Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Reading :: The New Man in Soviet Psychology

The New Man in Soviet Psychology (Russian Research Center Studies, No. 7)
By Raymond A. Bauer

Alex Kozulin cites this book a couple of times in his own writings on psychology in the Soviet Union. It was published in 1952 and is no longer in print, but fortunately Amazon had a used copy at a very reasonable price. I found it to be surprisingly insightful and relevant.

A few notes. Bauer studied under Jerome Bruner, who also wrote the Foreword. Writing at the height of the Cold War, Bauer examined the state of psychology in the USSR, which was at that point still under Stalin (who would die the year after this book was published). Once Stalin died, the leading psychologists in the USSR would find their voices, publishing their major books; but at the point Bauer was writing, Soviet psychological publications were essentially dormant. Bauer even notes in his preface that "The major psychological journals ceased publication in the period 1932-1934, and after these years, publication facilities for psychological research were very sparse until 1946" (p.xii).

Given this situation, it's a bit of a shock to see how Bauer discusses the Vygotsky Circle—who are more or less seen as a marginal group with some odd, jury-rigged ideas. Back to that in a moment.

Bauer notes that at this point in the Cold War, Soviet leaders proclaimed that the social and political work in the USSR was scientific, in contrast to that of the rest of the world. At the same time—paradoxically, he says—"the Soviet leaders subject Soviet science to active and explicitly political interference to an extent unheard of in any other modern state." As one consequence, "In range of activity, Soviet psychology has narrowed from an extremely broad discipline which studied animal and human, normal and abnormal, child and adult subjects to one which focuses most of its attention on the study of normal, healthy children" (p.4).

Intriguingly—and this is the core of Bauer's analysis—
Viewed in the light of psychological theories of the twenties, man was a machine, an adaptive machine which did not initiate action but merely re-acted to stimuli from its environment. Concepts like "consciousness" and "will" were suspect; they smacked of subjectivism, voluntarism, idealism. After all, man and his behavior were determined by antecedent social and biological conditions. Man as depicted in present day Soviet psychology is not passive in the face of the environment. He takes the initiative away from the environment. Rather than being determined by his environment, he determines it. Furthermore, he shapes his own character by training and by "self-training." Whereas the proper subject of psychological behavior in the twenties was objective behavior—the correlation of external stimuli with externally observable responses—today psychology is the study of consciousness, "the highest form of organized matter" and the instrument whereby man shapes himself in his environment. (p.5).
Bauer claims that "developments in psychology have reflected the resolution of the conflict between two doctrinal trends in Marxism" (p.5).

What are these trends? Later in the book, Bauer explains that
The development of Stalinism involved essentially the conflict between two alternate sets of assumptions embedded in Marxism, one focused on the understanding of causal relationships, the other focused on the achievement for some purpose. The first corresponds to what has become known as "mechanistic Marxism," the latter as "dialectical Marxism." Seeing these positions in direct opposition to one another is an unwarrantedly abstract and schematic distinction. These systems of thought were not the exclusive property of any individual or group of individuals; they were alternate assumptions which any person might use in a given situation. (p.14)
Both aspects were latent in the works of Marx and Engels. The first gives Marxism-Leninism its teleological aspects—and convinced the Mensheviks that they could work incrementally, since Socialism was always and inevitably fated to take over the world. The second was picked up by Lenin and the Bolsheviks, who believed that man must ultimately make his own history (p.17).

Bauer says that "extreme mechanistic Marxism" has these postulates:
(1) Man is a product of his inheritance and his environment; therefore society is responsible for man's character and behavior, rather than man's being responsible for society. (2) All social events are determinately related; therefore the trend of future events can be predicted. (3) Essentially, the course of events is determined by abstract forces external to man himself, and there is little that he could or should do to direct them. (4) Since all oppressive and repressive institutions are a function of conflict in class society, a classless society will speedily do away with repression. (5) Class society is a result of a particular form of economic relations, and a change in the economic base of society will eliminate class divisions, which in turn will result in the withering away of the state and bring about ideal social conditions. (6) Man is inherently rational and inherently good; and once he is freed from the institutions of a class society, he will revert spontaneously to rationality and goodness. In addition to these premises, mechanistic Marxism posits the desirability of a freely developed and fully expressed personality, of freeing man from excessive burdens and of respecting his dignity. (pp.18-19)
"However, as the history of the Soviet Union unfolded, it became evident that these postulates were untenable in various areas of society," Bauer adds (p.19). The USSR (nominally) achieved a classless society, but problems persisted, the State did not wither away, and the predicted worldwide Revolution did not come. The early 1920s saw a crisis in economic planning, leading Stalinists to claim that "mechanists had no place for chance (accident) in their thinking" (p.23). The Stalinist victory led to many changes. "It made official the view that man is the master of his own fate" (p.24); the dialectical view became seen as the correct one; dialectical, not mechanistic materialism became "the accepted methodology of science" (p.24). At the same time, the crisis meant that the State had to ask more of its individual citizens (p.24).

In philosophy, Bukharin and his followers took the mechanistic view, while Deborin and his followers took the dialectical. The latter were supported in 1925 by the Russian publication of Engels' Dialectics of Nature as well as parts of Lenin's notebooks (p.25). By 1929, the dialecticians had won, imposing the dialectical view in science (p.26).

