History of the Hungarian People’s Republic (PART 2: Democratic Coalition Government)


WWII caused massive destruction in Hungary, mostly because the German fascists stole everything they could and took it to Germany, and what little they couldn’t steal they blew up, burnt and destroyed.

WAR DEVASTATION

“The siege of Budapest lasted fifty-one days before the Russians captured the city. Hardly a house was intact and thousands of soldiers and civilians had been killed” (Pryce-Jones, The Hungarian Revolution, p. 17)

“The Germans, departing, had taken 214,000 tons of goods, including machinery and food, by barge or railway (32,000 waggons) or lorry (8,000 loads); 70,000 dwellings had been destroyed, and a quarter of the inhabitants were homeless… a gold train had taken away the valuables stolen, mainly from Jewish families. (The property stolen from Jewish families and others, and the gold reserve of the National Bank, ended up in mining shafts in Austria.) The Holy Crown of King Saint Stephen I and the crown jewels were also transported west…” (Stone, Hungary: A Short History, pp. 363-364)

“Half of the industrial plant, the railways, the bridges, the livestock, had gone.” (Stone, p. 365)

“Budapest was a city of rubble, burned tanks and rotting corpses… every bridge over the Danube destroyed by the Nazis. Of 35,500 apartment houses, 29,987 had been destroyed or badly damaged… Bands of starving children roamed in the streets, wailing for bread and their parents. Of the city’s fine bus service, 16 buses were left, the Germans had driven off in the rest. Gas, water supply, and electricity services were disrupted… all telegraph and telephone poles had been cut down by the Germans, railway lines had been cut through at regular intervals by special sabotage machines. Every road leading into Budapest had been mined, every bridge over thirty feet long destroyed.” (Burchett, People’s democracies)

“1,200 locomotives and over 40,000 railway wagons were driven off to Germany… there was no food in the country… livestock had been reduced from 8.6 millions to 3.2 millions. Budapest in early 1945 was a hopeless city of rubble, stench and starvation.” (Burchett)

“[M]ost of the agricultural machinery, tractors and combines had been destroyed or shipped back to Germany, eighty per cent. of the draught cattle had been killed” (Burchett)

“the German invaders and the Arrow Cross agencies endeavoured to take away everything they could lay their hands on… wherever this was not prevented by the resistance of the Hungarian people or the advance of the Soviet troops…” (Nemes, History of the Revolutionary Workers Movement in Hungary: 1944-1962, pp. 31-32)

“three-quarters of the pool of railway trucks, two-thirds of the operable locomotives and most of the motor vehicles. The value of the goods taken to the West amounted to about 2,000 million dollars. The retreating fascists had made 40 per cent of the rail network unusable and demolished thousands of railway and load bridges.” (Nemes, p. 83)

I’ve cited a lot of numbers here, but the level of destruction is almost impossible to comprehend. More then half a millions Hungarian jews had been killed in the holocaust, and hundreds of thousands of others had lost their lives at the hands of the fascists. Two-thirds of trains, almost all cars and buses and the vast majority of livestock had been destroyed in Hungary, while practically all homes in Budapest had been destroyed, electricity and railnetworks had been clipped into little pieces by sabotage machines, all major roads had been mined and practically every bridge had been cut. Half of industry had been stolen or destroyed, all the national bank’s gold reserves had been stolen. The fascists had left the country destroyed and starving.


“The Red Army tried to preserve Budapest and especially its citizens as much as possible, heavy artillery and bomber plains didn’t bomb the city.” (SKP vuosikirja VI, p. 122)

Despite their own problems, the USSR was able to send food aid to Hungary, for example:

“At the end of March, the Soviet Union sent 1,500 wagons of cereals, 300 wagons of meat and 200 wagons of sugar to Hungary as loan.” (Nemes, p. 60)

“After liberation the Red Army was first to deliver food supplies and medical aid to Hungarians, saving the citizens of Budapest from starvation and epidemic.” (SKP vuosikirja VI, pp. 122-123)

LIBERATION. END OF THE WAR. DEBRECEN PROVISIONAL GOVERNMENT.

While the fighting was still going on, a provisional anti-fascist government was set up in Debrecen. This anti-fascist government, was a coalition of the Communist Party, Social-democratic Party, The National Peasant Party, the Smallholder Party, as well as trade-unions and other democratic forces. National Committees of trade-unionists, communists, partisan fighters and others also spontaneously emerged in liberated areas. These united to the Debrecen government and became the foundation of a new democratic state.

“Tanks and field-guns stood blackened where they had been hit and the bodies of soldiers lay unburied in the winter, but politics were beginning. In villages, towns, districts, and counties occupied by the Russians, ‘national committees’ sprang up, run by representatives of left-wing movements or trade unions. A National Council on these lines was installed in Debrecen on 21 December 1944…”
(Pryce-Jones, p. 19)

“…230 delegates assembled, a third of them Communists, from villages and townships liberated by the Red Army, and they elected a new government from all the anti-Fascist parties. Its programme included land reform and confiscation for war criminals…” (Stone, p. 361)

“For the first time after 25 years underground, the Communist Parly began to freely operate and it was the first to begin the work of reconstruction and the creation of a new power.” (Nemes, p. 33)

“The great cause of national reconstruction and joining in the war against the nazis required the creation of a new central power, a new Hungarian state. A clear-cut programme had to be drawn up to rally the national forces and rebuild the country. The Communist Party issued such a programme for a democratic national rebirth published on 30 November 1944 in the Debrecen newspaper Neplap.

