While there are many criticisms of Prof. Peterson (who I'll now refer to as "JP") - particularly on You Tube - I've found a dearth of commentaries informed by left anarchic views. It's a part of history JP seems to ignore, but something I'm informed by; further, I'm a member of the Pirate Party of Australia. There's a lot of overlap, though the Pirate Party are more strident about free speech. At times I might even almost agree where JP ends up, but not with how he gets there.
I'll be drawing from Zero Books / Douglas Lane , Cuck Philosophy, Contra Points and JP's own speeches, which you'll find on youtube. I've also had discussions with Richard Volpato. While I do sometimes deliver presentations on you tube, I'm more confident writing - hence, this piece, much as it draws somewhat on verbal presentations.
It's derived from a talk I gave at the NSW Humanists some time ago. It's far ranging, and while I won't claim to get eveything right, I suggest that Peterson does have a blind spot around anarchism, a point worth making.
- 0. Contents
- 1. Credits to JP
- 2. Injustice leading to freedom of speech
- 3. Conflict
- 4. Trolls
- 5. Hostility on the internet / freedom of speech concepts
- 6. Violence
- 7. "Gender inequality does not exist"
- 8. Injustice / Intersectionality
- 9. Political standpoint, radical leftists, over-simplify
- 10. Willingness to debate - JP the man, claims made
- 11. Present status of Communism / Marxism
- 12. Postmodernism and general leftiness
- 13. Pre-Marx
- 14. Anarchism
- 15. Other problems
- 16. JP superficial about Postmodernism
- 17. Postmodernism bigger picture
- 18. Postmodernism
- 19. Power, individuals, heirachies, concepts
- 20. History of Marx and Russia
- 21. History of the soviet union, and relative violence
- 22. USSR summary
- 23. Yes, the Soviet Union
- 24. Good things about Russia
- 25. History of Russian Civil War
- 26. Conclusion
Credits to JP
But, first - working though some things worth crediting JP on. There's his academic work in psychology - credible and academically rigorous. At times he makes careful scientific statistical statements, which if they are wrong, deserve to be engaged with on their own terms. As well, he makes creative use of ambiguity - either abusing it or not anticipating how people might interpret what he is saying. The problem is not with his scientific claims - but rather in where he goes with those valid scientific claims in a non-scientific way.
He seems to have hit the mark with his self help books, and has drawn on some similar themes to writers like Stephen Covey with his seven habits of highly effective people. JP focuses on resilience, and seems to scoff at the recognition of injustice by supposed radical leftists. In fact, I agree with the worth of resilience, of getting on with it, in spite of the injustices you encounter. You can analyse the world around you, understand the injustices, be an activist - and also be resilient in the face of that injustice. But JP seems to suggest that this means you escape responsibility, which I don't see.
In addition, his books focus on how things would appear to a male. By itself, there's nothing wrong with this - OK, write books to help particular groups deal with their experiences and cope with the world. Still, problems remain. Mary Anne Cosgrove, past President of Australian Humanists, feels that beyond just being directed at males, the advice is a bit weird if not sexist. Note an example:
The first woman made the first man self-conscious and resentful. Then the first man blamed the woman. Then the first man blamed God. This is exactly how every spurned male feels to this day.
In spite of the fact that JP frequently draws from science and evolutionary theory in particular, here he puts them aside to draw worth from religious stories. To me it seems bizzare to put some universal, cosmic blame onto women, something I'm uncomfortable with, even if you'd label it as parable. In any case, it's strange how he jumps between a scientific perspective and one based on stories. He also claims:
The primary hierarchical structure of human society is masculine, as it is amongst animals, including the chimpanzees who are our closest genetic and, arguably, behavioural match.
This is drawing a long bow. I understand from Mary-Anne that we are about as closely related to Bonobos as we are to common chimps, and Bonobos have a matriarchal society. Further, in some ways we behaviourally closer to gorillas, because male gorillas take an interest in rearing of their young, but be they bonobos or regular chimpanzees, male chimpanzees take little interest in rearing their young, while we might well be closer genetically.
But the point is that JP oversimplifies the scientific world and reaches wrong conclusions. Look, lots of science and analysis is about simplifying, but it's about what's reasonable in the circumstances. These strange jumps of logic are a contrast to the worth of his peer reviewed papers. Perhaps he hits the mark more often than not when he is operating outside his specialty, and this is not representative. Regardless, it's not a good look.
Jumping around as he does feels odd. In fact, if he avoided the science, I'd maybe give him some credit for trying to make sense of stories and how we relate to them. Even here, though, his viewpoint feels confused and garbled.
Elsewhere, when Camus is analysing legends, he talks about Camus and Sisyphus. But JP wrongly attributes this analysis to Nietchsche and also he completely misunderstands the point which Camus is making - Camus says that Sisyphus might make himself happy by contemplating the majesty of the universe, while JP makes some sort of convoluted point about lifting yourself above the mundane embedded view you have living in the world.
While you should not be overwhelmed by all the little things that happen around you - JP has a point - numerous small acts of discrimination can and do add up, much as they are difficult to measure. "If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail", and JP is ignoring things that you can't readily measure, which can still be significant. There's a thing called "measurement bias", where you focus on the things you can quantify at the expense of things you cannot. The point is you can recognise the worth of resilience - while leaving all of JP's political baggage behind.
