Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Reading :: Soviet Psychology: History, Theory, Context

Soviet Psychology: History, Theory, Content
By John McLeish

I saw this book in UT's library catalog perhaps 18 months ago, but it never seemed to be on the shelf. Finally I ordered a used copy on Amazon — a copy that had been withdrawn from the Columbus College Library in Columbus, Georgia. (It had been checked out once, due April 14, 1985.)

Their loss was my gain. In this 1975 book, MacLeish develops an account of Soviet psychology as it developed from previous Russian efforts, through the revolution, to the mid-1970s. The book predates the publication of Vygotsky's Mind in Society in the West (1978), so Vygotsky doesn't have the rock star status in this narrative that he would receive later, but Vygotsky and his associates are still discussed, and the overall sweep is clear and generally accords with other accounts I've read.

MacLeish begins with an historical overview. He notes that he considers Soviet psychologists correct in "asserting a monistic view of the organism in its environment as the only possible basis for a science of behavior" (p.2), but argues that Soviet dogmatism held back psychology as a scientific endeavor due to "the subordination of scientific truth to political expediency": "For many years, especially between 1935 and 1955, the discussion of psychological theory was reduced to a subjective elaboration of philosophical nuances of a doctrinaire and irrelevant character" (p.3). Yet the line of inquiry, when divorced from Soviet partisanship, was still valid and McLeish argues that its insights are "acceptable to a large body of non-Communist psychological opinion" (p.3).

He identifies two major themes in the development of Soviet psychology.

1) "the Marxist view that there is no such thing as an unchanging, eternal human essence. ... Informed Communists believe it possible to transform 'human nature' to an unlimited extent" by changing society (p.3). Here he refers to the New Man, a motif "emerging and re-emerging over the whole period of development since 1917" and emphasizing "system and dynamic change. Soviet scientists have been concerned primarily with developing a psychological theory which is compatible with an invincible optimism about the possibility of consciously directing social influences to produce a completely new society and a new type of humanity" (p.3).

2) "the linking of the philosophical controversies of the eighteen forties, fifties, and sixties in Russia with current themes" (p.3). These controversies "were devoted not only to philosophical questions but to the problems of social and political change," and they laid the basis for "the birth of an independent science of human behavior" on the work of Chernishevski and Sechenov (p.3).

With this foundation laid, McLeish dives into Russian history pre-Revolution, noting that under the Tsarist regime, educating the illiterate was seen as destroying society (p.14)! He reviews society and science as it developed from the 1700s to the Revolution, noting consequential themes (which I'll skip over in this review).

In Part II, we get to Soviet psychology proper. McLeish notes that it is different from Western psychology. Western psychology is based on experiment (i.e., it is empiricist), is concerned with the individual, is eclectic (building a general theory inductively from data), and "seeks to avoid any 'contamination' with philosophical a priorism" (p.65). In contrast, Soviet psychology "rejects empiricism as a principle of organization of scientific data," "attempts to explain experimental data within a context of presuppositions about the nature of man and society," understands the individual as part of a society; and "rejects eclecticism as a sign either of intellectual incompetence or of an intellectual compromise based ultimately on ideological self-interest" (p.65). (Note: We can see these principles in action in Levitin's interview with Leontiev.)

McLeish provides a detailed history of objective psychology in Russia, including the works of Lomonosov, Sechenov, and Pavlov, along with interactions with philosophers and the Marx-Engels-Lenin line, summarized in a figure (p.83). One highlight for me was the lucid discussion of Lenin's theory of reflection as interpreted in relation to Pavlov. McLeish summarizes Lenin's position: since the psyche is material and monist, "Reality is fully knowable. Truth is the reflection in the human brain of the actual objects and connections existing outside of us. ... The fact that we know the real world is proved by human practice — that is we can transform reality by working on it to achieve a known and predictable outcome. At the same time there are no absolute, eternal, unchanging truths" (p.84). Reflection theory, of course, became an important tenet for Leontiev's activity theory in the Stalinist years.

In Chapter 4, McLeish reviews the years 1917-1929 in Soviet psychology. He notes that "Four alternative theories were presented in the period 1924-9 for consideration, and possibly official recognition, as Marxist psychology": Kornilov's reactology; Bekhterev's reflexology; Pavlov's conditional reflex (p.99); and Vygotsky's so-called cultural-historical psychology, which was "discredited on the grounds that he borrowed too heavily from Western psychology" as well as his ties to pedology (p.100).

