On a significant meeting in West Berlin

A Marxist approach to psychology

Carl Shames
Clinical Psychology
Berkeley, California

IN OCTOBER 1986, West Berlin's College of Arts hosted the first International Congress on Activity Theory. This was also the first effort to bring together under one roof researchers, theorists and philosophers working in the tradition of the Soviet psychologists Leontiev and Vygotsky. The majority were from West Germany, West Berlin and the Benelux and Scandinavian countries, the latter two having hosted previous, smaller conferences focusing on pedagogics. The U.S. group included Michael Cole, Norris Minick, Alex Kozulin, and Sylvia Scribner, who are largely responsible for introducing Vygotsky and Soviet psychology to the U.S. Also represented were Italy, Canada, East Germany and the Soviet Union, the last two not in numbers corresponding to their importance in this field.

The purpose of the conference was to assess the state of affairs, and to consolidate and advance work in this materialist direction of psychology begun in the 1920's. At that time, Vygotsky and his followers, especially Leontiev, set out to organize a new psychological theory and body of knowledge, firmly based in Marxist principles. Their goal was to overcome the dualisms, fragmentation and reductionism that characterized psychology and to develop a view of human functioning as purposive, conscious, and embedded in social-historical and cultural processes. The split of the "inner" world of consciousness from the "outer" world of social and natural determinations was to be overcome. Just as labor served Marx's purpose in resolving this dualism, the principle of "activity", extending and concretizing the labor concept, would do this for psychology. To be human is to be active and productive, engaged in the transformation and appropriation of nature. Human activity, then, was the founding category of this new materialist psychology.

For Vygotsky, Leontiev and the others of the Soviet "cultural-historical school", the implications of this effort go beyond the bounds of traditional psychology; they recognized the historical significance of this effort to concretize Marx's world view in a psychological science as central in humanity's developing self‑knowledge. For instance, how does the principle of reflection, outlined by Lenin, actually operate? How exactly does labor shape or produce the person? How do human needs arise? How is consciousness shaped by social and cultural factors? Addressing these questions, psychology has broad social and philosophical implications. In the 60 years since its origins, although a considerable body of empirical work and theoretical discussions have accrued, the controversies, ambiguities and difficulties remain and Vygotsky's goal of a unified Marxist‑based psychology remains elusive.

These issues were prominent in the concerns of the conference organizers and participants. Speakers referred often to the continuing fragmentation within psychology and among the social and natural sciences, and to the need for partisanship and international cooperation in the task of developing a unified science and vision of humanity. This science must be concrete and empirically based, while not reducing people to biological processes, or falling into metaphysical generalities. Michael Cole of the U.S., in particular, stressed the need for international cooperation in advancing a new human science capable of contributing to the solution of the political and ecological crises of our times. This new science must overcome not only the theoretical fragmentation and controversies that characterize the human sciences, but also the geographic or national insularity within which most theoreticians and researchers operate.

Background for the Congress

THE PHILOSOPHICAL PROBLEMS. Kant was the first modem philosopher to see that what makes us specifically human is an active principle, i.e. the organizing activity of the mind. Humanity is characterized by activity, but this activity is purely mental, ideal. Fichte extended this principle to the self, or ego, which he claimed is not a static self‑contained subject, as it was for Descartes, but is active, or rather, is itself activity. Hegel developed this category considerably further, and here too, it is the basis of his conception of what makes humans human. Through productive activity, or labor, humanity objectifies; itself, its powers and capacities, then newly acquires itself through these objectifications, thus moving forward. Hegel's early interest in labor, however, gave way to idealist formulations of activity as the self‑movement and development of the absolute spirit. Individuals are human by virtue of being moments of and vehicles for the realization of this development.