Injustice leading to freedom of speech
Anything, taken to an extreme, is problematic. JP talks about "radical leftists". And he claims the world of intersectionality is dominated by an extreme. This I disagree with. While some people have been extreme, JP paints them as being some weird progeny of postmodernism and Marx, something I will get to later. There may be an extreme, but not in the way he claims.
Yes, there are lefties who judge others, de-platform and similar, and there are problems with censorship in some US Universities, but it is not some Postmodernism conspiracy. You can acknowledge the problem without following him down the rabbit hole. Moral panics and uproars are bad things, as is the virtual assassination of people on the internet. We should not speak out for victimised groups or individuals unless we are quoting and drawing from their own public stated positions. Otherwise, we should let them speak for themselves.
But, let me look a bit more closely at the associated conflict. I agree that universities should be a protected space, where we should be tolerant of diverse ideas. There's a problem. All that. But, even as I listen sympathetically to the notion that universities should be such places - there's discussion and then there's abuse. In the outside world, ideas are tossed around and manipulated like the front pages of a tabloid rag. Further, there are Neo-Nazis who politically organise themselves.
There's different contexts, and we have to distinguish between different forms of censorship, even though it has been grossly simplified. Government censorship is fundamentally different to the exercise of a private ( or even commercial ) choice. The Government has a monopoly on the legal use of coercive force and violence, and we rely on Government to enforce so-called property rights. Private individuals trying to stop others from speaking do not have these government privileges to draw on. You can be against Government censorship because of how it uses Government privilege, but note that individuals trying to stop others from speaking are not using the same power base.
In between, corporate censorship is developing state-like control. They cannot coerce in the same way, but they can withhold participation. In fact, I've sent innocuous emails to people in the NSW government and had the links squelched by private corporate email monitoring programs that the Government uses. It is all getting a bit strange. Still - whether it is government or corporations, their power exceeds that of activists. When do you want to say that activists have power comparable to corporations? Let me know. In any case, activists will never have access to the coercive force and violent power of Government, because that's not what they are.
One ideal is that you should allow free speech, and try to persuade others of the merits of your views, while still being concerned about Government power. It's something I endorse, but there's many different perspectives. You can believe that the truth will ultimately prevail, but you don't have to. You could instead think that ideas with the most money or resources behind them will prevail. You certainly see it in elections. I think it's part of what drives de-platforming. People believe society is so messed up that the truth will not prevail, and can no longer be bothered with free speech. You can react to perceived injustices in different ways.
Now, clearly such people do not buy into freedom of speech as a universal ideal. That's their choice. But the point is, criticising them for "denying free speech" may not bother them. But, even here, there's a definite inconsistency with free speech advocates. I've heard Brendan O'Neil talk about how we should allow the airing of offensive views. But, on close examination, he seems to focus on views he is sympathetic to that others find offensive. He has personally targeted Greta the climate activist. If he were being consistent, you'd think he would just say "she is wrong, but free to speak out. Let me explain how she is wrong". But his actual tone speaks of hypocricy. I'd be impressed if O'Neil was talking about the need to keep something in the public square that he found offensive but others agreed with. Whatever else has been going on, until now the right has been able to beat the drum effectively - and now - a radical person, a Martin-Luther-King type figure, can speak effectively and cut through. And it is frustrating for those who were previously able to exert some control over the narrative.
And - incidentally - Christopher Hitchens - one of my intellectual heroes - was inviting people to interrupt him if they had, er ... radical interpretations of the Jewish Holocaust, but at another time wanted people ejected who promoted conspiracy theories around the 911 attacks. Look, I support the mainstream narratives around the Jewish Holocaust and the 911 attacks, much as I might contemplate some "intelligence stuff-ups" around 911, incomptence rather than malign conspiracy. But, I try to be consistent in how I relate to those who would differ from me. It reminds me of the maxim - you're only in favour of free speech if you're willing to endorse the free speech of people you disagree with. Many right-wing commentators are showing their colours. They want to the right to say what they want even if it offends others, but can't really be bothered promoting the speech of others they disagree with - they don't want to give those people the same rights.
For me, the Pirate Party's endorsement of free speech has more consistency than axe-grinders on either the left or right. We're stronger about it than traditional left anarchy, though it is also strongly anti-government censorship. It may be the only point where we would disagree.
Now, while I'd want to criticise people saying offensive stuff, I'd not call for them to shut up. But according to JP, is is mostly the lefties who try to shut down people. But you also see it on the right. While some people are too trigger happy to try to shut down others, it is worth looking at the context. We have a long history of apologists trying to block positive changes. Long ago, it may have been slave owners complaining about how freeing slaves would hit their finances ( to be sure though, historically US Republicans were anti-slavery, and in Australia the workers and elements of the ruling class joined forces against convict transportation). Based on past developments, some people see ideas as the thing to battle over, and see others wanting to try to win an argument by whatever means possible rather than through a fair contest. We see this in the ratcheting increase in organised public relations and lobbying of government, not to mention the perceived elite along the way.
Partly there is the overall polarisation of politics. But, there are two other important trends. The first is that the left has grown frustrated with what they see as the hold on power and resulting injustices by people on the right. They see advocates from that side as merely representing those who have established themselves in power. Then, there's the idea that "hate speech is not free speech". So, it can happen - and it's nothing like the picture JP paints.
