In Blog

Reading :: Soviet Psychology

Posted by: on Apr 12, 2017 | No Comments
Soviet Psychology: A Symposium

I've linked to the 2011 reprint on Amazon, but the UT library had the original 1961 collection published by the Philosophical Library in New York. I just discovered that you can also find a copy in the Internet Archive. The collection does not have an editor listed, although Ralph B. Winn wrote the Foreword and Hans Hiebsch wrote the Introduction. A separate citation lists Winn as the translator. And, unfortunately, neither the Foreword, the Introduction, nor the footnotes tell us what symposium generated these papers or when they were originally written.

Winn does tell us that "American educators have developed a considerable interest in the Soviet system of education" because the Soviets were catching up to the US in atomic physics, missile production, and other technology—and were producing far more engineers than the US was. "We are still ahead, on the whole, but the margin of difference is steadily shrinking" (p.1). That is, Winn proposes that US readers should pay attention to this collection so that they could better understand what was working in the Soviet educational system—perhaps an effective angle in 1961, at the height of the Cold War. To contextualize, Sputnik had been launched just a few years earlier; the U2 incident had happened the year before; and the Cuban Missile Crisis would happen the next year. How could the US learn from the Soviet system?

The answers proffered in this collection are disappointing, I think. Recall that in 1948, Lysenko consolidated control over Soviet agronomy and, through that, exerted control over at least some of the assertions in other Soviet scientific disciplines. Lysenko was finally discredited in 1964 and removed in 1965, just a few years after this volume was published. During Lysenko's ascendance, other scientific disciplines took pains to characterize themselves as allied with Lysenko and Michurin, against bourgeois science, and they also selected founding fathers who could be characterized Michurinites. For psychology, that founding father was Pavlov (although the historical Pavlov could hardly be said to be a Michurinite).

I'll just pull out a few of the essays.

Introduction (Hans Hiebsch)
Hiebsch overviews the history of Soviet psychology as having three stages:

1917-1936: The struggle of the dictatorship of the proletariat (p.5); the use of pedology, which is characterized as a hodgepodge of bourgeois views, ascribing child development to either heredity or environment, both of which "predetermine psychic development unalterably and fatalistically" (p.6). Pedology was too child-centered (p.6). Hiebsch blames it for the fall in standards in Soviet schools, and he praises both Pavlov for providing an alternate materialist understanding of psychology and the 1936 Pedology Decree for putting an end to it (p.7). In this Decree, the Central Committee of the Communist Party characterized pedology as pseudoscientific, classist, and racist (p.8).

1936-1948: After pedology was abolished, psychologists revived materialist traditions of philosophers; turned to Pavlov and Sechenev; and most importantly, intensely studied Marxism-Leninism (pp.8-9).

1948-present: "The victory of T.D. Lysenko's biology in August 1948 marks the end of the second stage and the beginning of the third, in which Soviet psychology now finds itself. It studies the teachings of Marx and Engels, and Lenin; it uses dialectical materialism as its foundation; it practices criticism and self-criticism; it fights against bourgeois survivals and for the proletariat; it is a true science and on its way towards fulfilling Makarenko's motto: 'Man must be changed.'" (p.9)

The development of Soviet psychology (A.A. Smirnov)
Smirnov develops some themes familiar to activity theorists. For instance, he characterizes materialism as progressive and idealism as reactionary; claims that consciousness "develops as a result of an objective reality which is outside us and independent of us"; and further characterizes consciousness as "merely a reflection, an image in us of the real world." In this view, "the social relations between men are the most important among the factors of objective reality that influence us, and ... these relations are determined by the material living conditions of society" (p.14).

He also, on the other hand, condemns the "pre-Marxist, mechanist materialism" that "mechanized man's entire life and turned him into an automaton" (p.15).

Smirnov lists some of the problems that occupied Soviet psychology at the time of writing. Here, I'll just note that one is personality (p.16). Smirnov claims that in a socialist society, egotistic striving disappears and man's strivings are united with society, allowing personal interests to reach full expression and development. Indeed, Soviet youths choose vocations that help society, not ones that lead to personal wealth or social positions (p.18).

In the school context, Smirnov claims that rather than testing children with standardized tests, the individual teacher makes judgments based on deep contextual factors (p.25). Smirnov also emphasizes the union of consciousness and activity (p.25).

