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What is Socialist Psychology: Child Development, History Shaping, Therapy and Revolutionary Situations:  Part II

Orientation

In Part I of this article I discussed how when Vygotsky’s work was exported to the United States it was narrowly defined as encompassing his work in child-development and cooperative learning. His interest in art history, European history and his commitment to Marxian political economy is barely mentioned. Secondly, I contrasted the differences between capitalist psychology and socialist psychology across the categories of psychological disorders, attitude towards social class, what is consciousness, motivation, emotions, intelligence, the place of the unconscious, consumptive patterns, work, free will and therapy. Then I showed how Marxian theories of individual human development differed from bourgeois nativist, behaviorist and constructionist theories of how people change. Lastly, I took a closer look at the similarities and differences between Vygotsky and his great rival, Piaget, in the following areas: the relationship between language and thought; the place of schooling in maturational development; and the role of adults in how children learn.

In Part II, I will begin with the crisis that Vygotsky saw in western psychology. Then we will study his three-stage theory of how people learn (the zone of proximal development) in terms of child development. For the rest of the article, we will expand his theory of zones of proximal development beyond micro-psychology to three areas:

  • How the psychology of an entire class of people can change when historical circumstances require revolutionary change in occupational work
  • How the group rather than the individual is the focus of change in socialist therapy
  • How mass psychology changes during revolutionary situations that one author calls the “zone of proletarian development”

I) Vygotsky, Luria and Leontiev and the Crisis in Bourgeois Psychology

Somewhere in the late 1970’s when Vygotsky’s work was translated and published in paperback, neo-liberal psychologists covered up the fact that Vygotsky was a communist who wanted to build a Marxian psychology in the Soviet Union. They preferred not to know or care to know that it was impossible to understand fully Vygotsky’s work because it was based on a different ontology and epistemology. Dialectical materialist ontology and epistemology were foreign to the social contract theory that was the foundation of ontology and epistemology in the West, including the empiricist, behavioral or rationalistic systems.

It was in 1924 that Vygotsky first identified what he saw as the crisis in western psychology. The schools of psychology in the West that were prevalent were Stern’s personalism, Freud’s psychoanalysis, Wundt’s introspectionism, Pavlov’s behaviorism and Kohler’s Gestalt psychology. In terms of today’s schools, personalism is like humanistic psychology; behaviorism in Vygotsky’s time was the conditioning of Pavlov. It was before the behaviorist work of B.F. Skinner. Gestalt psychology was closest to the cognitive psychology of today. While Gestalt focuses on lower levels of the mind, perception in cognitive psychology includes higher levels of cognition such as interpretations, explanations and assumptions.

Against behaviorist mechanical materialism

Vygotsky asked how do we understand the relationship between consciousness on the one hand and activity on the other? On the one hand he wanted to avoid the reductionism of behaviorism. Behaviorists argue that what goes on inside of people’s minds (consciousness) really doesn’t matter. Individuals are driven by past conditions and associations and the behavior that follows is a product of those associations.  Vygotsky criticized the behaviorists by saying higher psychological processes that take place in consciousness — thought, language, volition — originate as socio-historical processes that could not be explained by association-stimulus-response.  Human consciousness is constitutionally social not individual.  We set goals with others, develop plans for taking action and develop strategies for realizing the goals.

At the same time, once we put our goals into actions with other people, we watch what happens and we learn from it. Some strategies work while others do not. From this we collaborate with others and set new and more refined goals, plans and strategies. We develop a practice. While some simpler human conduct is the result of previous associations which are unconscious, the most important part of human consciousness is purposeful and, most importantly, conduct is socio-historical activity not behavior.

Behaviorists have a naturalistic approach that stresses human continuity with other animals. This is mechanical materialism. It doesn’t take into account the extent to which human society and history act as socio-ecological membranes (a “noosphere”, as Chardin might say) which house the structure for qualitative differences between humans and other animals. Human activity, human practice is both a product and co-producer of this socio-sphere.

