The name Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) is commonplace in the field of education. Ask any teacher or professor of education about Vygotsky and chances are they will at least recall the name from their child development or educational psychology classes. His theories are still foundational to even mainstream education but, as is the case with so many revolutionaries, they have been stripped of their Marxist foundations. One result is that the revolutionary potential of Vygotsky’s theories have remained largely unknown not only inside schools and teacher education programs, but also inside social movements.
This article introduces Vygotsky’s theories on educational psychology and human development, contextualizes them within the transition from Czarist Russia to the Soviet Union, draws out the main elements of his work that have utility for revolutionary organizers, and provides concrete illustrations of their utility.
Conditions in Czarist Russia
Lev Semionovich Vygotsky was born in 1896 to a Jewish family in the town of Orsha, Belarus, which, at the time, was part of the Russian Empire. Coming from a Jewish family in Czarist Russia meant being subjected to a lifetime of discrimination. Jewish people lived in restricted territories, were subject to strict quotas for university entrance, and were excluded from certain occupations.
These restrictions nearly blocked Vygotsky’s admittance to university despite his youthful brilliance. His experiences with anti-Jewish bigotry would undoubtedly influence his later work reorienting psychology. Most clearly, these experiences would push Vygotsky to critique conceptions of the mind that treated the development of cognitive processes as purely internal, unaffected by the surrounding world. As we will see, Vygotsky demonstrated that as the child develops cognitive processes are increasingly mediated—both constrained and enabled—by cultural, social, and economic factors.
Vygotsky’s groundbreaking work was frequently and painfully interrupted—and eventually ended when he was 37-years-old—by tuberculosis. To his peers he was a child genius. By the time he was 15-years-old he was known as the “little professor.”
Vygotsky’s contributions to educational psychology stemmed not just from his own insights, but from the influences of such monumental figures as Lenin and the inspiration of his environment: Revolutionary Russia.
A communist theory of cognition
Replacing a stagist view of cognitive development with a dialectical orientation is part of Vygotsky’s indispensable legacy. That is, Vygotsky discredited the belief that child thought evolves through fixed, natural, separate, and unrelated stages.
Cognitive development is not simply a matter of biological predeterminations, but is mediated by social factors. Consequently, as society changes—quantitatively within a system or qualitatively between systems through revolution—cognitive development also changes. This is what it means to say that Vygotsky’s theory of development is historical. Because references to Marx and Lenin were purged from English translations of Vygotsky’s work, the fact that his approach is both dialectical and historical in its core is largely unknown, especially in the U.S.
Cognitive development is not necessarily about an individual’s inherent potential. Rather, cognitive development is about the general potential of specific classes, which is an expression of historical processes. To get more specific: it is an expression of a society’s particular technologies, discourses, signs, tools, and modes of production. Uncovering these processes points toward the historically determined and changing nature of cognitive processes.
These insights were deeply influenced and inspired by the Bolshevik Revolution, which coincided with Vygotsky’s graduation from Moscow University in 1917. The Revolution transformed many disciplines and opened up new realms of inquiry and opportunities for young, formerly oppressed and marginalized scholars such as Vygotsky.
The Bolshevik leadership heavily emphasized education after the revolution, since the predominantly peasant feudalistic social formation promoted a conservative, reactionary ideology. Lenin (1919/2019) sums this up in his address to the First All-Russian Congress on Adult Education. He emphasizes the working class and peasantry’s thirst for knowledge, noting “how heavy the task of re-educating the masses was, the task of organization and instruction, spreading knowledge, combating that heritage of ignorance, primitiveness, barbarism and savagery that we took over” (p. 24).
As renowned Vygotskian scholar James Wertsch (1985) puts it, “Vygotsky and his followers devoted every hour of their lives to making certain that the new socialist state, the first grand experiment based on Marxist-Leninist principles, would succeed” (p. 10).