This document stated:

“Our country is experiencing the most disastrous catastrophe in its history. The leaders of Hungary, hiring themselves out to the Germans, plunged Hungary into the Hitlerite imperialist war… They aligned themselves with the German fascists, because with such help they intended to subjugate the neighbouring peoples and ruthlessly suppress the Hungarian people within the country and keep them in slavery. The country is suffering under the fatal consequences of this criminal policy. Despite this, the Communist Party proclaims that there will be a Hungarian rebirth!”” (Nemes, pp. 34-35)

“In April the provisional government moved to Budapest… The Communist Party line for the moment was that Hungary was experiencing a [bourgeois democratic] revolution… and that all [democratic] elements should therefore co-operate. ‘Unite All Forces for Reconstruction’, was the slogan coined by Matyas Rakosi, First Secretary of the Hungarian Communist Party. As a proof of goodwill, Communists helped to rebuild churches. They also activated the other political parties permitted by the Allied Control Commission.” (Pryce-Jones, pp. 20-21)

Zinner also points out “The apparent concern of the Communists with national welfare and the zeal with which they led the reconstruction of war-damaged installations, including churches…”

(Revolution in Hungary, p. 50)

“The provisional government undertook to conclude an armistice with the Allies, to pay the reparations, to wage war against Germany, to repeal anti-Semitic and antidemocratic laws, to guarantee democratic rights and to institute universal and secret suffrage, to disband right-wing political movements and punish war criminals, and to effect a land reform.” (Kovrig, The Hungarian People’s Republic, p. 64)

“The leader of the Hungarian Communist Party, Mátyás Rákosi, stepped onto the tribune. He was welcomed with immense enthusiasm. “Long live Rákosi! Long live Rákosi!” resounded from the crowd… “Freedom!” Comrade Rákosi began his speech and hundreds of thousands roared back from every corner of the square: “Freedom!”” (Apor, The invisible shining, p. 58)

By April 4th the whole territory of Hungary had been liberated from the Nazis. (Ignotus, Hungary, p. 152)

“Hungary received aid from the Soviet Union for restoring the economic life and production e.g. to replace the horses stolen by the Germans, new horses and cars were brought for transporting food supplies. The Soviet Union aided the development of the Hungarian national economy and living standard of the citizens by reducing war reparations by 50%.” (SKP vuosikirja VI, pp. 122-123)

LAND REFORM

The most important political action of the provisional government was land-reform. It was undeniable, that the Hungarian peasants had suffered horribly under the rule of the Hapsburg monarchy and then under Horthy.

“In Hungary, peasants… were… more then the rest, oppressed and exploited.” (Ignotus, p. 171)

“…the greatest problem of modern Hungary: the vast inequality of landholding. It was a largely peasant country, and the peasants often farmed with primitive methods.” (Stone, p. 50)

“…smallholders only amounted to about one-third of the rural population; the rest were either totally landless or ‘dwarf-holders’: compelled, that is, to sell their labour on a market where manpower was cheaper than anything else.” (Ignotus, p. 172)

“before the war some 400,000 Hungarians possessed so little land that they had to sell their labor power as agrarian serfs in order to keep from starvation, and another 400,000 had no land at all.” (Behind the curtain, p. 181)

Historian Elizabeth Wiskemann wrote “In Hungary the distribution of land remained… the most unjust in central Europe” (in R. R. Betts, ed., Central and South East Europe, London, 1950, p. 98)

“Among East European countries, Hungary was the worst instance of the system of giant landed estates and their complement, a vast agricultural proletariat, living below subsistence level. This state of affairs was preserved unimpaired up to 1945.” (Ilonya Polanyi, World Affairs, a magazine published by the London Institute of World Affairs April, 1949, p. 134.)

Before WWII “it was calculated that… In Hungary 24%… of the rural population belonged to the category [of unemployed or under employed].” (Nevalainen, marxilaisen taloustieteen oppikirja osa 2, p. 67)


“In March [the Debrecen government] carried through a land reform. This was long overdue, in a country where almost half the arable land had belonged to one percent of the landowners. Four and a half million acres were now distributed among 660,00 peasants… Tremendous posters everywhere claimed this reform as an achievement of the Communist Party.” (Pryce-Jones, p. 19)

“Committees dominated by Communists and the National Peasants’ Party people carried out the redistribution… and within three months 8 million acres had been taken over, some for state farms but the greater part (5 million acres) given to 500,000 new owners… The Catholic Church lost 90 percent of its lands…” (Stone, pp. 370-371)

“[The second largest landowners in Hungary] The Eszterhazys between them owned 750,000 acres of which the senior member of the family, Prince Paul Eszterhazy, owned 300,000. They owned 15 castles in Hungary, several more in Austria and Bavaria… There was only one larger landowner in Hungary and that was the Roman Catholic Church.” (Burchett)

The Peasants had lived in misery, while the richest 1% had owned half the land in the whole country. The land had primarily belonged to the clergy and the nobility, who now lost most of the power they had held century after century. They had literally lived like kings, standing over the peasants. The Land-reform was necessary, to destroy feudal social relations, to free the peasants from the total power of the church and the noble families. Although land-reform was only the first step, it immediately produced favorable results. Economist Warriner writes:

“The land reform has brought a complete social and economic transformation in the countryside… In 1947, I visited again the same villages that I had known in 1936, where land had now been distributed.