While Hegel's early formulation played an important role in Marx's 1844 work, Marx's later works generally refer only to labor, although he occasionally seemed to use this interchangeably with activity. Marx saw humanity as essentially active—externalizing (objectifying), reincorporating and developing itself through productive labor. Central for Marx, though, is the concept of this activity as a material process: it is activity not of an isolated mind, ego or spirit, but of material beings engaged with the social and natural world. Marx's "First Thesis on Feuerbach" proclaimed the basis for his reinterpretation of Hegelian idealism by resolving its antithesis to scientific materialism: human activity is not mental, but is sensuous, material. This is the key, for Marx, to overcoming the duality between subject and object, between the inner world of meanings and the outer world of determinations, a duality that persists in social thought today.

Serious philosophical problems confront us as we attempt to understand this Marxist concept of "activity". Are people to be thought of as active only in the sense of labor, or does the concept of activity have a broader significance? Are we to think of activity as pertaining to individual people, or to humanity as a "species being"? That is, does activity have some supra‑personal basis, consistent with Marx's methodological dictum that the individual is not to be taken as the starting point for analysis, but rather that analysis "ascends from the abstract to the concrete"? Are the objects of activity natural, cultural, or social‑historical in a sense other than culture? How can we think of people as individuals in a social‑historical and natural "environment" and at the same times as products of that environment?

THE SOVIET "cultural‑historical school" of psychology. Responding to the behaviorism and reflexology that dominated much of psychology in the early 20's, Vygotsky asserted that consciousness and conscious action must be the central object of study for psychological science, since it is this that distinguishes humanity. Unlike earlier introspectionists who saw consciousness as a self‑contained realm and, of course, the behaviorists who denied consciousness any status whatever, Vygotsky sought to study consciousness as integral to cultural and historical relations. Human experience is social, historical and conscious, and the inner world is a transformed, internalized version of the outer, social world.

Vygotsky devoted much of his research to the study of this transformation from the outer to the inner. He extended Marx and Engels' analysis of the tool as the essential mediating moment that makes labor a humanizing process, to culture as a system of symbolic and sign "tools" that mediate activity in the production and expression of higher mental processes. Here we see Vygotsky's debt to Bakhtin and semiotics. Social‑historical processes in these studies were represented as "culture", which in turn was seen as a system of social conventions and personally meaningful symbols and signs. Language then became, for Vygotsky, the cardinal representation of culture, and of social relations. Activity here is seen as culture on the individual level, embodied in the symbolic forms of speech, play and gesture. The conventional meanings of culture are transformed by activity into the personal sense of individual thought and speech processes. This distinction between meaning and sense then became, for Vygotsky and Leontiev, the way of seeing the relation of the individual to the social.

A central issue for Vygotsky, and for all subsequent discussions, is naturalism, that is, the assumption common to psychological theories that the individual is in essence a natural being, living in a social environment. From psychoanalysis to sociobiology, the dominant view in Western psychology is still based on naturalism. For Vygotsky, psychology must clarify the transformation of the natural to the human: although the individual as an organism is natural, the individual as a psychological being is fully social and all inner processes are culturally based. In human development, the higher functions supersede (aufheben) the lower, natural processes such as simple attention and perception. Here we have the first attempt in this tradition to formulate a dialectical relation between the natural and the social.

VYGOTSKY'S WORK was to be criticized as not materialist in the Stalinist era beginning in 1929, and he died of tuberculosis in 1934. Leontiev and others continued working in his tradition while making some central changes. Though inner mental life was still seen as a transformation of outer processes, Leontiev attempted to base the theory on actual material operations and relations, not on symbolic and cultural forms as did Vygotsky. He saw this as restoring the activity concept to a materialist foundation. Although the work of this group was eclipsed by "official" Pavlovian psychology for many years, this new broader concept of activity continued to be developed and elaborated.