Against Introspectionism and Gestaltist Idealism

Vygotsky also criticized Wundt’s empirical introspection for only dealing with the lower levels of consciousness such as attention, sensation and emotions in lab settings. (To be fair to Wundt, he did develop a “folk” branch of psychology which tried to account for the higher mental processes through the study of cultural products such as art and language.)

Like introspectionism, Gestalt psychology limited itself to lower levels of consciousness, that is perception, which were governed by laws of Gestalt. The problem with Gestaltists, according to Vygotsky, is they treated consciousness as an independent function. Action for them was either a secondary derivative or they paid no attention to it. For Vygotsky, Gestaltists were philosophical idealist rationalists. What was in the mind had nothing to do with previous conduct or conditions. The laws of gestalt perception seem to come from nowhere.

The crisis in psychology consists of an extreme dualism: behavior without minds or minds without actions. Vygotsky’s human practice, or activity theory dissolved the schizophrenic crisis in psychology. Human practice involves collective operations on objects through work. This creates consciousness, with consciousness grounded in social goals, plans and strategies. Consciousness is not floating above, or beyond human practice.

Human socio-historical practice resolves the mind-behavior crisis

Human practice is socio-historical, class mediated, irreversible and accumulating.

Vygotsky believed that 1) the type of society, 2) the point in history and, 3) one’s class location mediated the relationship between individual actions and how the mind of the individual developed higher psychological processes. More generally, in strict Marxist terms, the level of the development of the productive forces (technology, methods of harnessing energy) and the relations of production (agricultural-bureaucratic, capitalist, socialist) and their dynamics and conflicts shapes how coherent or incoherent individual human practice becomes in terms of the tools used, the labor processes enacted with other people and the products produced.

Human society, in its various historical expressions, mediates the relationships between objects in nature and the human psyche. The shape of our psyche — our thoughts, emotions, imagination and volitions — finds its leading edge or its degeneration based on what it invents in labor together with other human beings who are part of an irreversible historical process.

II) Vygotsky’s micro-psychology of cooperative learning in individual development

At a micro-level, Vygotsky has been called the father of cooperative learning. Vygotsky and his colleagues believed that all higher psychological processes begin and end as social processes. They originate first in structured, meaningful, cooperative and recursive local interpersonal relations between people. Only later do these skills become internalized, private and independent functions which individuals can carry out alone.  Finally, these skills are reapplied to the social world to larger contexts at a higher order of complexity.

For example, in the interpersonal local stage, a father might work together with his son baking cookies. At first the dad does most of the complex activity himself and gives his son only the simplest tasks. Vygotsky called this part of learning “the zone of proximal development” because working socially is the leading edge of new individual learning for his son. But gradually the dad cedes more and more activities to his son. In the second, internalization phase the father will cede all activities to his son to see if he can do the baking activities himself. Now, suppose the dad wants to take his son to the next phase. He informs him that their neighborhood block is going to have a yard sale and he wants him to bake cookies as part of the sale. In order to involve his son in this project, he proposes again that they work together, only this time at a higher level.

Why would baking cooks for a yard sale be any different from baking cookies for the son’s household? First, because they will be baking for strangers. This involves making cookies his son might not like. Second, he would have to think about baking for many more than two people. Third, he would have to decide on a fair price. While Vygotsky never coined a term for this third phase (which I am calling “global interpersonal”) I think he would be the first to agree that all psychological skills ultimately come back to the social world.

Famously, Vygotsky’s work showed that all higher psychological processes do not begin inside of people the way Piaget or Heinz Werner may claim. Rather they begin in the structured, meaningful, recursive and cooperative relations between children and adults as they play and work. It is only later that the skills they learn become internalized. He called this first stage the “zone of proximal development.”

III) Socio-historical psychology:  Luria and the Russian Revolution

Vygotsky’s work concentrated on how children learn over a very short period of time. However, it tells us little about how adults learn over the course of generations. I am confident that Vygotsky would agree that adults continue to go through the same three phases of learning every time they learn to use a new tool or find a new occupation.