Interestingly, the dialectical view insistent that contradictions were not external but internal to a given system (see Ilyenkov); "the dynamics of the system were derived from forces within it and not from forces impinging on it" (pp.27-28). (Note: Depending on how you read Engestrom, he either disregards or supplements this claim with his modeling of quaternary contradictions in activity networks.) The dialectical view also led to studying systems—and that led to studying what was qualitatively different in man vs animals, since the laws of the human system could be qualitatively different from the laws of animal systems (p.29). It also led to the rediscovery and relegitimization of the human psyche (p.29). And it introduced the notion of levels of development as opposed to a continuous process (p.30).

This shift had other far-reaching consequences. For instance, the notion that the State would wither away is a quintessentially mechanistic one (p.35); it led educators to claim that education should be based on spontaneous processes within beneficial environments—there would be a "withering away" of school. This notion dominated until 1931! (p.44). But by that point, efforts began to restore the teacher to his/her traditional position. The notion of carrying out education by focusing on the environment was finally killed in 1936—by the infamous pedology ban (p.45).

This is key: The pedologists, in Bauer's account, were founded on mechanistic Marxism's claim that environment determines behavior. Thus they tended to deny consciousness as an idealistic notion (as noted in other books I've reviewed) and focus on improving school environments. This outlook was colorable in the early 1920s, when problems in education could be laid at the feet of the capitalist status quo ante. But by the 1930s, this viewpoint was politically unwise. The Soviets had run the schools for a decade and a half, so if educational problems were the result of the environment, the Soviets had to own that problem!

Bauer briefly reviews the behaviorally oriented work of the 1920s, including the replacement of Chelpanov by Kornilov, noting Luria's early work as an innovative bright spot (p.58). But mechanism dominates; the notion of the unconscious falls into disfavor by 1925 due to charges of idealism, and the very notion of consciousness also becomes unpopular.

"The only clear reversal of trend during this period was the work of L.S. Vygotskii and his associates, mainly Luria and Leonti'ev," he adds (p.73). Bauer is clearly bemused by this work and the "curiously oblique approach they took to consciousness and man's control over his own behavior. Consciousness, said Vygotskii, is 'the capacity of the organism to be its own stimulus.' Their general approach to the problem of the control of man's behavior is that man does this by learning certain instrumental techniques—such as mnemonic devices to improve memory—and that he uses these devices as external stimuli to direct his own behavior. ... Thus, even the most deviant trend of the period accorded to consciousness only a mediated role in the control of man's behavior" (p.74).

Most other pedologists, Bauer says, fixated on the idea that environment determines development and intelligence (p.84). Their conception of man's nature was passive (p.86), a view that suggested that the individual wanted to simply maintain equilibrium with the environment (p.89). This view, as noted above, became politically radioactive in the mid-1930s. With the victory of the dialecticians, the mechanistic model was accused of being capitalist (p.98) and psychology turned to the task of educating the new Soviet man, one who would assert his own agency in service of the State. "Of the reigning premises of the twenties only that of the plasticity of man's organism remained" (p.102).

In Chapter 8, Bauer takes a closer look at the Pedology Decree. He notes that even though Vygotsky bucked the mechanistic trend by studying consciousness, his theory was not in step with the new program to train the new Soviet man: Not only did Vygotsky give too little weight on training, "He maintained that learning proceeded from the unconscious to the conscious; that is, general principles could be understood only after one had learned how to do something" (p.117).

By 1935, Stalin proclaimed that "cadres decide everything," that is, Soviet society now demanded trained people rather than just material, mechanical, and organizational changes (p.123). Changes were introduced to stabilize social relationships, increase social controls, and make workers more effective at serving the needs of the State (p.123).

Consequently, "'Conscious, purposive action' has become not only the norm of conduct of the Soviet citizen, but the central focus of psychology, and the principle of 'conscious understanding' is the fundamental tenet of Soviet pedagogy" (p.132). And "The Soviet conception of consciousness is above all tied to action" (something that should sound familiar to activity theorists) (p.132). Soviet psychologists, Bauer says, claim "that conscious goals play an essential role in voluntary action, but these goals are themselves determined by previous experience. The stimuli of the immediate situation are mediated through the conscious goal determined by previous events" (p.133). Thus man is responsible for his own immediate behavior; he is nonetheless rightfully subjugated to the demands of society; and he can consciously achieve freedom through voluntary service to the state (pp.133-134). "Consciousness is the concept whereby the Soviet citizen is, in fact, liberated from determinism and tied to the service of the state. It is also the pivotal concept of modern Soviet psychology" (p.134).

Bauer goes on to discuss some tenets of modern (circa 1953) Soviet psychology. Among them:

  • operations are automatized actions
  • consciousness allows man to focus on goals beyond the immediate situation
  • the study of psychic functions is always related to man's motives and goals
  • consciousness must always be studied in concrete action (p.136)
These are, of course, premises that should be familiar to anyone who has studied activity theory. 

Skipping a bit, here's something I hadn't realized:
It is no coincidence that the 1936 decree against pedology occurred in the same year as the inauguration of the new Soviet constitution and the declaration that socialism had been achieved. ... If a person is imperfect, then the responsibility lies in his earlier environment—or in him personally. (p.147)
Let's stop there. Bauer's book is a fascinating time capsule, the view of Soviet psychology from the US in the last years of the Stalin era. It arguably misunderstands some things about Vygotsky's work, but then again, it portrays the political and rhetorical situation of Soviet psychology in clear, insightful, and illuminating ways. Most importantly, it provides a big-picture view of the shifts in Soviet warrants, shifts that had large implications for the shaping and legitimacy of different strands of Soviet psychology.

If you're interested in Soviet psychology, Vygotsky, activity theory, or just the Soviet Union, of course you should get this book—if you can find a copy.

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