Things are still more complex. I say provocative things while otherwise identifying as left. I'm willing to critique religion, including Islam. I am not only aligned with left Anarchy and the Pirate Party, but also with the atheist, humanist and secular movements. This includes people like me who are both left and criticise Islam. But I so frequently hear those criticisms - the left is not speaking out against Islam. And if there is something I find offensive, it is right wing commentators saying "why is the left silent about Islam"? Well, maybe some of it is. Maybe a lot of it. But all of it? That's code for the left they can be bothered looking for and criticising because it suits their agenda. I have never been shut down by the left or unduly criticised. I find that frequent generalisation offensive. I've only noticed the right making offensive sweeping generalisations about the left - it has been commentators on the right that annoy me, with their simplistic generalisations. You need to get out more. Now, maybe one day some of the left will try to shut me down. I'll worry about it then. But, until then, I look at the special pleading of the right, and think to myself : they doth protest too much.
We also need to separate out different domains. On the one hand, there is the domain of university, with official outlets for students to put forth their grievances. There are also relatively structured platforms for people to voice their potentially offensive things. Particularly in the context of "thrashing out ideas", that can make sense. However, it is worth recognising that all this takes place in the shadow of the internet. In one ideal, the internet is a place to discover, to exchange ideas and all that. In reality, however, it has mutated into something strangely partisan at best, centering on discussion with like minded people. At worst, it is a battleground dominated by trolls.
Some aggro people on the net may be needlessly personal, and may have lost it. Some of them will be trying to silence people inappropriately, because they have not thought things through and are arseholes. People might claim to be "just asking questions" when they have an agenda, and at worst people are trying to jam the communications channel and be disruptive, without any desire to communicate at all. Because of numerous trolls, some activists are reluctant to answer people who may be asking genuine questions. It is understandable. They have backed off from activism spaces being a place to answer questions and educate people, and just want to get on with the knitting. If you really genuinely want to ask questions, you need to establish trust first. If you just wade in, you'll be mistaken for a troll. It is sad, but you can blame it on all the other trolls that have trod otherwise similar looking paths before you. The point is that silo-ing could be a response and the result of a feedback loop, rather than because of what JP claims.
JP focuses on so called radical leftists being dominated by identity politics, but I don't think that washes. People who are into identity politics hold different views to classical Marxists. At times though he talks about identity right wingers. But his stronger focus seems to be on demons from the left, which shows his biases, perhaps for him they are not as evil as the generic left he rails against. Some people defend JP saying he recognises the worth of moderate left positions, and is only criticising the extremes. However, it sure doesn't seem that way if you look around a bit. First, he seems to jump around conveniently, wanting to have it both ways - he rants and raves, and them claims he is only talking about extreme leftists - but only when he is pulled up. He gets it totally wrong when it comes to the history of intellectual thought, and particularly left intellectual thought in France. He ignores the diversity, focusing only on those elements which reinforce his story - and even then, he makes a hash of it. When it comes to the Russian Revolution, he completely ignores the left-anarchic elements at play in the history, which provide an important perspective which challenges the sweeping claims he makes. His outline of both left ideas and the historical development of postmodernist ideas are also a complete hash. If he at times says something like "the genuine left has a part to play", this becomes a complete nonsense in the light of how he has distorted the historical development of "genuine" left ideas to shoehorn things into his narrative. And look, for the sake of argument there could be some wierd shit going on in US academia at present, but even I find this claim dubious. Still, even if it were the case, it would be no excuse to make such a hash of the historical development of ideas - and history itself - in Europe and France in particular. It seems ridiculous to me he could have any credibility in talking about left ideas in the here-and-now. It is a matter of the "density of problems". I've heard people try apologetics, saying Jordan says useful things. And look, nothing is perfect, at times I try to be forgiving. However, with JP, the density of distortions and hashed interpretations is so overwhelming I can give no credit to narrative on left ideas. Note, I have given him some credit with his ideas around self-help, resilience and academic psychological theory. But my sympathy does stop at a very definite and clear point.
At times JP says some people are an extreme minority, but then he also talks about them being the ones in power. I suppose it is not impossible they are both, but then he implies it is something of a larger movement, so it is all a bit strange. He jumps between generic lefties, and the "radical leftists". Then he divides the left into "the good" and "the bad" . It is hard to imagine right wing trolls being informed by postmodernism, I think they're just as much into aggressive jamming as the left is reputed to be. Though JP focuses on the left being informed by Postmodernism and also indentity policies, you can wonder how the right has either managed to grab hold of just identity politics or perhaps embrace Postmodernism. It gets pretty strange.
For sure - the left are more able to de-platform speakers at venues than the right is. Yep. However, the right is more able to troll on the internet. Both sides are abusing the situation - each in their own way. In some fundamental way, activism has become more aggressive and paranoid, less willing to explain itself, but I don't think it's because of so-called identity politics, rather it is it's own development.
Hostility on the internet / freedom of speech concepts
If you claim leftists don't want open debate - what about the right wing trolls? JP is quite selective in his indignation. If SJWs want to shut down right wing thought, right wing trolls want to shut down feminists. They often become sexually abusive, themselves in that action illustrating just how sexist aggression exists. But, strangely, lefties will on occasion use sexual metaphors to undermine those they are critical of.
The level of abuse you see is quite intense. If we imagine - for the sake of argument - that there are legitimate critiques of feminism - it is clear that the aggression shown by many internet advocates is an own goal. If you criticise, your approach may damage your credibility. If you're only trying to jam the channel, well I guess that may not mean anything to you, but it may have its own consequences.
Now, violence. Instead of turning my brain off when it comes to violence, I see a more complex picture. Previously, the Antifa movement have responded to violent alt-right groups. This goes back to 2017, but there was an article in Slate, entitled Yes, What About the "Alt-Left"? What the counter-protesters Trump despises were actually doing in Charlottesville last weekend.
