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Posted by: on Jan 18, 2017 | No Comments
Russian Psychology: A Critical History
By David Joravsky


In my recent readings on Soviet psychology, I kept seeing references to this 1989 book by historian David Joravsky, so I finally picked it up. It's 474 pages, not including footnotes. Fortunately, Joravsky has a wry and cynical writing style that keeps things interesting.

At the time of writing, the USSR was in its death throes (it collapsed just two years later), and Soviet writers were still portraying Soviet psychology as outstripping the West. Joravsky, in contrast, doesn't pull his punches. In the Preface, he levels the charge that in the early 1930s, Soviet orthodoxy forced diverse psychologists to "fuse into one, new, distinctively Soviet, truly Marxist psychology, which could be concretely described only in a negative way: it would not be like any of the existing schools, which were hopelessly 'bougeouis'." And
Soviet psychologists shrank to fit within that framework, leaving grand theory to official ideologists and concentrating on empirical studies that might not be objectionable to the officials. Vygotsky's disciples retreated to the mental effects of brain damage and to child development studies rather like Piaget's, though constrained to deny the similarity. Their claim of a unique 'historico-cultural' approach was and remains an empty slogan. They could not give it substance without entering minefields of invidious comparisons between group mentalities, such as 'primitive' v. 'civilized,' or 'lesser' nationalities v. 'great' ones. (p.xvi)
Further, he notes that when the Bolsheviks "forcibly advanced workers and peasants into positions of authority ... issues of intellectual substance were entangled with lines of authority and opposition, within a political culture that tended more and more toward the equation of intellectual rectitude with place in the hierarchy of power" (p.xviii).

With that marker set, let's venture into the book itself. Joravsky begins with a general discussion of psychological science and ideologies (Ch.1) and social science and ideologies (Ch.2) before getting into the history of psychology in Russia, which begins pre-Revolution with Sechenov (Ch.3). Rather than reviewing the entire discussion, I'll focus on points related to the history of activity theory.

For instance, Joravsky discusses how Chelpanov, who organized a graduate program in psychology at Moscow University, was later characterized by Stalinists as an "idealist"—a misleading label, since Chelpanov was eclectic and tolerated diverse ontologies and approaches (pp.108-109). His graduate student Kornilov, the son of a provincial bookkeeper who became a village teacher before entering his undergraduate studies (1905) and graduate studies (1910; see p.113), would in 1923 depose him as director of the Institute of Experimental Psychology (p.224). (Note: Kornilov was the same age as Stalin and Trotsky; p.222.)

In the early 1920s, Chelpanov's eclecticism was tolerated—in fact, Freud and Piaget were translated and discussed frequently throughout the early 1920s, with authors (such as Luria) exploring how to harmonize them with Marxism (p.217). But by the late 1920s, "genuine discussion of Freudianism was swamped by one-sided denunciations," and by the mid-1930s, other Western psychologists (such as Piaget) got the same treatment (p.217).

The 1923 congress of psychoneurologists was a pivotal point. At this congress, Kornilov appealed for a Marxist psychology; Chelpanov objected in print. In the fallout, Chelpanov was dismissed from the directorship, replaced by Kornilov (p.224). Recounting the second congress in 1924, Red Virgin Soil praised "venerable scientists such as Bechterev, who were pictured as trying sincerely to accommodate their theories with Marxism, and ... young scientists on the way to dialectical materialism, even if they were hesitating to make the decisive commitment. L.S. Vygotsky was offered as the prime example of that young, interested but hesitant type" (p.225). Chelpanov was meanwhile "pictured as the chief 'idealist' opponent of Marxism in psychology" (p.225).

Ironically, Kornilov, like Chelpanov, was an eclecticist (p.229). Vygotsky regarded Kornilov's dream of a synthetic Marxist psychology as being "at odds with messy history" (p.229).

Meanwhile, the philosophical debate between mechanists and dialecticians raged through the 1920s. As Joravsky sums it up: "In the 1920s the ideological establishment turned against positivist versions of Marxism, in favor of a neo-Hegelian version, and then turned against it too" (p.230). The Deborinites (dialecticians) ignored both Kornilov and Vygotsky, and in fact "had nothing substantial to say about any school of psychology" (p.232). This gave psychologists some maneuvering room. Joravsky notes that in Vygotsky and Luria's book outlining their historio-cultural approach to psychology, they "borrowed heavily and quite respectfully from such Western authorities as Piaget and Freud, showing that the Westerners' discoveries blended nicely with a much smaller amount of findings by Soviet psychologists, and with a very light dusting of references to Marx and Engels" (p.233). The authors "still had an irenic attitude toward 'bougeois' psychologists," and "to the furious Stalinists of the 1930s that evidence of professional legitimacy was evidence of pseudo-Marxism" (p.233).

Joravsky notes that Freud's "claim of a unified vision was too obviously in competition" with that of the "Bolshevik ideological bureaucracy"—even though Marxist thinkers such as Vygotsky and Luria "tried to turn the competition into complementarity" (p.235).

But, contra Joravsky, note that in 1927 Vygotsky denigrated Luria's use of Freud. This is one of the question marks in Joravsky's book for me. The other is just a few pages later, when he attributes Freudianism: A Critical Sketch to Bakhtin (p.238)—it was published under Voloshinov's name—and notes in a footnote that "Bakhtin published some of his work under that name" (p.505). Well, no: Voloshinov was a real person, a member of the Bakhtin Circle. Many have claimed that Bakhtin ghostwrote the books of Voloshinov and Medvedev, a claim that Bakhtin neither confirmed nor denied in the 1970s. (Bakhtin, Voloshinov, and Medvedev published four books in 1927-1929.)

