Friday, June 09, 2017

Reading :: New Myth, New World

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)
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.

Reading :: Stalinist Science

Stalinist Science
By Nikolai Krementsov

I picked up this book by chance in the UT library as I was investigating the Soviet milieu in which Vygotsky, Luria, Leontiev, and others in this tradition were working. After I finished it, I noticed that Anton Yasnitsky cites it in his dissertation as a major influence. And I can see why. Krementsov wanted to investigate the unique aspects of the Soviet science system, not superficially, but deeply and with an appropriate understanding of how different actors worked. Specifically, he examined how the Soviet science system led to the Lysenko controversy and how scientists in different disciplines resisted the Lysenkoization of their disciplines while still appearing to comply.

Not only does this account describe the milieu in which Soviet science developed, it directly discusses how some of the major players of Soviet psychology—such as Chelpanov, Kornilov, and Luria—navigated the milieu.

In Chapter 1, "Russian Science in Transition, 1890-1929," Krementsov sets the scene. Soviet science did not suddenly spring into being in 1917—it was built on pre-Revolutionary institutions. For instance, Chelpanov's Institute of Experimental Psychology had relied on private patrons before 1917; after 1917, he found patrons among the state agencies to keep the institution going (p. 20). Indeed, the patronage system became an important component in Soviet science, and "allowed scientists to use the influence of their powerful patrons in various state and party agencies," concentrating power in the hands of a few spokespeople: in a sense, Vavilov was plant science and Ioffe was physics (p.22).

Beginning in 1918, the Bolsheviks had a "liberal and accommodating" policy toward existing research institutions, but a "stern and aggressive" attitude toward educational institutions (p.23). "As a result, a number of university professors quit teaching and concentrated exclusively on research"—creating "a dichotomy between teaching and research that became a characteristic feature of the Soviet science system" (p.24). (Recall that in 1936, the Pedology Decree condemned the fact that pedology researchers exerted control over the curriculum of teachers and dismantled pedology.)

In the 1920s, orthodoxy hardened in each discipline, and scientists began to attack each other on ideological grounds (p.26). Science had to be Marxist; cf. Kornilov's 1923 argument that led to his replacement of Chelpanov (p.26). Of course, scientists such as Kornilov, Bekhterev, and Luria appropriated the Marxist lexicon to support their own ideas, ideas that opposed each other; this lexicon use signaled loyalty to the Bolshevik state (p.27).

In Chapter 2, "The Stalinization of Russian Science, 1929-1939," Krementsov notes how the "Great Break" of 1929 began a new era across Russia, including in the sciences (p.31). "Crash industrialization" required mobilizing the population as well as its resources, leading to massive propaganda campaigns, manufactured famines, an expanded secret police, and show trials, as well as the centralization of all power under the Communist Party—which was itself controlled by Stalin (p.31). A new system of agencies was created to oversee science policy (pp.32-33), eventually overseen by "the Central Committee's Administration of Agitation and Propaganda (Agitprop)" (p.33). The OGPU, and later its successor, the NKVD, shadowed scientists, routinely investigated their loyalties, and cleared both visiting foreign scientists and USSR scientists who wished to travel abroad (p.33). In 1930, the OGPU's Economic Division began to advise the government on science policy (p.34)—and possibly was behind "the creation and development of the unique system of sharashki, the labor camps where imprisoned scientists worked on research in their specialties" (p.34)!

For canny operators, the "system of personal links between science spokesmen and commissars that had emerged in the 1920s" had served them well, but this system "was undermined in 1929-1930 by sudden changes in the leadership of practically all commissariats and governmental agencies" (p.34), forcing scientists to find new patrons (p.35). Patronage became dangerous during the Great Terror of 1936-1938: "Many scientists were arrested and imprisoned (and in several cases shot) for alleged association with such newly uncovered 'enemies of the people'" and "the multiple governmental and party patrons of the 1920s, then, were replaced in the late 1930s by a single patron—the Communist Party's Central Committee" (p.35).

Importantly for the story of Soviet psychology, "In 1932 almost all institutions that conducted research in fields related to medicine were welded into one monstrous institute—VIEM" (p.37). In the early 1930s, it was possible to invite "foreign specialists to work in [the USSR's] scientific institutions"; as the decade wore on, these opportunities dried up in favor of isolationism, and "After 1939, Soviet science's international contacts were almost completely severed" (p.44).