But what about when a new economic system (capitalism) or technology (the printing press) revolutionized society as a whole? What happens to adults and their children when new systems emerge which require new occupations as well as upgrades of existing ones over many generations? Can this be traced? It already has!

In the former Soviet Union, Alexander Luria set out to develop a new communist psychology, separating itself from the rationalist and empiricist traditions in the West. As we have seen, these rationalist, empiricist and behaviorist traditions treated the psychology of the individual as separated from the social and historical context in which he was produced. In the late 1920’s, Luria set out to demonstrate how the most basic psychological processes such as perception, the concept of self, how objects are categorized, and how people reasoned were changed by dramatic historical changes such as Russia’s transition to state socialism.

To do this Luria asked questions of three groups: peasants who still lived on farms relatively untouched by the revolution. These were compared to peasants who moved from the farms to factories in the cities as well as those peasants going to school in cities. What Luria found was very different answers to his questions depending on whether people lived on farms or in cities. As peasants moved from the farmlands to the cities, their psychology changed. As they went to school and worked in factories, their perception, cognition, identity and categorization process became more abstract and universalistic. His point was to show that Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development could be applied to an entire class undergoing a rapid industrialization.

Luria has since been rightly criticized for his misunderstandings of some of the peasants’ responses in his research questions. In part because of this, contemporary followers of Vygotsky’s work have distanced themselves from the historical side of socio-historical psychology, adopting the name “cultural psychology”. Mostly this is because Luria’s framework had embedded within it unilinear theories of social evolution as progress which have been discounted by cultural relativist anthropologists. As far as I know, by the late 1990’s, there have been no historical studies that attempted to apply Vygotsky and Luria’s theories to other historical periods. My two books, From Earth-Spirits to Sky Gods and Power in Eden attempted to do this in mapping the psychological changes among the different social classes they went through as they moved from the Bronze to the Iron Age.

17th century example

In general, changes in socio-historical institutions (such as the emergence of science, capitalism, absolutist states and new media (printing press, newspapers, coined money) demand changes in occupational skills by individuals in order to do their job within the new system.  These changes in job requirements then became internalized as psychological transformations, first at work and then at home in child-rearing practices, religious beliefs and recreational habits.

As these institutional processes change over history, so do the psychological processes. For example, the 17th century was a vital time in developing a scientific methodology for experiments. It was also a time when merchants needed to increase the speed with which goods were consumed and produced. In the case of capitalism, this resulted in the increasing use of coined money, paper money, promissory notes and bills of exchange. In learning to use these new symbolic tokens, people had to reason differently. It is my contention elsewhere (Lerro, Lucifer’s Labyrinth, 2019)  that people needed to enhance the development of Piaget’s formal operational thinking in order to invent and then use these new symbolic tokens.  Whole societies can go through a zone of proximal development.

Socio-historic zones of proximal development

This socio-historical zone of proximal development goes through the following transformations:

  1. Ecological, demographic, economic and political crises require new forms of technology, economic exchange and politics in order to meet the crisis.
  2. Technological, economic and political changes in European society from the Middle Ages to the Gilded Age (such as the printing press, the telescope, microscope, double entry bookkeeping) provided the scene in which cooperative learning occurs on the job (zone of proximal development).
  3. These people (merchants, scientists or artists) then internalize what they’ve learned on the job and possess these learning skills independently for their private use as their subjective skills.
  4. These same workers then apply these skills to non-work social settings such as play, child-rearing or religious practices.

In other words, the movement goes from social, to psychological to social.

However, society is not static:

  1. New ecological, demographic, economic and political crises require new forms of technology, economic exchange and politics to meet the crisis.
  2. This requires new kinds of social institutions which invite new kinds of work.
  3. As people learn new work habits, new tools to use, new symbol systems to manipulate, there develops a new zone of proximal development.
  4. This leads to new internalization processes, a repeat of “1” in the previous paragraph, except on a higher level.
  5. After these skills have been internalized, we will see a further change in child-rearing, game playing and religious practices that reflect these new work habits.

