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Reading :: New Myth, New World

Posted by: on Jun 9, 2017 | No Comments
New Myth, New World: From Nietzsche to Stalinism
By Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal


Let's start with some background to understand why I picked up this book in the first place. It was a revelation when I finally read "The Socialist Alteration of Man" in 2015—it completely changed my view of Vygotsky's project and I've spent the last couple of years trying to process it.

I began studying CHAT approaches in graduate school in the mid-1990s, when it was first being picked up in my field. In addition to Engestrom, Cole, Wertsch, etc. I read Vygotsky's Thought and Language and sorta-Vygotsky's Mind in Society, but both were of course framed by the Western readings I had been doing. In later years, I read a bit more of Vygotsky and became aware that there was a split between the cultural-historical and AT schools, but this split was usually portrayed as a "generational" difference in the literature I was reading. Reading Kozulin's introduction to Thought and Language 2ed suggested that this split was much deeper, so I began reading more of Vygotsky's works as well as bios and histories.

But it was "The Socialist Alteration of Man" that drew a line under the differences. Even allowing for the fact that the piece was a bit exaggerated, it became clear to me that Vygotsky was really focused on fundamentally transforming Man, in accordance with the ideas of the Revolution, and his focus on "psychological tools" really was a means to that end. We can see hints of that agenda in Luria's Uzbek expedition and his Mind of a Mnemonist, but also in Luria's defectological work such as his twin study Speech and the Development of Mental Processes in the Child and his account in The Man with a Shattered World, in which the "stack" (my term) of internalized psychological tools is reconstructed or alternately constructed for individuals. As Miller says, the focus is on the individual, albeit usually in a dyadic relationship, building new capabilities. And if one believes that individuals had been limited by obsolete structures that were in the process of withering away, as Vygotsky apparently did, it would be easy to see the individual's development as potentially limitless.

That's a sharp contrast with Western CHAT, which—as in so many other ways—is a funhouse-mirror reflection of Vygotsky's theory. Here, although the individual develops, s/he does not develop dramatically. Instead, what develops dramatically are the mediators (tools, rules, division of labor). The best example isn't in the CHAT tradition per se, but is often cited in CHAT literature: Hutchins' Cognition in the Wild. Studying a Navy ship, Hutchins explicitly argues that there is no way we can attribute the ship's success to the individuals, who are largely inexperienced and who cycle out after two years. Instead, he positions the individuals as part of a larger cognitive system that includes artifacts. We can see similar examples in Wertsch (who argues that pole vaulters don't improve dramatically, but they break records because the pole itself has changed) and Bodker (who applies Leontiev's AT to interface design). My own empirical research has followed this path, examining how people pick up, import, and innovate texts to collectively mediate their own organizational work. In this tradition, the individual is as limited as always, but her mediators can be redesigned and redeveloped limitlessly, and the resulting mediated activity takes the center stage in development. (Some researchers are even applying the notion of the zone of proximal development to organizations, which is a telling application of the concept.)

How did we get from superman to super-mediators?

Let's ask a smaller question. Where did Vygotsky's 1930 faith in the unlimited development potential of Man come from? I've already reviewed one strong influence, Trotsky's Literature and Revolution. But as Yasnitsky argues, Vygotsky didn't just draw from Trotsky, he drew from Trotsky's own source, Nietzsche. Yasnitsky heavily cites Rosenthal's New Myth, New World, so I picked it up as well. It's a good book, and unfortuately I won't do its details justice in this review, since I'm most interested in the Nietzsche-Vygotsky connection.

Rosenthal argues that Nietzsche was widely read in pre-Revolutionary Russia, and his ideas resonated with indigenous Russian ideas, enough so that they became part of the zeitgeist even without attribution (p.2). Specifically, "one idea remained constant: art can create a new consciousness, a new human being, a new culture, and a new world" (p.2). In fact, "Aspects of Nietzsche's thought were either surprisingly compatible with Marxism or treated issues that Marx and Engels had neglected" (pp.2-3). Indeed, Nietzschean Marxists emphasized issues that Marx had neglected: "ethics, epistemology, aesthetics, psychology, culture, and values" (p.68).

Yet, since Nietzsche was not in good odor during much of the Soviet period, his influence was rarely explicit—it was "buried"—so Rosenthal must be cautious about claiming Nietzsche's influence in many instances (p.3). (And sometimes, frankly, these arguments are rather tenuous.)

Nevertheless, Rosenthal traces the Soviet idea of the New Man—"a goal of Russian radicals since the 1860s"—to Nietzsche's "Superman, a being that would regard man as man now regards the ape" (p.9—explicitly referenced in Vygotsky). Over time, the Lenin cult appropriated the idea of the Nietszchean Superman and applied it to Lenin as an Apollonian image/icon (p.184). The New Man (cf. Bauer) was also developed in the USSR in two ways:
The idea that man can be remade, that human perfectionism is possible, has inspired generations of radicals, not only in Russia, but certain features of the new Soviet man—boundless energy, daring, hardness, physical vitality—derived from Nietzsche. (p.189)
And
Artists and writers offered two basic models of the new man—the super-functional machine-model of the avant-garde and the human or superhuman model of the realists—and some hybrid versions. (pp.189-190)
Rosenthal gives a number of examples. The super-functional man is a machine, with its body made for work (p.190). Indeed, "Some Bolsheviks wanted to breed the new man by means of eugenics" (including Trotsky; p.195), and neo-Lamarckians, like Nietzsche, wanted evolution to be in man's control (p.196). Unsurprisingly, Lysenko's campaign had such undertones of the conquest of nature (p.284). Other branches of science also did—for instance, the linguist Nikolai Marr (who died in 1934, the same year as Vygotsky) developed the Japhetic theory of linguistics, which was originally based on "Nietzsche's archaeological approach to language" before being reformulated in accordance with Marxism (p.286). Marr's myth-saturated theory appealed to Soviets in the 1930s, when the USSR struggled to assimilate non-Russian nationalities (p.287). (Recall that Rudneva upbraids Vygotsky for not following Japhetic linguistics.) Interestingly, Marr was in a study group with Eisenstein in the 1920s (p.287), so he was running in the same circles that Vygotsky and Luria were. Marr argued that the chief organ of speech was the hand, the agent of production, and all culture is based on material artifacts (p.288)—both assertions that resonate well with Engels and to some degree with Leontiev. (But, in June 1950, during resurgent chauvinism, Stalin himself wrote a series about linguistics whose effect was to dethrone Marr.)

The idea of the Superman became more generalized and harder to track at about this point. For instance, Rosenthal says that by 1936, the Stalin cult makes Stalin the superman (p.381). But also around this time, as fascists arose in Germany and Italy, the dictators kept an eye on each other and learned from each others' propaganda. Specifically, Soviet propagandists "constructed a Soviet Superman to counter the Nazi model" (p.235). Lysenko's biology "held out the promise of conquering nature and breeding the 'new man'" (p.395; cf. p.414). Makarenko, who directed "colonies for orphans and homeless children" from 1917-1936, believed in the unlimited power of education and aimed to turn his charges into New Men by molding their personalities (pp.396-397).

Eventually, of course, after Stalin's death, the new Soviet man became a joke (p.436).

Overall, this book was enlightening. I am also relieved that, based on it, I don't think I'll need to read Nietzsche directly—since most Soviets never did! If you're interested in the new Soviet man, or in Soviet culture more generally, consider picking it up.