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.

Reading :: Lev Vygotsky

Lev Vygotsky (Bloomsbury Library of Educational Thought)
By Rene Van Der Veer

The Bloomsbury Library of Educational Thought has a series on different influential thinkers. This one is written by Rene van der Veer, who is certainly qualified. If you're interested in a slim Vygotsky bio, this book might fit the bill; if you've been reading works by and about Vygotsky, as I have, the book will not be a game-changer, but it will fill in some gaps.

For instance, I discovered that

  • Vygotsky wrote most of his unpublished book on the crisis in psychology during a hospital stay in 1926 (p.23).
  • According to van der Veer, Vygotsky's likely fate if he had survived tuberculosis would have been the Gulag. "The disease killed him; otherwise he might have been murdered" (p.29).
  • His textbook Educational Psychology was written at Gomel, but published in 1926, years after he had moved to Moscow University (p.43).
  • Vygotsky was strenuously anti-racist—but he was demonstrably ethnocentric (p.57).  He assumed that cultural differences were developmental differences (p.100). Nevertheless, he insisted that intelligence tests be based on the subject's own cultural tools, a principle that underpinned the Uzbek expedition (p.98).
  • Vygotsky is known for the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), but he claimed not to have invented it; unfortunately, he did not make its origin clear (p.79).
  • The ZPD might have been posited to explain the "leveling effect," which we now believe to be an artifact rather than an actual phenomenon (p.86).
In the last chapter, van der Veer overviews contemporary educational research based on different strands and interpretations of Vygotskian thought. 

Should you read this book? If you know very little about Vygotsky, it's a good introduction. If you're familiar with his work, I don't think it adds a lot to your understanding, but it does fill in some minor gaps. 

Reading :: The Nature of Human Conflicts

The Nature of Human Conflicts
By A.R. Luria

The link above goes to a current printing of the book, but I'm reviewing a 1960 copy. If you prefer to read on screen, you can get the same edition I read as a free PDF on marxists.org.

Luria, of course, was a member of Vygotsky's circle—but he pursued ingenious research even before Vygotsky. As a student at the Institute of Psychology in Moscow, he had access to a "dynamoscope," a device that measured pressure when the subject squeezed a pneumatic bulb, then recorded cyclograms on a photographic plate. (These experiments are discussed in Luria's biography.) What could one do with such a device in an institute dominated by Kornilov's reactology?

Quite a lot, it turns out. Luria wrote three books in the 1920s; this book was not published in the Soviet Union (it was published for the first time in Russian in 2002), but it was published in the US in 1932 and served as Luria's dissertation in 1937.

The book was written before (or at least based on Luria's work before) he met Vygotsky in 1924, leading to his engagement in cultural-historical research. But the work here has some clear continuity in the work of the Vygotsky Circle as well as Luria's later works. It's also rather troubling from an ethical point of view, but that's par for the course in Luria's earlier works.

First, let's discuss the basis for this book: the combined motor method (Ch.1). As mentioned, Luria had access to a dynamoscope. He had also studied the works of Freud and Jung, and was interested in word associations. And he was interested in how human behavior was organized and disorganized:
The chief problem of this investigation is to explain the laws of the disorganisation of human behaviour, the conditions under which they arise, and the way in which they are overcome. Therefore, we should study the structure of the disappearance and origin of this behaviour in those reactions entering into its real composition. (p.19)
How to put these together? Luria noted that strong affect often involved motor responses. (Think about, for instance, when people tremble in fear or anger.)
Certainly, the affect causes great fluctuations in the motor activity; if the affect is not accidentally related to the section of the human behaviour we are studying, if we consider the given disorganisation of behaviour to consist in the particularities of the systems of behaviour under investigation, then the disturbance will be involuntarily and definitely expressed in the sections of activity which we will record. We shall study the involuntary destruction of the voluntary movements; we consider this a more adequate path to a better understanding of the disorganisation of behaviour. (p.20)
So if "we desire to trace the structure of the internal changes which are inaccessible to direct observations, we can follow their reflection in the voluntary motor functions" (p.22). Luria's combined motor method involved having a subject create word associations while squeezing the bulb, therefore combining central and motor activities—allowing the concealed function to be reflected in the unconscious one (p.23).