In 1962, Leontiev received the highest recognition for his work, and his formulation of activity theory became the new "official" basis for Soviet psychology. Returning to Hegel's formulation, Leontiev analyzed activity as a development process of objectification and acquisition. He traced the origin and development of the psyche from the irritability of the most primitive life forms through human higher mental processes, based on the transition from the natural to social world. From the lowest to the highest, the life process is active in its essence—an engagement with the environment. Activity now became what Leontiev called a "molar concept", referring not to thought processes in a cultural context, but to the functioning of the individual as a whole, in the context of social‑historical reality as a whole. While this view may be more consistent with modern materialism, it is certainly a tall order to bring it down to a level of specific, empirically testable concepts. This tension between the demands of the philosophical basis and the need for a concrete empirically based science plagued Leontiev's work throughout. For instance, while Leontiev saw that the basis and logical structure of activity cannot be centered on the functioning of the individual, but rather pertains to "species being" on the social level, he was ultimately unable to devise concepts necessary to concretize this.

SOME PROBLEMS of Marxism in science and socialist ideology. Leontiev's work has spawned a considerable body of theory and research in the fields of cognition, learning, child development and education, rehabilitation and labor psychology in the socialist countries, particularly in the Soviet Union and the GDR. The theoretical and political controversies associated with the development of this science are instructive in the difficulties of formulating a Marxist approach to science. This has involved resolving the contradiction of scientific investigation not only with a particular philosophy but with an "official" interpretation of that philosophy that is subject to the vicissitudes of political life. The struggle between centralism and pluralism now taking place in the Soviet Union on a political level surely will have its reflection on the theoretical level. While few today would openly advocate the Stalinist position that the three are identical, neither has Marxist thought and practice fully outgrown this position. It remains for Marxists to clarify the dialectical relations between politics, philosophy and science.

Throughout the development of activity theory, and more broadly of psychology in the socialist countries, we see a tension between the need for concrete science on the one hand and for the satisfaction of philosophical and political demands on the other. While Vygotsky's work was exacting as concrete science, his goal of philosophical adherence to Marxist principles was unrealized. Leontiev was more philosophically systematic, but as he developed his philosophical principles, he was increasingly unable to apply them to concrete research. In addition, appreciation of his work required a more sophisticated understanding of the concept of materialism than the one prevailing in the Pavlovian era when the tendency was to equate "material" with "tangible", resulting in biological reductionism that still persists among many Marxist psychologists.

THE UNFORTUNATE TENDENCY in the Soviet Union and GDR has been to collapse philosophy and science into each other, rationalizing the scientific work with a highly altered version of Marxist philosophy, and often substituting philosophical rhetoric for concrete social analysis. Systems theory and ideology provides a good example. Lomov and Kossakowski, principle ideologues of psychology in the USSR and GDR respectively, and both with a background of engineering psychology, proclaim that systems theory is the modern form of dialectics. Thus, the reduction of the concept "social relations" to micro-environmental "social factors" is proclaimed to be consistent with Marxism. The political assertion that the socialist countries have achieved a full harmony between the individual and the society is reflected in the scientific notion that systems are based on internal methods of self‑regulation. The interaction of the individual with the society, in this view, far from embodying fundamental tensions and contradictions, is simply the territory of acquiring regulatory functions, transferred from the social to the individual systems.

SYSTEMS IDEOLOGY, in the socialist as well as capitalist world, is a managerial point of view, which makes it possible to study complex interactions without identifying underlying relations and contradictions. It is neopositivist in that it has no theory of the production of the elements or boundaries of a system, enabling the investigator to select systems and elements at will. Though management has its place in social development and microsocial analyses are necessary for the development of an empirical science, this is a far cry from dialectics—Marxism must accept the necessary tension between philosophy and empirical science just as that between social ideals and realities.

An essential principle of Marxism is that for dialectical thought to reach the level of concrete facts, it must be based upon an analysis of fundamental social relations and contradictions. The assertion in the socialist countries that these have ceased to operate, and the absence of a Marxist analysis of socialist development, has had disastrous effects on the development of social thought as a whole, effects with which Gorbachev must struggle today. Just as market forces must be both adopted and understood in the context of socialist development, systems theory and the bourgeois level of scientific theory as a whole must be understood in the context of a comprehensive Marxist theory of the development of scientific thought. That is, Marxism must become far more sophisticated in understanding its own political and theoretical development.

