Vygotsky's Marxist Life - another perspective

Vygotsky's writings were banned in the Soviet Union in 1936, two years after his death. All scientific and cultural freedoms were suppressed when Stalin launched the great terror and purged and killed most of the revolutionary guard from 1917. Despite this Vygotsky's ideas were kept alive by a small group of Russian scientists.


Like many other socialist and left-wing intellectuals, Vygotsky came from a Jewish family. Jews were oppressed in tsarist Russia and were excluded from many state jobs. They couldn't move freely and only 3-5% of the Jewish students were admitted into the universities. However, Vygotsky was among the lucky ones and he got a place. At university, between 1913-1917, he studied law, literature, art, philosophy and history, and was influenced by the revolutionary currents in Russia.

Russian Revolution

During the year of revolution 1917, he started to work as a teacher in his home city Gomel. He wrote a lot of articles, organised study circles and became a popular lecturer. He was in touch with the radical cultural movement and was influenced by Stalinslavsky the playwright, and Mayakovsky the poet. He also collaborated with Eisenstein, the film director.

In 1919 Vygotsky caught TB, a disease that severely affected him at times and which in the end led to his death. However this did not stop him from continuing his persistent work of developing a psychology theory based on Marxism and dialectical materialism. Vygotsky's aim was to create a unified theory about the social and psychological development of humans.

His breakthrough came in 1924 when he became a researcher at the Psychology Institute of Moscow University.

Moscow University

By 1925 his doctoral thesis, The Psychology of Art, was finished. This work contained a long essay about Hamlet had already been written in 1915 when Vygotsky was only 19. This thesis, however, was never discussed because Vygotsky was affected by TB. Because of this, and also because Vygotsky was absorbed by so many other urgent tasks, this work was not to be published until 1968.

“In Moscow he was soon recognised as a great thinker, driven by enormous energy. A group of colleagues and students gathered around him with the aim of spreading his ideas and reshaping psychology. During this decade Vygotsky worked more intensely and productively than ever. It was a period of fast developments and sudden changes. The enormous energy of Vygotsky (he published many articles, worked in many institutions and gave long lectures), reflected the unbound energy and activity in the Soviet Union after the revolution.” (www.hj.se/~iste/laerare/vygotskij.html)

Vygotsky became part of the so-called "troika" together with psychologists Alexev Leontiev and Alexander Luria. He worked at the Commissariat for Education together with Lenin's wife Krupskaya. During this period he also founded an institute for research into disabilities and treated disabled children.

In 1933, just before his death, Vygotsky presented some of his most important theories. During a number of lectures in Leningrad the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) theory was formulated. It deals with the question of what a child can learn at any given moment, and has been received a lot of attention from modern day pedagogues.

At the same time he wrote his book 'Thought and Language', which analyses the formation of human consciousness and emphasises the role of language in the development of thought. Vygotsky dictated the last chapter of this book from his deathbed.

Reference: Martin Oscarsson (April 2001) http://www.marxist.com/science/vygotsky_501.html

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