Inicio > Psicología marxista > “The socialist alteration of man”: Lev Vygotsky

“The socialist alteration of man”: Lev Vygotsky

Source: Vygotsky Reader, edited by René van der Veer and Jaan Valsiner, Blackwell, 1994; First Published: as Vygotsky, L. 1930: Socialisticheskaja peredelka cheloveka. VARNITSO, the journal of the All-Union Association of Workers in Science and Technics for the Furthering of the Socialist Edification in the USSR; Transcribed: by Andy Blunden.


Scientific psychology has established as its basic thesis the fact that the modern psychological human type is a product of two evolutionary lines. On the one hand, this modern type of human being developed in a lengthy process of biological evolution from which the biological species homo sapiens has arisen, with all its inherent characteristics from the point of view of body structure, the functions of various organs and certain types of reflexes and instinctive activity, which have become hereditarily fixed and which are passed on from generation to generation.

But together with the beginning of social and historical human life and the fundamental changes in the conditions to which he had to adapt himself, the very character of the subsequent course of human evolution also changed very radically. As far as one is able to judge on the basis of the available factual material, which has been obtained mainly by comparing biological types of primitive peoples at the most primitive stages of their cultural development with representatives of the most culturally advanced races, as far as this question can be resolved by contemporary psychological theory, there are strong reasons to suppose that the biological human type has changed remarkably little during the course of the historical development of man. It is not, of course, that biological evolution has come to a stop and that the species ‘man’ is a stable, unchangeable, constant quantity, but rather that the basic laws and the essential factors which direct the process of biological evolution have receded to the background and have either completely fallen away or have become a reduced or sub-dominant part of new and more complex laws governing human social development.

Indeed, the struggle for existence and natural selection, the two driving forces of biological evolution within the animal world, lose their decisive importance as soon as we pass on to the historical development of man. New laws, which regulate the course of human history and which cover the entire process of the material and mental development of human society, now take their place.

As an individual only exists as a social being, as a member of some social group within whose context he follows the road of his historical development, the composition of his personality and the structure of his behaviour turn out to be a quantity which is dependent on social evolution and whose main aspects are determined by the latter. Already in primitive societies, which are only just taking their first steps along the road of their historical development, the entire psychological makeup of individuals can be seen to depend directly on the development of technology, the degree of development of the production forces and on the structure of that social group to which the individual belongs. Research in the field of ethnic psychology has provided incontrovertible proof that both of these factors, whose intrinsic interdependence has been established by the theory of historical materialism, are the decisive factors of the whole psychology of primitive man.

Nowhere else, according to Plekhanov, does that dependence of consciousness on the way of life manifest itself in a more obvious and direct manner as it does in the life of primitive man. This is due to the fact that the factors which mediate between technological and psychological progress are very meagre and primitive and this is the reason why this dependence can be observed almost in the raw. But a much more complicated relationship between these two factors can be observed in a highly developed society which has acquired a complex class structure. Here the influence of the basis on the psychological superstructure of man turns out to be not direct, but mediated by a large number of very complex material and spiritual factors. But even here, the basic law of historical human development, which proclaims that human beings are created by the society in which they live and that it represents the determining factor in the formation of their personalities, remains in force.

In the same way as the life of a society does not represent a single and uniform whole, and society is subdivided into different classes, so, during any given historical period, the composition of human personalities cannot be said to represent something homogeneous and uniform, and psychology must take into account the basic fact that the general thesis which has been formulated just now, can have only one direct conclusion, to confirm the class character, class nature and class distinctions which are responsible for the formation of human types. The various internal contradictions which are to be found in different social systems find their expression both in the type of personality and in the structure of human psychology in that historical period.

In his classic descriptions of the early period of capitalism, Marx frequently dwells on the subject of the corruption of the human personality which is brought about by the growth of capitalist industrial society. On one extreme end of society, the division between intellectual and physical labour, the separation between town and country, the ruthless exploitation of child and female labour, poverty and the impossibility of a free and full development of full human potential, and on the other extreme, idleness and luxury; not only does all this result in the single human type becoming differentiated and fragmented into several separate social class types which stand in sharp contrast to one another, but also in the corruption and distortion of the human personality and its subjection to unsuitable, one-sided development within all these different variants of the human type.

‘Along with the division of labour’, says Engels, ‘man himself became subdivided.’ According to Ryazanov, ‘every form of material production specifies some social division of labour, and this is responsible for the spiritual division of labour. Beginning already with the corruption of primitive society, we can observe selection of a number of spiritual and organizational functions into special species and subspecies within the scheme of the social division of labour’. Engels further says:

“Already the very first major division of labour, the division of town from country, sentenced the rural population to millennia of mental torpor, and the city dwellers to enslavement, each by his particular work. It destroyed the basis for spiritual development for the former, or physical development for the latter. If a peasant is master of his land and the craftsman of his craft, then in no lesser degree the land rules over the peasant and the craft over the craftsman. The division of labour has caused man himself to become subdivided. All remaining physical and spiritual faculties are sacrificed for the sake of developing just one type of activity.

This degeneration of man increases at the same rate as the division of labour, which reaches its highest level in manufacture. Manufacture breaks up craftsmanship into fractional operations and assigns each of them to a separate worker as his life vocation and chains him down to a specific fractional operation, to a specific tool of labour for the rest of his life …

And it is not only workers, but also the classes who exploit them directly or indirectly, who become enslaved by the instruments of their activities, as a result of the division of labour: the petty bourgeois, by his capital and desire for profit; the lawyer by his ossified juridical ideas which rule over him like an independent force; ‘the educated classes’ in general, by their particular local limitations and one-sidedness, their physical shortcomings and spiritual myopia. They are crippled by their education which trains them for a certain speciality, by their lifelong enslavery to this speciality, even if this speciality is doing nothing at all.”

This is what Engels wrote in ‘Anti-Dühring’. We have to proceed from the basic assumption that intellectual production is determined by the form of material production.

So, for example, a different form of spiritual production than the type which was prevalent during the Middle Ages fits in with capitalism. Each historically defined form of material production has its corresponding form of spiritual production, and this, in its turn, signifies that human psychology, which is the direct instrument of this intellectual production, assumes its specific form at a certain stage of development.”

This crippling of human beings, this one-sided and distorted development of his various capabilities which Engels describes, and which appeared together with the division of town and country, is growing at an enormous rate due to the influence of the technological division of labour. Engels writes:

All the knowledge, the insight and the will which both the independent peasant and craftsman develop albeit on a small scale, like the savage who makes the whole art of war consist of the exercise of his personal cunning – these faculties are now required only for the workshop as a whole. The intellectual potencies of production make them expand in one direction, because they vanish in many others. What is lost by the detail labourers [‘teilarbeiter’] is concentrated in the capital that employs them. It is as a result of the division of labour in manufacture that the labourer is brought face to face with the intellectual potencies of the material process of production, as the property of another, and as a ruling power. This process of separation begins in simple co-operation, where the capitalist represents to the single workman the oneness and the will of the social labour [‘Arbeitskörpers’]. It is developed in manufacture which cripples the labourer into a detail labourer. It is completed in large scale industry, which separates science as a productive potential from labour and presses it into the service of capital.”

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