When I was asked if I would review some Russian books on Psychology and Child Deve¬lopment, I agreed immediately since I had not read much literature emanating from Eastern Europe in recent years. Familiarity with the English language predisposes one to keep largely to books coming out of the USA and England, and to translations of French and German writ¬ings.
While I was settling down to writing this review (at the thir¬teenth hour, so to speak), my memory cells retrieved a com¬ment made to me by some radical students at Madison. We were at the house of a Professor of History, renowned for his brilliant lectures on the ‘History of Revolutions’ and his admiring undergradu¬ate students were there in large numbers. When they found out that I was studying Psychology, one of them asked me what I was trying to achieve, studying ‘capitalistic’ psychology. Not having ob¬served the political colouring of the subjects I was taking, I inquired what they meant by ‘capitalistic psychology’. They did not answer, but smil¬ed. Finally, I said, ‘Do you mean that if a person acts in his self-interest, it is ‘capitalis¬tic’? But don’t all of us act in our own interest?’ Their response was spontaneous. ‘See, you are already brain¬washed!’ I hope my readers will glean the moral of that story.
There were two subsequent occasions to keep political ideology in the picture. One of them was Arthur Jensen’s con-troversial piece on the heritability of intelligence, with a clear racial tinge. His implica¬tion was that the blacks in the US lacked conceptual intelli¬gence and could only learn by rote. For this untenable argu¬ment, he mustered data from Cyril Burt’s twin studies as well as heritability ratios from stud farms. This paper, pub¬lished in 1969, polarized psy-chologists into supporting either the theoretical perspec¬tive of genetic determinism or of environmental determinism. Some students in England undertook a brief on-the-spot study one summer when Jensen visited England and found that those who supported Jensen voted Conservative and those who disagreed voted Labour. This difference was statistically significant.
The next episode concerned a paper that I was presenting in Honolulu, where I had argued that to explain poverty in India as following from the ‘fatalism’ of the traditional peasant was to miss the point; that people become fatalistic when they have no effective control over their own lives, and that changing attitudes without changing structures was bound to be ineffective. The seminar participants, espe¬cially middle-aged Americans, felt that my approach was ‘Marxist’ and their way of dealing with it was to judi¬ciously avoid discussing the issues I had raised, to offer me books for my library and generally to kill me with kind¬ness!
These experiences gave me substance for my anecdotage, but left me a little confused about the major difference between the two schools of thought. It did become clear that a theory of psychology cannot be unrelated to beliefs about human nature and human behaviour, to the politi¬cal ideology espoused and even to one’s metaphysical heritage. So I turned with fresh interest to the books on hand to see how they dealt with the issues of the mind. (Hard-core psy¬chologists in the US refer to psychology as the science of behaviour, not as the science of the mind.)
Leontyev’s book is a loosely strung set of papers written during his entire academic career, spanning a period of three decades. Two of the chapters are extracts from his doctoral thesis, one of which has the intriguing title of the ‘Evolution of the Psyche in animals’. He goes on to talk about the first stage of the ele¬mentary sensory psyche, the second stage of the perceptive psyche and the third stage of intellect (or ‘manual think¬ing’). The next stage is that of human consciousness, a stage in which the world of inner experiences and the possibility of developing self-observation on that basis are mentioned. Leontyev uses the word ‘psyche’ as equivalent to ‘mind’; he treats mind in turn as a ‘definite form of the vital processes’. He goes on to say that
if there had been no transi¬tion of animals to more complex forms of life, there would not have been mind, because it is in fact a pro¬duct of life’s increasing acti¬vity.
He later asserts that the evolu¬tion of the psychic functions and capacities specific to man was made possible by the ‘action of objective social laws’. The activity characteris¬tic of man is ‘productive, con¬structive activity—labour, work’. The discovery of this was made by the ‘father of scientific socialism, Karl Marx’. (When in doubt, quote Marx and Engels, seems to be general procedure followed by the author.) In order to ela¬borate upon human conscious¬ness, he cites Marx and Engels, who treat it as inseparable from language. In their view, language arises solely in the labour process and like cons¬ciousness is a product of the group. The author says:
The origin of language can be understood only in rela¬tion to the need developing for people in the process of labour to say something to one another.
Leontyev certainly overstates his case; one can think of sim¬pler ways of defining the origin of language. Nevertheless, the major point of his thesis is that traditional psychology, which he terms ‘bourgeois psycho¬logy’, treats man’s capabilities and characteristics ahistorically, thereby denying the his¬torical nature of the psyche. He argues that human traits are determined by man’s real relations with the world, which depend on the objective, his-torical conditions of his life. In criticizing Psychology (the non-materialist variety) as us¬ing only the data of introspec¬tion and subjectivity, Leontyev is dated, since he cites Des¬cartes. No student of Psycho¬logy today, from whichever World (First, Second or Third) would deny that objective phenomena are the data of contemporary study. In the general picture of ‘scientific psychology’ that the author gives us, one comes upon several evidences of opinion rather than fact, cited as sup¬port for his ideas. For in¬stance, in the- chapter on human consciousness he quotes Engels, concluding:
Hence the workman is much less prejudiced, has a clearer eye for facts as they are than the bourgeois, and does not look at everything through the spectacles of personal selfishness.
Lada Aidarova is an educator at the primary level; much of her pedagogy is uncontroversial and would be acceptable to many. She has the experi¬ence of actually teaching young children, which is perhaps more than can be claimed by many who write books on education. Nevertheless, pos¬sibly due to translation prob¬lems, she sounds preachy and, at times, smug. She quotes Vygotsky, whose writings on language development are widely read, has productions of the children’s art work and presents some fairly useful (but no longer new to people in the field) ideas on the teaching of language.
The emphasis on language learning is one of the features we have come to associate with Russian psychology. ‘Develop¬ment’ is thought patterns and habits ‘semantically coded’. Aidarova refers to the different approach to development taken by Soviet psychologists, which emphasizes the specific ways and forms of man’s mastering the world, rather than biological and psychologi¬cal indicators. What is notice¬able is that Aidarova is much less political in her writings, refers peripherally to another kind of psychology, and is able to cite Piaget. It seems that having made her ritual obeis¬ance to the philosophy to which she owes loyalty, she quietly goes on to quote from her children’s stories and con¬versations. It is not a very exciting book, despite all that. For livelier reading I would any day prefer the other author who is more recognizably ‘materialistic’!
Having said this, I still feel that the Soviet books are a disappointment. They leave one with the feeling of having met a sheep in bear’s clothing. The emphasis on the difference between animal and man, the focus on language as the major human achievement, the insis¬tence that the phenomena of study in psychology should be objective, the acceptance that both biological and social factors have an impact on man’s life, the statement that a non-judgmental approach on the part of the teacher can draw out the child’s creativity—all these are non-controver¬sial, even pedestrian. For all Leontyev’s protests and sabre-rattling, materialist psychology is not so different after all from the derogated ‘bourgeois psychology’. In some ways the Russians are more mentalistic than contemporary scholars from other parts of the world; they are also totally humourless in their style. I would like to end this review with an old nineteenth century gag that might be too flippant for the exponents of materialistic psychology, but is a cryptic conclusion. It goes thus:
‘What is mind?’
‘What is matter?’
Anandalakshmi is Director of Lady Irwin College, Delhi.