Yes, this is anecdotal, but I do believe it to be credible, and captures a counter point to the criticism that comes from various people - including Trump - against Antifa. It is about religiously inspired people making a stand against white nationalists at the time. Charlottesville resident Rebekah Menning writes:
I stood with a group of interfaith clergy and other people of faith in a nonviolent direct action meant to keep the white nationalists from entering the park to their hate rally. We had far fewer people holding the line than we had hoped for, and frankly, it wasn't enough. No police officers in sight (that I could see from where I stood), and we were prepared to be beaten to a bloody pulp to show that while the state permitted white nationalists to rally in hate, in the many names of God, we did not. But we didn't have to because the anarchists and anti-fascists got to them before they could get to us. I've never felt more grateful and more ashamed at the same time. The Antifa were like angels to me in that moment.
You can find more such eye witness reports in the article, which point to Antifa defending general protesting citizens in difficult situations. You can feel the "aha" moment when the narrator starts to realise "maybe the anarchists aren't so bad after all". Further, Angela Davis has spoken about violence in the black power mixtape. It is worth appreciating this position. I certainly don't want anyone to choose violence, but it is no excuse to dismiss a position and shut down your brain either. Still- it does seem to me that any violence by Antifa was measured and proportionate in reply to the violence on the ground initiated by the alt-right.
"Gender inequality does not exist"
JP claims that gender inequality "does not exist". Not my specialty, but rather than dissapearing down the rabbithole, I'll look at some related issues. I think it fairer to just say that women trying to work in more diverse fields should be supported. JP claims that in some European countries, when they have freed things up, women have gravitated towards traditional gender role related work. Now, who knows, maybe that is indeed something that has happened in those countries, as they have tended towards equilibrium.
Now, there was the experience that Michael Moore had during the filming of Bowling for Columbine. He discovered that while Canada had a similar level of gun ownership to the US, it had much lower gun related violence. Further, on reading "Deer Hunting for Jesus" by Joe Bageant, you become more relaxed with gun ownership when it dovetails into an established gun safety culture, making a nod to the so-called "Redneck Revolt". But, the point is, you can wrongly universalise something when you have just one data point.
In Australia, we are seeing more women work in mining, and also working as tradies ( tradespeople ). There are even stories that when women operate equipment it needs less maintenance. I think they're credible. I think this would be at least partly caused by workplaces becoming more woman friendly. But, equally, it seems to be partly caused because women had a past "internal desire" to work in those fields, are now able, and there are now more women in those fields. It may well be that we'll eventually reach an equilibrium where the number of women working in those fields stops increasing, and men still outnumber women in these professions - but I think we've a way to go till we reach that point. Here I've drawn on personal feelings and anecdotes, and I've in fact skirted around the question of whether there "really" is a gender wage gap. What I will say, however, is that it is easy to find more productive ways of looking at the world if you want to.
In addition to claims gender inequality "does not exist", JP also claimed there were problems with Canadian Government legislation which he says would legally force him to use pronouns in addressing people, the so-called Bill C-16. I don't think it was ever as bad as JP made it out to be, but he may have point in that its shadow has changed behaviour, quite apart from whether it would ever have the bite he claimed it would have. He has said that he's been willing to address people by male or female pronouns based on their preference, but does not want to buy into pronouns outside of the regular male and female ones. In fact - there's a lot I disagree with JP on, but here I do have concerns about the use of language being legislated to this degree. I would hope that as a matter of common courtesy we'd address people in the way they would like to be addressed - but I do not see the point of legislation.
Injustice / Intersectionality
If JP stories about "diversity consultants" are valid, that's a problem. Still, there is more to the picture, and you can see many areas where JP is biased. But, in fact this world is in dialogue, a work in progress. A transgendered person has written about how having a space where she could retreat to with others like herself was vital for recharging her batteries, to get a sense of how to navigate the world. See hereBut, at the same time, she was concerned about the judgemental environment, concern over language and the multiplication of disadvantage. Yes, there are problems. But, if you believe JP, the left is utterly incapable of self-reflection. This sort of richness is not something you'd ever appreciate if you only focus on the extremes, and don't actually try to understand where people are coming from, and only listen to critics rather than the advocates themselves - as JP seems to do.
You know, I do recognise that the number of disadvantaged groups is limited only by the human ability to categorise. There is a limit, and eventually you'll lose perspective - but disadvantage is worth identifying, and we're way short of that limit. We are at present making good use of these tools to identify injustice in the world. Yes, there is something called intersectionality. But it is not the thing that JP claims it it to be, nor does it have the origins he claims, nor is it only about trying to silence people. You may disagree with it. But that's it. I see intersectionality as an honest attempt to engage with injustice and discrimination in the world. Even if it can be abused, it captures something worth understanding.
Political standpoint, radical leftists, over-simplify
JP misrepresents and oversimplifies the position of his opponents, much as he criticises others for oversimplification. He paints a straw man, a caricature which he does not allow to speak for itself. He has been justified in criticising journalists for saying "so what you're saying is ..." - but in fact, he does exactly the same sort of thing himself in his imaginary discussions with leftists. So what you lefties are saying is ... He has a table top model of society and the left, where he grabs hold of one of the figures on the table, turns it to face the other plastic figures, and speaks on its behalf.