The present tasks of Soviet psychology (A.N. Leontiev)
As preface to this essay, it's worth noting here that in the appendix of Wortis (1950) is a critique of Leontiev, written just after (and referencing) Lysenko's 1948 speech that consolidated his hold over the Soviet science system. That critique takes Leontiev to task for not being Michurinist enough.

Leontiev, who had already proven adept at adapting his work and language to the necessities of the ever-changing Soviet system—recall that he handily weathered the Pedology Decree, which was issued only 12 years before Lysenko's speech—demonstrates how to roll with such criticism. Right out of the gate, Leontiev states that although "Psychology is not a part of the system of biological sciences ...  it is very closely connected with the physiology of the higher nervous activity and animal psychology," using this angle as a way to condemn genetics work based on Morgan (p.31). (Lysenko condemned "Mendelism-Morganism.") Morganists denied that acquired characteristics can be inherited, and "This false, metaphysical conception of the immutability of characteristics of living creatures hindered the solution of numerous problems of animal psychology, especially those of instinct" (p.32). And he charges: "The Morganists of today distort Darwin's theory when they proclaim that the inheritance of acquired characteristics is incompatible with a correct conception of the instincts. They thus throw overboard the important contribution of Darwin which differentiates between instinct and the ability to perform a given action" (p.32). Leontiev then critiques Rubinstein's 1945 textbook General Foundations of Psychology for presenting "the theories of the Morganists and of Lysenko as equally important, although they are actually diametrically opposed" (p.32). (The moves he makes in this argument suggest to me that this essay was written in the late 1940s, as does the fact that the latest citation is from 1947—but the book doesn't tell us the original date of the essay.)

From here, Leontiev praises the Pedology Decree, saying that it put a stop to quotations of "the theories of Morgan, Weismann, and Mendel" (p.32-33). He highlights that this resolution not only put an end to pedology, it "also put an end to the 'two-factor theory' which proclaimed the equal role of heredity and environment" (p.33). And he adds,
The triumph of creative Soviet Darwinism, as expressed in the complete victory of the Michurinist tendency in the Soviet Union, also meant the foundation of a dialectical materialist theory of the development of living organisms. . . . The phylogenetic theory of Michurin and Lysenko has also been applied to psychology. . . . (p.34)
(The ellipses are in the original text and suggest that it has been edited.)

So at this point, Leontiev has praised the Pedology Decree that almost ended his career in the 1930s and tied it to Lysenkoism, which would be thoroughly discredited shortly after Winn's collection was published. Humiliating, perhaps, but we can also perhaps admire Leontiev's skill in methodically aligning himself with prevailing trends in order to continue his work—and to make it thrive. For instance:
But life itself, the child's activity which determines in its course his mental development, is not spontaneous—it is under the influence of education and instruction. In a Socialist society, which does not develop spontaneously but is directed by men, education is the decisive force which forms man intellectually. It must correspond to the aims and the needs of the entire society, of the entire people or, in other words, it must fully agree with real human needs, and also with those of individual man.  (pp.36-37).
The USSR needs psychology, and specifically the psychology that Leontiev is developing:
These theoretical conceptions of the development of the mental factor are characteristic of Soviet psychology. But it must by no means be concluded from this that Soviet psychology already possesses a fully developed Marxist theory of the historical development of the factor. It must, on the contrary, be stated that this problem has so far received an inadequate treatment. We still have no fundamental research into these questions. The few studies that do exist, like the "General Foundations of Psychology" by S. L. Rubinstein and the "Sketch of the Psychological Development" by A. N. Leontiev, suffer, as was noted in scientific criticism, from considerable defects.  
And so the most important task that now faces the Soviet psychologists is the creation of a historical psychology, a theory of the historical development of the mental factor at different stages of society and in representatives of different social classes, of the basic changes in human experience produced by the abolition of private property and by the planned transformation of this experience under conditions of gradual transition from socialism to communism. (p.37)
(In 1949, Leontiev replaced Rubinstein as head of the psychology department at Moscow due to Russian chauvinism/ anticosmopolitanism/ antisemitism. Less than a decade before, in 1940, Rubinstein had served on Leontiev's dissertation committee. There's a lesson in here somewhere.

