“Peterson should also reconsider his antipathy towards Marx because—perhaps surprisingly—if properly read, Marx would come across more as Peterson’s ally, rather than the origin of everything that is wrong with modernity.”
It seems that Jordan Peterson’s bête noire is Karl Marx. No wonder, then, that—in the film The Rise of Jordan Peterson—Peterson ridicules a portrait of the 19th Century German thinker. Occasionally, Peterson rants about “Cultural Marxism,” allegedly a movement that seeks to undermine the tenets of Western civilization—all in the name of progressivism. In his now-famous debate with Slavoj Žižek in April, 2019, Peterson hammered Marxism over and over, in particular Marx and Engels’ 1848 The Communist Manifesto. For Peterson, this document is perhaps the foundational text of everything that is wrong with our culture.
Yet, it seems Peterson is more concerned with later-generation Marxists than with Marx himself. In Twelve Rules For Life, he attacks more vehemently Horkheimer and Derrida, and, more emphatically, the political results of Marxist-inspired regimes: “When Marxism was put into practice in the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, Cambodia and elsewhere, economic resources were brutally redistributed. Private property was eliminated, and rural people forcibly collectivized. The result? Tens of millions of people died,” Peterson writes.
While Peterson is surely correct in detesting Soviet totalitarianism and the intellectual nonsense of Derrida and his acolytes, Peterson should also reconsider his antipathy towards Marx because—perhaps surprisingly—if properly read, Marx would come across more as Peterson’s ally, rather than the origin of everything that is wrong with modernity.
For example, a prominent left-wing thinker, Edward Said, criticized the German philosopher, not so much for the content of Marx’s argument but, simply, because, “…every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric.”
Now, of course, Marx was a radical egalitarian, who would never accept Peterson’s enthusiastic embrace of lobsters and their hierarchical structures. But, even Marx is a victim of attacks from the modern, identity-fixated Left, simply for his having been European. For example, a prominent left-wing thinker, Edward Said, criticized the German philosopher, not so much for the content of Marx’s argument but, simply, because, “…every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric.” This should be a preliminary indication that—at least on some of the battlefronts of our culture war—perhaps Marx and Peterson would find themselves on the same side.
Many on the Left typically confuse egalitarianism with relativism. For them, equality is not just about opportunity or even outcome in the social and economic realms; equality also applies in the cultural and epistemological realm. On account of their extreme egalitarianism, these leftists believe that all cultures are of equal worth, and they also believe that someone who claims that Western secular democracy is superior to, say, Islamic theocracy is a racist. If we are all equal, so the argument goes, then surely Western civilization cannot be superior to any other culture.
Marx would have none of that nonsense. He was an egalitarian but never a cultural relativist. Precisely because Western civilization strove for greater economic equality (and was closer to the proletariat revolution), Marx believed Western civilization to be superior to the rest. Marx emphatically made this point in The British Rule in India. Whereas today’s modern left is likely to romanticize the primitivism of pre-capitalist, non-Western societies, Marx called for a much-needed reality check: “…we must not forget that these idyllic [Indian] village communities, inoffensive though they may appear, had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism, that they restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaving it beneath the traditional rules.”
Marx was not exactly a suck-up to British imperialist aristocracies, however, so he was not in the least naïve about Britain’s ruthless self-interest: “England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindustan was actuated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them.” But, very wisely, Marx was sensible enough to understand that—despite its viciousness—in some aspects imperialism could also be a force for good—and that British rule in India would be a step forward in progress: “The question is, can mankind fulfil[l] its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? If not, whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution.” Naturally, post-colonialist academics hate Marx for calling a spade a spade. But, perhaps these ivory-tower academicians should ask India’s own native contemporary rulers whether British imperialism had any positive aspect. Former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh certainly thinks so; he is grateful for, “free press, constitutional government, professional service, modern universities and research laboratories.” I am reminded of the Jewish anti-imperialist revolutionary in The Life of Brian, who, upon asking “What have the Romans ever done for us?” receives an embarrassment of riches as response.
