In Blog

(Reading Roundup :: Stalinist criticism of the Vygotsky School and its aftermath)

Posted by: on Apr 19, 2017 | No Comments
It's been a while since I've done a reading roundup of associated articles. But I have a nice set of associated ones today, and I think they tell a pretty good story. Since these tell a story, I've dated each and tried to provide some historical context.

To review, in 1930 Vygotsky and Luria published Studies on the History of Behavior: Ape, Primitive, and Child, a quasi-popular book that synthesized Western understandings of ape and human psychology with a Marxist account based on Engels. The book had been originally slated to be finished by 1927; by 1929, Vygotsky was not enthusiastic about it since he was entering the crisis that marked the border between his instrumental period and his later holistic period (see Van der Veer & Yasnitsky Ch.4). Nevertheless, it was published—just at the point when Stalinist science was becoming more hostile to bourgeois science. Sociology was banned as a bourgeois pseudoscience in 1929 and Russian chauvinism meant that the many cites to Western psychologists and sociologists were not well received. In 1931, the Institute's party cell condemned Vygotsky and Luria's 1930 book.

Two other things happened in 1931. First, some of Vygotsky's colleagues—including Luria and Leontiev—took jobs in Kharkov, Ukraine, while Vygotsky accepted an invitation to lecture in Leningrad. Second, Luria and Vygotsky put together an expedition in Uzbekistan to study how nonliterate and semiliterate peoples changed with the influence of literacy; Luria went while Vygotsky stayed. The 1931 expedition was followed by a second one in 1932.

With that short history, let's get to the readings.

Razmyslov, P. (1934/2000). On Vygotsky's and Luria's "cultural-historical theory of psychology." Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, 38(6), 45-58.

Razmyslov's report, according to Van der Veer (2000), was the result of the Moscow Inspection Commission of the Workers and Farmers Inspeectorate. It focused on the Uzbek expedition of 1931-32, although it also mentions their previous work.

The report is somewhat diffuse, but makes some specific and coherent criticisms. According to Razmyslov, Vygotsky "says that human behavior consists of a continual restoration and breaking of equilibrium between the human organism and the environment (p.46). To make this case, Vygotsky draws on a "bourgeois historicism that disregards the aspects of the development of productive forces and the relations of production, the labor processes, and class struggle," and his work does not study mental functions in the light of Lenin's theory of reflection (p.47). Indeed, Vygotsky and Luria did not proceed from "social, class consciousness" but from "the consciousness of some vague, foggy collective"—and Razmyslov criticizes Vygotsky's reliance on Durkheim here (pp.48-49).

In this context, Razmyslov notes Vygotsky's passage stating that higher psychological functions show up twice, first collectively/interpsychically, then individually/interpsychically. This view is "sociological" and relies on Durkheim (p.49). Razmyslov also slams Vygotsky for his "crudely mechanistic positions" in his earlier work (p.49). (Earlier in the report, he criticized Luria's early interest in Freudian work (pp.45-46). But Vygotsky's "mechanist mistakes of 1925 are aggravated even further" in later work (p.50).

Razmyslov then gets to the Uzbek expedition, and here I think some of his criticisms have a grain of truth. He argues that Vygotsky and Luria cannot look for primitive people's thinking in modern Uzbeks (p.51). They looked for child-level behavior in these Uzbek adults rather than chronicling their growth (p.51). Vygotsky's oral report of the expedition "was aimed at demonstrating the presence of primitive thought in all previously oppressed nationalities"; instead of showing how, in Uzbek, "the new man is being created and a communist consciousness is taking shape," Vygotsky tried to show that these peoples can't generalize (p.52). Razmyslov draws several examples from Luria's investigations (pp.52-54) and argues that Luria "literally tormented the respondents" (p.53—perhaps a fair assessment, given the historical investigation of Lamdan and Yasnitsky).

