"Masses & Mainstream" on Soviet psychiatry (circa 1950)

Jim Farmelant farmelantj at SPAMjuno.com
Wed May 31 19:38:07 MDT 2000

Recently, I found in a used book store a collection of issues for the
radical journal "Masses & Mainstream" which was a continuation of the
earlier "New Masses."  Like the "New Masses,"  "Masses & Mainstream"
was avowedly pro-Soviet (and hence pro-Stalin) and many of its editors
and contributors were members of the CPUSA while most of the
contributors who were nonparty members were still nevertheless
"fellow travelers."  The collection that I purchased contained issues
from 1949 and 1950 and were reflective of the concerns of
American Communists of that time.  Thus there is a number of
articles about the persecution of Party members at that time
including the jailing of Party leader Eugene Dennis.  Since
"Masses & Mainstream" was supposed to be a literary journal
there are a number of literary discussions including an article
by the then Hungarian minister of culture Joseph Revai on the
theories of Georg Lukacs.  Basically, Revai disapproved of
most of Lukacs' ideas.

The quality of many of the contributions seem to be of a decidedly
mixed character.  A lot of stuff seems to reflective of the Stalinist
sectarianism that was dominant in the CPUSA at the time.  But
on the other hand there are some items of interest and a few
gems.  One issue has a poem by Lorraine Hannesberry
who was then a twenty-year-old art student in Chicago.
Ms. Hannesberry as many people here are undoubtedly aware,
after having been mentored by such people as Paul Robeson
and W.E.B. Du Bois, achieved fame as the author of
the play  "A Raisin in the Sun" and the book *To Be Young,
Gifted, and Black*.  There is also, in the May 1950 issue a
review by Du Bois of Philip Foner's *The Life and Writings
of Frederick Douglas*.  However, one piece that attracted
my attention is George Stewart's review of the book *Soviet
Psychiatry* by Joseph Wortis  in the Spetember 1950 issue,
which follows.

Jim F.
When a unique book makes it appearance - a trailblazer in its field -
there is always
the temptation to describe it as long overdue.  Yet in the case of Dr.
Wortis' survey
of psychiatric theory and practice in the USSR it is impossible to
imagine a more
apposite comment.  Those American Marxists who have been engaged, in
years, with an increasingly critical estimation of psychiatric practices
and doctrines
current in our country have always found themselves confronted with a
question to
which their own ignorance was a dusty answer:  "Well, what do they do in
the Soviet
Union?"  Many other individuals who have developed the sensible habit of
to the Soviet Union for progressive work in the fields of science and
management have so far found their questions regarding Soviet psychiatry
unanswered.  As a result of this lack of relevant material - in English,
of course -
and in the face of anti-Soviet propaganda many curious opinions have
even among progressives as to the provisions for the care of the
and mental disordered in the first socialist country.

There are those who, while sympathetic to the aims of socialism, are so
that a collective society does not concern itself about the individual
that they
cannot imagine the socialist Soviet Union paying much attention to what
is, in their
eyes, an individual-oriented science.  There are those who, quite
appear to believe that the successful establishment of socialism in a
automatically solves all personal problems and abolishes the need for
Such a view is that of the economic determinist, who is able to overlook
heavy inheritance of capitalist ideology which must be struggled against
the entire period of transition from capitalism to the final stage of
There are those who remain obdurately convinced as to the
of "basic human nature" and blandly assume that a socialist society must
the same psychiatric problems and deal with them in the same way as a
society.  Finally, there are those who are convinced that the emotional
of people are different (and very likely less severe) under socialism and
psychiatric care must also be different, but simply have little
information on the
actual details of Soviet psychiatric theory and practice.  Wortis' book
should go a
long way toward clearing up mistaken viewpoints and supplying us with a
quantity of badly needed information in the process.

Since any review of so rich a book can only deal adequately with a
limited number
of problems, we wish to touch on only two or three which should be of the
interest to the American reader.  First, on the general trend of Soviet
The Soviet psychiatrist is essentially a materialist and an
environmentalist.  There
is no room in his conceptual storehouse for instinctual drives, innate
abilities or
purely "psychological" explanations of human behavior.  As A.N. Leontiev
puts it:

        ". . . Only the anatomical and physical traits of the organism are
        These traits do not in themselves determine directly one's abilities;
        abilities are formed only in the process of development of appropriate
        activities.  Consequently, they are dependent on the concrete
        conditions which make a give activity possible."