My book Lucifer’s Labyrinth is the story of how psychological processes that we might consider private actually evolved but they are driven by social and historical processes.

Ontogenetic and socio-historical stages of development compared

Table A traces Vygotsky’s three stages of learning both ontogenetically in the life of an individual and socio-historically in the lives of mental workers on the job:

Table A —  Vygotsky’s theory of three stages of learning: ontogenetically and socio-historical application

IV) Socialist Therapy

The emotions as socio-historical productions

In capitalist psychology, emotions are private and precious. They originate inside of people and they dissipate inside of people. In a socialist psychology, emotions are socially produced. Emotions as basic as sexual jealousy vary both historically and cross-culturally.

It is very useful to distinguish feelings from emotions. Feelings may be in the body, physiological stares of arousal which are biological in origin. Cognitive psychologists tell us that in order to have an emotion there has to be a cognitive interpretation of what the physiological state may mean. In other words, in order to have an emotion we have to first think. But where socialist psychology differs from cognitive psychology is in asking where the thoughts come from. Whether thoughts are interpretations, explanations or assumptions, socialists say they do not start with the individual. Hunter-gathering, simple horticulture, agricultural states and industrial capitalist societies all have different interpretations, explanations and assumptions about what events mean.  They form the parameters of the thinking of any particular individual in each society. Even within a given society, different social classes, genders and ethnicities have various spin offs within these parameters. Lastly, any of these types of society change over the course of history. This means whatever emotion an individual experiences is mediated by:

  • The type of society it occurs in;
  • The social class, ethnicity or gender within the society;
  • The point in world history in which the emotion is taking place; and,
  • The interpretation, explanation and assumptions individuals make.

Let’s take anger as our example. Generally, anger is a reaction to a violation of social rules, roles and expectations. But whether people express or repress anger and what they are angry about varies depending on the type of society, the time in world history and the micro-social location of the individual. These socio-historical conditions are mediators between the physiological state of arousal and the emotional state of the person. Emotions are sociohistorical productions before they are internalized in the mental life of the individual.

Let’s say three people are riding in a car together and Jingle Bells comes on the radio. At that moment each person has a different reaction. One person experiences joy, another experiences resignation at having to empty his pocketbook, while another experiences a slow desperation creeping up. Although these are three distinct emotions, they are still rooted in our western civilization concept of Christmas. One may emote joy at the prospect of getting presents; another resignation because Christmas is so commercialized and a third a desperation because it is a time of year when families should be close, while his is not close. Jingle Bells in a hunting and gathering society wouldn’t mean anything because they have no religion with Christmas as one of their holy days. Even the event “Christmas” risks making it a cultural thing without a history. It didn’t always exist as the collective emotional reactions between buying presents and being close. Christmas is the self-conscious production of a particular commercial class at one moment in history.

Alienation under capitalism

Marx talked about how under capitalism commodities acquire a life of their own and disengaged from the situation which produced them. Alienation is the inversion of subject and object, creation and creator. It is a reversal of ends and means so that the means acquires a life if its own. Alienation creates people who are anti-social and anti-historical. They are anti-social in that they are atomistic. They either internalize their conflict as their private business or they externalize the conflict as having nothing to do with them.

Most people who come into therapy are alienated from: a) the products of their labor; b) the process of producing the products; c) other people they are producing with; d) the power setting in which the product is distributed; e) alienation from themselves. The goals of social therapy is to lessen these forms of alienation by creating a microcosm of a socialist society within the group. The following is based on my understanding of the “social therapy” work done in New York City developed by Fred Newman and Lois Holzman in 1989 when I studied with them for a year.

Atomistic groups under capitalism vs collective creative groups under socialism

The goals of social therapy are to cultivate a “social” individual who gradually comes to see the activity of building and sustaining groups as well as a process by which individuals can solve their problems and the result of building them. Considerations of class, race, and gender in a group setting arise not because it is politically correct to discuss them. Rather, it is because these stratified boundaries get in the way of building the group.