Razmyslov wraps up by charging Vygotsky's pedagogy with "elements of mechanism" (p.54) and producing a passage in which Vygotsky suggests the "demise of the school in the future" (p.55)—both themes showed up later in the condemnation of pedology.

Vygotsky died in June 1934. Luria and Leontiev, however, had to live through the results of this criticism and of the rapid changes in 1930s USSR.

Central Committee of the Communist Party. (1936/1950). On pedological distortions in the commisariat of education. In Wortis, Soviet psychiatry. Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins. 242-245.

It took me a while to hunt down an English-language copy of this infamous decree, which was issued on July 4, 1936. The decree has been treated in a number of places, including Bauer, so I'll focus on the highlights. The Decree notes that pedology had Western roots and separated theory from practice—creating a theorist/researcher class that told teachers how to practice and "developed completely out of contact with teachers and school studies" (p.242). It was characterized as pseudoscientific (p.242) and anti-Marxist (p.244) as well as "stupid" (p.244). Specifically, it reduced student ability to biological and social factors, i.e., heredity and environment (p.243; 244). In doing so, it reproduced the pedology of the bourgeois class system (p.243); it imported racist and classist categories under the cover of objective research, imputing poor performance to children's heredity and environment rather than to systemic class discrimination (p.245). The authors argued for mainstreaming the vast majority of students who had been assigned to special schools (p.243). Ultimately, the authors demanded (among other things) that: pedagogues (teachers) should be restored to their full rights in the classroom rather than making their practice serve theories of pedology; pedologists and their books should be removed from the schools; children in special schools should be mainstreamed; and the books of pedologists should be criticized in the press (p.245).

The last demand listed above was fulfilled almost immediately.

Kozyrev, A.V., & Turko, A.P. (1936/2000). Professor L.S. Vygotsky's "pedological school." Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, 38(6), 59-74.

First out of the gate was this critique, produced explicitly in response to the Pedology Decree's call for critiques. They characterize the late Vygotsky's views as "untested and often contradictory" (p.59) and note that his work had been continued by the "Leningrad Pedological School" (p.60).

They begin with the posthumously published book Thinking and Speech, which they correctly note "is only an elaboration of discrete materials that are variously dated" (p.60; see Van der Veer & Yasnitsky Ch.4 for a full accounting of the book's sources). They critique the book's thesis that thinking and speech come from different roots but interrelate; Vygotsky drew from Western sources, but not from Marx and Engels, even though "Engels was not only a polyglot but also a profound connoisseur of linguistics," and he didn't draw on contemporary Soviet linguists (p.61). Moreover, "by denying the unity of genetic roots in the origin of thinking and speech, Vygotsky denies the leading role of labor, which in Engels' apt definition created man" (p.61). The authors purport to demonstrate this role by citing Kohler, one of Vygotsky's main sources (p.61).

Secondly, the authors condemn Vygotsky for making up laws, such as that of the Zone of Proximal Development, through logical inference rather than empirical work (pp.62-63). They conclude (through reasoning that I found hard to follow) that Vygotsky believed that the working class could not attain the heights of scientific knowledge—that is, that Vygotsky could be criticized for a classist, bourgeois pedological outlook (p.65). They interpret the ZPD as a way to devalue the teacher's contribution, and they push back against this inference (p.65). Overall, they characterize Thinking and Speech as "full of overhasty, invalid, unscientific, and sometimes utterly unfounded 'scientific' conclusions" (p.65). And they argue that Vygotsky "did not even develop a method of research" (p.66). Finally: "this book still finds him immersed in cultural-historical theory, which he developed together with Luria and which, in its final conclusions, led them (inevitably) into the swamp of stagnation" (p.66).

