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"Marx Was Right": Lessons From Lewin

Nathan Gerard

Just before his untimely death in 1947, Kurt Lewin paid a hasty visit to his friend and collaborator Dorin Cartwright, overcome by what Cartwright (1979) would call a “brilliant insight” (p. 179). Upon arriving at Cartwright’s home “in a state of a great excitement,” Lewin proclaimed, “Marx was right”:


When I asked Lewin if he could be more specific about what he had in mind, he said that it was now obvious to him that behavior could not be adequately understood simply in terms of cognitive structure, wishes, and expectations, and that some way would have to be found for dealing with the constraints, opportunities, resources and pressures that originate in the social, political, and technological environment…I have no doubt that if he had been able to develop this new line of thinking, social psychological theory would be considerably different today. (p. 179)


What to make of this fascinating piece of history? Was Lewin right about Marx? Was Cartwright right about “social psychological theory [being] considerably different today,” had Lewin lived to see his “brilliant insight” through?


On the surface, Lewin’s affirmation of Marx may seem superficial—a mere passing nod to someone who shared in Lewin’s penchant for big ideas. Viewed in the larger context of Lewin’s “life space,” however, the statement carries deep significance. Living in Germany during the Wiener Republic years, at the height of intellectual activity that coalesced in the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School, the young Lewin was certainly no stranger to Marxist thought. Lewin befriended and collaborated with the leading Marxist scholar, Karl Korsch (Lewin & Korsch, 1939) and sought inspiration in Marx’s notion of totality:


To my mind Marx’s emphasis on the totality of factors influencing social life which forbids, for instance, the abstraction from the economical side of any social event, is one of the most important steps in the direction to a field-theoretical approach. (Lewin, 1937, p. 259)


Lewin’s relationship with Korsh dwindled, however, when Lewin migrated to the US. His development of a field-theoretical approach, while arguably Marxian in its revolutionary ethos (Fenison, 1986), did not follow in the footsteps of Marxist scholarship in Europe and America. Why might this be? Did Lewin succumb to the pressures of McCarthyism in his new home? We can only speculate. And why the (re)turn to Marx in the 11th hour? We can only wonder. What we can hardly deny, however, is our widespread ignorance—or denial—of Lewin’s Marxist roots and our continued reluctance to learn, as Lewin clearly did, from this important thinker.


So what can Marx teach us contemporary I-O psychologists? Here is a short list:

  1. Totality: Like Lewin (1943), Marx does not separate people from their social and economic conditions, nor from their past and future, but instead views them as historical entities. The world, too, is not static but a complex of processes. Psychologists therefore must study the “totality” of interrelations and interdependencies in any given phenomenon. All too often in I-O psychology, we neglect the intricate web of “social, political, and technological” forces that constitute a given phenomenon of interest (Cartwright, 1979) and instead dilute our concepts from a complex (and often highly contentious) social phenomenon to an isolated state of mind. Marx encourages us to resist this tendency, just as Lewin famously—and playfully—coaxed the behaviorist Clark Hull to expand his thinking by labeling the events outside one’s personal space as the “foreign hull.” The lesson here is that what precisely seems foreign to present-day I-O psychologists is an opportunity for theoretical growth.
  2. Automation: Although certainly not the first critic of automation, Marx is arguably the most nuanced and prescient. Contrary to the perennial fear of human obsolescence that accompanies this process, Marx (1867) documents how automation actually brings about more work: “[T]he most powerful instrument for reducing labor-time suffers a dialectical inversion and becomes the most unfailing means for turning the whole lifetime of the worker and his family into labor-time at capital’s disposal for its own valorization” (p. 523). What Marx highlights here is how the worker under capitalism, although free from feudal servitude, must dispose of the only thing he still owns: his power to work. As this power diminishes with automation, the worker is forced to work for less and less and eventually for nothing at all. Today, we see the effects of automation most starkly in the decimation of factory jobs in the wake of the Great Recession, but we can also witness its “dialectical inversion” whereby redundant labor gets redeployed in increasingly precarious ways—unpaid internships, freelancing, and the “gig economy”—all of which turn more of the worker’s “whole lifetime…into labor-time” (Marx, 1867). Automation, so long as it takes place in the “totality” of capitalism, too often destabilizes livelihoods rather than delivers freedom from stultifying jobs—a phenomenon I-O psychologists have yet to fully explore.
  3. Alienation: Alienation is intimately tied to automation. Defined by Marx (1867) as “a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things,” alienation captures the sense of estrangement we often feel at work (p. 72). For Marx (1844), this estrangement is fourfold: estrangement from the work process, from its product, from fellow producers, and from the self (or what Marx calls our “species being”). Today, we suffer this latter aspect of alienation most egregiously in the new forms of “immaterial labor” proliferating in the service economy, labor that demands we bring more emotion and authenticity, and generally more “life” onto the job (Boltanski & Chiapello, 2003; Hochschild, 1979). Put simply, when work becomes no longer simply “what we do,” but “who we are,” our relation to work becomes existentially fraught (Fleming, 2013). As I-O psychologists, we would do well to examine Marx’s concept of alienation further, especially in the midst of increasingly precarious work that leaves the worker more exposed to the vicissitudes of the market.


