1. labour, especially the conditions and organisation of labour and the influence of socio-psychological, educational and general cultural factors on labour production; 2. the economic mode of life and the income(s) of different categories of the population (e.g., the peasants); 3. class relations and questions of the theory of classes,” and four others (pp.7-8). Notice how the first one dovetails with Leontiev’s reformulation of Soviet psychology around labor activity.
In those early days, some sociologists resisted this program (pp.3-5), attempting to retain idealism. More importantly, sociology was found to be redundant with historical materialism—both studied the “general and particular laws of social development” (p.12). So “Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism took its place” (p.8). By the mid-1930s, even the term “sociology” was banned and “many sociological concepts worked out by Marx, Engels, and Lenin, were no longer used” (p.9). And
Only the social terminology and those social concepts to be found in the works of Stalin were recognised. The basis of sociological and philosophical commentaries became the chapter entitled ‘Dialectical and Historical Materialism’ in [Stalin’s] History of the CPSU(B): Short Course, 1938. (p.9)
The sociological research carried out in those years were carried out in other disciplines: ethnography, anthropology (p.9).
Weinberg adds: “It was Marxism, Lenin had said, which had first raised sociology to the level of a science. And the theory of historical materialism was—and is—the Marxist science of society” (p.10).
Even after sociology was again allowed in the Soviet Union, it was based closely on historical materialism and carefully “noncontradictory” (seemingly a common concern in the Soviet social sciences) (p.22). Its “laws and interrelations are objective and determined by material circumstances” (p.23; that is, they were of course firmly Marxist rather than Weberian).
In all, I found the book’s first two chapters useful, but I would have liked still more detail. However, if you’re interested in this very specific question, take a look.
I ran into citations of this book recently when reading books on Vygotsky’s life, and the quoted material looked interesting enough for me to pick up. At the time I began looking for it, I couldn’t seem to find it on Amazon, but got the 1982 Progress Publishers version through interlibrary loan (thanks to our friends at Texas A&M). But it turns out that another publisher reprinted it in 2011 (link above), so you can get a copy if you want. I’m thinking about ordering it myself.
Not that I am necessarily endorsing the book. Levitin was a Soviet journalist, and even though the Soviet Union in 1982 was more open than it was during the Stalinist years, the material is still pretty carefully curated. Here’s one egregious example:
The long scientific career of Alexander Luria was ruled by some inner logic that led him to freely chose [sic] his own paths. Otherwise what could have led him, a professor at an institute of education to take up graduate studies at a medical institute and, upon completing them to work for many years with Burdenko as an intern at the Institute of Neurosurgery and defend another Candidate’s and a second Doctoral dissertation, this time in medicine. If Luria had not decided to follow a regular medical career from struggling intern to a distinguished professor, and if that path had not merged with a similar path in the field of psychology, the odds are that the two wonderful books would never have appeared and the conflict between the opposing branches of psychology would still be unresolved. (p.201)
Vygotsky viewed Marxist psychology not as a school (like the associationist, experimental, and other schools) but as the only scientific psychology. Unlike those authors who had lost their sense of historicity and demanded psychology “break with the past” and “make a new beginning”, Vygotsky believed that transformation of psychology on the basis of Marxism did not in any way mean abandoning all previous work. Every effort of free thought to gain insight into the psyche and every attempt at deterministic investigation were preparing a future psychology and therefore would necessarily be incorporated into it in a modified form. Like the development of a socio-economic formation in Marxist doctrine, so the development of the psyche must be regarded as a natural historical process. Vygotsky’s subsequent work demonstrated the fruitfulness of this methodology. (p.53, my emphasis)
Quoting James Wertsch:
One can see the influence of two areas of study which gave rise to much of Vygotsky’s genius–Marxism and semiotics. Thus, Vygotsky was interested in the role of sign systems as mediating devices, but he viewed this as an extension of Marx’s notion of how the tool or instrument mediates labor activity.
For Marx and Engels, labor was the basic form of human activity. It lies at the foundation of any explanation of socio-cultural history and of the psychological characteristics of the individual. Their analysis stressed that in carrying out labor activity humans do not simply transform nature, they are also themselves transformed in the process. For Marx, labor is primarily “… a process going on between man and nature, a process in which man, through his own activity, initiates, regulates, and controls the material reactions between himself and nature. He confronts nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, the natural forces of own body, in order to appropriate nature’s productions in a form adapted to his own wants. By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at same time changes own nature. He develops the powers that slumber within him, and subjects them to his own control”. That is, humans do not remain unchanged or unaffected by their participation in labor activity which transforms nature. They are constantly being influenced by this activity and by the demands placed on them as a result of the impact it had had on nature. (p.67; he doesn’t document the Marx citation.)