The most noticeable change then was better food: the new peasants were eating wheat and rye bread regularly, instead of maize, and drinking coffee with sugar, unknown before… Peasants who had been

estate labourers before, and had now become owners of the standard 12 acre holding, said that in a bad year their real income was twice what it had been before, and with a good harvest would be three or four times as high. Their money income was large enough to buy boots for the whole family. Two years later, in 1949, the dominant impression in the villages was the good supply of consumer goods; ‘Nepboltok’— ‘People’s Shops’— had been started, with a wide range of textiles, shoes, aluminium saucepans, china.” (Warriner, p. 134)

Journalist Wilfred G. Burchett interviewed one of the noble families after the land-reform. The nobility had lost their massive land holdings, and their numerous castles, mansions and private parks:


“[Countess Eszterhazy] shuddered when I asked what had happened to the properties at Tata. “It’s too dreadful to speak about.” she said. “The castle has been turned into a lunatic asylum, the beautiful old Hunting Lodge has become a Communist Youth Hostel, the English Park was turned into a training ground for the Olympic team, because they said the atmosphere and climate was like that of England and would help the team that was going to England for the Olympic Games. The parks are all thrown open, anyone can wander through them,” and her china-blue eyes filled with tears.” (Burchett)

“I made a tour of some of the Eszterhazy castles to see for myself what was going on. Tata is a beautiful village, about ten miles off the main road between Budapest and Vienna. Sure enough the main castle had become a hospital for the insane, the Hunting Lodge – was full of gay young people, including a group of Canadians who had been working on one of the volunteer youth brigade projects. It was Sunday, in mid-summer, the two magnificent parks were crowded with villagers and peasants, reclining in the shade of massive oak and elm trees. More peasants and some workers from the nearby Tata coal mines (Eszterhazy property before they were nationalised), were splashing away in a fine swimming pool that had formerly been a private preserve of the Eszterhazys.” (Burchett)

“[L]ives [of the Tata peasants] are still hard, they still work from dawn to dark and have little enough at the end of the month to buy clothes or other necessities with. They are still plagued by priests who tell them it’s sinful to have taken the land of their masters, and that God and the Americans will punish them for it.

“My boy’s at the university,” said one brown old peasant, squatting on the ground in the English park at Tata. “He’s learning to be an engineer. D’ye think I could ever have managed that in the old days? If I’d saved up everything and could sell a pig or two, I couldn’t even keep him at school after he was twelve. Now they even pay him for learning. He’s at one of the People’s Colleges and they pay him enough that he sends me and the missus a bit on the side.”

Of the land reform, he said, “We could have done with a bit more land. It’s hard to make do without 10 acres, but we live all right. We eat better than we ever did”” (Burchett)

“At the village of Eszterhazy the castle had been turned over to an Agricultural College. On the Sunday I visited it, there was a big Mothers’ Day meeting in progress. In the castle courtyard, seats had been set out in the warm autumn sunshine, and parents were watching a performance by the school children. On other Eszterhazy estates parks had been thrown open to the public, in some cases used as plant research stations, castles used as hospitals, schools, orphanages, youth hostels.” (Burchett)

Rakosi had said “in front of the [horthyist] court in 1926 that “land will only be distributed in Hungary by the Communists!”” (Apor, p. 55) Now his promise became reality!

““Blessed should be the name of he who has granted us land,” a delegation of farmers from Szolnok
County told Rákosi in early March…” (Apor, p. 55)


FACTORY COMMITTEES

It was essential to begin normal production as soon as possible, to produce necessary goods, electricity, and to repair war damage. Factories destroyed by the war, and looted by the Nazis, had to be restored. Workers organized into Factory Committees, took over the management and control of factories.

“The management of industrial plants was taken over by the factory committees as they were known. For the time being these did not change the legal status of the plant: this remained in private ownership. Since, however, in most cases the owners and the company management had fled the country the factory committees assumed responsibility for the most important tasks linked with the starting of production.“ (Borsányi & Kende, The History of the Working Class Movement in Hungary, p. 103)


“with the setting up of factory committees under Communist leadership workers’ control was realized in practice.” (Nemes, p. 37)

“[Communists and Social-Democrats] jointly pushed through a government decree which was passed in February [1945] for the recognition of the activities and jurisdiction of the factory committees. The factory committees were officially authorized to take control of production as well as the trade activities of the industrial companies, and could play an active role in the regulation of labour relations and the administration of companies. Control by the workers in factories and mines was established as soon as they started to operate, but pressure had to be exerted on the right wing… to give government approval to this practice. The right wing considered this a forced concession. At the same time they emphasized the capitalist ownership of the factories, in order to be able to limit later the jurisdiction of the factory committees to the settlement of labour disputes. However, the factory committees were power positions of the working class which strengthened the government’s influence among the workers and at the same time reduced capitalist exploitation.” (Nemes, p. 65)

The masses had already dealt two serious blows to the landowners and capitalists: the land had been redistributed to the peasants, and workers established themselves in Factory Committees, which already had an important role in managing factories even though they were still privately owned, and they were a position from where the workers could defend their interests against the capitalists. Capitalists no longer had total control over the factories, and if Hungary was to build socialism, transferring factories to socialist ownership could happen smoothly since they were already worker controlled. The workers were already learning to manage the factories themselves, without the capitalists.

