Comrades: Made, not born

Mar 9, 2020

Photo: Liberation School.

All revolutionary politics are predicated on revolutionary optimism: the belief, rooted in experiences in the struggle, that workers and the oppressed can and will win. Yet revolutionary optimism doesn’t just apply to the masses as a whole. Revolutionary organizers believe not just in the potential of the masses as a whole, but as individuals as well.

Recently popularized research on “mindset” and learning may shed additional light on this topic and help activists and organizers not only with their own development, but in developing the potential of others they come into contact with. Before delving into what “mindset” is and how an understanding of it could be of interest to organizers, it would be useful to review a Marxist understanding of “intelligence” in contrast with bourgeois and racist conceptions.

Most people would probably agree that “being smart” is a desirable attribute. The nature of “intelligence” or “intelligences” is beyond the scope of this article, but the discourse over intelligence seems to break down into two broad narratives: intelligence as an innate characteristic of individuals vs. intelligence as socially-defined and constructed behaviors and habits of mind.

Is one born with a set amount of intelligence or can intelligence change and grow over the course of a lifetime? The notion that people are born with a fixed level of intelligence is one that has been picked up by the most racist elements in society, who have used spurious “science” to make a case for the alleged superiority of white people. If intelligence is not simply a fixed attribute of individuals, how is it (or other forms of competence) socially constructed and determined? And what is the role of the individual in fostering the growth of one’s own practice of competence?

To broadly summarize a socialist approach to “intelligence” one might say: Not only is “intelligence” a dynamic characteristic that can change over the course of an individual’s life, but, moreover, what counts as intelligence also changes in response to changes in the structure of human society, including developments of the means of production. For instance, during the Middle Ages, the ability to hand-copy documents was viewed as the sign of a true intellectual. But the invention of the printing press and now, photocopiers and printers, have made hand-copying mostly irrelevant.

Dominant conceptions of intelligence usually serve to reinforce capitalism and its various forms of oppression, from racism to ableism. Any socialist approach to intelligence must take this into account, interrogating how certain standards of intelligence do this and keeping our definition open to its various manifestations.

Vygotsky and the Zone of Proximal Development

The work of Vygotsky is foundational to our understanding of this question. In the context of the early days of the Russian Revolution, Vygotsky was a pioneer of communist psychology who introduced the socio-cultural or socio-historical analysis of human development. Vygotskian analysis sees human development as a synthesis of biological, social, and historical factors. Each child develops in the context of a particular group structure which is located in a particular culture at a particular time in history. Each of these factors interacts to influence the child’s physical, mental, and emotional development. In turn, what counts as development in the first place is also the product of historical and material conditions.

Vygotsky is best known today in the West for his theory of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). This is the idea that learning occurs when someone aids the learner in doing that which they cannot yet do independently. Instead of seeing intelligence as a static attribute, Vygotsky was interested in the child’s ZPD. Rather than looking at how much a child had already learned as a means of assessing intelligence, Vygotsky was more interested in what the child could potentially do. Vygotsky also took into consideration the understanding that what one has the potential to learn is also itself socially and historically conditioned.

Communities of practice and mindset

In more recent years, ethnographers and educators have explored the concept of communities of practice as a site for the development of the ZPD. Researchers have looked at tailors, AA members, teachers, and others as forming communities of practice where more experienced community members help newer community members develop competence in the ways of the community. Again, this concept has clear relevance to the movement, where we can conceptualize political organizations as communities of practice in which the potential of new activists to do various things is developed through interaction with more experienced members–from writing, public speaking, project management, and community outreach to logistics, security, street tactics, and broader bodies of knowledge like studying and applying theory. 

Carol Dweck’s concept of mindset has recently become quite popular. Her seminal research looked at children who were given a relatively easy puzzle to solve. One group was praised for their efforts and the other group was praised for being smart. The children were then given another, more difficult puzzle to solve. Those praised for effort persevered and solved the harder puzzle. Those praised for intelligence tended to give up in the face of a more challenging task. 

Ultimately, Dweck identified something that she termed “mindset” as the key to developing potential. Learners with a “growth” mindset tend to believe that academic success is a product of effort, even when the learning task is difficult, while those with a “set” or “fixed” mindset tend to believe that success is a result of innate ability. A growth mindset has been correlated with greater academic success as compared to a fixed mindset. Angela Duckworth’s related concept of “grit” (perseverance in the face of difficulty plus passion) as well as Steele’s stereotype threat (lowered performance when test conditions evoke knowledge of a stereotype of the participant’s identity group–a variant on “set” or fixed mindset) have also become widely known among educators.

The misuse of growth mindset and “grit”

Given that learning and “intelligence” are socially constructed between the learner, the teacher, and the socio-cultural context, concepts of mindset, grit, and other elements of learner agency must be understood as contextual, and not as determining factors existing independently or solely as attributes of individuals.

In the context of contemporary neoliberal education reform, mindset and grit have been misused, especially in racist ways. Instead of fighting the gross inequalities in the education system–by reducing class sizes, placing adequate support staff in every school, guaranteeing housing, food, and health care for children as well as implementing culturally appropriate and anti-racist curricula–teachers are taught to praise children differently and to positively reinforce effort and “grit.” While there is no harm in reinforcing effort, the new focus on grit and mindset smacks of the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” ideology, divorced from efforts to tackle the inherently inequitable social conditions in which children are learning today. Even Duckworth, the scholar behind the concept of “grit,” has criticized the uses to which her concept has been put.

It is immoral to tell hungry, homeless children or those traumatized by police brutality to be more “gritty,” when in fact the most oppressed already put in tremendous effort just to survive. In fact, research shows that academically mediocre students from wealthy families end up being more financially successful than academically superior students from poor families. So much for meritocracy.

Further, because of how intelligence is defined by the U.S. schooling system, the vast knowledge and skills of children from oppressed communities are totally disregarded.

Organizing and growth mindset

That said, is there a place for growth mindset among communists?

I would argue yes, there is. In the recent uptick of interest in socialism, I have seen the utility of a growth mindset among so many new activists. As an organizer, I have met people whom I frankly doubted had the capacity to become good comrades based on how they presented when we first met. Despite what I saw as unpromising attributes and prior experiences, some individuals were willing to participate, take on new tasks, accept criticism, and keep trying. Beyond learning communist theory and history, these activists became real organizers by developing skills and habits of mind such as discipline, self-sacrifice, humility, investigation, compassionate listening, and more. I have also met those who say they want to be organizers but express ideas more reflective of a fixed mindset. When challenged to make changes, these fixed mindset people say something like: “People who can make that change are different, or special (smarter or stronger) than me,” or “I’m not like that so I can’t do it.” This becomes an excuse to not change behavior or try new or difficult things. When fixed mindset socialists experience a challenge or failure, they become discouraged and want to give up instead of trying to figure out how to learn from the experience.

All progressive people must be willing to go beyond our comfort zones, learn from experiences, work collaboratively, accept discipline, and make sacrifices.

As organizers we must also believe this about potential recruits. We can’t write off anyone with a desire to struggle based on their present level of development, but have revolutionary optimism about the potential for further development.