In bourgeois psychology, groups are treated as:

  1. no more than the sum of individuals;
  2. less than the sum of individuals;
  3. an entity that has a super-personally separate life from individuals.

To give you an example of the third approach, when people join a group, they often dissolve into it, they reify the group. They make the group a thing, above and beyond anything they can control. When an individual withdraws from the group, the group is renounced as a resource, as the individual believes their problems are so precious that no one could possibly understand them.

When the individual tolerates the members of a group, the individual renounces the capacity of the member being tolerated to change. The tolerating member does not consider that other members might be restless also and they are not alone in putting up with members who are hard to manage. When individuals rebel against the group, they assume that other group members are conservative, never change or are stuck in their ways. If the individual tries to dominate the group, the individual renounces their ability to get what they want through the collective creativity of the group. What withdrawing, toleration, rebelling or dominating have in common is the zero sum game, with winners and losers.  In socialist psychology the relationship between the individual and the group is win-win. In all these examples the group is a whole which is no more than the sum of its parts.

The best example of when a group is treated as less than the sum of individuals, is in the Lord of the Flies novel. A group being less than the sum of individuals exists in the hyper-conservative imagination of Gustav Lebon in his books about crowds, or in mass media’s depiction of mass behavior during natural disasters where crowds develop a hive mentality.

In socialist psychology the group as a whole is more than the sum of its parts, but the group is still the creation of concrete individuals. The group has no mystical identity floating above individuals. While there is no group without individuals, through the collective creativity of members, through creating zones of proximal development, the group acquires a synergy whose products are more than what any individual can do by themselves. A socialist psychology creates win-win situations through cooperation.

A socialist psychological group challenges people who withdraw or dissolve into the group by asking what the group can do to give them what they want. The group confronts those who tolerate others by asking them who and what they are putting up with. What would need to happen for things to be different. To those who rebel the group asks what are you rebelling against and how could we change things to make the group more attractive to you. To those who try to dominate the group, socialist group therapy does not moralize against dominators, we simply say that you are losing out on the collective creativity of others by trying to subjugate them.

In bourgeois group psychology the individual might say “I feel impotent, and the group needs to do something”. In social therapy what might be said is “We are impotent as a group and I need to do something about it as a group member”. Individuals must become tool makers, not just tool users; we must become role makers, not just role takers. We must act ever more inclusively and communally. This means exposing the unconscious commonalities between people that lie beneath individual differences. It means making a long-term commitment based on the belief that the commonalities between most working- class and middle-class people far outweigh the differences. We work to minimize alienation:

  1. a) by expanding the range of what the choices are;
  2. b) how the choices are made;
  3. c) for whom they are made; and,
  4. d) how they are consumed.

Goals of socialist therapy:

The therapeutic material the group works on is not the personal past history of individuals, neither is it in the world outside the group. Rather, the subject matter is how to learn to build the therapy group and improve it. The idea is that if you learn to build the collective power of a therapy group, you can then go out into the world and change it by your newfound capacity to change groups wherever we go, now and into the future. Learning how to change groups through the collective creative capacity of the group moves us from being products of history to being co-producers of it.

The purpose of social therapy is to:

  • Address emotional problems;
  • Change the understanding of the dialectic of the relationship between the individual and the group;
  • Develop a practical-critical self-consciousness about one’s activity as historical beings; and,
  • Create a world-historical identity among members.

V) The Zone of Proletarian Development in revolutionary situations

Creative work of Mastaneh Shah-Shuja

One of the boldest and creative attempts to apply Vygotsky’s work is Mastaneh Shah-Shuja’s book Zones of Proletarian Development. The title is a takeoff of Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development. What Mastaneh does that is original is:

  1. to take the zone of proximal development out of the sphere of ontogenesis and apply it to the development of group life of proletarians; and,
  2. this application is not applied to normal life but group life in revolutionary situations. These include riots, demonstrations, and carnivals.