Jordan Peterson is a fan of the Western Canon and a “Great Books” curriculum, against the strides of social justice warriors, who—in the name of multiculturalism—dismiss Shakespeare as an irrelevant dead white male. In this endeavor, Peterson should see Marx as an ally. Marx would not be among those clueless kids who scream, “Hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ has got to go.” Marx himself wrote a doctoral dissertation on Democritus and Epicurus (in the worldview of the modern left, two more irrelevant dead white males). Also, despite Marx’s criticisms of oppression in Western civilization, he realized that—far more than any other civilization—the West also had the potential for liberation.
Surely Peterson’s rise to fame was due in large part to his crusade against identity politics. Being a self-avowed “classic liberal,” Peterson is consequently a sympathizer of Enlightened universalism, with no love whatsoever for what Arthur Schlesinger called the “cult of ethnicity.” Well, once again, Marx would be on his side.
In 1848, Europe was also a hotbed of identity politics. Back then, it was called “nationalism.” The Romantic notion of Volksgeist was a boost to this trend. According to the enthusiasts of this philosophy, if you were, say, a Serbian subject in the Austro-Hungarian empire, then you should associate only with fellow Serbians: so as to form a nation and strengthen its Volksgeist. In order to do that, one would make his ethnic identity the most important aspect of his life, and everything should be seen through the prism of ethnicity. Sound familiar?
Marx, once again, would have none of this. In the Communist Manifesto (the very same text that Peterson mercilessly attacked in his debate with Žižek), Marx and Engels wrote: “The working men have no country… National differences and antagonism between peoples are daily more and more vanishing, owing to the development of the bourgeoisie, to freedom of commerce, to the world market, to uniformity in the mode of production and in the conditions of life corresponding thereto. The supremacy of the proletariat will cause them to vanish still faster.”
Workers needed unity. That much is clear in perhaps Marx’s most famous saying: “Workers of the world, unite!” Marx, thus, would have little patience for the NAACP, National Council of La Raza (now UnidosUS), or any other association that allegedly seeks to defend the oppressed—but only of a particular skin color. Marx believed that nationalism was a trick used by the bourgeoise to weaken solidarity among workers and prevent a revolution. Nationalism convinced a German worker that his enemy was a fellow worker, who happened to be French, whereas the German aristocrat exploiting him was his natural ally, simply because they were citizens of the same nation. To the disillusionment of many Marxists (most notably Rosa Luxemburg), European workers danced to this tune and then eagerly went to die in the trenches of World War I, all in the name of national identity.
Is it any different today? Of course not. Peterson is no fan of Marx or Marxism. Whereas Marx wanted to abolish private property, Peterson is a strong defender of property rights. However, Peterson is also aware that impoverished whites in the United States must not be abandoned to care for their own. By contrast, many social justice warriors care about workers, except if they have white skin. (Unsurprisingly, as a recent study shows, the more liberals learn about “white privilege,” the more they hate poor whites). In their worldview, somehow, millionaires such as Oprah or Michael Jordan are oppressed by a far from well-off voter in Appalachia wearing a MAGA hat. Some of these individuals on the Left even have the nerve to, “explai[n] white privilege to a broke white person.” Peggy McIntosh’s infamous essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” disregards class and fetishizes race. This is exactly what Marx warned about: by obsessing with ethnicity, a poor black worker would think a poor white worker oppresses him more than, say, a black Wall Street crook. And yet, this is precisely what is now trendy in the United States and other Western countries.
Marx was surely wrong about many things, and the world may well have been a better place had he never been born. But, Jordan Peterson, I implore you: give the devil his due! As Ben Burgis has argued, Peterson ought to offer fairer critiques of Marx. I further add: given that Marx himself would have no sympathies for much of the current agenda in vogue on the Left, perhaps Peterson can reconsider Marx’s value. The enemy of my enemy can be my friend, and—in this age of mindless relativism and identity politics—we need such friends.
Dr. Gabriel Andrade is a university professor. He has previously contributed to Areo Magazine and DePauw University’s The Prindle Post. His twitter is @gandrade80