The authors then turn to Vygotsky's pedological works, charging that he attributed all development to either heredity or environment (p.66; it's hard for me to see how this claim squares with the ZPD). They mention Vygotsky's twin studies at VIEM (p.67; are these related to the study Luria later published?). They also claim that Vygotsky's efforts to distinguish pedology from pedagogy were unsuccessful (pp.67-69). Around here, they cite Razmyslov. They conclude that Vygotsky's premature death "prevented him from embarking upon a truly scientific path" (p.70).

Finally, they criticize two of Vygotsky's followers, Zankov and Konnikov (the latter had just written her dissertation under Vygotsky's collaborator Levina). This seemed like the lowest blow to me.

Perhaps it was this article, which directly named Luria, that caused him to resign his positions as head of the psychology department at VIEM and at the Medico-Biological Institute, fleeing to Tsibli and then taking a medical internship (!) at the Burdenko Clinic of Neurosurgery until 1939.

E. I. Rudneva (1937/2000) Vygotsky's Pedological Distortions, Journal of Russian & East European Psychology, 38:6, 75-94.

This article, which came out in January 1937, may have caused Leontiev to leave his positions as head of the Laboratory of Genetic Psychology at VIEM and his professorship at the Higher Communist Institute of Enlightenment. When he returned in fall 1937, his arguments had changed considerably—arguably to address these criticisms.

In fact, although Wertsch sees "Theses on Feuerbach" as the founding document of activity theory, I think there's a good argument that this document is the true founding document. I'll explain that assertion beneath the review.

Rudneva's article also answered the call of the Pedology Decree (p.75), but it was more vicious—and an excellent example of Stalinist criticism. She characterized Vygotsky as a pillar of pedology and argues that
An analysis of Vygotsky’s works published over the past ten years, beginning with [Pedology of school age] and [Thinking and speech] (1934), reveal the anti-Marxist character of his views and his organic link to the anti-Lenin “theory of the demise of the school” (p.75)
Not only that, she charged: he also cites bourgeois scientists (p.75).

Her critique bore little resemblance to Vygotsky's actual claims. Rudneva argued that "Already in his earliest works, Vygotsky was saying that parents and teachers do not have the right to prescribe their children anything" (p.75); that school will wither away (p.76); that formal education does not influence development (p.76); that "Vygotsky blindly followed every word of bourgeois psychology of the time" (p.76); that "he endeavored to provide a psychological foundation for the theory of the demise of the school" (p.76); and that
Following his bourgeois teachers, Vygotsky also took from them their method of investigation. Hence, the work of Vygotsky and his pupils on children has essentially been a mockery of our Soviet children and amounted to stupid, absurd tests and questionnaires associated with Piaget, Claparbde, and others. (p.76)
Of more serious consequence is Rudneva's critique of Thinking and Speaking. She charges that "For Vygotsky speech is an instrument, a tool organizing the whole of mental activity" (p.77). And:
An analysis of Vygotsky’s utterances on the question of thinking and speech shows that it consists of anti-Leninist, idealist positions. He regards the whole of man’s mental activity not in the light of Lenin’s theory of reflection, as a unified but complex dialectic process of active reflection of objective reality in the human consciousness, but as an idealist, immanent (internal, self-sufficient) process taking place independent of social-class relations and independent of people’s productive activity. (pp.66-67)
Recall that Razmyslov also brought up this criticism. It would become important in the later works of the cultural-historical school.