And note the last sentence, which sounds a bit like the project that Luria and Vygotsky envisioned in their Uzbek expedition.)

Leontiev goes on:
In a theory of child psychology we must, of course, also start from a consideration of the driving forces in the development of the child's experience. Contrary to the metaphysical theory of "two-factors" (i.e., heredity and environment) , according to which the development of the child's psyche is said to proceed fatalistically, Soviet psychology shows that this development is based on the growth of the child's living conditions and of his activities, which are determined by objective living conditions and education.  
The child enters the society of men with his very first steps into life. He learns from society the activities which it has developed and the language which reflects the social practices of mankind. The child's environment presents him with all kinds of tasks and demands and thus actively makes him engage in activities required by these tasks and demands. Thus, the social environment instructs and educates the child.  
This does not happen without a conscious setting by society of the aims of education and instruction. This conscious and purposeful process of education, which starts in early childhood, is continued, though in essentially different forms, in the kindergarten, at school and in social life. The mental development of the child is realized in this process. (p.38)
Rather than heredity/environment, Leontiev proffers an understanding based on activity, in which children enter society with even the first interaction. (This differentiates his approach as Marxist rather than "Mendelist-Morganist" or bourgeois.) But he also emphasizes the vital role of school (and protects himself from the charge of signing onto the theory of the withering away of the school). And:

Numerous investigations by Soviet psychologists on the development of mental processes of children, e.g., of perception, memory, thought and speech, have given concrete proofs that the formation of these processes must not be viewed as the unfolding of innate abilities under the influence of all kinds of conditions of the milieu. This formation takes place in the course of the child's directed activities. The psychological characteristics that were hitherto fatalistically attributed to given stages of development, proved to be actually the products of the child's life which went on under certain definite social conditions, the product of the child's instruction and education. Rich possibilities of producing desirable psychological and character traits in the children were thus revealed. (pp.38-39)
That is, development is attributable not to "fatalism" (i.e., bourgeois cover for differences imposed by race and class) but to labor activity. A few pages later, he discusses "leading activities" that prepare the child to move from a simpler to a more complex activity (p.42; cf. Engestrom).

Finally, Leontiev opposes the bourgeois notion of children's stages (cf. Piaget) and proffers an alternate theory of stages:
The numerous periodisations, i.e., lists of stages, of childhood of bourgeois psychology are well known. All of them start, more or less, from the metaphysical conception of psychological development as an unfolding of the child's innate characteristics, i.e., from theories  which falsely transfer so-called biological laws into child psychology. They identify the psychological with the biological development of the child, and use such phenomena as change of teeth or the development of the function of the sexual glands, to mark the stages. All these periodisations are attempts to present the psychological development of the child as a phenomenon of growth.  
The pseudo-scientific character of these periodisations, which are essentially paedological, is obvious. It is our task to oppose them by a periodisation of the child's growth that is founded on the dialectical materialist conception of development. The solution of this problem was made possible by the investigations, already mentioned, of individual mental processes in the child and by studies of the development of various kinds of child activities— play, learning, work, etc. (pp.39-40). 
Leontiev does not cite the "investigations, already mentioned," but they sound like the work he, Luria, and Vygotsky did in the 1930s.

All in all, an illuminating rhetorical performance.

The intellectual development of the child (A.N. Leontiev)
Although this essay is much longer, I'll review it much more briefly. Leontiev elaborates on periods or stages in children's development, linking them to changes in the child's personality. These provide typical stages, which differ both qualitative and quantitatively (p.56). Although he links them to ages, he makes clear that "The stage of development is thus neither absolute nor predetermined; rather it is dependent on the concrete conditions of development and can change accordingly" (p.58). I'm not especially interested in these, but now you know where to find Leontiev's thoughts on them.

It's worth noting that this second essay cites sources as late as 1949, and Lysenko is not quoted here. That may or may not mean that it was written after "The present tasks of Soviet psychology."

In all, this collection was an interesting time capsule, although I can't tell whether it's representative of its time of US publication (1961) or a collection of essays dating to an earlier time (as early as 1948). As a guide to activity theory or Soviet psychology, it has limited value. But since the Internet Archive has a plain text copy, it should be easy to access; if it interests you, click through and take a look.