McLeish notes that Lenin's conception of the Party, and the development of academic studies in the Soviet Union, both have roots in the Russian tradition of group consensus. In this tradition,
all are encouraged to participate as equals [in an organized discussion] up to the point where a clear and decisive majority viewpoint emerges. The vote is then taken. The members of the group who are then in the minority are expected to reconsider their standpoint with a view to making the decision unanimous. In any case, everyone must implement the majority decision loyally: neither is further discussion tolerated when a definitive vote has been taken. In Old Russia, according to Kovaleski, in the village commune members of the minority, if they continued contumacious, were beaten with rods until they agreed with the majority view. (p.101)
(Recall that Lenin's opponents once lost a vote, so he insisted on calling the Mensheviks (minority) and his own faction Bolsheviks (majority).)

Immediately after the Revolution, a number of foreign theoretical systems flourished, including Gestalt (p.104). But 1921-1923 marked the end of idealism, and in 1924, Kornilov "swept idealism into oblivion" with the publication of an unoriginal but doctrinaire monograph (p.105). Kornilov had just taken over the directorship of the State Institute of Experimental Psychology in 1923 (p.108). McLeish adds that from this point on, "Theory, and the correct theory, is a prerequisite for intelligent research" (p.109).

With this background, McLeish overviews the four schools, none of which were "considered adequate" (p.109). In his summary of Vygotsky's school, he notes that Vygotsky emphasized the importance of cultural environment in the development of human traits, a line of inquiry that "has since found its way into non-Soviet psychology from anthropology" (p.121). Yet this "devotion to foreign fashions in psychology" and his focus on pedology led to lost favor. McLeish also claims that Vygotsky also made the error of not quoting Marx, Engels, and Lenin enough (p.121). In any case, Vygotsky was accused of thinking that he could dissociate "facts" from the bourgeoise theories that produced them (p.122). Nevertheless, McLeish argues, "In reality, Vygotski and his associates Luria and Leontiev laid the foundation in this period of the Marxist approach to the psyche as a historical, developmental product," one that develops dialectically from cooperative labor, as Engels claimed (p.122).

Moreover, they used both the word and the concept of reflection in accordance with Lenin (p.122). And McLeish adds that "Vygotski was engaged with the 'second signaling system' of Pavlov" (p.123). McLeish ends the chapter in this way: "It is now recognized, belatedly perhaps, that Vygotski emphasized aspects of psychology which have since become part of the pattern of Soviet psychology. ... But it must be said that these current emphases are derived from Marx and only secondarily from Vygotski's associates" (p.124).

(Side note: Rudneva (1936) attacked Vygotsky's work for not using reflection theory, and Leontiev and Luria quickly take up the term and apply it in their subsequent work. So I'm not sure I'm on board this claim, although Leontiev and Luria might well have presented Vygotsky in that light shortly before McLeish wrote this book. Similarly, I think the language of the "second signaling system" was picked up by Leontiev and especially Luria around 1950, when Pavlov was elevated during a joint scientific session of the USSR Academy of Sciences and USSR Academy of Medical Sciences.)

From here, in Ch.5 McLeish examines the influence of the five-year plans, noting the critical role of 1929, the "year of the great divide." Lenin's NEP was destroyed, Trotsky had been expelled, and Stalin was ascendant (p.127). After 1931, six major errors were defined, which "specify the rules which should not be broken" in Soviet psychological and general scientific method (p.132). The errors were:

