Revolutionary psychology

Issue: 163

Shirley Franklin

A review of Carl Ratner and Daniele Nunes Henrique Silva (eds), Vygotsky and Marx: Toward a Marxist Psychology (Routledge, 2017), £33.99

Lev Vygotsky was a brilliant psychologist and educationalist who played several important roles in advising and representing the new government following the 1917 Russian Revolution. He was a polymath; as well as being an exceptional linguist, he was also a literary expert, psychiatrist and philosopher. Despite his tragically early death, aged 36, he has left hundreds of articles, mainly taken from his lectures and three published books. These writings portray Vygotsky’s commitment to the development of a Marxist psychology, a materialist interpretation of how we develop, think, learn and behave.

He has several seminal theories that show how we learn through interaction with others and that language is the key means through which we think. Our language is developed through such interaction within our cultural settings, and in itself has developed to fit our sociocultural needs. Vygotsky’s optimistic theory of the zone of proximal development shows how the best learning takes place where teachers work with students at a level that is beyond their current understanding, but within their learning potential. Again language is a key component here.

Vygotsky’s theories are often taught to student social workers and teachers without any reference to his Marxism. Usually, these ideas are taken out of context, and therefore cannot really be fully understood or developed by students. So it was exciting to find out that a selection of articles have been collated into a book that explicitly explores Vygotsky’s Marxism.

An extensive introduction by the editors, Carl Ratner and Daniele Nunes Henrique Silva, aims to identify the Marxism in Vygotsky’s psychological work and to advance Marxist psychology. They show Vygotsky’s commitment to the revolution, which he called “our supreme cause”, and to the development of psychology as a science rooted in Marxism.

The editors show how Vygotsky’s psychological analysis was rooted in both the history of the person and their thinking within a sociocultural context, unlike the dominant Pavlovian stimulus-response or Piagetian psychologists of his day. A Marxist psychology should underpin both social theory and revolutionary politics; it should be socially and politically transformative and therefore both a social and a political act.

But despite extensive and rather tedious haranguing of significant Vygotskian commentators, such as Michael Cole, Yrjö Engeström, Fred Newman and Lois Holzman, and psychologists for not providing enough history or context in their work, or for lack of revolutionary fervour, the editors fail to provide such context themselves. They purposefully fail to elucidate on Vygotsky’s own life, his role in the revolutionary government as part of the Department of Public Education, his literary studies, his Jewish background or the impact of the Tsarist pogroms of his youth. Nor do they tell us about his extensive studies. A Marxist ­psychologist would know that these would have had a profound impact on his life and ­therefore on his ideas.

As the title of the book suggests, the editors intend that it should lead us towards the development of a Marxist psychology. The book does help us to understand the Marxism in Vygotsky’s work. But by dismissing the work of psychologists who are not explicitly Marxist or who, irritatingly, claim to be Marxists but do not relate psychological problems to wider social issues, they are throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Karl Marx himself was influenced by past philosophers, such as Hegel and Spinoza, who played a crucial role in the development of his massive theoretical output. In dismissing the work of Sigmund Freud because of his “conservative politics”, Ratner rubbishes the important role that Freud brought into ­psychological thinking. Although we may criticise some of his family- and sexual-based perspectives, Freud was one of the first psychologists to show the impact of social and historical factors on our thinking, and the role of interaction in thinking.

As Marxists, of course, we want to study and apply a Marxist analysis and understanding, but we also want to take what is helpful and that works from other psychologists and apply their ideas so that we have a holistic Marxist psychology that we can use to promote understandings of children’s development and of psychological issues.

Most of the chapters in this book attempt to show in highly theoretical terms how Vygotsky applied a Marxist framework to his work. The book is deeply disappointing because it is so dogmatic and narrow in its frame. It does little to introduce teachers, social or mental health workers to the stimulating ideas of Vygotsky. For example, it does not show how Vygotsky was disdainful of testing, similar to SATs, because they show “yesterday’s development” and not a child’s potential. It does not show how we learn from Vygotsky the vital role of speech in learning. It does not tell us how and why he believed in collaborative teaching and learning, or about why he argued that children with special needs should not be discriminated against nor taught in separate schools. Neither does it tell us about his writing that exposes the weaknesses of fascist psychology. The book also says little about the practical applications of Vygotsky’s thinking. His work with people diagnosed with schizophrenia is helpful to mental health workers for example.

Vygotsky’s work was infused with Marxism. He played an important role in shaping the education of children with special needs in revolutionary Russia and was eventually banned by Stalin for his commitment to the individual within the social context. His ideas are fresh and relevant today. You would not know that from reading this book.

Shirley Franklin is a retired teacher and teacher educator. She is a health activist and long-term member of the SWP.