>From this it is easy to see why Soviet psychiatry stands squarely on the
two pillars
of neurophysiology and social manipulation (work therapy, emphasis on
care rather than prolonged hospitalization, occupational re-training
etc.), with
pure psychotherapy playing a relatively minor role.  From this also we
see why
the work of Pavlov has had such a deep influence on Soviet psychiatry,
since while
this work is not free from typical mistakes of the mechanical materialist
variety, it
possesses the virtue of being consistently materialist (it continuously
has sought
for physiological explanations of psychological phenomena) and is
oriented toward an understanding of the learning process.  It was
influence also (combined with the basically materialist outlook of Soviet
which, in Wortis' opinion, accounts for the enormous emphasis that Soviet
psychiatrists place on physiological methods of treatment - shock
neurosurgery, chemical dosage, etc. - even for those disorders which the
bulk of
American psychiatrists regard as purely functional (non-organic).

On the other hand, the Soviet psychiatrist is also a social scientist and
engages in
massive alterations of the social environment of the patient, both in
and treatment.  Wortis points out that the emphasis in the Soviet Union
is on
out-patient care, with the hospital reserved only for the most acute and
patients.  It is felt that isolation from normal human society and
from productive social labor serve to aggravate mental illness.
Naturally, there is a great concentration on preventive psychiatry, and a
whole network of
community clinics, sheltered workshops, training and retraining
facilities and
elaborate systems of foster care.  From this it also follows that the
field of
child psychiatry is enormously developed in the Soviet Union as compared
as compared to the insignificant role this field plays in  American

Thus, the general trend of Soviet psychiatry is in the direction of
on the one hand, and social influence on the other, with the
purely psychotherapeutic methods of treatment (see the discussion of
psychoanalysis below) squeezed into a minor and increasingly subordinate
position.  To those who are familiar with the basic Marxist view of human
personality, and are also aware of the immense possibilities afforded by
a socialist society for environmental manipulation, this over-all
of Soviet psychiatry appears quite logical and inevitable.

A second problem of quite general interest is, of course, the attitude of
Soviet psychiatry to psychoanalysis, particularly the Freudian doctrines
which today dominate in American psychiatry.  It should not be news
that Soviet psychiatrists are sharply critical of psychoanalysis,
regarding its
theories as reactionary and obscurantist and its therapeutic methods as
wasteful of time and relatively ineffective.    As Wortis summarizes the
opinions of the leading Soviet psychiatrists, their criticisms of
are as follows:  (1) it is ultra-individualistic, explaining social life
as the
sum of the behavior of individuals, rather than individual behavior
as a social product; (2) Freud has no understanding of the social
conditions of human behavior;  (3) Freud minimizes the role of
which Soviet psychology regards as the highest product of evolution
and to which it assigns the dominant role over unconscious impulses;
(4) as a method of treatment it is uneconomic and wasteful since only
a small number of patients can be covered by it and it "fixes the
of the patient on intimate personal experiences," thus turning his
attention away from society;  (5) Freud's biologism leads him to
subjective idealism, to a "negation  of social influences and an
explanation of the behavior of man by exclusive internal forces,
through his psychological and biological drives."  As E.T. Chernakov
puts it:

        "The constant theme of bourgeois psychology is the
        problem of inner personality conflicts; the eternal
        struggle of two entities: - the human and the animal;
        the conscious and the unconscious; the rational and
        the instinctual; the social and the biological, and so
        on. . . The tenacity with which these theories persist
        can be largely attributed to their usefulness to the
        scientific lackeys of the ruling classes, who
        utilize them for the purpose of concealing the real
        contradictions which beset a class society.  This
        is done by presenting these contradictions as
        inner conflicts, by reducing social contradictions
        to the contradictory nature of the human soul."