Similarly, while the idea that all human activity is conscious and purposive may be ideologically attractive to some, few serious 20th century social thinkers would try to support this view. Though we must discard the ideological trappings of psychoanalysis and other forms of bourgeois irrationalism, we still must confront the real complexities of human behavior and motivation. The serious psycho‑social problems of Soviet society, e.g., low productivity, alcoholism, alienation, and corruption have been identified by Gorbachev as central targets in his restructuring plans. Until recently, these problems were not even acknowledged publicly, and Soviet psychology lacks the concepts and categories necessary to address these issues. This is an indicator of the price paid when science becomes subservient to political policy.

Leontiev, it should be noted, vigorously opposed the reduction of activity theory to the systems model, and he understood well the political significance of this debate. The reduction of the human being to less than human factors in the name of science invariably accompanies dehumanizing practices in the social‑political sphere. He championed the cause of a Marxist understanding of the "human factor", fully individual and social, not reduced in any way to biological or micro‑social systems. Ultimately, however, he was not able to effectively challenge the taboo on analyzing socialist social relations and contradictions, and in the absence of necessary corresponding work by philosophers and political economists, his vision of a unified Marxist psychology, like Vygotsky's, was unrealized.

While proponents of activity theory in the capitalist countries often ponder the issue of how an orientation developed in the socialist world must be modified for use in the West, a more fundamental question is, what are the problems in extending the Marxist philosophical understanding of the human being to the level of concrete science, and what philosophical, epistemological and political problems confront us in this process? In this context we can consider the contribution of the French Marxist philosopher, Lucien Sève.

LUCIEN SÈVE. Sève's work, though widely considered a central contribution in this field, has been little understood and few attempts have been made to apply his ambitious and abstract philosophical analysis to concrete investigations. For Sève, Marx's first Feuerbach thesis is essential but not sufficient. Humanization is not based solely on labor as such, but on the division of labor. Labor as such is an abstraction; concretely it exists only in divided form, and this division produces social relations and antagonisms. The Sixth Feuerbach thesis, with the assertion that the human essence is not in the individual but in the ensemble of social relations, provides the methodological key to this motion from the abstract to the concrete in knowledge.

The individual, according to Sève, as a social‑psychological entity, is a product of activity, which logically is prior to individuality. The biological human organism, at first the basis for pre‑human psychological processes, gradually assumes the role of "support" to a fully social individuality. The "ensemble of social relations" exists on the concrete level as "activity‑matrices", i.e., a necessary logic of human activity. This necessary logic of social relations is ultimately temporal. Time, for Sève, is the most basic category of Marxist social dialectics, and it is here that he finds the unity of the social‑historical and the individual. Sève's contribution, then, is to suggest that this relation is not simply in the so‑called superstructure, i.e., cultural forms, language, and so forth—an idea common to Vygotsky and the "Western Marxism" of Gramsci, Althusser and the Frankfurt School—nor is it in microsocial man‑environment relations. The logical structure of the social formation, its fundamental relations and contradictions, defines the logical structure of activity at the concrete level and produces the prevailing "forms of individuality".

Sève, along with an interdisciplinary group in France, is currently engaged in an effort to extend his and others' philosophical analyses to concrete questions for social and psychological research.

CRITICAL PSYCHOLOGY of West Berlin. In the early 70s Klaus Holzkamp and others set out to continue and modify Leontiev's efforts, again with the aim of founding a new psychological science. Based on a modification of activity theory that takes into account class relations in capitalist society, expressed in the contradiction between the potentials for activity on the one hand and the social possibilities for their realization on the other, this group has sought to systematically reconceptualize the basic categories of psychology. Excellent analyses have been made of the transition of functions from animal to human, and of the transformation of these functions with the coming of capitalist relations. The work of this group has been very influential and controversial in European discussions, though little has appeared in English. Despite voluminous works, Holzkamp's ultimate ambition of a unified Marxist science has, like that of his predecessors, not been realized.

