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.
[…] and also a form of politics divorced from the reality of where wokeness comes from. Dark mutterings about so-called “Postmodern Neo-Marxism,” the Frankfurt School and Cultural Marxism, Critical Race […]
[…] defend Peterson’s interpretation of postmodern neo Marxism. One of the best recent efforts is an article in this magazine, by Jonathan Church—though even its title is telling: “Jordan Peterson Is Not […]
Engage fully with the fundamental precepts of dialectical materialism, live long enough to understand a bit about life and draw your own conclusions. You very well may come to the understanding that post modernism and Marxism have more in common than sophists and apologists are prepared to acknowledge.
We should also add another important observation, I think, to my March 1st discussion of Jordan Peterson’s popularity as a reflection of the decline of David Riesman and Nathan Glazer’s 1950’s “eager strivers for cosmopolitanism and culture.” I did summarize the economic and occupational shifts already described by Barbara Ehrenreich in the early 1980’s that since the 1970’s have made liberal-arts majors and academic or “cultural elite” careers increasingly seem unrealistic and unattainable for college-age Americans from non-elite family backgrounds. However, I failed to discuss a significant demographic shift in the past half-century that has greatly reduced the number of young Americans who quite fit the particular social and cultural profile of Riesman and Glazer’s mid-20th century “eager strivers.” In the 1950’s, when Riesman and Glazer wrote their article, American society was approaching the culmination of two processes that had dominated it in the first half of the 20th century.… Read more »
One concise way to explain Jordan Peterson’s popularity might be that it reflects a decline of David Riesman and Nathan Glazer’s mid-20th century “eager strivers for cosmopolitanism and culture,” their term for the college-educated children from upward-mobile working or lower-middle class homes questioning what they had come to consider their families’ less “hip,” “sophisticated” or “enlightened” assumptions. In their 1955 article “The Intellectuals and the Discontented Classes” analyzing the social bases of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s popular appeal, sociologists Riesman and Glazer noted that many of post-World War II America’s “newly prosperous” rejected the “traditional cultural and educational leadership of the enlightened upper and upper-middle classes.” However, Riesman and Glazer continued, those same “newly prosperous” had also “sent their children to college as one way of maintaining the family’s social and occupational mobility.” Some of those children had become “eager strivers for cosmopolitanism and culture, rejecting the values now held by… Read more »
As we all know, the once quite obscure University of Toronto psychology professor and Jungian mythographer Jordan Peterson has become a major intellectual celebrity in the last couple of years. His books, videos, and public lectures enjoy enormous popularity among college-age youth–mostly among young white men, it’s often pointed out–while his *12 Rules for Life* became a major 2018 self-help best-seller. Conservative pundits have embraced him as an eloquent, erudite spokesman for traditional values and scourge of “cultural Marxism,” “political correctness,” and “postmodernism,” while leftists excoriate him as a reactionary, sexist, racist, or even fascist, who in any case completely misunderstands both Marxism and postmodernism. He has been both ridiculed and defended for his invocation of lobster social and sexual hierarchies to justify similar human hierarchies, and for his attack on compulsory transgender pronouns as supposedly a prelude for Stalinist-type gulags. Perhaps the most common explanation for Peterson’s popularity has… Read more »
Regardless of what one might think about Jordan Peterson’s views or arguments, about “cultural Marxism” or anything else, I’ve sort of tentatively come to a sociological theory about the reasons for Peterson’s great popularity among college-age young Americans these last few years. I suspect that the economic changes in American society in recent decades (the 2008 crash being only the most dramatic illustration), the increasingly crushing burden of student debt, etc., have made college-age young Americans increasingly skeptical and pessimistic in our time about their realistic chances of ever leaving the struggling lower-middle or middle-middle class and entering the ranks of the so-called “cultural elites,” “effete snobs,” “limousine liberals,” or “Brie and Chablis set” who have traditionally felt free to safely be a bit cavalier or skeptical about the so-called “square” virtues extolled by Peterson, to be a bit irreverent about them and still safely “get away with it,” as… Read more »