1945 ELECTIONS


“In November 1945 the first completely free election, under secret ballot, ever held in the history of Hungary took place” (Behind the Curtain, p. 177) (There actually were elections with universal secret ballot already during the 1919 Hungarian Communist Revolution, but ignoring that Gunther is correct)


The four largest parties received the following results:

“Smallholders received 57 per cent., Communists and Social Democrats 17 per cent. each, National Peasants 6 per cent. The coalition government or “People’s Front” continued in office.” (Burchett)

It was significant that despite decades of intense anti-communist propaganda, and a prevailing environment of reactionary nationalist and religious ideology, the Communist Party emerged as one of the largest parties. In fact, the Communists had the same amount of votes as the Social-democrats, despite the fact that the Communists had never been able to organize legally before, and had been heavily persecuted. Of course, the Communists had some supporters from their underground years. They also received new support because they were the main organizers of the anti-fascist resistance movement and partisan movement. The Communists were also the main organizers of the land-reform. They had quickly emerged as the leading force in the Factory Committees and as an equal partner with the Social-Democrats in the Trade-Unionions. The Communists were used to underground conditions, and thus their organization was not paralyzed by the Nazi occupation and Arrow-Cross coup de’tat to the same extent as the other parties.

“Despite the persistence of popular stereotypes concerning the Communists, the first few months of 1945 witnessed a remarkable increase in the MKP’s popularity. Membership skyrocketed: the organization had only a few thousand members in January, but by October, Party membership had reached half a million” (Apor, p. 36)

“the party’s main newspaper Szabad Nep, whose chief editor was comrade Revai. The newspaper soon increased from 100,000 to 300,000 copies.” (SKP vuosikirja VI, p. 126)

Some right-wing anti-communists might want to claim that communists simply rigged the elections, or used some kind of election fraud, but this was not the case. Even anti-communist historians like Paul E. Zinner, were forced to admit that:


“…the election was free; it met the highest standards of democracy; it was secret, universal, and direct and everyone could vote according to his conscience… On the basis of the conduct of the election and the reaction of the Communists to its outcome, no one could describe their behavior as anything but impeccable. They obviously did not tamper with the ballot” (Zinner, p. 40)

According to Zinner there were “Liberties seldom, if ever, experienced before (free election by democratic franchise, free press, free speech, an intensive formal parliamentary life)” (p. 37)

“in Hungary… free elections took place” (Kertesz, S. D., The Methods of Communist Conquest: Hungary 1944-1947)

The big winner of the election, was the Smallholders party, a rather amorphous centrist party without any clear ideology or message. It was logical that the Smallholders could receive a lot of votes, but their popularity was of temporary character, the Smallholder Party appealed to everyone, and at the same time, didn’t fully satisfy anybody. In a country where the vast majority of the population had never been able to vote before, the Smallholder Party seemed like a safe bet. It would’ve been unrealistic for them to suddenly jump to the Communist Party or Social-Democratic Party. Likewise the National Peasant Party was distinctly left-wing, and thus couldn’t appeal to everyone, and also focused primarily on the Peasants, and thus didn’t appeal to the urban population.


NEW CURRENCY

The devastation of the war, massive theft of Hungarian property and gold by the Nazis, the terrible shortage of goods and black-marketeering had caused massive inflation.

“In 1945 and 1946 Hungary was in the grip of the greatest inflation in history… People rushed out with their whole week’s salaries to buy a few bus tickets or a loaf of bread.” (Burchett)

In order to make the situation tolerable, workers at factories often received their wages in food and other products directly, and other goods were rationed.

“Most experts were of the view that a stable currency could not be established without a foreign loan.”
(Borsányi & Kende, p. 110)

The inflation was so bad, that the Communists suggested a completely new currency:

“On the initiative of the Communists a currency reform was worked out and put into effect on August 1, 1946. One new Forint was valued at 426, followed by twenty-seven zeros of the old pengoes. Overnight Hungary had a stable currency which could buy real goods which now began to appear in the shops. Currency reform won the Communists great prestige…” (Burchett)

Hungary’s gold had been stolen and production had been decimated. There was a shortage of everything and black market prices skyrocketed. But as soon as production got going again, it was possible to solve the inflation since prices remained stable and the currency could actually get consumers what they wanted.

After the currency was stabilized, right-wing anti-communist ‘historians’ changed their narrative. Nowadays they describe the ending of the worst inflation in world history, as nothing special. They do not want to give communists credit for this achievement, and instead suggest that the inflation really could have been easily ended and blame the communists for ending it too slowly. For example, in his book Revolution in Hungary, Zinner says: “once inflation was in progress, the communists refrainted from halting it.” and “Hungary’s currency could have been stabilized long before August 1, 1946”! (p.54)

Even putting an end to the worst inflation in history, is not good enough for anti-communists. They don’t give communists any credit for it. I would like to ask mr. Zinner, if ending the inflation was supposedly so easy, then why did the capitalist opposition parties or the Smallholders Party not do it, and instead claimed that it could only be solved with massive loans from the West?