Vygotsky’s work is therefore an embodiment of one of the most intellectually and culturally stimulating settings of the 20th century. His project was dedicated to remaking psychology in Marxist terms in order to overcome the practical problems inherited from Czarist Russia, including illiteracy and the oppression of national and gender minorities.
Working in this exciting time of revolutionary transformation, which unleashed a radical desire for new knowledge, Vygotsky was taken by socialism’s elevation of the general potential of cognitive development.
Influences of Lenin
Some of Vygotsky’s (1986) most central conceptions of mind were based on Lenin’s philosophical notebooks. For example, Vygotsky draws on Lenin’s distinction between “primitive idealism” and Hegelian idealism. This distinction allowed Vygotsky to demonstrate that a particular society’s general level of development is not biologically determined or fixed, but rather historically determined and therefore capable of transformation. It brought revolutionary optimism, in other words, to the field of psychology. Whereas primitive idealism attempts to universalize a particular being, which Lenin calls “stupid” and “childish,” Hegelian idealism distinguishes an object from the idea of the object. Such insights were fundamental in challenging decontextualized, racialized conceptions of mind used to justify the oppression of national minorities.
Vygotsky developed a complex conception of the “mind in society” that explores the dialectical relationship between thought and imagination as unity and contradiction. For Vygotsky, thought emerges from an engagement with the concrete world. Imagination is a sort of sublated thought that begins to appear in young children when they cannot fulfill their immediate desires. When this occurs:
The preschool child enters an imaginary, illusory world in which the unrealizable desires can be realized, and this world is what we call play. Imagination is a new psychological process for the child; it is not present in the consciousness of the very young child…Like all functions of consciousness, it originally arises from action…Imagination in adolescence and school children is play without action. (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 93)
While the development of imagination seems to be a consistent aspect of human cognitive development, as sublated thought, it is the negation of the thought of “the very young child,” and is therefore contradictory.
However, like development more generally, the sublation of early childhood thought and the emergence of imagination is not immediate but develops quantitatively by degree, bit by bit. Vygotsky (1978) argues this is because “there is such intimate fusion between meaning and what is seen” (p. 97). For example, young children have difficulty repeating the phrase, “’Tanya is standing up’ when Tanya is sitting in front of” them (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 97).
The presence of imagination as a human quality is the basis of our ability to engage the world reflectively rather than instinctively. This powerful quality accounts for the wide variance in cultures and is the basis for history. It makes possible misinformation, bigotry, domination, as well as creativity and resistance.
This discussion on thought and imagination reflects how Vygotsky was taken by Lenin’s observation that the distinction between objects and the idea of them is vulnerable to being consumed by an always latent element of fantasy, as ideas can never mirror, with complete exactness, the objects they intend to represent. There is always a gap between reality and representation. For Vygotsky, attending to the gap between objects and the ideas they intend to represent is fundamentally connected to the process of navigating the gap between what is and what can be.
This is particularly significant for challenging decontextualized and racialized conceptions of mind because there is a tendency in capitalist schooling to attribute students’ actual level of development with innate or biological factors, thereby ignoring the ways unequal and highly segregated educational systems produce unequal outcomes. Challenging racist biological determinism, Vygotsky shows that what students can do on their own, their independent activity, does not necessarily correlate to what they can achieve with a teacher, peer, or other leader. This is where the zone of proximal development comes into play.
The Zone of Proximal Development
Vygotsky named the gap between what is and what can be the “zone of proximal development” (ZPD) and created a whole educational theory around it. Like social formations, individual children or learners have historically determined levels of development in particular subjects or domains that can be assessed through appropriate testing instruments. Based on their actual level, learners have an immediate developmental potential in each domain. The difference between actual and potential is the ZPD. According to Vygotsky (1986):
The zone of proximal development defines those functions that have not yet matured but are in the process of maturation, functions that can mature tomorrow but are currently in an embryonic state. These functions could be termed the “buds” or “flowers” of development rather than the “fruits” of development. (p. 86)
Vygotsky referred to potential developmental levels as “buds or flowers” rather than “fruits” because they are in the process of coming into being and therefore not yet fully ripe. Further, their process of coming into being isn’t predetermined. No one can know in advance what form the developed function will take.