As one reads through Wortis' book, it becomes clear that
the real "doctor" in the Soviet Union is the socialist
society itself, that the abolition of exploitation of man by
man and, with this, the possibility of the disappearance
of man's inhumanity to man provide the most important
conditions for mental health.  Scattered throughout the
book are comments which give glimpses of the amazing
possibilities inherent in a socialist society for the development
of healthy personality and the treatment of the disordered,
opportunities which simply do not exist in our dog-eat-dog
social system.  We are told, for example, that "it is the
doctor's role to help the patient to rearrange his life so
that he has a better schedule of work, sleep, recreation,
etc.,'  and we reflect wryly how rarely this is practically
possible in our own country.  Repeatedly it is pointed out that
productive and creative work on the part of the patient
is a basic therapeutic tool in the Soviet Union, and we
reflect on how inappropriate such a device would be
in America, where labor is most often meaningless,
degrading, for the benefit of the private proprietor alone.
Again, we are informed that "the cardinal virtues
inculcated in children are 'love of work' and 'love of
people.'  In the Soviet Union it is believed that lack
of these is basically responsible for most juvenile
delinquency," and we comprehend why juvenile
delinquency destroys thousands of youngsters
annually in our country but has almost vanished as
a problem in the socialist Soviet Union.

It is a real weakness of Wortis' book that much more
emphasis that much more emphasis is placed upon the
physiological and chemical methods of treating seriously
disordered (psychotic) patients than upon the unique
social arrangements of the new society.  In this he may,
perhaps, be mirroring the past of Soviet psychiatry, but
his own account suggests that this does not yield an
adequate picture of the past and present.  At the end of
his book he presents us with several interesting appendices,
which consist of a series of translated documents from current
controversy in Soviet  psychiatry and psychology.  From
these documents, it is clear that Soviet psychiatry is passing
through the same phase of searching criticism and
self-criticism as has been taking place in the fields of
philosophy, biology, literature, art and music.  From these
sharp critiques, we gather that many leading Soviet
psychiatrists and psychologists have not been able
fully absorb and apply in their work the basic principles
of dialectical materialism, have uncritically incorporated
many wholly bourgeois psychological concepts and,
worst of all from the socialist point of view, have not
taken as the object of their study the new Soviet man
"who acts and develops under the conditions of our
Soviet reality, but some human personality in general,
taken abstractly and in isolation from concrete
socio-economic conditions."  Again and again, in these
critiques, it is pointed out that Soviet psychology
has not been sufficiently partisan, that it has not criticized
bourgeois psychology but merely borrowed from it,
that it has been eclectic.  Above all, the criticisms point out
that the main problem of Soviet psychology must be to
study how different socio-economic conditions affect the
development of personality.  It is impossible to study
"man in general" but only concrete men who live under
concrete conditions:  "the psychology of Soviet man must
become the central problem of the Soviet science of

Thus, Wortis' book appears to stand on its head, and we
learn, with some sense of bafflement, only when we read the
last few pages that much of what has been reported to
us throughout the volume about the theories and practices
of Soviet psychiatry is currently under assault within Soviet
psychiatry itself.  This reviewer feels that Wortis' report on
Soviet psychiatry is itself insufficiently dialectical, that he
does not present us with an all-rounded picture of Soviet
psychiatry as a living science which has passed through
various phases, which has made mistakes  but struggles to
correct them, which has tried to purge itself of bourgeois
ideology but has done so, as yet, only incompletely.  The
one-sided emphasis on neurophysiology in Wortis'
account of Soviet psychiatry may reflect the kind of mechanical
materialism with which a science newly turned towards
Marxism often attempts to counter the idealist trends of
bourgeois science.  Thus, one feels somewhat disappointed
at an account of Soviet psychiatry which spends many
pages summarizing the various types of shock treatments
for the psychotic patient but only a paragraph or two on the
massive social effort that wiped out prostitution and has
virtually eliminated juvenile delinquency as a serious problem.

Despite this shortcoming, Wortis' book is a contribution of
great value to the discussions now going on in Marxist circles
with regard to psychiatric theory and practice; and it provides
an effective answer to the notion that a collective society
ignores the welfare of the individual.  The reader will be
well advised, however, to read the Appendix first, so that
the remainder of the book will be in proper perspective.

Above all, at a time when every medium of communication
in our country is attempting to convince us that the Soviet
Communists are nothing but a gang of bloodthirsty cannibals,
it is enlightening to read a serious account of the considerable
time, thought and energy which the socialist Soviet Union
invests in the well-being of its citizens.  What a contrast
to our country, which reserves its most highly regarded
therapeutic method for a limited number of private
patients with the money to pay for it, and permits the
overwhelming bulk of its people to struggle along
almost without assistance in the face of the terrible
pressures of a decaying society!
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