She applies the work of Vygotsky’s colleague Leontiev’s activity theory to an anti-poll tax riot in 1990, anti-war demonstrations and to various May Days, all of which occurred in Britain. She stretches activity theory far beyond its original application to show how workers move from what Marx had called “class-in-itself” to “class-for-itself” identity. In other words, how proletarians develop over the lifetime of revolutionary situations. I am interested in showing how this zone of proletarian development can apply to longer term situations such as natural disasters and worker takeovers of production.

Natural disasters are similar to revolutionary situations

San Francisco Earthquake

I suspect that surprising to many, research in mass psychology shows that more times than not, natural disasters bring out the very best in people far more often than the worst. During the 1989 earthquake in San Francisco, the traffic lights had stopped functioning and I remember seeing a homeless man directing traffic at the corner of Market and Van Ness. This is a person who, half an hour ago, would not be able to get the time of day from a passerby. He is now a spontaneous director for traffic. Drivers are following his instructions. Neighbors who had never spoken to each other or workers who only yesterday were completely indifferent to each other’s lives are mobilized into action. Large segments of the population change from being passive order-takers to spontaneous co-creators, social engineers, most of whom had no prior experience.

New York Snowstorm

I would like to relate another “collective peak experience” of my own to give a further sense of what social life could be like. The setting is the middle of the 1960’s in New York City in the dead of winter. It had been snowing for days. Upon leaving my high school I discover that the snow drifts have smothered all traffic. Things are eerily still. In the distance I see a man approaching me. He gestures for me to come towards him. My fleeting reservation is no match for this extraordinary situation. He asks me to help him push his car to the side of the road. As we begin pushing, I sense that that load is suddenly lighter, realizing now we have been joined by two or three others who spontaneously pitch in. Having successfully achieved our goal, we proceed to help these latest arrivals dig their cars out. More people come along. Some suggest we all plow the entire street, since then we will all have access to the main road. We organize ourselves into little work groups and work into the night, making slow progress since it continues to snow.

What is happening here? I am bustling about, shoveling here, pushing there with people I have never met and probably won’t ever see again. I’ve forgotten about eating, worrying about school or struggles with my parents. It is hard to believe I could become so close to so many strangers in such a short period of time.

As this street-clearing project continues we begin to relax a little. Strangers are laughing and joking. Grateful neighbors are now out in the street offering hot chocolate, chestnuts and a hardy fire to warm up by. Someone throws a snowball from across the street. It comes from the hand of an older businessman. A man in a three-piece suit ducking behind a car to avoid retaliation. How bizarre! But then this whole episode suggests something forbidden, not of this world. Time seems to have stopped. Since no traffic is moving, the street is ours! We can do anything from sleigh-riding to castle-building to hide-and-seek. We did all three. We have created a new kind of social life. The labor of clearing the street, digging out cars and chopping ice was a spontaneous collective activity, achieved without coercion from authorities and without wage labor as an incentive. It was a group zone of proximal development.

What do natural disasters have to do with revolutionary situations? Natural disasters are relatively short-lived. Revolutionary situations and what have sometimes followed — workers councils — can last months, and in some cases, years. The process of seizing control over social life and actually making decisions together with others about the production, circulation and distribution of goods and services is the stuff of “socio-historical” peak experiences, or, as one anarchist put it, “orgasms of history.”

Social psychology of revolutionary situations

The stereotype of a revolutionary situation in Yankeedom is of a “foreign” looking man sneakily moving together with a motley crew of followers with a bomb as they attack the White House. In this scene revolutionaries are either madmen or in the case of The Hunger Games, they are heroes. Nineteenth century socialists have naively presented the lower classes as downtrodden individuals who are really fearless, heroic individuals who, once they experience a crack in the existing order, throw off their chains, rise to the occasion, perhaps helped all by the leaders of leftist organizations.