The ZPD represents the gap between an existing level of development and what can be achieved with the help of more capable or differently situated peers. For example, two children may test at the same math level, so their actual level of development is identical. However, when they are pushed with examples, questions, and demonstrations, one may achieve a potential developmental level significantly different than the other. That is, even if their actual levels of development are the same, their zones of proximal development are not. The prompting by a teacher or peer will push them but from different places and in different directions. For Vygotsky, such scenarios point to the complex, non-linear nature of the relationship between instruction, development, and history.
Vygotskian researchers have long pointed out that things like arithmetic systems and their uses are not natural or universal but are specific to socio-historical contexts. The ZPD, consequently, can only be understood if the historically-specific context is accounted for. As contexts change, ZPDs also transform.
Taken together, these are key examples of how Vygotsky’s theories guard against ableist theories of development, in that it is all about unleashing the unique potential of all students during a particular historical moment.
It is important to stress that the content of this gap between ability and potential isn’t predetermined, which is what makes it a gap and not a lack or deficiency. This is particularly important as a challenge to capitalist schooling that tends to define that which deviates from some normative standard as a lack or deficiency. Rather than Spanish-speaking, for example, we are confronted with the discourse of the non-English-speaking or English as a second language. The emphasis, in capitalist normative discourse, is on what is not rather than on what is.
“Left-Wing” Communism as an example of ZPD
Lenin’s (1920/2016) pamphlet, “Left Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder, is an indispensable illustration of Vygotsky’s ZPD, one that brings home the theory’s importance for communists.
By 1905, the suffering Russian masses had developed a revolutionary mood that coincided with a revolutionary crisis within Czarist Russia. The spontaneous movement of the masses pushed for the overthrow of the government. The crisis-ridden state was not only practically obsolete; it was politically obsolete because the masses held a revolutionary consciousness. The actual level of development was therefore revolutionary, rendering an actual revolution within the proximal zone of development. Since the masses actual level of development was revolutionary, a communist orientation or consciousness was within their proximal level of development. Lenin held a deep awareness of this situation and therefore understood the indispensable nature of education.
The defeat of the 1905 revolution and the government’s subsequent wave of repression worked together to temper the radical mood of the masses. The people increasingly looked to the provisional, bourgeois government to meet their needs. Yet the Bolsheviks continued calling for a boycott of the parliamentary elections for the next few years. Lenin writes that this was a mistake, one that became more serious each year. Parliamentarism might have been practically obsolete in that it couldn’t meet the needs of the masses, but it was no longer politically obsolete because the people had faith in it. The Bolsheviks thus incorrectly judged the ZPD.
Communists therefore had to learn from their mistakes and focus on doing political education work and mass outreach meeting the masses where they were at in terms of their consciousness. This entails promoting the vision, program, and desire for revolution while maintaining close contact with the working class. It is imperative that revolutionaries are in tune with the mood of the masses and their ZPD. Calling for revolution before the people are ready is equivalent to abandoning and alienating the people.
Even if the mood of the masses is revolutionary, without an irreconcilable crisis within the capitalist class, launching an insurrection will likely end in failure and unimaginable persecution. Closely following the development of the capitalist system and its ruling class, consequently, is extremely important for assessing the ZPD of capitalism itself. In other words, the ZPD has to take the totality into account.
While the ZPD of the masses can be transformed through intervention, the ZPD of capitalism itself is less open to direct intervention, and therefore must be monitored through daily assessment of concrete situations.