He uses the label of "postmodern leftists" or "neo-marxist", much as other people use the term "cultural marxist", JP never uses that term. They represent a grab bag of all the things he dislikes, thrown together, claiming it has emerged from Marxism and post modernism. There is the maxim from Charles Fort that "the distant and unfamiliar seem homogeneous", and contra points suggests he is so far to the right that all of the left seems to be a unity. JP is superficial and shows no charity towards the ideas of his opponents. As Contra Points says, he takes us to a very strange place.
This gives him an out, whatever happens. Assume I'm saying something he says is sensible. OK, then I'm a leftist, not a radical leftist. But, then, say I endorse intersectionality, but explicitly distance myself from Marxism, and say my origins are left-anarchy. Something is seriously wrong. JP, do you want to deny me in so many words that my origins are not Marxist, and are something different? Are you saying I am deluding myself? Or will you accept it is possible to embrace intersectionality without being Marxist?
Willingness to debate - JP the man, claims made
Further, Peterson claims that leftists won't debate him. Douglas Lane from Zero Books claims he put forward an offer to debate him, but his communications were ignored. Some students put forward an invitation to debate Richard Wolff, but he set up an extravagant speakers fee, blowing it out of the water. Yes, he did debate Zizek, but his prior false claims remain. And yet, Peterson continues to debate lefty journalists and commentators, rather than paid academics like himself and lefty publishers who have offered. Why the selectivity? I suspect his agenda has been more self-promotion than genuinely seeking to engage with alternative viewpoints in academia.
Present status of Communism / Marxism
While JP would claim there's no unadorned Marxists around - and presumably no communists either - some people think they can declare people to be "communist" and still get traction, regardless of whether they actually are communists. I know that is so last millennia, but it does happen. It is still has currency. The concept of communism is still abused in debate. Critics cannot see that it is possible to identify as left and still be anti-stalin or even anti communist - and indeed there were always such people - claiming the left are all unreconstructed apologists for Stalin.
In spite of this mis-labelling, as I've mentioned, there are still Marxists and even Stalinists around. Today, Zizek, one of the worlds most prominent public intellectuals identifies as Stalinist, not just Marxist, and after the major works of Postmodernism were published, there were Marxist protests - it was a thing, it is still a thing now, there was never a mass exodus of Marxists running for cover. JP claims Marxism as a whole lost legitimacy when the excesses of the Soviet Union came to the fore - especially after the Hungarian revolution of 1956, but the picture is a lot more complicated. Yes, there was a split but some people remained loyal to the Soviet Union.
But there was criticism of communism even around 1948, from Kojeve, as I'll outline later. That was before the crisis of Stalinism and before the Hungarian revolution. In the leadup to the French riots of May 1968, there was the perception that communism had become stultified and ossified, with Marxism being dominated by an out of touch elder elite who did not get out much. Its advocates were seen as an inward looking group of high priests who did not try to engage with the world around them. In spite of this criticism, the Communists in France and elsewhere were nevertheless polling strongly. There's two points here - one was that communism in France was still a thing ten years after the Hungarian revolution, and second, the criticism was not dependent on the Soviet union, but was rather a quite separate problem with the standing of its advocates and the worth of their analysis. There were both Marxist and non-Marxist critiques of capitalism. It was not just about Russia, but was rather an internal development with Marx being critiqued on its own terms.
"The intellectual left of France" was much bigger than JP's simple narrative with Marxism being the only card you could play to criticise capitalism. He makes the mistake of conflating Marx with the whole left. It was diverse. Some continued to critique capitalism in ways that overlapped with Marx, others might have been said to be completely different. But Marxism endured. Yes, the invasions did generate fractures. But some remained loyal to to Stalin's Russia. We still have them today. Some retained communist ideals and distanced themselves from Stalin's Russia. But in no way was there a single implosion of the Marxist left into postmodernism.
Postmodernism was different to Marxism in many ways. But they are both critical of capitalist, or mainstream society. Marxism was strongly based around class, economics and ownership; Postmodernism had different emphases; I paraphrase it as seeing modern society as culturally and conceptually corrupt rather than economically and class corrupt. JP's defence of the capitalist west is so superficial that he sees everyone criticising it as being cut from the same cloth, rather than stopping to recognise that there may in fact be different critics emphasising different things.
Postmodernism and general leftiness
JP's picture of Postmodernism, Marxism and also the history of intellectual thought in France is up-front wrong. Lets face it, France is where it all happened. Amongst the non-Marxist critiques of capitalism was Baudrillard, where he found no sense in the labour theory of value - but he remained critical of capitalism.
Although Kojeveve often claimed to be a Stalinist he largely regarded the Soviet Union with contempt, calling its social policies disastrous and its claims to be a truly classless state ludicrous. Kojève's cynicism towards traditional Marxism as an outmoded philosophy in industrially well-developed capitalist nations prompted him to go as far as idiosyncratically referring to capitalist Henry Ford as "the one great authentic Marxist of the twentieth century". He specifically and repeatedly called it the only existing country in which 19th-century capitalism still existed. His Stalinism was ironic to the extent Joseph Stalin had no political chance to lead the Weltgeist [ or world-spirit - that is to say, to dominate the world thinking ], but he was serious about Stalinism to the extent that he regarded the utopia of the Soviet Union under Stalin and the willingness to purge unsupportive elements in the population as evidence of a desire to bring about the end of history and as a repetition of the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution.
as early as 1948, [he] was proclaiming the United States as the economic model for the 'post-historical' world, the most efficient and successful in conquering nature in order to provide for human material needs. Hence he asserted, long before the final collapse of the Soviet empire, that the Cold War would end in the triumph of the capitalist West, achieved through economic rather than military means.