In Chapter 2, Levitin turns to Leontiev, relying heavily on an interview that he and Evald Ilyenkov conducted with Leontiev just before Leontiev’s death—Leontiev’s last interview, he says. In the biography, Levitin recounts that “The main direction of his research emerged after he grew close to Vygotsky in the latter half of the 1920s and along with him and Luria set about developing a theory of the socio-historical origin in the higher, i.e., specifically human, functions” (p.104). He describes how Leontiev “tackled the problem of the origins of the psychic reflection of reality,” first in Kharkov and then in Moscow (p.105). During World War II, Leontiev researched ways to restore soldiers’ motor functions (p.105). After the War, Leontiev turned to “the motives and laws of psychic development in preschool and school-age children” as well as investigating “the structure of activity, its course under different motivations, and its impact on shaping of the mental processes of the child” (p.106). This work led to Problems of Mental Development (elsewhere translated Problems of the Development of the Mind), which won the Lenin Prize in 1963 (p.106). In 1975 another book, Activity, Consciousness, and Personality, won the Lomonosov Prize in 1975 (p.107). “Leontiev did a great deal to apply Lenin’s theory of reflection in concrete psychological studies and to explore the psychological mechanisms that give rise ot the subjective image of the objective world” (p.107).
Leontiev begins the interview by taking a swipe at American psychology, which (he says) accumulates facts but has not developed the theoretical and methodological foundations to interpret them (p.111). “Soviet psychology has rejected the path of methodological pluralism of which Western psychology is so proud. I think this is false pride, because the old adage, ‘many approaches mean no approach’ has a lot of truth to it” (p.112).
Leontiev recounts the history of Soviet psychology. Of interest to us is his characterization of Georgy Chelpanov, who headed the Institute of Experimental Psychology at Moscow University before the Revolution and stayed on afterwards. Chelpanov was “a convinced idealist who tried to ‘tame’ experimental psychology (which was developing vigorously at the time), to keep it from going materialist” (p.113). Leontiev claims that this commitment led to unimpressive results (p.113); Chelpanov’s institute was “backward in the main” (p.114). “But it was in the bosom of that Institute that a movement to revolutionise psychology began. It was headed by one of Chelpanov’s associates, Konstantin Kornilov.” The investigation that began this revolution “was, in general, a rather ordinary investigation, but the author considered it the beginning of a new psychological trend—reactology” (p.115). Reactology attempted to eliminate idealism from psychology and thus be Marxist. Chelpanov tried to defend himself, at first by declaring “that Marxism was dogma for which psychology had no use, but by the end of 1923 he had begun to assert that Marxism in psychology was precisely what his Institute was seeking” (p.115). By the end of 1923, he was replaced as director by Kornilov and the Institute was tasked with developing a Marxist psychology (p.116).
Thus 1924 began with a search for new Marxist talent as well as new directions. “For all the diversity of these early searches, which might have given the impression of incoherence”—recall that he had just criticized the methodological pluralism of American psychology—”there was something all the team members had in common,” which was the need for a psychology based in Marxism.
But the only member of the Institute with a solid Marxist background was Lev Vygotsky, who later became a major Soviet psychologist and founded a scientific school of its own. Kornilov, unfortunately, did not have a proper grasp of dialectical materialism. His knowledge was superficial, and he proposed a programme that was wrong from the very start. … Clearly, the programme he put forth was sterile. (p.117)
Luria then returns to the present day, worrying that not enough people are working on methodology; “I am worried about the methodological laxity I see in my branch of science” (p.120).
He then turns to the characteristics of activity theory, which is based on the person’s (labor) activity rather than consumption:
One can say that drives and demands dictate a person’s acts; they are the prime movers in personality development and achievement in a particular field of endeavor. The opposite view holds that the development of human activity, its motives and means, transforms the demands, generates new ones, changes the hierarchy of drives and wishes in such a way that the satisfaction of some of them becomes merely a necessary condition for the activity of the person, for his existence as an individual.
If one proceeds from the former point of view, the psychology of personality must based on the primacy of consumption (“man works in order to eat”) while the latter theory bases the psychology of the individual on the primacy of activity through which man asserts himself as personality (“man eats in order to work”).
I would like to stress that the new anthropological, or naturalistic conception, looks quite convincing and illustrative. Its arguments have the appeal of being natural and simple. It requires a degree of sophistication and a philosophical background to see that the satisfaction of various needs, while a necessary condition for all human activity, is only the beginning of the psychological problem. The situation that interests the psychologist is this: once man’s primary needs have been satisfied, how will he act, in what direction will he develop and, consequently, how his will needs change. [sic] (p.122)
This is a nicely expressed key understanding of activity theory, which is built on Engels’ notion that labor made man. And further down:
So, one not born a personality, one becomes a personality by socialisation and enculturation, by acquiring the habits, skills and methods of handling tools. Personality is a product of social activity and its traits can be explained only in these terms. Such a personality trait as aggressiveness offers a classic example. It is, of course, manifested differently in a choleric person than in a phlegmatic one, but attributing aggressiveness to the qualities of temperament is no more scientific than attributing the causes of wars to people’s propensity to fight.