In late 1930, a campaign launched by Stalin proclaimed that "science had a 'class nature' and followed the principle of partiinost' (literally, party-ness), hence, Soviet science must be 'proletarian' and 'Communist'" (p.47). For an example, the author quotes Razmyslov's 1934 criticism of Vygotsky and Luria (p.47). Partiinost' amounted to "science's subordination to party goals and aims" (p.48).

Also in the early 1930s, "a campaign for the practicality of science also gained momentum" as a way of ensuring that science served the State; "applied research started to be considered the essence of science" (p.47; again, cf. the Pedology Decree). And "scientific criticism also acquired a 'patriotic' accent during the 1930s" (p.47; cf. the subsequent criticism of Vygotsky and Luria's 1930 book Studies on the history of behavior, which summarized Western sources just before this turn happened).

As Krementsov summarizes much later in the book, "Three sets of universal rhetorical assertions—partiinost', Marxism, and practicality—embodied the Bolshevik image of science, an image that originated within the 'Communist' science of the 1920s and developed through the political campaigns of the 1930s. They became the obligatory attributes of 'Soviet' science and the 'Soviet' scientist, which the scientific community routinely exploited in its self-portrayal and self-representation in its dealings with the party-state bureaucracy" (p.216). This rhetoric was temporarily displaced during World War II, but returned during the Cold War (p.216).

Other features of Soviet science emerged during this time: public discussions (p.51), self-criticism, and jubilees (p.52).

In Chapter 3, "Stalinist Science in Action: The Case of Genetics," Krementsov moves into the extended case of Lysenkoism. In the 1920s, Russian genetics advanced quickly, partly due to international contacts (p.56). But in the 1930s, the increasing centralization of the science system led to intradisciplinary competition for resources—and the increasing politicization made that competition hardball. In agricultural plant science, Trofim Lysenko—who, with his peasant background, lack of academic training, his lack of academic ties, and his total focus on practical concerns, was ironically the ideal Soviet scientist—began acquiring power in the discipline (p.58). Lysenko's doctrine, "agrobiology," "was cast as the basis for the whole of Soviet agriculture." Agrobiology was cast as a Soviet science, unlike genetics. By 1935, "Vavilov, the main spokesman for genetics, was dismissed from the presidency of VASKhNIL" and "Lysenko and a number of his allies were appointed members of the academy" (p.59). In summer 1936 (a busy summer—in June the USSR banned abortion and in July it essentially banned pedology) VASKhNIL had a public discussion over genetics; this discussion led to the Fourth Session of VASKhNIL in December, "entirely devoted to the controversy" (p.59). The geneticists appeared to carry the day (p.60), but not long afterwards, "the Great Terror proved strategically damaging for genetics mainly because a number of its spokesmen, and all their principal partners within the party-state apparatus, perished" (p.61). In addition, the institutions that had been bastions of genetics lost their power and faded away (p.61). By 1940, Vavilov was arrested as a British spy and genetics lost its strongholds (p.78).

In Chapter 4, "World War II and the Sweet Fruits of Victory," Krementsov discusses the profound changes in the science system due to the Nazi attack on the USSR on June 22, 1941: "Suddenly, everything changed" because "the party-state bureaucracy recognized the vital importance of science and gave its scientific community new responsibility and respect" (p.95; recall that during the War, Luria and Leontiev were put in charge of rehabilitation hospitals and focused on rehabilitating injured soldiers). The Party swelled as citizens were admitted on the battlefield, without the customary indoctrination (p.97). Scientific authority expanded (p.97). Between 1943-1946, the government rewarded scientists with awards, orders, and prizes (p.99). But the sharashki also expanded, including closed research institutions dedicated to the atomic bomb and weaponry (p.103).

With this shift in terrain, "In 1945 Soviet geneticists launched an attack against Lysenko's domination over their field," seeking support first from the Central Committee (p.105). "By mid-1947, despite Lysenko's fierce resistance, the geneticists had gained ground" (p.105). They gained support partly because the USSR joined the Allies against the Axis during World War II, which led to a restoration in scientific relations with the West; they "used international acclaim for Soviet genetics to undermine Lysenko's authority" (p.115).