Rudneva continued by claiming that "He disregards the material foundation of mental phenomena"—i.e., Vygotsky was an idealist (p.77). But in the next paragraph, she accused him of being a crude materialist and mechanist (p.77). "These utterances of Vygotsky’s on the question of the mind show that he explicitly disregards the Marxist-Leninist theory that the mind cannot be reduced to the movement of matter" (p.78). Related, she criticized his "totally false division of concepts into scientific and everyday":
A scientific concept, according to Vygotsky, can arise only from an everyday concept, and, moreover-and this clearly contradicts the basic positions of Marxism-not through reflection of the objective world in our consciousness; rather, it is generated by speech. Similarly, Vygotsky’s conception of the nature of a concept is clearly at variance with Lenin’s theory of a concept. ... According to Lenin, a concept is a reflection of nature in man’s consciousness. (p.78)
She also charges that his "theory of the origin and development of language from which emanates a denial of the role of grammar in formal learning, as we shall show below, is anti-Marxist, and antiscientific" (p.81). Like Kozyrev & Turko, she charges that "Vygotsky’s assertion that thinking and speech have different genetic roots is contrary to Marx & Engels’s theory of the origin and development of thinking and speech from the social process of labor" (p.81). In contrast, she favors the approved Japhetic theory in which "a transition from a linear language, gesticulating and mimetic, to a phonetic language, and from concrete thought to abstract thought, is related to the transition from the use of natural tools to man-made tools" (p.81).

She added:
According to Vygotsky, the unity of thinking and speech lies in the meaning of the word. Thus, he ended by identifying thinking and speech. 
In reality, every word is not only a generalization but also a grammatic unit. There is a dialectic unity between the content and the form of a word, but not identity: the word can be complex in content and simple in form, and vice versa. Disregard of the form of a word is tantamount to underestimating grammatic rules. (p.81)
She hits Vygotsky on the "false division" between lower and higher functions (p.82; n.b., Vygotsky was moving away from this division in his final, holistic period). And she argued that "Quite mistakenly, Vygotsky says that the mediation and intellectualization of functions take place under the influence of the word, which serves as a sign and a symbol" (p.82).

Moving on: Rudneva argues that despite Vygotsky's words, "in reality, for Vygotsky, formal learning plays an external role relative to development and makes no alterations in a child’s development. This is an absolutely invalid, scurrilous affirmation." (p.84). The ZPD comes in for criticism here as a pseudotheory borrowed from McCarthy (p.84). Similarly, Vygotsky's method of having children finish sentences is borrowed from Piaget and leads to "sociologizing" (p.87).

Next, Rudneva criticizes Vygotsky's method. And she names not only the dead but the living:
It must be borne in mind that the experimental work in Vygotsky’s investigations occupy a very limited place. He speaks much about the results of “experimental investigations” and extremely little about the method that he used. 
He and his pupils (Luria, Sakharov, Shif, Zankov, Leontiev) occupy a prominent place in uncritical dissemination of bourgeois method in our country, in particular, Piaget’s method. One of Vygotsky’s pupils, Sakharov, devised a method for studying concepts that does not essentially differ from the method of the well-known German psychologist and fascist, N. Ach; it consisted of finding a meaningless relationship between the shape of a toy and some fanciful abstract name for it. The absurdity of this method was obvious to anyone with common sense: the only name one can give to these stupid “experiments” is that they are an authentic mockery of our children. (p.88)
No wonder Leontiev and Luria were worried.

Finally, Rudneva accuses Vygotsky of formulating a law whereby "a child’s fate is irrevocably sealed by the influence of heredity and the environment": "Vygotsky formulated very clearly this fatalistic determination of children’s destiny by hereditary factors not only in his early works but also in his very last" (p.89). She uses this claim to directly tie Vygotsky to one of the main criticisms in the Pedology Decree. "Vygotsky mentions the environment as a source of the whole of a child’s development" (p.90). Further, she says that recapitulation is the essence of Vygotsky's theory:
The whole of the so-called theory of cultural-historical development created by Vygotsky starts out from the premise that a child repeats the path of the whole of mankind in his development. The development of mental functions historically consisted in a transition from natural forms of behavior to cultural forms; an individual masters functions, and their use becomes voluntary and conscious-and all this takes place under the influence of tools and signs. In the stage of cultural development, the word plays the role of tool. For pedologists, including Vygotsky, slander of the children of workers goes hand in hand with slander of imperialists of the colonial peoples to justify the seizure of new territories in the name of “progress” and “culture.” (p.92)
She charges: "Vygotsky does not understand the Marxist-Leninist theory of the environment; he disregards the role of man in transforming the environment" (p.93).