The communists had emerged as one of the biggest parties in Hungary, and clearly as the most active political force in the country. They had a plan for the reconstruction of the country and solving economic and social problems. They led the creation of the anti-fascist democratic coalition government. They organized workers into factory committees, which began to restore production. The communist party grew into a mass party of hundreds of thousands of members. The communists also carried out land-reform together with the national peasant party, and stabilized the currency. As a result of these and many other successful policies the popularity of the communists would continue to grow rapidly, while the popularity of the right-wing and reformist forces would begin to diminish.


SOURCES:

David Pryce-Jones, The Hungarian Revolution

Norman Stone, Hungary: A Short History

Wilfred G. Burchett, People’s democracies

Dezső Nemes, History of the Revolutionary Workers Movement in Hungary: 1944-1962

SKP vuosikirja VI

Paul E. Zinner, The Revolution in Hungary

Bennett Kovrig, The Hungarian People’s Republic

Balazs Apor, The invisible shining, p. 58)

Pal Ignotus, Hungary

John Gunther, Behind the curtain

R. R. Betts, ed., Central and South East Europe

Ilonya Polanyi, World Affairs, April, 1949

Doreen Warriner, Revolution in Eastern Europe

Eino Nevalainen, marxilaisen taloustieteen oppikirja osa 2

Borsányi & Kende, The History of the Working Class Movement in Hungary

Kertesz, S. D., The Methods of Communist Conquest: Hungary 1944-1947

Lev Vygotsky and the “antipedology campaign” in Soviet education



The legacy of Lev Vygotsky

There’s an anti-communist myth in the west that Lev Vygotsky was the “best soviet psychologist”, but he was suddenly “banned” or “purged” without justification – or something along those lines. In fact, that is not quite true. Vygotsky of course was never “purged”, arrested or even denounced in his life time. He died in 1934 due to natural causes (tuberculosis). He was unsatisfied with his own achievements which were criticized from many sides, and by himself. Despite of that, he was still called a leading Soviet psychologist when he died.

Vygotsky’s most influential ideas regarded an instrumental approach, about how tools, objects and other such stimuli influence the emergence and development of the psyche. That theory might have some real validity to it, but it seems perhaps one-sided. His other important theory was related to child development. That is how he got into the movement known as “pedology” or the study of the psychological development of children. Its not a psychological school but a mix of many disciplines including pedagogy. However, Vygotsky remained unsatisfied with his theory, was re-writing all of it but died before being able to do that to any substantive degree.

At this moment I am not knowledgeable enough to evaluate Vygotsky’s work as a whole, but it should be kept in mind that Soviet psychology was still only taking shape in the 20s and 30s. Actually big changes, debates and re-evaluations or even “revolutions” in Soviet marxist psychology continued to happen even into the 50s (I’m not taking into account whatever changes took place in the revisionist period from 1953 onward).

However, along with reasons for perhaps recognizing merits in Vygotsky, there are many glaring problems in Vygotsky’s system, even to someone who is not an expert on psychology, but knows something about marxism:

  • A scientific materialist psychological system was being developed at the same time in the USSR by I. P. Pavlov. As far as I’m aware, Vygotsky’s system doesn’t take Pavlov into account to any meaningful degree. In his defence it can be said that Vygotsky’s system is not a complete psychological system, and studied only certain topics, which were different from the subject matter of Pavlov’s research. In my opinion that is not necessarily true, and is not a sufficient excuse. Either way it would demonstrate that Vygotsky’s system could not be the basis of a scientific psychology, but at best a contribution to it.
  • Vygotsky was in the process of re-thinking his entire system, because together with many others, he was unsatisfied with it. This raises obvious problems.
  • Vygotsky looked somewhat uncritically to western bourgeois idealist schools of psychology to solve problems with his system. This raises further problems. As a result Vygotsky’s work cannot be readily accepted by scientific marxist psychology but must be very carefully and critically evaluated. Of course many people have attempted to do exactly that.

In 1936 the doctrine of pedology was heavily criticized and eventually marginalized. Perhaps not outright banned, but still a C.C. resolution “on the pedological distortions in the people’s comissariat for education (narkompros)” made it clear that the state schools would no longer use pedological methods on their students. Vygotsky was not attacked, but a field closely related to him was. Thus a significant chunk of his work started to be seen as questionable at best.



Problems in the early Soviet education system: pedology vs pedagogy



So why did the C.C. decide so firmly against those practices? According to a paper by a bourgeois historian, Soviet schools had big problems in handling students. It should be kept in mind that in the Tsarist times the vast majority of the population remained illiterate and poorly educated. This problem was tackled by the Bolsheviks in the 1920s and 30s with massive literacy campaigns and the founding of a universal education system which was free even for the university level. In fact university students received stipends to help cover their living and other expenses. However, big problems remained to be solved, reaching universal literacy was a huge undertaking:

“In early 1937, one-third of sixth graders in a school near Leningrad were not passing their Russian-language course.” (Thomas Ewing, Restoring Teachers to Their Rights, p. 1)

Teachers who had grown up in the Tsarist education system did not handle the situation properly. They blamed students for being “stupid”, “lazy” and “hopeless”. This was the norm in the Tsarist education system. A vivid description of the Tsarist school system is given by N. Pomyalovsky in his book Seminary Sketches.