  1. Ideology: Marx helps us understand, appreciate, and ultimately call into question the ideologies that shape our thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors. For Marx, ideologies are sets of ideas largely outside of our awareness that reinforce relations of domination and subordination (Gramsci, 1971; Thompson, 1984). In I-O psychology, a focus on ideology would greatly complement the recent surge in implicit bias research (Banaji & Greenwald, 2016; Ross, 2014; Steele, 2011) and provide this research with some much-needed political heft. Ideologies, unlike implicit biases, have a material dimension: “The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production” (Marx, 1845a, p. 78). Ironically, then, to fully grasp the material dimension of implicit bias requires an appreciation of I-O psychology’s own implicit bias, which is to unwittingly reduce socioeconomic problems to individual problems (Nord, 1974).1


  1. Conflict: Marx asserts that society advances through struggle and welcomes healthy conflict to propel humanity forward. As I-O psychologists, we could benefit from embracing the friction caused by a more robust dialectic of ideas. We can find guidance here in the critical scholarly tradition in the social sciences; a tradition strongly influenced by Marx that values critique as a catalyst for change. Moreover, this tradition provides the conceptual tools needed to uncover the entrenched biases in our field and, in doing so, offer fresh perspectives on theory and practice (Gerard, 2016). “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it,” declares Marx (1845b, p. 423). Compare this to Lewin’s (1951) famous “there is nothing so practical as a good theory” (p. 169). Arguably, there is nothing so vital for good theory—and good practice—as the belief that another, more equitable world is possible.
    1. History: Above all, Marx (1844) instills in his readers an appreciation of history, and particularly a working history: “the whole of what is called world history is nothing more than the creation of man through human labor” (p. 357). With this appreciation comes perspective on our current working world, which will most likely not be our last. As I-O psychologists of the 21st century, we would do well to ask ourselves: Does our field have a life outside of the current socioeconomic system or must it necessarily continue to serve it? (Baritz, 1960).


Now of course, Marx was arguably not right about a number of things. His labor theory of value has long since been abandoned by economists (Horwitz, 2015), whereas his overconcentration on structural relationships continues to frustrate otherwise sympathetic psychologists (Parker, 2007). Then there’s the claim to Marx’s name in 20th century political history—from Leninism to Stalinism to Maoism—all of which were misbegotten endeavors, to say the least. But rather than default to knee-jerk dismissals of Marx, we would do better to learn from the Marxian-inspired debates now thriving in sociology (Bhambra, 2016), economics (Piketty, 2014) and even management (Adler, 2008; Fox, 2012). Hardly the menace and boogeyman of capitalism, Marx is a profoundly insightful theorist who deserves our attention.


Returning to Lewin, while we may never know just how his “brilliant insight” would have changed the trajectory of our field (Cartwright, 1979), we can infer that what he continually saw in Marx was an effort to account for humanity’s bigger concerns—social, political, and technical—concerns omitted from the psychology of Lewin’s day and arguably still omitted from the I-O psychology of our own. Ultimately, however, whether Marx was right or wrong cannot be taken for granted. Each of us must confront his ideas afresh, and we have Lewin to thank for leading the way.



[1]  More recently (and encouragingly), we have begun to acknowledge this bias in relation to the field’s longstanding neglect of those living in the deepest forms poverty (Gloss, Carr, Reichman, Abdul-Nasiru, & Oesterich, in press), but we have yet to acknowledge the systematic failures of capitalism at the root poverty—a tell-tale sign of an ideology still at work.  



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