In JP's oversimplified world, it all starts with Marx. There's only Marx. There was only ever Marx. During the period in contention - well, it did all happen in France. But, prior to that, prior to Marx, there were some interesting things happening in the UK. There were the diggers and levellers, challenging property rights and the push to enclosures at the time, and also the Chartists. You had the development of cooperatives and self help groups, their legacy remains in the UK today. And then you have the enlightened entrepreneurs like Robert Owen who set up New Lanark - in Australia we had Thomas Sutcliffe Mort. Mortdale was named after him, and there's a statue of him in Macquarie Place near Circular Quay in Sydney. There's a lot of interesting stuff if you can be bothered looking.
There's Anarchism, also ignored by JP. Kropotkin, in particular, wrote "Mutual Aid", which was as much an awesome work of biological and evolutionary theory as much as it was a political work. It was one of the first books examining the biological and evolutionary basis for cooperation, something that has since developed into the Price equation. This was a book in the leftist tradition that stridently embraced biology and evolution, while Peterson would claim that the left denies biology.
Before moving onto Postmodernism itself, I'll review some more things JP gets wrong with Marx, and a few other verifiable distortions he makes. He claims Marx is not scientific, that it denied biological reality and human nature. But Marx was a materialist and rationalist, embracing science, reason and power. It seems JP is thinking of Nietzche. Kropotkin's approach would give a nod to biology, though I'd expect there would be differences between his perspective and JP's. There are even quotes about Marx proclaiming the worth of individuals being "free not through the negative power to avoid this or that, but through the positive power to assert his true individuality.", with other Marxists proclaiming the worth of the individual as the unit of variation rather than the class being the unit of variation.
Marx wrote about the ecological rift and the soil crisis, so there was some latent thinking about what would later become environmental concerns. Marx also emphasised the labour theory of value in deriving the idea of the surplus, something I've not seen JP mention; it does seem strange he'd ignore one of its foundations, focusing on what he can conveniently dislike ( just like talking about molecular biology without ever mentioning DNA). There's a richness about Marx that JP skates over.
JP superficial about Postmodernism
Peterson in his lectures acknowledges he is giving only a brief overview of Postmodernism, and is probably wrong in some areas. I think his overview is so superficial, and misses out so many fundamentals, and is not an overview in any worthwhile way but is rather a totally wrong headed and misleading caricature, it is a lot worse than he is willing to admit to, though he does make that qualifier and to be fair we should acknowledge it.
Now, if you look at the numerous YT videos - CCK Philosophy, Contra Points, Zero Books - they make numerous exact quotes that such-and-such postmodern thinker said some particular thing. However JP makes a string of generalised assurances and claimed paraphrases without any exact quotes. Needless to say, I'm making very few exact quotes. In my defence, however, I point to other people who have, and also - this is my only thoroughgoing review, and I'm making my own choices about what to fit in. If I'd have made as many speeches as Peterson, I'm sure I would have eventually got around to looking at things in that sort of detail. On the one hand, I do not have a background in this field. However, what I'm referring to - for example, ideas like "existence precedes essence" - can be found in introductory textbooks and numerous references to Postmodernism. Much of what I say is traceable back to credible sources. In spite of my background, I suggest I'm making better sense of Postmodernism than JP was ever able to.
Postmodernism bigger picture
Postmodernism was in fact a larger movement. It was a movement in art. In architecture. And yes, social commentary and philosophy, too. But JP ignores this greater picture, both getting it wrong and focusing narrowly. He does not mention something fundamental - a critique of essentialism, or put another way, existence precedes essence - the world is there on its own terms before we start trying to impose our own sense of order on it. Sorta like wanting to talk about molecular biology without ever mentioning DNA.
Peterson grossly oversimplifies Postmodernism, with about the only thing he gets right being being that it was a reaction to modernism and was against grand narratives. Then there's the fact that Foucault pushed back against psychiatry. Yes, Foucault was skeptical about science. But, you need to look at the context. Psychiatry's presumptions about being able to isolate people from society, to perform electroshock therapy and lobotomies - was supposedly based on reason. Now, you could say "aha, but that was not really science in the way I understand it". Well, you sound like a religious or political dogmatist, seeking purity, something you have a monopoly on. You need to cast your net a bit wider.
Look, I don't want to challenge science in order to undermine the worth of vaccination or the reality of climate change - but it is worth understanding where this concern about "reason" came from. The ugly truth is that reason has been used to justify politically and ethically dubious things, much as these days it is the anti-science forces that are the politically connected ones. But we need to face up to this history, and understand some of the tensions at work at the time.
JP claims Marxism morphed into Postmodernism. But this does not make sense on so many levels. As I've noted, Marxism was being critiqued without any reference to the Soviet Union, and Marxists and Stalinists were still around after JP's claimed exodus - even past the point at which Sarte acknowledged there were problems. If you believe JP, classical Marxism's last embers faded with Sarte's acknowledgement at the end of the 1960s that the communist experiment had got it wrong. In fact, both Postmodernism and Marx persisted as separate schools of thought, not to mention Anarchism and other critiques of capitalism which only had vestigial connections to Marx after the time of JP's supposed crisis. It makes no sense. They had fundamentally opposed views of the world, and if Marx transformed into Postmodernism it would have to adopt so many opposed ideas that there would be no point. If it was going to adapt, there would have been other more productive approaches than morphing into Postmodernism.