Jordan Peterson | Post-Modernism vs. Modernism at the Toronto Action Forum
Richard R. Weiner, 1981. Cultural Marxism and Political Sociology (SAGE Library of Social Research). https://books.google.com/books/about/Cultural_Marxism_and_Political_Sociology.html?id=4G0XAAAAIAAJ&redir_esc=y >A thorough examination and analysis of the tensions between political sociology and the culturally oriented Marxism that emerged in the 60s and 70s is presented in this volume. Dennis L. Dworkin, 1997. Cultural Marxism in Postwar Britain: History, the New Left, and the Origins of Cultural Studies. https://books.google.com/books/about/Cultural_Marxism_in_Postwar_Britain.html?hl=de&id=dY1Cgg8NV64C > In this intellectual history of British cultural Marxism, Dennis Dworkin explores one of the most influential bodies of contemporary thought. Tracing its development from beginnings in postwar Britain, through its various transformations in the 1960s and 1970s, to the emergence of British cultural studies at Birmingham, and up to the advent of Thatcherism, Dworkin shows this history to be one of a coherent intellectual tradition, a tradition that represents an implicit and explicit theoretical effort to resolve the crisis of the postwar British Left. Cultural Marxism… Read more »
McManus has repeatedly smeared Peterson with the usual half truths, misrepresentations, and outright lies. I’ve posted this repeatedly in the comment section on this site, and, to be frank, the Left simply do not want to admit McManus is a partisan hack. See anything he’s written on Peterson at Merion West, including his new book. The comment sections are full of people pointing out McManus’ drivel. He does not represent Peterson’s arguments correctly. And I don’t believe he even attempts to do so. Honestly if the author of this piece begins by referencing McManus’ work, I’m not even willing to read the other articles to which the author links, such is McManus’ intellectual dishonestly. Helen, ditch McManus. He only harms the Left, and I say this as someone who abandoned the Left a few years ago. McManus’ “conversative postmodernism” is little more than him not being able to tell the… Read more »
Perhaps this little publication might assist the author to dispel some glaring misunderstandings he obviously has about the nature of “Marxism” https://www.worldsocialism.org/spgb/pamphlet/marxism-revisited/
Modern SocJus is mainly indebted to Critical Theory (created by the Frankfurt School, an explicitly neomarxist project) and postmodernism via Foucault, Derrida et al. So yes, I don’t think he fully understands it but he isn’t far wrong.
I would make this «long historical arch» even longer.
From Inca Empire through catharism, Utopia of Thomas More, “Eternal League of God” of Müntzer, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Conspiracy of the Equals of Babeuf, Marx, Lenin, Stalin, Mao to modern SJW – this movement is always the same. Its hallmarks are the desire to destroy private property, religion and family, while the final goal is to wipe out the mankind.
Karl Marx was more honest – he admitted this «arch». Modern postmodernists are lying (for now…)
Postmodernism equally affects what are assumed to be opposite ends of the political spectrum, because they aren’t opposite. Fascism/Communism are not much different, much less polar opposites. Right/Left is irrelevant. Try Individualism/Collectivism as the opposites and it’s much clearer.
The subtleties are only of interest to Progressive Professors and SJW activists as a means of avoiding association with the manifest failures of Marxism. Peterson’s point, in the simplest terms, is that because economic class warfare turned out not to be inevitable, new victim groups had to be invented.
Since *The Gulag Archipelago*, *The Black Book of Communism*, *Last Exit to Utopia*, *Heaven on Earth*, etc. it has not been intellectually feasible to pretend the problem with Communism was simply that the wrong people were in charge. Postmodernism offers a way out.
“His conclusion is that both channels of this river lead to the same bloody place in the end.”
Very well said. Dwelling on the nuances of the difference could end up being nothing but a distraction. Hitler and Mussolini were not exactly the same, but during WWII that distinction was not really what we needed to worry about.
Thank you. A worthy read and enlightening on the forces at play. I would agree, having heard from a number of post-modernists arguing the subtle distinctions between Marxist and post-modern thought, that Peterson generally ignores them. I don’t think it’s because he doesn’t understand the differences. I think it’s because he understands that they are, for his purposes, inconsequential. His conclusion is that both channels of this river lead to the same bloody place in the end. When they put a bullet in your brain for thinking the wrong things, or for being the wrong person, you don’t care what color pants they wear.