Advancing the struggle through challenging the discipline
While Lenin was conscious of the changing roles of revolutionaries at different stages in the dialectical process toward communism, Vygotsky too was attuned to the changing significance of multiple interacting factors in human cognitive processes. In laying the theoretical groundwork for his revolutionary approach to educational psychology Vygotsky took up the task of challenging the world’s leading educational psychologist of the day, Jean Piaget (1896-1980) of Switzerland.
Significantly, Vygotsky draws heavily on Lenin in his challenge to Piaget. For example, in Thought and Language, Vygotsky (1986) reproduces a long quote from Lenin where he argues that Hegel’s insistence that people’s thought produces their activity must be “inverted.” That is, Lenin argues that it is the endless repetition of people’s activity (i.e. the labor act) that produces consciousness.
Similarly, Vygotsky notes that, “it was Piaget himself who clearly demonstrated that the logic of action precedes the logic of thought, and yet he insists that thinking is separated from reality” (p. 53). Piaget demonstrated that action precedes thought by observing that children playing together understand each other despite how unclear their language is because it is accompanied by gesture and mimicry, the beginning of action. Consequently, Piaget questions weather children truly understand each other through speaking/language without acting, yet in theory he puts thought before action.
Sounding remarkably like Marx in his use of metaphor, Vygotsky summarizes the inadequacy of Piaget’s formulation: “…if the function of thinking is to reflect upon reality, this actionless thinking appears as a parade of phantoms and a chorus of shadows rather than the real thinking of a child” (p. 53). Having established the dynamic relationship between mind and society, Vygotsky took social formation as the ultimate determining factor influencing the dynamic development of human personalities and consciousness.
Producing his major works during the transition from an underdeveloped peasant-based economy to socialism, Vygotsky was deeply interested in the socialist alteration of humanity. It was the intellectually exciting and creative context of the Soviet Union that Vygotsky found himself in, combined with the work and example of Lenin, that offered the concrete context from which Piaget’s formulation unveiled itself to Vygotsky as incorrect.
Throughout Vygotsky’s body of work he insists that at “moments of revolutionary dislocation the nature of development changes” (Wertsch, 1985, p. 19). This is key because it once more emphasizes that the gap between what is and what can be isn’t predetermined and is historically situated.
Vygotsky defined transition points in development in terms of changes in mediation. A fundamental feature of Vygotsky’s genetic analysis is that he did not assume one can account for all phases of development by using a “single set of explanatory principles” (Wertsch, 1985, p. 19).
Rather, Vygotsky emphasized that
…at certain points in the emergence of a psychological process new forms of development and new explanatory principles enter the picture. At these points…there is a ‘change in the very type of development’ and so the principles which alone had previously been capable of explaining development can no longer do so. Rather, a new set of principles must be incorporated into the overall explanatory framework, resulting in its reorganization.” (Wertsch, 1985, p. 19-20)
At certain points there is a fundamental reorganization of the forces of development. This occurs as language and social interactions become more and more prominent mediators in child development through the years. The character of social mediators impacting the development of human personalities also undergoes significant alteration with the transition from capitalism/feudalism to socialism.
Vygotsky’s revolutionary theory of development is therefore one that recognizes the many forms of capacity, intelligence, and potential in all beings.
From the perspective of Vygotsky’s ZPD we might argue that as proletarian consciousness moves back to the left, and as the political crisis continues to deepen within the capitalist class political establishment, more revolutionary-oriented approaches to education are once again coming closer to our contemporary ZPD.
– Lenin, V. I. (1919/2019). First All-Russia Congress on Adult Education: Speech of Greeting. In D.R. Ford and C. Malott (Eds.). Learning with Lenin: Selected Works on Education and Revolution (pp. 23-25). Charlotte, NC: IAP.
– Lenin, V.I. (1920/2016). “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder: A Popular Essay in Marxist Strategy and Tactics. New York: International Publishers.
– Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
– Vygotsky, L. (1986). Thought and Language. Edited by Alex Kozulin. London: MIT Press.
– Wertsch, J. (1985). Vygotsky and the Social Formation of Mind. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.