Marxism endorses a grand narrative - the idea of progression towards communism with a way of understanding economics, production and class in today's society - while Postmodernism explicitly disavows a grand narrative. Marxists would have had to abandon their grand narrative in order to embrace Postmodernism, but if you'd believe JP, would have been unwilling to embrace critiques of capitalism that would have meant sacrificing less, siding with something that was clearly left, still had an engagement with economic forces, and had its own contemporary strength and vigour. Marxism is about the dialectic, where contradictions eventually result in an upheaval, starting with economic contradictions and rising up to politics, government and perhaps violence. Postmodernism is about affirmation and legitimation. Here, tensions are resolved not by revolution, so to speak, but centres of legitimation control what is valid and remove the source of the problem either by making it invalid, or alternatively, by giving it a voice which goes nowhere so it is unable to cause effective change. The problem is neutralised, it is not that the contradiction results in an upheaval and a complete replacement.
Power, individuals, heirachies, concepts
Postmodernism recognises the positive elements of power, as the ability to make changes for good and evil, but certainly, to my way of thinking, suggests we should look carefully about how the use of power plays out. Foucault talks about power producing knowledge, with a relationship between the two. JP claims Postmodernism is totally against power, which it is not. Postmodernism acknowledges individuals, but does not see them as sovereign independent rational beings, emphasising that they sit in a context within a surrounding society. There is the expression "no man is an island", which unifies us as both being individuals and also part of a context. You do not have to go down a Postmodernism rabbit hole appreciate the worth in that simple observation. If you'd believe JP, Postmodernism denies the existence or worth of individuals. It does not. What it does do is rather more subtle.
Then, when comes to groups vs. individual identities, there are such things as categories, and categories are necessary as far as Postmodernism is concerned, while JP would have you believe otherwise. On the one hand, PM acknowledges categories, at the same time as it talks about them being a function of context. There are categories, but they are not "fixed" in the way that people previously related to them. That's a distinction that seems lost on JP, with him claiming they have just swept away categories. Postmodernism does retain heirachies, contrary to to what JP claims. When it comes to groups, Derrida goes in a different direction. In denying essentialism, we deny that to say someone is of a given nationality has the meaning normally ascribed to it. Yes, someone has a nationality - but it might be better described as an accidental feature rather than something essential to the person. So, there are a lot of notions which are both given a nod, but their normal social and past philosophical consequences are denied.
I've never seen Postmodernism as asserting we cannot communicate, or that it is a battle between different groups. Postmodernism does talk about how there are heirachies in society, and some people have the privilege of deciding what is legitimate. In fact, if you want to look at Derrida, his views of the world emphasised language and ethics, it did not really emphasise politics or group identity. But Postmodernism does not say we are all siloed, that and that we cannot communicate. We may well have some unhealthy developments, but it is wrong to blame Postmodernism. It is not was JP claims it is. In fact, right or wrong, once you start to appreciate it with at least a little sympathy - in a way that JP is unable to do - it starts to become moderately intriguing. Ideas like "legitimation", "no man is an island" can just be taken as intriguing insights into the world without looking further into Postmodernism - or you can go down the Postmodernism rabbit hole if you want to.
History of Marx and Russia
Now, we'll take a look at JP's approach to the history of Marxism, eventually getting to the Soviet Union. JP's position has several prongs - one is to talk about Marx and Postmodernism, getting the intellectual history wrong. This dovetails into a needlessly negative view of the Soviet Union and how prompted supposed intellectual lurches in the left. He again makes false claims about how his opponents talk about this history. You might argue that the Russian Revolution is behind us and a closed aspect of history, but it is an item of intellectual contention, and JP does draw on it strongly, and coming to incorrect conclusions. That's what we'll now take a closer look at.
Peterson puts a whole range of atrocities at the feet of Marxism - claiming every government which might vaguely describe itself as communist or socialist directly followed from Marx's inspiration. However, we can similarly talk about the violence that emerges from John Locke, one of the founders of the enlightenment project. There was the French Revolution. And then colonialism - which for much of history had nations which were definitely not socialist or communist behind it - not to mention more recent excesses like the Vietnam War.
More significant were the atrocities related to Indonesia, the mass killings of the 1960s, described in the movie "The Act of Killing", supported by the US. Helen-Louise Hunter, an analyst in the CIA's directorate of intelligence at the time, described it as "one of the worst mass murders of the 20th Century, along with the Soviet purges of the 1930s, the Nazi mass murders during the second world war, and the Maoist bloodbath of the early 1950s.". We also have the various US related abuses and atrocities of Diego Garcia, the Phillipines, nuclear test sites and the Western adventures in the middle east, not to mention colonialism in its time and our own massacres of the Australian aborigines in times past. Yes, Stalin and Mao have their sins to answer for. But let's not let that mean we lose perspective on the sins of the West, on which history has conveniently looked the other way.
History of the soviet union, and relative violence
JP's critique of the Soviet union has several elements. It was violent and killed a lot of people. It was internally corrupt. Further, its driving force was so corrupt that it killed culture. But, in failing, not only did it fail, it was doomed to fail. He scoffs at the idea that "it might have been different", and paints a caricature of his opponents claiming they say they would have done it differently. The USSR was critically dependent on Marxist thought, so its failure reflected badly on it, though to some degree the crises it endured forced adaptation. In embracing Marx, it abandoned wealth creating markets and heirachies and only created limited wealth. Of course, there were other lines of thought which were left, not Marxist and not linked to the USSR, but never mind that.