  • Idealism: A sweeping category that includes spirit as opposed to matter, but also abstract categories and even non-dialectical philosophy in general (p.133). For Soviet psychologists, Western empiricism (which "proceeds inductively from what is regarded as the safe ground of experience") is considered idealist in that it does not proceed from correct theory (p.134). 
  • Mechanical materialism: An approach to materialism that is too reductive to address historical development. "Mechanical materialism makes an initial assumption that thought, consciousness, and sensation have merely a subjective, or even a fictitious, existence. ... It creates the necessity for a realm of non-material reality," and thus consciousness, which is expelled from mechanical materialism, "returns to plague the theoretician as an experimental ghost" (p.139). Bekhterev, Freud, and the Gestaltists all came under criticism under this error (p.140). 
  • Reductionism: This error involves "the attempt to reduce psychological processes on the human level to physiological or biological functioning, failing to realize that new laws, principles, and explanatory concepts must be posited as we move from lower to higher levels" (p.140). Soviet psychologists came to argue that "any specific human characteristic or quality, whether it be an emotion, an attitude, or an intellectual ability, develops through activity. There is a dynamic interaction with the environment which changes not only the individual but the environment as well" (p.141). 
  • Abstract human essence: "the attempt to provide a generalized psychology descriptive of man in all times and places" (p.142). 
  • Dualism: "any attempt to consider mind as capable of some form of existence separate from matter" (p.144). 
  • Eclecticism: "the large-scale borrowing of theoretical systems as well as of factual data from foreign psychologists. Neither system nor data are acceptable" (p.144). He adds, "In 1931 Soviet psychologists turned away from the methods and concepts developed under the capitalist market economy and attempted to strike out on a new path" (p.145). (Recall that Vygotsky and Luria were accused of eclecticism by Rasmyslov in 1934 for their tendency to rely on Durkheim and other Western sociologists, anthropologists, and psychologists.) McLeish notes that a 1931 decree on primary and secondary schools was meant to precipitate a sharp break with Western methods and theories, but that break was not completed until the infamous 1936 Pedology Decree (p.147).
Note: In an aside on idealism, McLeish discusses Lenin's reflection theory, in which psychic processes are taken to be reflections of external matter or material processes. Lenin grounds this theory in Marx's Capital, in which Marx asserts that "The ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind and translated into forms of thought" (quoted on p.136). Thus reflection "is not a passive, mirror-like image of reality": Marx stresses "the active side of perception and knowledge," McLeish notes, and Lenin characterizes it as "an eternal process of movement, in which contradictions are forever emerging and being resolved" (quoted on p.136). 

Near the end of the chapter, McLeish adds that "it was Vygotski who introduced the principle of historicism into Russian experimental psychology" and notes that Vygotski's principle of double stimulation was invented by his colleague Sakharov (p.152). 

In Chapter 6, McLeish discusses Soviet psychology from 1935-1947 ("in the Stalin era"). The Communist Party cell of the Moscow Institute of Psychology began critically assessing psychological schools in 1929 with the publication of Lenin's philosophical notebooks (p.159). By the time the Pedology Decree was published in 1936, "all the prevailing schools of psychology ... had been discredited. All the technical journals devoted to psychology as an independent brand of knowledge, established in 1928, had been shut down ... Until 1955, psychological studies could appear only if they conformed to the requirements of the physiological or educational journals" (p.159). Psychological research continued, but without a publication outlet (p.159). "Basic research became a backroom activity" (p.160). 

Ascendant during this time was the theme of the New Man, "free to act because he has the necessary will to do so as well as the understanding of the laws of his own nature, of nature and society essential to act in accordance with necessity" (p.161). McLeish argues that in Russia, there was no Reformation, so the underlying conception of society remained spiritual rather than disintegrating as it had in western Europe (p.162). McLeish asks whether the New Soviet Man is Russian or Marxist, concluding that two conceptions had developed in parallel before unifying—indigenous peasant and Orthodox beliefs, borrowings from Western culture, and deliberate Marxist assimilation by Lenin (p.163). (McLeish does not mention the outsized influence of Nietzsche.) The New Soviet Man's virtues included:
  • Optimism: "The Russians believe that anything is possible to man, that there are no limits to man's power of transforming nature and society. This is not a mere figure of speech, but is to be taken in its most literal meaning" (p.164). Here, McLeish mentions Lysenkoism, though not by name; we can also think of Leontiev's work with dermal vision.
  • Modesty: "It is social man and not individual man for whom all things are — potentially at any rate — possible" (p.164).
  • Collectivism: The NSM "has no purposes which conflict with those of the collective. His particular successes are derived from the good fortune of society, from the success of social, collective work" (p.164).
  • Social humanism: The NSM "loves and cares for people," unlike the misanthropes in capitalist society, but hates the enemies of the working class (p.165).
  • Patriotism: For the NSM, "the motherland and the idea of Communism as the ideal of progressive humanity everywhere are inseparably united" (p.165).
  • Ideological approach: The NSM takes an ideological approach to all questions, from the point of view of the working class, leading to true objectivity (p.165). 
  • Sense of duty: Developing from the above (p.166).
  • Communist attitude to work: "Work is not to be regarded as a punishment for sin, but as the very basis of man's life, the centre of his living interests, and the conditions of a free, human personality" (p.166).
  • Readiness to overcome difficulties: The NSM is ready to overcome difficulties and fight for Communism (p.166).
The NSM, McLeish says, can be interpreted in terms of a recurrent figure in Russian folklore: the sleeping giant who suddenly awakens and transforms his environment (p.168). 