Back to the history. Joravsky notes Luria's winding journey, beginning in studies of personality and ending in the safe area of defectology (p.246), and points out how Luria's autobiography erases his Jewishness (p.247)—an ethnic background that endangered his career due to Russian prejudices.
Luria's autobiography is unquestionably accurate in noting that his research interests were shaped for fifty years by 'the central themes that guided my initial efforts' during the Civil War. He merely neglects to specify one of those 'central themes': political caution, a scientist's effort to avoid ideological conflict, and a consequent retreat from field after field of research interests as ideological authorities extended their interest to and in them. (p.248)
Later Joravsky notes that Luria followed a lifelong pattern established in the 1930s:
He went on with his autonomous work in neuropsychology to the extent that he could do so in submissive cooperation with Stalinist authorities. He was closer than he imagined to the mentality of a peasant—not the illiterate type who sharply distinguished between his tsar and the tsar of a superior people; the type with enough understanding of superior people to tell what follows from their words. (p.369) 
Joravsky also takes up Vygotsky. His account of Vygotsky's early life (p.255) is vague and short—recall that this book was published in 1989, before many of the biographies reviewed on this blog. Vygotsky debuted on the broader psychological stage in 1924 at the Second Psychoneurological Congress (p.259 — recall that Chelpanov was replaced by Kornilov shortly after the first Congress in 1923). Here, Vygotsky used Marx's passage on the spider and the architect to argue that psychological reductionism was not required by Marxism (p.259). As Joravsky notes, Luria and others were already using subjective methods, but Vygotsky showed them how to defend these methods and justify their disagreements with reflexology (p.261). Perhaps, Joravsky says, Kornilov deserves credit for recognizing Vygotsky's rhetorical abilities (p.261). Vygotsky also had this advantage: "Vygotsky was the only one [of the psychologists with whom he worked] who had thoroughly absorbed Marxism" (p.261). Yet his talents also included prevarication:
Vygotsky went further than mere withholding of troublesome detail. He prevaricated on occasion. It is startling to compare his semi-private writing on 'the psychological crisis' with the rah-rah review of Soviet psychology that he published in a 1928 volume celebrating the social science during the first decade of Soviet power. (p.265)
Joravsky goes on to criticize Vygotsky's work:
When he came to cognitive psychology, he did preliminary theorizing far more than experimental research. And when he came to preach 'historico-cultural' psychology, his theorizing was quite thin and derivative. He ostentatiously put the 'historico-cultural' slogan at the center of his program for psychology, yet he worked at the subject only belatedly and briefly. His first published venture was little more than a survey that he and Luria brought out in 1930, mostly reviewing theories of Western psychologists: Studies in the History of Behavior: Ape, Primitive, Child. Stalinists immediately attacked the scheme of behavioral evolution that it presented as 'essentially bourgeois.' Vygotsky's defensive and aggressive responses—restricting his freewheeling thought, attacking 'bourgeois' elements in Piaget—belong to the Stalinist 1930s. The point here, respecting the 1920s, is that even then, in a relatively liberal atmosphere, Vygotsky resembled most other Soviet psychologists in his paradoxical combination of insistence that social psychology be the center of the discipline and his evasion of serious work at the center. Even this extraordinarily venturesome thinker tended to stand clear of an area charged with ideological and political passion, while solemnly calling on Soviet psychologists to make it their focus. (pp.266-267)
Indeed, Vygotsky was interested in developing Marxism as a general methodology and philosophy of science (p.361) and seemed most interested in "an awkward layering of metapsychology over an authoritarian pragmatism" (p.363).

Re the attacks on Vygotsky and Luria's 1930 book: in June 1931, the "Institute's party cell" rebuked "'the "apolitical culturist" ... psychology of Vygotsky and Luria" as well as the reflexologies of Kornilov and Bekhterev (p.358). Vygotsky and Luria's 1931-1932 study of Uzbekis was similarly received poorly, and for similar reasons: it was read as applying primitive or childish qualities to Soviet peoples (pp.364-367). Stalinism could not tolerate "anything like a serious cultural-historical approach to psychology"—although studies of children and disturbed adults were tolerable (p.367). By 1932, Vygotsky's optimism was gone; he couldn't even quote Trotsky and Kautsky, since those names were no longer to be uttered positively (p.364). Similarly, "Luria retreated from historico-cultural psychology to intense study of mental disorder in brain-damaged patients" (p.368); he also adopted the Stalinist style of writing after 1931 (p.369). Joravsky notes with astonishment that when Luria finally published the Uzbeki study, forty years later, "he retained the swagger of the Stalinist style" and "stolidly ignored the forty-year delay" (p.369—but I personally think that this retention is due to Luria simply publishing the manuscript without revision). Finally, Leontiev focused on child development and "avoided other possibilities of historico-cultural inquiry" (p.369).

By 1938, Vygotsky was dead, his nascent field of pedology had been denounced (see p.347), and Stalin had published "his celebrated essay on dialectical and historical materialism... [which was] too inane for any use but tub-thumping celebration of the great author" (p.326). "Developing almost entirely as a part of pedagogy, psychology became a purely descriptive science" (p.353).

Joravsky's account goes on from there, but let's call a halt. In terms of the cultural-historical school, Joravsky mainly notes Luria's tactics for survival and Rubinshtein's distaste for the school.

Overall, I did find this book to be rewarding, but flawed. Joravsky's cynicism is healthy, but sometimes I think it leads him to undervalue or superficially evaluate the works of the cultural-historical school. And the two question marks, indicated above, undermine my faith in some of the other facts Joravsky recounts. I'll use this book, but with some caution. If you're interested in the history of Soviet psychology, I certainly recommend reading it.