One of the core progressive criticisms of Jordan Peterson is that Peterson is wrong to claim that the rise of reactionary political forces is a manifestation of cultural resistance to the deep and pervasive threat of cultural Marxism (or postmodern neo-Marxism). Though he may not have a Trump-size Twitter following, Peterson is not easily dismissed, given his stature as a well-respected psychologist and highly influential public intellectual. Progressive critics cannot ignore Peterson. Instead, they frequently insist that Peterson misleads us in identifying postmodern neo-Marxism as the scapegoat behind reactionary right-wing political movements. According to Matt McManus, Peterson misreads postmodern philosophers and unwittingly grants them more political clout than they deserve, while insulating neoliberalism from exposure as the true source of right-wing populism.
I agree that Peterson overstates the case. Indeed, a careful interpretation of various texts associated with critical theory and postmodern philosophy—some of which I have analyzed here, here, here and here—demonstrates that Peterson does not fully appreciate the many subtleties of postmodern philosophy. Nevertheless, while Peterson may not understand the important distinctions between Marxism and postmodern philosophy, he is not as widely off the mark as some progressives claim. He is not entirely incorrect in claiming that the excesses of Social Justice activism reflect a twenty-first century rendition of “postmodern neo-Marxism” and not simply a few extremist campus factions getting out of hand. I have explored the Marxist influence on social justice activism elsewhere. It is evident here, in Jason Barker’s piece in celebration of Marx’s birthday:
The key factor in Marx’s intellectual legacy in our present-day society is not “philosophy” but “critique,” or what he described in 1843 as “the ruthless criticism of all that exists: ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.” “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it,” he wrote in 1845.
Professor Barker connects this “critique” to the modern Social Justice movement:
Racial and sexual oppression have been added to the dynamic of class exploitation. Social justice movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo owe something of an unspoken debt to Marx through their unapologetic targeting of the “eternal truths” of our age. Such movements recognize, as did Marx, that the ideas that rule every society are those of its ruling class and that overturning those ideas is fundamental to true revolutionary progress.
Indeed, as I have discussed in a previous essay, neo-Marxist Antonio Gramsci took up this task with an analysis of “cultural hegemony” and advocacy of a so-called “war of position,” in which partisan intellectuals strive to acquire positions of influence within the social hierarchy to advocate for the transformation of a culture that forms the basis of an allegedly oppressive social construct. Gramscian neo-Marxism, then, is a precursor to progressive activism in its call for political agitation and a revolutionary “war of position,” in the name of assuming control of the means of (cultural) production.
Postmodern philosophy may have eschewed metanarrative in favor of an epistemic skepticism focused on textual and cultural critiques, but Marx’s influence permeates postmodern culture’s obsession with social marginalization, especially as it operates at the level of the subconscious, even though the focus on false consciousness has been inverted—postmodernists claim that discourse makes power invisible to the powerful, rather than to the powerless. Ultimately, whether Marxian or postmodern, progressivism is obsessed with critiques of superstructures built on exploitative relationships between groups, sustained by false consciousness by way of ideology and/or discourse.
Political activism of the 1960s and 1970s—as books like SDS by Kirkpatrick Sale, Days of Rage by Bryan Burroughs, and The Critical Turn in Education by Isaac Gottesman have shown—contained the seeds of a long-term effort, by radical figures like Henry Giroux, Angela Davis, Bill Ayers, Bernardine Dohr and Kathy Boudin, to take refuge in the university and assume positions from which to pass on their virulent strain of progressive activism to a new generation of students. As Gottesman writes, this was already well underway in the nineties:
“To the question: ‘Where did all the sixties radicals go?’, the most accurate answer,” noted Paul Buhle (1991) in his classic Marxism in the United States, “would be: neither to religious cults nor yuppiedom, but to the classroom.” After the fall of the New Left arose a new left, an Academic Left. For many of these young scholars, Marxist thought, and particularly what some refer to as Western Marxism or neo-Marxism, and what I will refer to as the critical Marxist tradition, was an intellectual anchor.
It should come as no surprise, then, that research by Phillip W. Magness of the American Institute for Economic Research shows that “as of 2015, Marx stands nearly alone as the most frequently assigned author in American college classrooms, only surpassed by the ubiquitous Strunk and White grammar manual.” Given how wrong Marx’s theory of exploitation was, the activist streak of left-wing professors in a postmodern world seems to be among the most plausible explanations.
Few would dispute the prevalence of left-wing sentiment in Hollywood, the mainstream media and other prominent institutions that have exercised progressive “cultural hegemony” since at least the nineties. The rise of Rush Limbaugh and the Gingrich Revolution of 1994 afford perhaps the first transparent glimpses of what Matt McManus, following Peter Lawler, calls “postmodern conservatism”—not as a form of resistance against a neoliberal zeitgeist gone awry, but against a “war of position,” which has been waged since the sixties and which gained momentum when the west no longer had victory in the Cold War as a unifying objective. Peterson’s diatribes against “postmodern neo-Marxism” may obscure the subtle differences between Marxism and postmodern philosophy, but he is not wrong in tracing a long historical arc from Marxist agitation to the postmodern epistemic skepticism that galvanizes Social Justice activism in particular, and progressive activism in general.