You'll notice from the NSM characteristics and the work in previous chapters that McLeish likes to develop exhaustive lists of characteristics. The next list is that of axioms underlying Soviet psychological research:
  • psychophysical monism
  • the theory of reflection
  • the materialist determination of consciousness and activity
  • the principle of contradiction in development
  • the unity of consciousness and activity
  • the class or historical character of psychic processes (p.170). 
In this context, McLeish notes a few things that relate to the Vygotsky Circle:
  • Vygotsky was the first to investigate schizophrenia via systematic experimental investigation (pp.175-176). 
  • One principle in Soviet therapy is that it stresses work "and the proper attitude to it. Since it is through co-operative labour that man attains his highest level of development, work can be used as a therapeutic agency" (p.176; we see this attitude in Leontiev and Zaporozhets' work at the rehabilitation hospital and arguably in the Gulag as well).
  • Abandoning pedology meant abandoning "the conception of normal distribution of traits, such as intelligence, in human beings" (p.177). We see this turn in Leontiev's postwar writings.
Speaking of Leontiev's postwar writings, McLeish overviews the biology discussion of 1948 (p.190) and its effects on psychology (p.195). First, Rubinstein's 1940 textbook, which had won the Stalin Prize (!), was critically reviewed in 1948 (p.195). Rubinstein was accused of proffering a science of unconscious mind copied from Freud and Lewin (p.196). This sort of borrowing was unacceptable: if a single indivisible truth exists, as the Soviets believed, then an eclectic approach meant drawing on two incompatible and mutually contradictory sources (p.199). 

At the end of the chapter, McLeish praises Vygotsky's work, but notes that "his work was totally ignored during the whole period except by his immediate associates — Leontiev, Zaparozhetz, and others" (p.213). 

The next chapter examines 1950-1955, "half a decade of Pavlovian psychology," starting with the 1950 conference centered around Pavlov and the uptake of his underdeveloped "second signaling system" (p.215). McLeish provides an analogy between this second signaling system and Lenin's reflection theory (p.216). 

Around here, McLeish begins to discuss Leontiev's work—in present tense. (Leontiev died in 1979, just four years after the book was published.) McLeish notes that Leontiev is a leader in the study of "mental and educational backwardness" [sic!] (p.221). He reviews Leontiev's work with the rehabilitation hospital and on developing perfect pitch (p.221), on memory, and on teaching the "mentally defective" (p.222-223). 

In the last chapter, McLeish undertakes a survey of Soviet psychology, noting its divergences from Western psychology. The biggest gap, he says, is in the study of emotions (p.232); here, he mentions a paper Vygotsky wrote in 1932 but that remained unpublished until 1958 (p.234). He also notes the work that Leontiev and Luria did in the area using the combined motor method (p.236). 

Under a separate heading, McLeish discusses social psychology, which was "placed in the deep freeze in the late twenties and early thirties" (p.243). From 1936-1963, h states, there were no studies of social psychology (p.243). 

McLeish regards thought and speech as the central problem of Soviet psychology (p.247). "The processes of thought and speech are seen through the prism of dialectical materialism," specifically based on reflection theory (Lenin) and reflex (Sechenov, Pavlov) (p.248). Here, he reviews Vygotsky's work, specifically how "in a series of experimental studies he demonstrated the real nature of the higher mental processes" (p.248). According to McLeish, "Leontiev, Smirnov, Zinchenko, and many others have filled in details of this picture" (p.249). He sees Vygotsky's central contribution to be the understanding of internalization, a concept that he links to reflection (p.249). 

And that's it for this review. As you can tell, I think this book does a solid job of overviewing trends in Soviet psychology as well as roots of some of its concepts, roots that stretch in part to pre-Soviet Russian culture. I quibble with some of the characterizations of the Vygotsky Circle, but to be fair, the evidence for those quibbles really wasn't available in 1975. Overall, I recommend the book highly if you are as interested in the history of Soviet psychology as I am. 

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