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Posted by: on Feb 8, 2017 | No Comments
Developmental Psychology in the Soviet Union
By Jaan Valsiner


Before teaming up with Van der Veer to produce three influential books on the Soviet Union's cultural-historical school of psychology, Jaan Valsiner wrote this impressive 1988 book about Soviet developmental psychology. Just three years before the USSR's collapse, Valsiner aims to address the difficulties that Soviet and Western psychologists had in understanding each other. "In this respect, the present treatise is a narrative in the domain of sociology of social anthropology of a social science. Its goal is to analyze the usually hidden ties between the cultural organization of society and the thinking of psychologists, as well as an overview of developmental psychology in the USSR" (p.3). Interestingly, Valsiner explicitly rejects a Kuhnian reading because Kuhn's "paradigms" assume that sciences are framed separately from other sectors—something that was true in the West, but not in the USSR (p.11).

Valsiner begins with the historical context, specifically noting the 300+ years of pre-Soviet development of Russian culture, including both (a) the mingling of native Russian and European traditions and (b) the expansion of the Russian empire, which involved annexing new territories and incorporating non-Russians of various languages and cultures. "That history of annexation is the basis for the cross-culturally heterogeneous contemporary psychology in the USSR," he adds (p.20). Another contributor was Catherine the Great's demand for undivided loyalty, which provided the basis for Soviet thinking about the individual's relationship to society (p.29).

Valsiner then examines trends in psychology, specifically Bogdanov. Two features of his thinking are especially salient: (1) "the emphasis on external (environmental) determination of the internal changes of the system," which "follows the lines of both evolutionist and Marxist thought"; (2) his view that external history is not absolute but interacts with the internal relations of a system (p.36). These features made Bodganov's "environmentalism" similar to what would later be called interactionist psychology (p.37). Further, Bogdanov, like the Marxists, saw a system as developing through a series of crises involving the emergence of a new form (p.37).

Valsiner also reviews Bekhterev, whose contributions were broad. Specifically, "Bekhterev was the first Russian behavioural scientist who explicitly formulated the beginnings of an activity-theoretic perspective that later became the core of Soviet developmental psychology in different versions (Vygotsky, Leontiev, Zaporozhets, Basov, Ananiev and others" (p.53). Interestingly, Bekhterev used (and overextended) the concept of "energy" in his work, something that he coincidentally shared with Engels' dialectical view of nature; this happy coincidence helped Bekhterev to relate his energistic reflexology to Marxism once Engels' Dialectics of Nature was published in 1925.

The mid 1920s was an active time in Soviet psychology. As noted above, Dialectics of Nature certainly made an impact in 1925, not just in terms of reflexology but also in terms of the emerging cultural-historical school. But in addition, the educational system was in turmoil post-Revolution, trying out new (and often ill-conceived experiments) (cf. Bauer). In 1927, the Commisariat of Education imposed compulsory teaching plans and timetable, including a social studies program meant to consistently inculcate Soviet ideology—and recentered the teacher in the classroom (p.71). But experiments persisted until they were put to a stop with the 1936 Decree on Paedology . As Valsiner notes,
The variety of experiments in the Soviet educational system during the 1920s was quite understandable, as the whole society was overwhelmed with efforts to rebuild itself along 'new' lines. However, as is usually the case, the 'new' often constituted a direct refusal to make use of anything 'old'. At other times, some 'old' forms of organizing social life could emphatically be relabelled 'new'. Last (but not least), the new Soviet society was led by the Communist Party whose explicit aim was to preserve political power, and that could be easily challenged under the conditions of a highly heterogeneous society. (p.71)
The latter point led to a fortress mentality in which "The ghost of the 'bourgeoisie'" could be said to underlie any non-Soviet position; the ingroup felt under siege and rejected the ideas of the outgroup (p.73). Practically speaking, this mentality led to partiinost', or partisanship/party nature, as the basis for Soviet science (p.74). Although partiinost' can be attributed to Lenin, Valsiner notes that it can be traced back to Catherine II's introduction of "good citizenship" in the 18th century (p.74). Its purpose, Valsiner says, is to homogenize different world views of group members by establishing one dominant perspective. "Thus, 'partiinost'' constitutes an enthusiastic acceptance of the perspective that the party in power provides, by people who may originally have had different viewpoints" (p.75)

(A few things here. One, partiinost' can be rationalized with Engelsian dialectics, in which a single dialectical synthesis emerges from the contact of two antecedents. Two, partiinost' is consistent with Leontiev's view of methodology; from the Soviet view, a single methodology (and perspective) is vastly preferable to the cacophony of eclectic methodologies and perspectives embraced by the West. Three, partiinost' is opposed to the eclecticism for which Chelpanov was criticized and which led to his replacement by Kornilov (cf. p.81). Four, partiinost' is obviously incompatible with Bakhtinian dialogism.)