Unfair? Sure. But Rudneva lays down the markers for what would count as an orthodox Marxist-Leninist psychology during the Stalin years. Just to review:

  • it must take productive labor activity as the starting place, not word meaning
  • it must be rooted in Lenin's theory of reflection
  • it must reject or eschew bourgeois sources, instead grounding itself in Marxist and Soviet sources
  • it must address differences in natural and cultural abilities in a way that is thoroughly grounded in approved Marxist sources
Leontiev, and to an extent Luria, learned these lessons well. In fact, Leontiev almost seems to have used the critique as a checklist for developing his later arguments about activity theory.

Leontiev, A. N. (1937/2005). Study of the environment in the pedological works of LS Vygotsky: a critical study. Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, 43(4), 8–28. 

Although this article was published in Russia in 1998, it was probably written in 1937 for a lecture Leontiev gave when he returned to work. It criticizes Vygotsky mildly, addressing criticisms similar to those by Razmyslov, Kozyrev & Turko, and Rudneva.

It begins with a discussion of the Pedology Decree:
At their foundation lies the theory of fatalistic determinism. Its essence is that development is understood as a process directly determined, on the one hand, by the innate characteristics of a child (his “abilities,” “talents”), and on the other, by the environment in which this de- velopment takes place. So the development of a child is viewed as a function of these two fundamental factors, no matter how complex the ways in which they combine and are interwoven. (pp.8-9)
He says that Vygotsky "at one time" held that the environment was a factor in child development (p.10). And, quoting Lenin, he charges that
from the very beginning, pedology, from the starting point of its investigations, stripped away the true unity: the unity of subject and object, the personality of a person and his human reality. Through abstraction, the child was removed from the real process of life, from the interaction that is his real existence. (p.11). 
Pedology was a false science because it did not grasp "the principle of the interconnection and transition of some lower forms of movement of material into other, higher forms" (p.11). He adds:
Both the child and the environment truly were studied by pedological researchers, but they were studied only as externally contrasted, abstract things. In what connections and relations did pedology study every given object entering into the makeup of the environment? (p.11)
The relationships are found in productive activity:
in every case the relationship between a person and the environment is defined not by the environment and not by abstract properties of his personality, but specifically by the content of his activity, by the level of development of this activity, and, if it can be expressed this way, by its structure and formation. (p.12)
This reasoning leads Leontiev to argue:
What distinguishes humans from animals is not that they have broken their connection with nature, or that the natural environment has been replaced by society, but primarily they have entered into a new and active relationship with nature. In other words, humans enter into a relationship with nature that is realized through the process of labor, through activity using tools; consequently, their relation to nature becomes one mediated primarily by objects. But through this process humans enter into a certain relationship with other humans, and only through these relationships—with nature itself. Consequently, their relationship to nature is mediated by their relationship to other humans. This means that for humans, the way that nature appears is no longer determined by the direct properties of natural objects themselves, and not even by the specific interrelations among people, fixed in their instinctive activity, but by the social conditions of their existence, their activity as social beings. Consequently, this means that since human beings become human, any object of their activity, even a natural one, becomes for them a human object, that is, a social object. (p.14)
In contrast,
To the animal, however, any “artificial” object created by humans is simply a natural object, it is nature because the animal’s relation toward it will always be an instinctive relation. Thus, of course, in reality there is no doubling of the environment.  (p.14)
For humans, social conditions "also appear in the form of secondary, superstructural formations, that is, in the form of language, in the form, generally speaking, of ideology" (p.14).

