Marxist Psychology – Introduction
Ivan Pavlov summarizes Marxist Psychology as follows: “Only science, exact science about human nature itself, and the most sincere approach to it by the aid of the omnipotent scientific method, will deliver man from his present gloom, and will purge him from his contemporary shame in the sphere of interhuman relations.”1
Marxist belief that human development is an inevitable march toward communism forces Marxist psychology toward a belief in behaviorism. Their deterministic view of human development seems to exclude free will, approximating the behaviorist position that our choices and actions result from our brain responding to its environmental stimuli.
The Marxist acceptance of evolution and materialism as the proper means for understanding the world affects its view of the mind/body relationship, seeing the mind as no more than the purely physical activity of the brain. Marxist denial of the supernatural categorizes the human mind, in Lenin’s view, as strictly organized matter.
The behaviorism embraced by Marxists, however, differs significantly from traditional behaviorism. Marxist behaviorist theories are based on the work of Ivan P. Pavlov, a Russian physiologist of the early twentieth century. Even though Pavlov rejected Marxist theory for most of his life, he serves as the adopted father of Marxist psychology largely because his attempts to reconcile materialism with psychology seem to fit the dialectic. An understanding of traditional behaviorism—through the work of B. F. Skinner, its most popular promoter—will help us pinpoint how Marxist behaviorism differs.
Marxist Psychology – Traditional Behaviorism Defined
In a behaviorist approach to Marxist psychology, human beings are seen simply as stimulus receptors, creatures that respond in one predetermined way to any given set of circumstances in our environment. According to Skinner, this is the only truly scientific approach to psychology. He says, “A scientific analysis of behavior dispossesses autonomous man and turns the control he has been said to exert over to the environment. The individual...is henceforth to be controlled by the world around him, and in large part by other men.”2
Skinner’s behaviorist psychology is rooted in an evolutionary perspective of the world: “The environment not only prods or lashes, it selects. Its role is similar to that in natural selection, though on a very different time scale...”3 If the environment selects for us, we are not free agents, making our own decisions. “The hypothesis that man is not free is essential to the application of scientific method to the study of human behavior,”4 according to Skinner and other behaviorists. This is consistent with the materialist belief that our brain is a bundle of nerves and synapses, capable of nothing more than responding to stimuli in ways that are outside our control.5
Marxist Psychology – Marxism’s Rejection of Traditional Behaviorism
Although Pavlov’s theories harmonized well with the Marxist worldview, they did not mesh perfectly with traditional behaviorism. Where Pavlov and traditional behaviorists part company, Marxism does likewise.
Marxism rejects some of the logical conclusions that flow from traditional behaviorism. Joseph Nahem explains, “From this dialectical viewpoint, behaviorism in psychology, such as the theories of J.B. Watson or B.F. Skinner, must be criticized as mechanical, as the reduction of the psychological process of human functioning to the physiological process of behavior alone.”6
Nahem reveals the reason Marxist psychology rejects traditional behaviorism when he says, “Marxism maintains that there are laws of social development which will lead, through conscious struggle, to a better society, socialism. Skinner believes that his ‘Behavioral Engineering’ will make for a better society. What kind of society will Skinner produce?”7
The Marxist worldview sees humanity in a conscious struggle to achieve a communist society. Traditional behaviorism’s rejection of our free will runs counter to and would, in fact, preclude the will of the proletariat to revolt and overthrow the oppressive upper classes.
The conflict lies in the incompatibility of a materialist philosophy and the notion of free will. Marx, who lived before the development of behaviorist theory, recognized the conflict and tried to resolve it by claiming, “The materialist doctrine that men are the product of circumstances and education—forgets that circumstances are changed precisely by men.”8 The two conflicting ideas are made more obvious by the advent of deterministic behaviorist theory in psychology.
Marxist Psychology – Dialectics
Marxist psychology uses dialectics to support its rejection of traditional behaviorism. In the dialectical view, our behavior is determined by the clash or struggle between our free will (thesis) and the forces in our environment and society (antithesis). The basis for this view is in Marx’s declaration that “men make their own history, but they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.”9
Nahem summarizes the relationship between determinism and free will and between behaviorism and dialectics: “Skinner abandons freedom and dignity and espouses a rigidly determinist view, a view that Marxism calls mechanical materialism. It was only with the development of Marxism that the full relationship between freedom and determinism could be explained. Materialism needed dialectics to delineate the true meaning of freedom.”10
Marxist Psychology – Conclusion
The dialectical view of behavior and freedom is consistent with the Marxist worldview, explaining scientifically the urgency and inevitability of communism, yet maintaining the concept of free will.
The terms freedom or free will in Marxist psychology indicate our liberty to choose the type of society that will in turn determine our behavior; it does not mean we choose our own behavior. Thus, when we are not exercising our free will to choose our society, we are being controlled by our situation or environment.
Marxists hold society responsible to regulate us. This regulation exposes us to the proper stimuli that will elicit the proper behavior. This stimuli is found only in a communist society that regulates us to be faithful to the collective and to internationalism.
In this context, freedom means virtually nothing. A society that scientifically regulates human development is much like the one depicted by George Orwell in 1984. In Marxist psychology, we are merely evolving animals that need fine-tuning before entering the perfection of the coming world order—an order where all humanity will be perfected. The new order, however, will deprive us of freedom and dignity as do Skinner and all materialist psychologies.