Partiinost' helps to explain the circular firing squad that Soviet psychology formed in the 1920s. If a group is composed of individuals who each have a perspective, but only one can be dominant, and that perspective will be determined by the party and taken to be truth, but the dominant perspective is always potentially reversible (Soviets referred to the law of dialectical negation here)—then competition is incentivized: ruthless competition to gain and hold the partiinost'. "The status of the ultimately true scientific metatheory is by definition based on the dialectical materialism of all sciences, and on historical materialism in all social sciences. From this axiomatic perspective, every possible theory or empirical investigation is evaluated in terms of its 'true' or 'erring' nature" (p.76).

Valsiner argues that "it is in the context of efforts towards socializing people in the belief in internalized acceptance of partiinost' that the changes in Soviet society can be understood" (p.100). Specifically, the Party could "change its course without the loss of any credibility in the eyes of believers who had internalized the concept" (p.100). The most important thing was active loyalty to the Party—not whether the Party's position was adequately related to reality (p.100). "A person whose loyalty to a certain belief system is strongly internalized does not need external guidelines of action, his (or her) own thinking leads to acting in the socialized way" (p.101; cf. Fitzgerald on the "permanent ambiguity" under Stalin). Valsiner proffers the example of Lysenko, noting that Lysenko's views about the environmental modification of the species were shared by Soviet child psychologists (pp.102-103; cf. Bauer on the early focus on environment in Soviet pedology and Vygotsky's "The Socialist Alteration of Man"). Granted,
Vygotsky did not try to advance this developmental idea to its ultimate conclusion, always reminding himself and his listeners (readers) of the limited nature of that modifiability. However, some of his disciples (such as A.N. Leont'ev) had no difficulty in agreeing with Lysenko's basic ideas in developmental psychology at the height of Lysenkoism at the end of the 1940s (see Bauer, 1949). The evangelistic social ethos of the utopian 'new society' inhabited by 'new man' whose active input on the environment is always progressive when carried out under the wise leadership of the Party, made it only too natural for both Lysenkoites and Soviet psychologists to speculate on the topic of modifiability of development in nature and psychology. (pp.103-104)
Valsiner points out that Lysenko's ideas were tested on broad scale, with poor results. In contrast, Soviet psychologists' parallel ideas were not tested at a broad scale. (p.104)

At the end of World War II, the USSR was triumphant, yet the allies' help—and increased contact with non-Soviets, both allies and enemies—threatened a loss of the Soviet fortress mentality and thus threatened the social system. The Cold War made it possible to reinstate this fortress mentality, and the Soviets began a witch hunt of "cosmopolitan" and "foreign" influences. Rubinshtein became a target: "Rubinshtein was found 'guilty' of studying human consciousness as that of an undefined person, rather than that of the 'Soviet new man'. His intellectual indebtedness to Western psychologists was 'unmasked'"(p.108). Other consciousness-oriented psychologists were also criticized, including Leontiev (pp.108-109), setting the stage for neo-Pavlovian dominance of psychology a few years later (p.109).

Looking back at the end of this chapter (Ch.3), Valsiner concludes that "By trying to build the 'new man' in the USSR [psychologists] have actually rebuilt their way of thinking"—that is, they had internalized the idea of developing the New Man, and that had shaped Soviet psychology along developmental lines (p.116).

Chapter 4 is about Vygotsky. I've discussed Vygotsky extensively on this blog, so I'll just note some things here. First, Valsiner argues that "even when relying on Russian thinkers of the past, Vygotsky was in fact advancing ideas that had originated internationally, rather than in the isolation of an independent 'Russian genius'" (p.123). Second, Vygotsky made "few, but selective and highly adequate references to different aspects of Marxist philosophy," specifically Engels' and Marx's claims about labor and active human transformation of nature. "Vygotsky's acceptance of Marxist philosophy was not that of an ardent follower. Instead, he was an active creator of Marxist psychology" and didn't use Marxist slogans demagogically (p.125).