“Their teacher, Tomsinskaia, told the school director that the failures were due to circumstances beyond her control: children had received inadequate preparation in previous grades, textbooks were in short supply, and pupils had “weak reading habits.” Other teachers in the Krasnosel’skii district offered similar justifications… Velichko asserted that her seventeen failing pupils all suffered from inherited conditions such as “mental retardation,” “underdevelopment,” or “congenital laziness.” (Ewing, p. 1)

The communists strongly refuted such claims by teachers. Clearly the old teachers themselves needed to be educated how to treat students better:

“According to the regional educational journal, however, these poor results were evidence that teachers were “shirking their responsibility for pupils’ lack of achievement.” While blaming lack of preparation in earlier grades, an article in that journal charged that Tomsinskaia had conveniently “forgotten” that one-half of “failing” pupils had studied with her the previous year and thus she was responsible for promoting them, just as she had “forgotten” to mention that she made little effort to correct mistakes, provide remedial assistance, or encourage independent reading.” (Ewing, p. 1)

The pedologists studied different “defects” in children, gave them different labels and classifications regarding their “defects” and wanted to send them to special schools for “defective students”. This became a big problem because of the sheer amount of children who were declared “defective” and “nearly hopeless” and sent away from normal education. This also gave the conservative, stupid and even reactionary teachers a perfect excuse to always blame students, and merely throw them out. This was deeply damaging:

“Stalingrad pedologists claimed that as many as three thousand pupils enrolled in “normal classes” should be certified as “mentally retarded.” In one extreme case, one-quarter of pupils in a single class were assigned to this category. Moscow pedologists declared that as many as two-thirds of “failing” pupils were in fact “mentally retarded.” (Ewing, p. 6)

Other anti-communist undemocratic attitudes were perpetuated, advocating segregation of “lesser” students from the rest, or casting them out of normal schools:

“Within many schools, “parallel” classes existed, with “strong” pupils separated from “weak” pupils, most of whom were repeating grades… ” In late May 1936, just one month before the repudiation of pedology, a letter published in the newspaper Izvestiia declared that “mentally retarded children” could receive a proper education only in separate schools.” (Ewing, p. 6)

Naturally some students legitimately have severe physical or mental problems, and need special assistance. In some cases special assistance might even mean a separate school which specializes in helping disabled students. However, the goal of communism should be to help integrate disabled people into society as much as possible, make them equal to the maximum degree, and not separate them. It is always better if society can be made more accommodating, rather then separating them to their own space.

It is entirely reactionary to categorically declare these conditions as “hopeless” and even more reactionary, if not outright fascist to declare these students (human beings!) as “hopeless”. Secondly, only people with serious mental disability, physical health concerns etc. might need specialized facilities. In the Soviet case it was clear that vast numbers of students without any such severe disabilities were being labeled “defective” when they would have been entirely capable of studying in the usual school system, if given the necessary help.

The ideas and practices of the pedological “researchers” took on sinister, undemocratic and even racist features:

“Soviet pedologists sought to establish their authority in measuring the mental ability and learning potential of children [and] suggested that even in a “socialist” system, certain categories of children, especially those in rural areas and among “non-Russian” minorities, remained “backward” in their academic achievement.”” (Ewing, p. 10)



Criticism of separation of pedological theory from practice, and lack of its practical usefulness



Marxism teaches that theory must always serve practice, otherwise it is empty.

“Educational policymakers complained that pedologists failed to provide useful knowledge about child development, and a few even called for pedology to be eliminated from teacher training programs. Central Committee member A. Zhdanov criticized pedologists who endlessly studied “difficult” children but made no effort to improve behavior or raise achievement of those pupils conveniently kept “out of the way” in separate schools.” (Ewing, p. 10)

“Pedologists were denounced for “pointless debates” and for “talking endlessly in their own pedological language which no one else can understand.” Most pointedly, critics asserted that pedologists had made no practical contribution to Soviet education: “so-called pedologists have done nothing, are doing nothing, and will never do anything to help the school.” As “observers” rather than “transformers,” pedologists failed to live up to Stalin’s assertion that the people “who make history” are those who not only understand the conditions in which they are living, but also “understand how to change these conditions.”” (Ewing, p. 13)

Criticism of the anti-marxist foundation of pedological theory



The Central Committee had to tackle this problem and restore pedagogy, the science of educating:

“Accusing the Commissariat of Education of yielding control over such functions as assigning pupils, defining regulations, and evaluating achievement, the Central Committee charged that pedologists’ “pseudo-scientific experiments” had called excessive attention to “the most negative influences and pathological perversions” in children, their families, and surrounding environment. Such testing meant that “an ever larger and larger number of children” were assigned to special schools after being categorized as “mentally backward,” “defective,” or “difficult.” In fact, the Central Committee declared, many of these children were perfectly capable of attending normal’naia shkola (normal schools), but once these labels had been affixed, they were considered “hopeless” cases””
(Ewing, p. 11)

“The Central Committee went beyond these complaints about school policies, however, by charging that pedological theory itself was based on “falsely-scientific and anti-Marxist foundations.” In particular, any suggestion that children’s fate was “determined” by “fixed” social or biological factors was condemned as directly contradictory to “socialist development,” which had “successfully re-educated people.” Such claims about environmental and hereditary influences allegedly revealed an “uncritical” borrowing of “bourgeois” theories intended to maintain the dominant positions of “exploiting classes” and “superior races” by perpetuating the “physical and spiritual doom of the working classes and ‘inferior races.”‘ In the concluding section, the Central Committee instructed the Commissariat of Education to achieve “the full restoration of pedagogy as a science and pedagogues as its bearers and guides” by restoring teachers’ responsibility for instruction, returning “the bulk of the children to normal schools,” and eliminating the field of pedology by retraining specialists, withdrawing books, and abolishing courses.” (Ewing, p. 11)

The notion that people from certain nationalities or from bad socio-economic conditions cannot study together with the rest of students, is entirely anti-marxist. The notion that biological or environmental factors cannot be changed or mitigated is completely false. Such claims practically dismantle and eliminate pedagogy, the science of education, by declaring that an educator is totally powerless to do anything about these “hopelessly defective” cases. This is how bourgeois pseudo-science attempts to demolish real science.