He adds: "how specifically-psychologically does the social environment appear in the process of the child’s development? This is the third question we emphasize—the question of the changeability and relativity of the environment. It is more fully developed by L.S. Vygotsky" (p.15). Leontiev treats Vygotsky sympathetically, but critically:
Studies of the development of thought and consciousness of the child led Vygotsky to a very important psychological understanding of meaning. Mean- ing is a generalization that realistically-psychologically stands behind the word that it stands for. As Vygotsky expressed it, meaning is a unit of human, realistic consciousness. (p.17)
To develop this claim, Leontiev says, Vygotsky developed his theory in terms of word meaning, relying on environment as explanation. "Thus, the theory of environment put forth by Vygotsky, locked in the circle of consciousness, loses its initial materialistic position and is transformed into an idealistic theory" (p.20). Leontiev adds:
Of everything that Vygotsky developed theoretically, the conception of the environment is the weakest. In that conception, as in a magic trick, collected in a unified, false construction, were all the theoretical mistakes, inconsistencies of thought, and individual idealistic views that we find in his main psychological works. They suffice in it, and therefore specifically in this conception Vygotsky least of all succeeds in overcoming the views of neopositivism that are traditional in contemporary French bourgeois psychology. (p.20)
Leontiev proffers an escape route: word meaning develops within activity
Thus, the meaning of a child’s word is this very “ideal” product in which his human relation to the reality signified by the given word crystallizes—a reality prominent now within the thinking consciousness of the child himself. The sociohistorical nature of the child psyche is determined, consequently, not by the fact that he communicates, but by the fact that his relationship to reality is socially and objectively mediated, that is, by the fact that his reality takes shape under specific sociohistorical conditions.(p.24)
Thus, Vygotsky’s proposition that consciousness is a product of the child’s verbal communication under conditions of his activity and in relation to the material reality that surrounds him must be turned around: the consciousness of a child is a product of his human activity in relation to objective reality, taking place under conditions of language and under conditions of verbal communication. (p.25)
Here, Leontiev undertakes Vygotsky's rehabilitation, proffering his own concept of labor activity as the root of consciousness; blunting the criticism of the split between biological and cultural development; and gesturing at Lenin's reflection theory. Not bad. 

I'm running out of time in this longish review, so I'll just throw down some bare notes on other publications that Luria developed to protect his position and blunt Rudneva's critique.

Leontiev, A. N., & Luria, A. R. (1937/2005). The Problem of the Development of the Intellect and Learning in Human Psychology. Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, 43(4), 34–47.

An unpublished 1937 paper written for the Madrid psychology congress (which was moved to Paris). This paper discusses skill and ties into studies of the Vygotsky circle as well as "the outstanding works of our own L.S. Vygotsky" (p.39). 

Under conditions of objectively mediated labor activity, human speech emerges, which has a designating, objective nature and replaces the expres- sive voice reactions of animals; beginning to reflect objective connections of reality, it opens new possibilities of generalization and becomes a powerful tool of thought. Human cognitive, verbal awareness emerges, an element of which, in the words of L.S. Vygotsky, is meaning, that is, the generalization that stands behind this word; in it appears the specific unity of human thought and speech. The subsequent development of the intellect is also tied to its fate. This takes place over the course of the sociohistorical process and reflects all new forms of specifically human activity and all new forms of generalized reflections of reality in the human consciousness. (pp.40-41)
Leontiev, A. N. (1940/2005). The genesis of activity. Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, 43(4), 58–71.

This paper lays out the basics of activity theory, including the roots of psychology in productive labor activity, and characterizes it in terms of reflection:
Labor is not only that which appears together with man; it is not only that new relationship to nature that we observe as the result of the humanizing of animals. Labor is also, and primarily, what transforms the animal-like fore- runner of man into man. Again we see that the transition to a higher stage of development both in the sense of more complex and developed organization of the very subject of activity, in this case, man, and from the perspective of the emergence of a new, higher form of the reflection of reality, is realized primarily in the form of a change in life itself, the appearance of a new form of life, a new relationship to reality, and a new form of connection with nature. (p.58)
Notice the parries to previous criticism. More later.