Confronted with non-developmental methods, Valsiner says, Vygotsky had to construct his own method (p.128). This method had three characteristics:

  • distinguished between analysis of a thing and analysis of a process
  • overcame the separation of description and explanation by emphasizing that historical analysis affords the potential to explain psychological processes
  • emphasized the presence of "fossilized" behavior in psychological observations (pp.130-132)
Skipping a bit: Valsiner notes that Vygotsky's work underwent three waves of translations: 1920-1939; 1961-1981; and 1984-on (p.154). All the basic aspects of Vygotsky's cultural-historical approach were available in English by 1939 (p.155), but the uptake was thin. By the second wave of translations, however, cognitive interests had been reestablished in Western psychology, and Vygotsky's works gained interest under that interpretation. "Thanks to the efforts of Michael Cole and his colleagues to publicize Vygotsky's name among American psychologists, a potpourri of Vygotsky's ideas, collected together from different sources and linked in ways judged to fit the 'recipient' culture better than the original ... appeared in English" (p.155; Valsiner is referring to Mind in Society).  

Valsiner presents a table showing citations to Vygotsky in the West, demonstrating that most of the citations are to the second-wave translations. "this table ... illustrates the canalized nature of references to Vygotsky in English-language publications over the period covered" (p.160). In fact, the vast majority of the cites are to Thought and Language (1962 edition) and Mind in Society (p.161), both of which were altered to fit the recipient culture!

The problem that Valsiner describes here persists even today. Just this morning, I saw this thread on Twitter about a supposed Vygotsky quote. Literally as I was about to write the above two paragraphs, @Ilyenkov_et_alia verified that the quote doesn't even show up in its supposed source! Perhaps it's a paraphrase of a paraphrase—the quote shows up in several quote repositories, but doesn't seem to be in Vygotsky's actual work at all. As Valsiner implies, Vygotsky is too often used in the West to validate established thought rather than being understood as its own internally coherent system. 

Moving on. Later in the book, Valsiner discusses issues of cognitive development and activity theory. Valsiner notes that activity theory emerged from the Kharkov school, linking Vygotsky's cultural-historical school with contemporary psychology (p.216). For Leontiev, activities are "forms of human relationships with the object-world, distinguished and guided by their motives" (p.217). Importantly, "there are two distinctions between Leontiev's view and Vygotsky's. First, the development of meaning and sense in ontogeny is subsumed under the primacy of activity. Secondly, Leontiev explicitly bases his concept of 'personal sense' on Marx's writings, rather than those of Vygotsky (who in his turn borrowed it from Paulhan" (p.218). Later, Valsiner notes that activity theory's approach to interaction "is by far less directly related to empirical investigation" than work based on Bekhterev; "If [activity theory] addresses empirical issues, these are studied mostly by observational and rarely by experimental means, and usually by investigators for whom the action-theoretic approach is in addition to their personal or humanitarian interest in practical issues concerning children" (p.241). 

Speaking of children: A bit later in the book, Valsiner recounts some developmental research on children in the 1920s, noting that this research describes how Soviet children were socialized for latent, "conditional animosity" in which the USSR was considered the in-group and capitalist countries were considered the out-group (p.264). Another study investigated indoctrination in children, finding that the peer group develops the prescribed worldview as a result of active interaction with the environment (p.266). These studies were seen by their authors as positive, not sinister—understandable, given the uncritical acceptance of partiinost' and the program to develop the New Soviet Man. 

Valsiner gives us a little more detail on the two Central Asian expeditions that Luria led, including Koffka's participation in the second one (1932). Unfortunately for Luria, this expedition happened in the early 1930s, just as the Soviets were redefining the problem of non-Russian cultures within the USSR—"all cultures of the USSR were now becoming homogeneous as the 'Soviet people'" (p.298). "In such a context of social meanings, paedological and psychological research on non-Russian cultures in the USSR became at best irrelevant, and at worst contrary to the Soviet social-political goals of the 1930s. Thus, comparative-cultural research issues vanished from Soviet psychology for about forty years" (p.298). Eventually, in 1974, Luria took the report of the trip out of a drawer and published it, inspiring one of his students, Peeter Tulviste, to replicate and extend this research (p.299-303). Tulviste's work "extends the largely linear view of cognitive development, held by Luria and Vygotsky in the 1930s, to a multi-linear one" (p.302). 

There's more to the book, but let's leave it there. As with Valsiner's other work, this one is extremely valuable for understanding the development of psychology in the Soviet Union. If you're interested in that general topic, or the more specific topic of activity theory, I highly recommend it.