But, of course, this international support was a two-edged sword. In Chapter 6, "The Fateful Year: 1948," Lysenko triumphed at the August VASKhNIL meeting, having gained the intervention of Stalin himself (pp.158-159). The Cold War had begun, and the strictures of Stalinist science suddenly returned. Stalin was himself neo-Lamarckian (p.166) and sympathized with Lysenko as early as 1935 (p.159). In intervening, Stalin was sending a message: as Krementsov summarizes, "now it was the party-state bureaucracy, not the scientific community, that was responsible for defining which scientific concept was correct. The party apparatus displayed unambiguously its power and intentions, turning the VASKhNIL meeting into a lesson Soviet scientists had to learn, an example they had to follow" (p.183).

Chapter 7, "Talking the Talk: Ritual and Rhetoric" examines the fallout among the scientific disciplines. Interestingly, Krementsov says, "Despite their ritual rhetorical obeisance to the new party control of the content of science, they in fact sought to counteract the party's seizure of control and to reassert their own hegemony over their disciplines" (p.194). Specifically, "In biology, medicine, pedagogy, psychology, and linguistics, scientific leaders sought to protect their existing intellectual and institutional agendas by sanctifying them as quintessentially Michurinist—and hence 'preapproved' by the Central Committee" (pp.194-195; for an example of the 1948 reaction to Lysenko's triumph by Soviet psychologists, see this review). For my purposes, let's focus on the reaction by the Academy of Pedagogical Sciences in a meeting on Sept 4, 1948 (p.204). Kornilov, who was "academy vice-president and academician-secretary of its Psychology Division, presided" (p.205). The president, Kairov, "criticized" and "unmasked" and etc., as one might imagine, but also called attention to "'questions of the influence of heredity, environment, and upbringing on the development and shaping of human beings'" (p.205)—the Pedology Decree, which had criticized the two-factor causality of heredity and environment—was only 22 years in the past. Smirnov, who was "director of the Institute of Psychology," "urged that all psychological works be reassessed from a Michurinist perspective" (pp.206-207).

Across the Soviet science system, scientists "skillfully employed the resources of their professional culture to show the party bureaucrats an image they wanted to see" by deploying "three major rhetorical techniques developed and tested during the 1930s: the juxtaposition of 'us' and 'them,' the use of 'criticism and self-criticism,' and the invocation of 'founding fathers'" (p.218). Re the third technique, the Cold War meant that such founding fathers all had to be "native" (p.223).

Ultimately, Krementsov argues, outside of agriculture, the Michurinist revision was illusory, or in his terminology "rhetorical" (p.239). Mainly, "resolutions named persons who had already been dismissed by the Central Committee"; others had a good chance of keeping their jobs. And some "Mendelists" found safe havens in practical labs (p.240). One geneticist, who headed a department that had been liquidated, appealed to Stalin by emphasizing "the possible military importance of genetics work with microbes"—and "the letter proved effective" (p.252).

Krementsov wraps up in Chapter 9, "The Realities of Stalinist Science: Careereism and Institutional Rivalry," Krementsov overviews how Lysenko became a model for accumulating personal and professional power (p.254).

Overall, this book helped me to understand the Soviet scientific milieu much better, and I'll be consulting this review frequently to help me contextualize the writings of Soviet psychologists at different points. It has already helped me to better understand the context behind a book I reviewed recently. If you're interested in Soviet science, trying to understand Soviet psychology's development, or just interested in the dangers of partisan science, definitely pick it up.

(catching up)

I haven't blogged in a few weeks due to the semester break, but I've been reading steadily and am planning to post a few reviews over the next week. As you might expect, these readings will primarily have to do with Soviet psychology and the Soviet milieu that impacted it. These will include:

  • Krementsov's Stalinist Science
  • Rosenthal's New Myth, New World: From Nietzsche to Stalinism
  • Brozek and Slobin's 1972 collection Psychology in the USSR: An Historical Perspective, consisting of translations of articles written by Soviet psychologists to commemorate the Revolution's 50th anniversary in 1967
  • Rahmani's 1973 overview, Soviet Psychology
  • Lewin's A Dynamic Theory of Personality. Lewin, who corresponded with Vygotsky and sent his students to work with the Vygotsky Circle, published this book in 1935, the year after Vygotsky's death.
Meanwhile I'm plowing through Cole & Maltzman's mammoth 1969 collection A handbook of contemporary Soviet psychology. It'll take a few more days to get through, even though I'm reading opportunistically. It's all fascinating, and I'll try to make the book reviews fascinating too.