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Reading :: Psychology in the Soviet Union

Posted by: on Jan 11, 2017 | No Comments
Psychology in the Soviet Union: A Historical Outline
By Arthur Petrovsky


This 1990 book was published by Progress Publishers, just before the collapse of the Soviet Union—but it still has the whiff of an earlier era, with the familiar Soviet declarations of progress. Here's an example from early in the book:
The Great October Revolution which triumphed in Russia in 1917, liberated and revealed the energy of the masses and directed it towards building a new society without precedent in history. Profound changes took place in the field of scientific knowledge in the first few years after the revolution. These should not be reduced to the fact that science, which for the first time in history was directed towards the service of the people, began to accumulate a new kind of material and gravitated towards the building of socialism: the very foundation of scientific knowledge changed over to Marxist-Leninist teaching. Soviet scientists assimilated this teaching and it became an integral part of all scientific theories developed in the USSR. (p.7)
By 1990, it was possible to look back on the Stalin years and engage in some light criticism. That criticism does come out in this volume. For instance, the author notes that Soviet psychologists of the 1920s and 1930s had good intentions, but some of their work was incorrect in retrospect (p.10). Indeed, "Sometimes, when a scientist was criticised (and quite rightly) for some specific theoretical blunders, his entire scientific work, even though free of any error, was withdrawn from circulation. This was the fate of works of many outstanding Soviet psychologists, among them Pavel Blonsky, Mikhail Basov, Lev Vygotsky" (p.11).

It is of course Vygotsky—and others of the cultural-historical strand of Soviet psychology—with whom I am most concerned. This Soviet history of psychology contextualizes them within the broad Soviet tradition. And although much of that history is uninteresting for my purposes, parts are valuable.

For instance, the author discusses Chelpanov's work (still vilifying this work in 1990) (p.116) and his 1923 replacement by Kornilov (characterized as well-meaning but without sufficient understanding of Marx, p.127). Kornilov, the author says, didn't adequately understand dialectical negation (p.134).

The author also notes that behaviorism didn't last long in the Soviet Union because it was connected to mechanism in philosophy. Beginning in 1924, "mechanism became a prime danger" to dialectical materialism (p.141; for a better discussion of the controversy between mechanism and dialectics, see Bauer). Such trends are discussed in the book (another example is the short-lived flirtation with Freudianism), but without the other reading I have done into Soviet psychology, I don't think I would have understood what was going on.

Back to the Vygotsky Circle. The author discusses Kornilov's reactological views in detail, noting in a footnote that Luria, Leontiev, and "some other psychologists who worked at the Institute, held radically different views on a number of issues" (p.178). Presumably one of the unnamed psychologists was Lev Vygotsky, whose unpublished 1927 book (named here as The Historical Meaning of a Psychological Crisis) is later praised by the author as "a profound analysis of the history of the current stage of psychology" (p.185). The author goes on to discuss a bit of Vygotsky's work, including his time codirecting the Krupskaya Academy of Communist Education with Luria (p.195). "A considerable volume of investigations made in the Academy by psychologists was united under a common theme: the study of a child's cultural development level based on Vygotsky's theory of the development of higher mental functions" (p.195). Some of this work was based on Luria's "conjugate motor methodology" (p.195, 200).

Moving on, the author notes that Soviet psychology developed to address three spheres: education; the organization of labor; and health and medicine. The educational sphere is where much of the cultural-historical group went. (The author confusingly lumps M.M. Bakhtin into this area, p.220—perhaps because of Voloshinov's critique of Freudianism?) The health and medicine sphere is the one where the author places Luria (p.221). The author goes on to treat these spheres in different chapters.

In the educational sphere, the author discusses and briefly critiques Vygotsky and associates. Specifically, the Vygotskian "system of views, developed in the late 1920s, was initially influenced by diverse and essential particularities typical of the development of psychology at that time which provided the basis for its severe criticism during the 1930s" (p.273). Some of these criticisms the author deems unjustified, such as the criticism that Vygotsky's views mirrored Durkheim's (p.273) and those of other bourgeois scientists (p.274). Specifically, the author notes that Vygotsky relied on the ideas of Marx and Engels, especially Engels' "The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man" (p.274). The author quotes Vygotsky from Development of Higher Mental Functions on this point (p.275), and later argues that
Vygotsky based himself on Engels's ideas on the role of labour in man's adaptation to nature and transformation of natural forces by means of implements in the process of production. He advanced the idea that labour, man's work with instruments are conducive to modification of his behaviour, to his distinction from animals, consisting in the mediated character of his identity. (p.374) 
Elsewhere, the author notes that Vygotsky's Thinking and Speech was "of signal importance," but was "subjected to unjustified criticism" due to its association with pedology; in the 1950s "his psychological doctrine was reinstated and today it occupies its legitimate place in world psychological science" (p.334; see also p.366).

In the labor sphere, I'll just note this vintage Soviet move: "Psychologists of labour failed to notice what was immediately discerned by Lenin..." (p.287).

Later, the author discusses Leontiev's activity theory, noting that although AT is traditionally considered as being rooted in Vygotsky, some believe that it is also connected with Leontiev's colleague at the Institute of Psychology, Blonsky, as well as with Rubinstein (p.346).

Toward the end of the book, the author summarizes "four fundamental methodological principles" of contemporary Soviet psychology: determinism, activity, development/historicism, and systems (pp.370-373). He elaborates each briefly.

I found this book to be useful in spots—particularly in the history of the Vygotsky Circle and in how Vygotsky was rehabilitated at the end of the USSR's life. But it's written in the Soviet hagiographic style, it's not particularly well organized, and in trying to cover the entire sweep of Soviet psychology, it ends up covering the specifics inadequately. If you have a specific interest in Soviet psychology, check it out.