On the Congress Itself

THE CONGRESS spanned three days, with a registration of over 700, and over 100 presentations. Plenary sessions and invited addresses focussed on overall methodological issues, the history and significance of activity theory, and its relations to specific areas of psychology and pedagogics.

Georg Ruckreim, co‑organizer, and chair of the congress, declared in his introductory remarks that activity theory is partisan, with the goal of promoting the development of the all‑sided individual, through grasping the entire ensemble of human activity in its significance for the individual, and socially transforming this ensemble in the interests of human development. Social scientists must cooperate in facing the present day political, environmental, social and psychological crises. Psychologists must offer a view of people as whole beings, as active, historical, and conscious. There must be a struggle against dehumanized images being promoted in the name of science. The full nature of the relation of the individual to society must be discovered. This, Ruckreim sees as the potential and challenge of activity theory.

A panel of surveys reviewed the development and status of activity theory in the USSR, GDR, FRG, Scandinavian and Benelux countries, Italy, the U.S. and Canada. The speakers from the Soviet Union and the GDR stressed the consistency of activity theory with Marxist philosophy and with the requirements and methods of psychological research in the conditions of socialism, especially with the need to address concrete problems and not simply to theorize. The pioneering work of Rubinstein received special mention as a turning point in bringing modern research methods in line with Marxist philosophy. Speakers from Finland and the FRG emphasized the turn to activity theory at the time of the student movement of the 60s and 70s that brought into focus the partisan nature of science, the fragmentation of research and theory, and the social responsibility of scientists. The goal was to uncover the true individual/society/history relationship, so distorted in prevailing theories. Activity theory played a central role for some in the search for a "theory of the subject" based on real social processes, famous in the German radical movement of that time. In pursuing this motion from the external to the internal, Leontiev's work offered a new hope. Michael Cole of the U.S., spoke of the disillusionment with Piaget and ensuing fragmentation leading to sociobiology and other theoretical distortions. People seeking an alternative, an understanding of the social‑cultural mediation of psychological phenomena, according to Cole, have turned with increasing interest to Vygotsky and his followers. Claude Braun, representing Canada, observing that little or no influence of this direction can be found in Canada, focussed on certain methodological and philosophical issues, particularly the need to develop further the concept of reflection. Speakers from the Benelux and Scandinavian countries, reviewed developments particularly in pedagogics and labor psychology.

CHAIRING the plenary on philosophical and methodological issues, H. J. Sandkuehler summed up the tasks facing the theory as follows: reconcile the theory of activity with Marx's concept of labor; elaborate Marx's observation that we make our own history, but only in pre‑given conditions; understand the role of the subject, i.e. what and who is the agent of activity?; and address the implications of Marx's goal of overcoming divisions between living and dead, manual and mental labor.

Klaus Holzkamp emphasized that Leontiev's work and activity theory do not present a coherent whole, and that much remains to be done to unite the philosophical with the practical, particularly in articulating the relation between activity and labor as concepts. Overcoming the theoretical dualities of consciousness and the world, the individual and the environment is a long way off in practical research. Holzkamp's own development of Leontiev's work, he claimed, contributes to this by assigning centrality to humanity's active role in transforming life's conditions.

Other sessions covered a variety of theoretical and practical issues: the applications of activity theory in clinical, educational, and work settings; the theoretical status of language and tool use; problems in applying the concepts action and operation; methodologies for relating the individual to the supraindividual structures in empirical studies of the labor and learning processes; aesthetics; developmental psychology; issues of biology and natural science; applications to specific areas of learning such as science and mathematics, speech and language; cognitive psychology; and rehabilitation psychology.

