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Marxist/Leninist Psychology

by David A. Noebel

Karl Marx, Frederick Engels, and V. I. Lenin all describe the mind and mental activity as nothing more than reflections of the brain. This conclusion follows logically from their materialist philosophy. Unfortunately, it leaves Marxism with very little to study in psychology–for them, the "study of the mind" is reduced to the "study of the reflections of the brain." Such a position is called psychological or ontological monism.

Marxist psychology discovered its champion in Ivan P. Pavlov, a Russian physiologist. Pavlov, in his famous experiments with dogs, stressed the primacy of the nervous system in influencing the mental activity of the individual. He believed that two material factors could account for all mental activity: the individual’s physiology and the environmental influence on the individual’s nervous system. He writes that the "behaviour of man or animal is conditioned not only by the inborn properties of the nervous system, but also by the influences which have always acted on the organism during its individual existence."1 This meshes beautifully with the Marxist worldview, in which man is approached from a strictly materialistic standpoint and is described as basically good, with his moral failings caused by oppressive societies.

Marxism accepts Pavlov’s conclusions and therefore appears to embrace strict behaviorism. However, this is not the case. Marxism cannot accept a completely deterministic explanation of man, because Marxist theory calls for the working class to consciously decide to support the communist revolution. If every man’s actions are determined, how can any individual consciously choose to revolt? "Choosing," according to the behavioristic view, becomes a meaningless activity. Thus, the Marxist must water down his behaviorism to encourage the worker to actively, consciously strive for communism.

Pavlov provides the escape for the Marxist psychologist. He speaks of a "second stimuli" that only human beings have evolved the capacity to be influenced by: language. That is, Pavlov believes man’s "mind" is shaped by his nervous activity and his environment, an environment that uniquely includes the stimulus of words. This belief allows the Marxist to claim that man’s actions are largely determined but that the individual can obtain a measure of freedom in his use of and response to the stimulus of language. In this way, Marxism is able to cling to its behavioristic assumptions and still claim that the worker may choose to join the revolution.

Of course, all of Marxism’s psychotherapy reflects its behavioristic, materialistic assumptions. Whereas the Marxist may give lip service to freedom of will, he treats mentally ill patients as automatons that require only a little physical/chemical fine tuning to become model citizens again. One day, according to the Marxist, all mankind can be made mentally healthy simply through manipulation of their environment and nervous activity. K. I. Platonov declares, "We have undoubtedly not yet fully mastered the methods of influencing the higher nervous activity of man by suggestion. This is the task of further research."2 When and if further research grants the Marxist this ability, be assured he will use it in the name of scientifically sculpting the perfect society.

  1. I. P. Pavlov, Twenty Years of Objective Study of the Higher Nervous Activity (Behaviour) of Animals (Medgiz Publishing House, 1951), p. 458.
  2. K. I. Platonov, The Word as a Physiological and Therapeutic Factor (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1959), p. 12.
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