Even some cases of sabotage were alleged. Labeling huge amounts of children without serious disabilities as “hopeless” surely sounds like sabotage, and it wouldn’t surprise me if oppositionist or Tsarist teachers didn’t sometimes do it as a form of sabotage:

“Soviet authorities promised that the “unmasking” of “hostile” pedologists would produce “healthier” schools by “rooting out” all “harmful” elements with “counter-revolutionary” intentions.” (Ewing, p. 12)


Correcting the methods of teaching, correcting harmful attitudes, and correcting the role of teachers


“According to Party officials, many “rank and file” teachers had seen special schools as “a means of deliverance” from “undesirable” pupils. Pedologists were thus “very convenient” for “bad teachers” who no longer had to assume “responsibility for teaching underachieving children.” Pedologists even offered teachers a kind of justification for poor results. When a school pedologist “discovered” that less than 10 percent of second graders in a Moscow school were “capable, well developed children,” teachers had an easy excuse for the poor achievement of the entire class…” (Ewing, p. 16-17)

“Yet even as such efforts to evade responsibility were being condemned as “pedological distortions,” some teachers persistently sought to divest themselves of “problem” pupils.” (Ewing, p. 16)

Serbantova is a good example of an undemocratic, elitist and conservative teacher, who has failed at their job and instead blames students:

“Addressing a conference in late 1936, school director P. S. Arshinov described how second grade teacher Serbantova reacted to a pupil with learning difficulties: “For goodness sake, I already have one such ‘incorrigible’ child, and now you have given me another.” On the next day, Serbantova demanded that Arshinov take measures against “this ‘disorganizer,’ this ‘incorrigible one,’ who does not sit still in class, and fidgets all the time.” Noting that the fidgeting resulted from physical illness easily corrected by medical treatment, Arshinov refused this request. Serbantova then incited the parents of other children to make similar demands: “Either remove this boy, or transfer our children to other classes, because he is ruining them.”” (Ewing, p. 16)

The above is a good example of a reactionary, pseudo-scientific bourgeois attitude towards education. Imagine blaming students who are left-handed, have dyslexia or ADHD as “incorrigible” and “stupid”. This in fact was the attitude in many capitalist schools, and still is to some extent today. It is not the attitude of marxism.

Reactionary teachers appealed to the supposed “innate defects” of students. They neglected these students, refused to put in the effort to teach them and help them, and used undemocratic, elitist and outright insulting and dehumanizing labels against these students:

“In a few cases, as in the example of Serbantova, teachers simply refused to teach certain children. Referring to her “incorrigible” pupils, teacher Ur’eva told the school director: “It is either them, or me.” Teachers who commented on the “innate abilities” of children were condemned for accepting pedologists’ “reactionary” views on the so-called “fatal” influence of heredity. A 1938 report claimed that some teachers made decisions two months before final exams that certain pupils would be held back and thus made no effort to prevent their “inevitable” failure. When Leningrad teacher Udal’tsova was asked why she had not graded certain notebooks, she replied: “Oh, those belong to the repeating students, and you can’t expect anything from them.” In Moscow, teacher Durova justified her poor results by claiming that her pupils were “less gifted” than those of a more successful teacher. In direct contravention to the Central Committee decree, many teachers continued to label individual pupils as “lacking intelligence,” “hopeless,” “defective” or “retarded.”” (Ewing, p. 17)


The Communist Party and Communist Teachers took a firm stance against reactionary methods and attitudes. They stated that the vast majority of students must be returned to the normal school system and teachers must give them additional help. It is the job of the teacher to make sure these students learn. These students will no longer be labeled as “defective” and will not be blamed.

Democratic slogans were adopted, such as “the Soviet Union did not have a single “defective child.”” and “There are No Poor Pupils, Only Poor Teachers”. A campaign was launched for 100% successful teaching, so that every student would pass his exams. If a student was having problems, it was the responsibility of the teacher to give them the help they need. This included trying to help their family or trying to solve any factors outside school, which could be causing problems for their education.