In the session devoted specifically to philosophical issues, concern centered on the perennial "theory of the subject" and on the relation of biological to psychological levels of analysis, both widely debated among the German proponents of activity theory. The present author presented an effort to develop Sève's conception of activity, particularly the idea that Marx's central discovery of the dual nature of labor must be extended to the concept of activity. The individual, and all activity, must be seen as embodying the contradiction between abstract and concrete that permeates the entirety of relations in commodity society. The individual is not the subject of this activity; the subject is the "ensemble of social relations" within which individuality, embodying a nexus of contradictions, is produced. In the author's opinion, this is the true meaning of Marx's Sixth Feuerbach thesis, and the key to advancing this theory.

IN SUM, this congress was an exciting start, but a long struggle remains toward the goals set by Vygotsky and Leontiev many years ago. Perhaps the failures should give us cause to question the vision itself. The relation between philosophy and science may be more complex than we had thought, and the path to a "Marxist science" may involve more than elucidating and applying philosophical principles. A "unified Marxist science" may not be possible at this stage of the development of knowledge and consciousness, and what may be needed instead is an analysis of stages and limitations as concrete science and dialectical materialist philosophy struggle to unite. That is, we must have a theory of the transformation of thought in the context of the transformation of society. We will overcome the limitations imposed on consciousness by commodity relations, not in one fell swoop, as an act of thought, but only step by step, in a long process of material transformation of social relations.

The meeting of progressive scientists from the socialist and capitalist world in this common effort was exciting, but disappointing too. There is a reluctance, particularly in the Soviet Union and GDR, to engage in full dialogue with Western theorists on issues in Marxist theory. Only two representatives came from the Soviet Union, although twelve had registered, and the GDR, twenty minutes away by subway, sent only three or four. Speakers from these countries in particular, as I have observed before, often take it for granted that their work represents "Marxist science", and are not open to discussing questions in this regard. Yet an open dialogue and atmosphere of intellectual inquiry and cooperation is essential if we are to progress toward the goals envisioned by this Congress: a progressive psychological science capable of addressing the pressing issues of our times.

It is not a coincidence that in unveiling his plans for "restructuring" of Soviet society, Gorbachev has pointed to the social‑psychological issues, the "human factor" championed by Leontiev, as central. Gorbachev has identified the Marxist analysis of socialist relations and the understanding of human psychology as key areas requiring theoretical "breakthroughs". The new stage in socialist development demands a new stage in theory. Hopefully, the new openness in the Soviet Union will lead to the type of intellectual honesty, courage and international cooperation necessary for these advances to come about. *


Kozulin, A. “The Concept of Activity in Soviet Psychology; Vygotsky, his disciples and critics.” American Psychologist 41 (3) 264‑74.

Leontiev, A. N. Activity, Consciousness and Personality. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall 1978 (Russian ed. 1973).

Shames, C. “The Scientific Humanism of Lucien Sève.” Science and Society 45: 1, 1‑23; 1981.

Shames, C. “Dialectics and the Theory of Individuality.” Psychology and Social Theory No. 4; 1984.

Vygotsky, L. Mind in Society: The development of higher psychological processes. Edited and with introductions by Michael Cole and Sylvia Scribner. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Wertsch, J. (ed.) The Concept of Activity in Soviet Psychology. New York: Sharpe 1981.

* A second conference will be held in Lahti, Finland, 22‑25 May 1990. Contact Reigo Jouttimaki, Helsinki University, Lahti Research and Training Center, Kirkkokatu 16, SF‑15140 Lahti, Finland. An expanded participation by the Soviet Union can be expected at this conference.

SOURCE: Shames, Carl. “Activity Theory: A Marxist Approach to Psychology,” Science and Nature, Nos. 9/10, 1989, pp. 54-64.

Science and Nature, Table of Contents, issues #1-10 (1978-1989)

Salvaging Soviet Philosophy (1)

Vienna Circle, Karl Popper, Frankfurt School, Marxism, McCarthyism & American Philosophy: Selected Bibliography

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