In response to the failure of the USSR, the remnants of Marx re-badged themselves as post modernism, which eventually turned into critical analysis and identity politics. Simple. Neat. Tidy. And wrong. I'll be working through these issues, but let me first acknowledge the violence of the Soviet Union.
Yes, the Soviet Union
The soviet union had its problems. I've been to Lithuania, and seen the museums, showing the documents, signed by 3 judges before people were executed. As a dissident, if you were not just executed outright, you were shipped off to a gulag in Siberia, and your chances of surviving the journey may not have been good. And if they did not do that, they locked you up in a mental hospital. I relate to a particular tragedy - the death of Nikolai Valivov. Stalin embraced the Lamarkian Trofim Lysenko, and the world's greatest geneticist at the time - Valivov - died in a gulag. During the seige of Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, Valivov's colleagues died of starvation guarding a seed bank rather than eat the seeds the were guarding. It's quite a counterpoint to those who claim that Stalin's regime was atheistic - it may have been, but it did not embrace the developing evolutionary thought of the time. It was not credibly atheistic - scientific. In challenging creationism, the path is towards Darwinian evolution. It is also worth remembering that Kropotkin wrote about how cooperation and evolution.
Closer to home, our Australian bureaucracy has managed to incinerate some one of a kind French botanical and New Zealand lichen samples. It does seem to me that in spite of claimed economic progress - and undoubtedly, there has been some - our world has become more narky, petty and bureaucratic than it was a few decades ago. The rise of bureaucracy was noted in the French riots of 1968. The past still echoes today.
Good things about Russia
Now, I've acknowledged some bad things about the Soviet Union. But I was in Lithuania after the Velvet revolution, and heard some of the things people said about it. They may not have had the range of consumer goods that we had, but if you had something from a factory with a good reputation, it would be reliable and would just keep on going and going. Rather than the tension between quality and planned obsolescence we have in the west, Soviet engineers designed good stuff outside of the shadow of business pressures. It was in fact a mixed blessing.
A friend of mine came from Lithuania to Australia to raise a family. But, as time wore on, she realised just how difficult it would be to give her children a good musical education. Yes, we have some institutions like the Conservatorium, but for the most part you would be paying through the nose for an elite school or private tuition. So, she took her family back to Lithuania. There, if your child was talented, at no extra cost to the parent, they would be directed to the education scheme that developed musical ability. Lithuania was suffering from financial pressures after the break up of the Soviet Union. But, for whatever reason, they retained this legacy from their Communist history.
History of Russian Civil War
JP claims there's the defence "but all those things are not real Marxism", ignoring that they were not real Anarchism either. He would say that it is supreme arrogance to claim that if only I had been there I'd have done a proper job of realising Marx's ideas. Quite a sweeping generalisation about all your opponents that might have disagreed with you. Well, I do engage with history and don't claim it would have been different if I had been there. JP has this annoying habit of putting words into the mouths of his opponents. As I've said, a table top with plastic figures where he points them to face each other and puts words into their mouths. But what I do challenge is the idea that it must have come out the way it did, that the history of the Soviet Union was deterministic in some sense, that it was doomed to fail from the start, regardless of whether I was there or not. If you'd believe JP, the Soviet Union was always on an irrevocable path to disaster and doomed to fail.
For, there's an important part of the history of the Russian Civil War that is not often recognised - the Makhnovists who ran a militarily effective anarchic realm for a few years. As I understand it, it was put down violently by Trotsky on behalf of the Bolsheviks. I don't claim I'd have done it differently if I'd been there, but I do observe that if the Bolsheviks had been less effective in putting down the Makhnovists, and the Makhnovists had got the upper hand, and remained militarily effective for a few more years, then the whole history of the region could have been different. But that is the story JP paints. While he sets up his toy soldiers to attack, the enemy stays compliantly in one place so he can execute his grand plan.
Apart from the Makhnovists, there are other ways history might have been different. Lenin criticised Stalin, and did not want him in power. If Stalin had not seized power, it might have been very different. Aha, but does that not leave the sins of Lenin? Well, let's not forget I'm informed by anarchy, and while I'll engage with Marx, Lenin, or whoever, I can also criticise. Trotsky claimed the Soviet Union became a degenerated workers state. Anarchists would say that it was based on problematic heirachies from the start, and could never have succeeded - not because it turned its back on the dynamism of the west.
The point is we can imagine many different alternative outcomes. Some fall within "Traditional Marxism". I can totally turn my back on Marx and think about what might have happened with the Makhnovists in ascendance. There are other possibilities - that Stalin never took power, or even that the Government might never have imploded with the Soviets displacing the constituent assembly. I didn't have to be there, I only say things were not pre-ordained. The die was not set, history did take the course it did, but unlike JP I claim it did not have to, without me needing to be there. The history we have behind us was an accident, not something ordained. We can look separately at how valid it is to contemplate how things might have been - but regardless, I see JP's idea that anyone thinking things might have been different if only they had been there being arrogant - well, he is arrogant himself to think everyone would run that line of thought.
While JP has some things right, overall, I think he has more things wrong than right, and I hope I have persuaded you of this. The current age has seen many changes, changes that are worth understanding, and I think that JP's approach gets it wrong. There are many aspects to the world that are much richer and detailed than P's superficial approach can illuminate - and these things are worth appreciating and understanding. Further, Postmodernism - right or wrong - is not the thing JP makes it out to be. It a much richer thing. And right or wrong - I think the real Postmodernism, not the caricature painted by JP - is intriguing in its way.