“The Stalingrad educational journal offered this unequivocal declaration: “Poor work by the school and poor achievement by the entire class and by individual pupils are the direct result of poor work by the teacher.” Whereas pedologists had asserted that “failure occurs outside the school,” the new policy line proclaimed that “failure occurs only in the school,” at the hands of teachers. [this does not mean to deny factors outside school, such as bad family conditions, but it means the teacher is responsible for addressing those problems too]. Teachers who had been reassured by pedologists that “failure” was the inevitable “fate” of “below average” pupils were now told that “permitting” failure by even one pupil was proof of their adherence to “bourgeois” and “anti-Leninist” theories.” (Ewing, p. 18)

Western anti-communists complain that it is “repressive” to blame teachers for the poor performance of their students. But what is the job of an educator? To educate. Since the teachers were given all the necessary resources, if they just put in the necessary effort they should be able to fulfill their duty. As one communist teacher correctly stated:

Much has been given to us, but much is also asked of us.” (Ewing, p. 22)


The correct attitude and methods



“Complaining that pedologists had “crippled” children by categorizing them as “defective,” “difficult to educate,” and “disorganizers,” teacher E. Vvedenskaia urged colleagues to recognize that only an “individual approach” could ensure the success of each pupil. In a similar manner, I. Borukhovich declared that eliminating “pedological distortions” and improving schools were attainable ends only if teachers committed themselves to work “thoroughly, thoughtfully, and lovingly” with each child. Reinforcing this shift in expertise, educational authorities promised to pay more attention to “the voice of our best teachers.” With increasing frequency, journals and newspapers published celebratory accounts of how teachers transformed children into high achievers, obedient classmates, and loyal citizens. After M. D. Pronina finished the school year without any failing pupils, her achievement was said to have “disproven” pedology. When K. K. Fediukin transformed the son of a neglectful and drunken father into an excellent pupil, he accomplished a task allegedly declared “impossible” by pedologists.” (Ewing, p. 19)

Communist teachers held the correct humane and democratic attitude towards students, and recognized the necessity to combine theory with practice:

The ideas of one teacher Litvinchuk to correct the situation “consisted of seemingly common-sense approaches. In dealing with “backward” pupils, for example, Litvinchuk called on teachers to provide additional lessons, investigate factors that might impede pupils’ success, and avoid any suggestion that “hopeless” pupils were unable to achieve at “normal” levels. These examples suggest that the “scientific” authority previously claimed by pedologists had been repudiated in favor of teachers who used their “practical” authority to achieve more than these “experts” believed was possible.“
(Ewing, p. 20)

“In a 1939 account, for example, teacher V. P. Laiko described how she brought about the remarkable transformation of a boy named Valia:

For the first three quarters of the year he remained behind in all subjects. I considered him a “hopeless case,” that is, someone who would be held back a year. At the same time, however, I could clearly see that Valia did not have any kind of defects. I decided to work with him in a serious and systematic fashion. I must say that he was a real trouble-maker, as he interrupted lessons, crawled under desks, used improper language, and stole money from his home. The first thing I did was enlist his parents and keep in constant contact with them. I began to have additional lessons with Valia at the end of the day, invited him to my home, gave him interesting books, included him in socialist competition, and began to draw him a little bit away from the street. In the first half of the quarter, I could already see results as Valia began to read at a “satisfactory” level. By the end of the first grade his grades were not all that great, but I decided to promote him to the second grade in order to continue the work that I had begun with him. At the present time Valia is getting an “excellent” grade in reading, a “satisfactory” grade for spelling, and a “good” grade for arithmetic. I think that Valia might become an excellent pupil. If you work in a very painstaking way with children, it is possible to improve their education and raise their level of achievement.” (Ewing, p. 20)

The story of a teacher who emigrated from the USSR verifies how these new improved methods achieved success:

“I obtained my next post at school No. 23 in Kharkov in the fourth grade. This was a school whose children were the toughest I had ever met. Nobody paid attention to the teachers. During class periods the children did everything except listen to what the teacher was saying. The headmaster warned me that this grade was very bad, but he was very surprised when, after one year with me, the children gave up their former habits and became more attentive in their school work.” In these stories, the parallel transformations from a “hopeless case” to “an excellent pupil” and from “the toughest” class to “more attentive” children were presented as defining elements of what it meant to be a teacher.”
(Ewing, p. 21)



In conclusion



Vygotsky himself was never the focus of the criticisms. The doctrine of pedology was condemned due to its:

  • Pseudo-scientific and anti-marxist nature.
  • Undemocratic, fatalistic (idealist) and heartless attitude.
  • Counter-revolutionary, harmful consequences which can be compared to sabotage.
  • Its separation of theory from practice: wasting time on endless fruitless discussions and experiments, while failing to give any useful results to support education.
  • In fact its elimination and abolishing of pedagogy, its declaration that pedagogy is powerless to help the so-called “defective”.



Lastly, I should mention that the idea of specialized institutes for disabled or other people who needed significant specialist help, was not as such denounced in the USSR. One of the most famous Soviet pedagogues, A. Makarenko, specialized in the 1920s and 1930s in creating self-help communes for street orphans, many of whom had terrible life-management problems and a background in crime.

It was also not prohibited to study the different “natural talents” or differences in people’s talents. One of the leading Soviet psychologists of the Stalin era, B. Teplov, studied what it means for someone to be especially “talented” or “gifted” in some field, such as music or mathematics, and where these “gifts” come from. Marxism does not deny that people are different and have different levels of skills. However, this should not lead to the segregation of people, but to the greatest possible development and thriving of everyone.

Those with special needs in certain areas, should receive additional help, and those with special gifts in certain areas should be given all the opportunities they need. This individual and humane attitude is part of raising a socialist generation, creating the socialist human being. It was exemplified for example in the work of a leading pedagogue in the Stalin era, V. Sukhomlynsky. It was the Soviet Marxist-Leninist method, the method of building Communism.