Need an example? Suppose you have someone who is accused of murder. He has been brought in by the police, but he hasn't yet been told what he has been charged with. At this point, one might subject him to the experiment, reading a set of words that is mostly random, but including a few words related to the murder scene. Does the subject unconsciously squeeze the bulb more tightly when he hears those particular words? Yes, it turns out that he does (pp.29-30). Luria had essentially created a lie detector.

From our viewpoint in the US of the early 21st century, this experiment has severe ethical problems and would be impossible to conduct or publish. For one thing, when someone is arrested, they must (now) be told why they are being arrested. But in the Russia of the early 20th century, such considerations were not important. So I found this book to be alternately fascinating and horrifying. Luria's research subjects, who largely had no choice about their participation, included different groups who were experiencing high levels of affect:

  • people accused of murder (see above)
  • students who were about to discover whether they had been politically purged from the university
  • people who had been given complexes during hypnotism
Whereas the first two groups were experiencing stress already, the third group were artificially introduced to stress. The experimenter would hypnotize a subject, provide a scenario in which the subject acted in a shameful way, then bring the subject out of hypnosis and ask questions while having the subject squeeze the bulb. Here's one scenario:
The following situation is suggested (Situation B) : "You are sitting in your room and are studying. A child of your neighbour's, a boy of about six, comes into your room. He shouts and disturbs your studies. You ask him to stop; he does not listen to you. . . .You get angry, and forgetting yourself, take a stick and beat the boy, first on his back and then on his head. There are some wounds on his head and he cries. You feel very much ashamed and you do not understand how such a thing could have happened to you, how you could beat up a child, and you try to forget it." (p.144)
Luria matter-of-factly reports that this scenario sometimes failed to produce an internal conflict:
The situation is suggested to the subject. She reacts very vividly to the suggestion, shown by her facial expression. The suggestion is followed by these questions:
Experimenter: Why did you beat him?
Subject: He was bothering me.
Experimenter: Is it right to beat a child?
Subject: But if he annoys me.
At once it is seen that we succeeded in suggesting to the subject a certain situation. However, that situation did not appear to be conflicting. (p.144)
My reaction was that not only has Luria built a lie detector, he has built a sociopath detector. But Luria simply notes that some subjects don't have an internal conflict; let's move on to the others who do. He eagerly reports the more normal results, in which people indicate shame and horror over what they have been induced to think.

Moving on. In the third part of the book, Luria synthesizes his results.
One may think, however, that morphological conditions the connection of different motor systems with dissimilar parts of the nerve apparatus do not play a decided role here. During the affect, as a matter of fact, the gait may be changed as well as the movement of the hands in lighting a cigarette, and it can be shown that only the great differentiation of the motor systems of the hand or of the face is the cause of their unusual expressiveness. 
We take a different point of view; we believe that the degree of expressiveness of that or another system depends not so much on its anatomical position as upon its inclusion in one or another complicated psychological structure. Therefore one and the same motor system can be either expressive or unexpressive, depending upon what function it is fulfilling at the given moment and to what psychological structure it belongs. (p.172)
Here, Luria seems to gesture to the notion of functional systems that he would later develop.

At the end of the book, Luria cites his book with Vygotsky as well as work by others in the Vygotsky Circle (recall that this book was based on pre-Vygotsky experiments but published over a decade later). On the last page, he connects the book with the overall agenda of cultural-historical psychology:
The behaviour of the human adult is primarily a product of complex growth, which cannot be comprehended as an accumulation of experiences. Human psychology differs from the zoological point of view in that it sees specific laws absent in the phenomena of nature and characteristic of history. The development of the human as a historical subject occurs as the elaboration of special forms of historical, cultural behaviour. This development evokes new specific mechanisms, the peaks of historical evolution. Speech and the use of signs, the permutation of activity by the use of cultural means make the human a new biological series in history. These new functions do not remain isolated in the psychological processes, but permeate the whole activity and structure of behaviour so that we find them literally in every movement of the fingers. (p.428)
Overall, a fascinating, sometimes disturbing, but historically illuminating book.