But in real revolutions, the situations are chaotic and complex and the leaders along with the masses are frightened. Let me begin by examining the emotional predicament of the participants when the traditional institutions are weakened or, in some cases, collapse.  What happens when the lights go out? What happens when there is no gasoline? How do people react when public transport has come to a stop? What do people do when radio and TV stations operate erratically, and credit cards can no longer be used? Initially, we are more likely to find individuals who are disoriented, not heroic. Further, as much as people may complain about this or that problem within the existing order, they are distraught upon realizing that no authority figures are going to restore order any time soon.

Fredy Perlman, in his great book Manual for Revolutionary Leaders, describes the emotional state of an individual faced with these extraordinary circumstances:

During the course of normal times, one had to rise at a given hour to be at a given place at a given time, in order to survive. And even then, the survival was not assured. Even people who did as they were told were constantly being removed, excluded, deprived. One lost all desires except one: to rise at a given hour so as to be at a given place at a given time. This project had become one’s entire habit structure, one’s personality. And one day…the guard doesn’t come and continues not to come – is it the end? Fear grips one’s heart. The daily anxiety one has learned to accept as a normal part of life gives way to desperation.

Human beings are amazingly adaptable, and that works both for and against us. In this case, even though the objective conditions of individuals under capitalism are fairly miserable, when these conditions suddenly cease to exist, the habit of going to work and engaging these conditions over and over again ceases. A disruption of the habit, even a miserable one, is disturbing, at least at first.

At a more general level:

The moment of the seizure of power is not a moment of independence but of anxiety in the face of independence. It is the moment when people are on the verge of independence, when they reach the frontier between the known and the unknown, between the familiar and the new and temporarily recoil…All the official authorities have been sprung into the air, but when…individuals have not yet…appropriated the power they have vested in the disposed authorities…Only one part of the dominant social relation has been sprung into the air, but when…individuals have not yet…appropriated the power they have vested in the disposed authorities…Only one part of the dominant social relation has been sprung into the air—the superincumbent strata; but when the other part of the same social relation—the subordination, the dependence, the helplessness—has not yet been sprung. It is the moment when the frontier between dependence and independence …appears to be an unbridgeable chasm…These conditions exist only during the brief moment after the objective relations of dependence are removed, but before the subjective consequences of these relations are remaining.

These exceptional insights require some commentary. In order to exist, any social order must have a spectrum of strategies, force, coercion (the threat of force), propaganda, entertainment on the one hand, and collusion of workers on the other. State force and coercion involves the military and police forces that are required to protect the property of the capitalists. However, while these violent forces are always present, they are not always active. In fact, in a society that is relatively stable, they lie dormant. What keeps society functioning continually in a way that is blatantly unequal economically and politically, without the force or coercion perpetually intervening? People’s willingness to support and go along with this through their work, with the institutions that oppress them. This is what I call collusion.

The point here is that when people acquire the “habit” of collusion they become attached and dependent on the existing order over time. If they are conservative, they may fight to defend the existing order in revolutionary situations. Even if workers are progressive or socialist this habit of collusion will hold them back from becoming independent and seizing the reins of power. The gap between the known and the unknown, the familiar and the new is frightening at least as much as it is liberating. There is collective anxiety at the prospect of independence and freedom to organize social life in a new way. As the lower classes become used to this arrangement, they have difficulty imagining that things could be any other way, and they pass on these ways of thinking to the next generation. When the music of the dominant order slows down or even stops suddenly, the lower classes are still dancing the dance of collusion and dependence.

All transformations from dependency to autonomy, whether they are social or psychological, enter a valley of death, mystically referred to as the “dark night of the soul”. There is an abyss in which the old dependencies are no longer possible but where a new autonomous way of living is still too fragile to be of reassurance. We either learn to accept the pain of temporary confusion until we develop the self-mastery that will make the dependencies no longer necessary, or we scramble to find new dependencies, new authorities which take over the power for us. The latter is the road to cults and fascism. The road to self-mastery and worker self-management is the road to socialism through the zone of proletarian development.