We see that the Marxist approach to the psychology of personality does overturn the traditional system of views. The problems of the qualities of neural activity, temperaments, etc., are not expelled from personality theory, but they are considered in a non-traditional way — they now interest us because we want to know how a personality uses its innate aptitudes and qualities and how it realises the individual traits given it by nature. (p.123)
Luria almost immediately realized differences with Kornilov (p.155). He was interested in psychoanalysis and wanted to create an “objective” psychoanalysis, so he exchanged the Kornilov dynamometer with a Yermakov apparatus, which a subject pressed while thinking of an association for a word supplied by the researcher. Luria recorded the latent time between the time he provided a word and time the subject provided the association (p.155). After searching for situations with high affective content, Luria came up with the idea of running this experiment on students who were about to face the expulsion board, slipping in words such as “expulsion.” He and Leontiev did this work together and wrote a paper on it (p.156). Later, he tried a variant on criminal suspects, finding a correlation between reactions and convictions (pp.157-158)—that is, he invented the lie detector.
Luria said that he divided his career into two phases: before and after meeting Vygotsky (p.159). “The most exciting years of the century and of my own life were the twenties—those associated with Vygotsky. I can hardly claim any credit for what I’ve done. It all comes from Vygotsky, and this is true not only of myself but of many others, only some admit it and some don’t” (p.164). He doesn’t name names.
Levitin recounts: “Three people—Vygotsky, Leontiev and Luria—set out to ‘develop the basic units of content for psychology'” (p.162).
The chapter on Mescharov was not as interesting to me, but I pull this quote attributed to Vygotsky, which ties his focus on word meaning to labor:
One can hardly understand the history of labour and the history of speech separately. Man has created not only the tools which gave him mastery over nature; he has created stimuli for directing his own behaviour with the help of which he can control his psychic processes. This is seen clearly if one looks at the early stages of man’s development. On Borneo and Celebes sticks for digging which had smaller sticks attached to the end were found. While sowing rice, the stick was used to hoe the soil and the little stick produced a sound. That sound was something like a working exclamation or order to set the pace for the movements. The sound of the contrivance attached to the hoe replaces the
human voice, or at any rate performs the same function.
“That blending of sign and tool as symbolically expressed in the primitive hoe shows how early the sign and later, its highest form — the word — began to play the role of human tools and how early the sign stimulus came to fulfil a specific function in the overall structure of the operations that took shape in the early stages of man’s labour activity. (p.230)
Late this summer, I mentioned to a colleague that I had just finished Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and was working on Karl Marx’s Capital. He replied: “Now you just have to read Darwin’s The Origin of Species.” Of course he was right: Darwin’s book had a huge impact on everything, but especially on economics via Marx and Engels. So, as is my practice with classic books, I downloaded the cheapest Kindle version I could find.
The Origin of Species didn’t provide me with any fundamentally new ideas, of course—but that’s because it’s one of those basic texts whose ideas have been worked into most subsequent works. The fundamental shift was in understanding the world in terms of “modification and coadaptation,” as Darwin put it, rather than as static systems. Darwin applied this viewpoint to the biological world (and, through Lyell’s work, the geological world); Marx and Engels made their breakthroughs by applying it to the economic and social world as well. Engels is clearest about this borrowing in Dialectics of Nature, in which he makes clear that biological evolution is just one example of dialectics.
Darwin’s approach to the argument was interesting to me as well. He brings the reader along quickly, starting with a basic discussion of coadaptation with which no one could disagree, then using that discussion as a basis for challenging the notion that each species was created in place, as is. As he builds the argument, he uses Lyell’s work in geography to give us an idea of the vast spans of time in which the coadaptation process could work. Later, he answers the question of why we don’t see continual adaptation in the fossil record—the record is incomplete. (Modern evolutionary theory suggests that this answer is only partial and that coadaptation typically happens in spurts rather than gradually.)
Overall, I was glad I read this book, especially in terms of my current project, understanding how it provided the basis for Marx’s and Engels’ work.
At the end of this book, Maurya tells us: “A book, like large software, is never finished—only released.” And that’s the approach he took: as he describes the process in Running Lean, he floated the idea of writing a book on his blog, iterated the concept and ideas with his community, released the book, and now invites us to enter the conversation via his blog, workshops, and newsletter.
Running Lean describes the lean startup approach well, and it’s easy to read and follow. The subtitle emphasizes the key lesson, which is to iterate. And iteration spreads across the entire startup, including the product but also the business model, marketing, value proposition, and the other parts that make up a successful startup.
Beyond iteration, Maurya provides plenty of other advice that may be surprising to new startups:
- “Your product is NOT ‘the product'”: The solution you offer is only part of the overall product you produce; your overall product is actually the business model within which the product makes sense.
- Your key question is: “Do I have a problem worth solving?” A problem worth solving must be a must-have (something the customers want); viable (either the customers or someone else must be willing to pay for it); and feasible (something you can actually solve).
- “How do I accelerate growth?” Maurya offers this simple principle: “pivots are about finding a plan that works, while optimizations are about accelerating that plan.”
Interested in one of my articles, but can’t find a free copy? Unwilling to pay lots of money to download one from a journal? Or just want to get a free preview to decide whether it’s worth pursuing?I’ve recently posted several preprint (legal, freely a…