The zones of proletarian development

When we discussed the micro-psychology of Vygotsky, we said there were three stages of learning; local interpersonal, internalization and global interpersonal. The same is true when groups learn new things, as in Luria’s study of peasants during the revolution or when the middle classes were transformed by capitalism in the 17th century. It is true when group members in therapy expand their knowledge of how to create socialist groups into new groups. So, in revolutionary situations today, we have the stages of proletarian development.

Local interpersonal

In revolutionary situations, the first stage is local interpersonal where learning is with those close at hand. In a demonstration it is a particular site. In an occupation it would be a particular factory, store or office. In the case of a demonstration or a riot, the tools used are no longer the pens, pencils and books of an educational setting. Rather they include overturned cars, billboards, railings, torn off branches of trees, as well as thrown cobblestones, jack-hammers taken from building sites, chains, street barricades, red and black flags, Molotov cocktails and cell phones. For longer sieges groups built makeshift structures, workers cleaned up garbage, made beds from wood pallets and cardboard and designed storm drains as bathrooms. The proletariat learned also to avert gas canisters and tear gas.

In a situation like this, it is easy to understand the seriousness, the fear of reprisals, the sense of being on unsure ground that must have gripped the participants. But at the same time, these feelings were also mixed with feelings of delight as a result of the collective creativity of the large groups of people. Is it so far-fetched to imagine that these experiences were similar but on a higher level as the description of the snow storm I mentioned earlier?

Internalization

At the micro-level of individual development, internalization has to do with the process of making what was learned in the local interpersonal a body of knowledge usable by the individual on their own without the presence of a group. But at the macro-level of proletarian development, it is the entire group that must process what was learned in the local interpersonal stage. Crowds have to discuss what they learned, what succeeded and what failed.

During the period of deliberation (some may recall the general assemblies at Occupy) for very deep and long-lasting revolutionary situations, some of the more seasoned militants will revisit the controversies between anarchists, various varieties of Leninists and social democrats as to whether to remain local, federate or centralize; the extent of which the state should be reformed or abolished; which (if any) markets should remain in operation; whether a political party should be mass or secret, vanguard or not; whether or not they should participate or not participate in elections and if so, at what level. How much power should leaders possess? Should political bodies use representation or delegation? How long can the leaders remain leaders? More or less permanency or rotated? Should they be recalled immediately or do we grant leaders a longer learning curve? Still deeper discussions may refer to the achievements of the past for guidance in revolutionary situations: the Paris Commune, the factory committees during the Russian Revolution, the anarchist collectives in the cities and in the peasant countryside collectives during the Spanish revolution.

Global interpersonal

When we discussed the global interpersonal stage in individual development, we said that the young boy making cookies would be challenged by the prospect of making cookies for a block sale because he would have to accommodate different tastes in cookies; he had to determine a price he would sell the cookies for, and he had to bake at a volume far beyond what he was used to. Something similar goes on at the macro-level in a revolutionary situation.

As far back as the Communist Manifesto, the main objective of the Communist Party was to extend and intensify class struggle and this was done by linking the specific struggle to the general struggle. We must demonstrate linkage between various aspects of the social movement and prevent fragmentation into single issues. We must attempt to spread the strike which forces us to cooperate at a more complex, expansive level with more people we do not know into new geographical locations and in situations they are unfamiliar with.  This is Engestrom’s “expansive learning”. This would involve overcoming religious and nationalist conflicts, as well as racist and sexist assumptions which get in the way of expanding the revolution, age biases, the division between white collar and blue-collar proletarians, all of which have kept the authorities in power by fragmenting our struggle. The hardest part of all is to set up systems of coordination across various locales. In the end we should aim to create:

A single united body, it is impossible either for the brave to advance alone, the the cowardly to retreat alone

— Sun Tzu, The Art of War

• First published at Planning Beyond Capitalism

• Read Part 1 here

Bruce Lerro has taught for 25 years as an adjunct college professor of psychology at Golden Gate University, Dominican University and Diablo Valley College in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has applied a Vygotskian socio-historical perspective to his three books found on Amazon. Read other articles by Bruce, or visit Bruce’s website.
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