Understanding the Soviet Union, Inequality, and Freedom of Expression

Part 5 of 6: The Utility of Jordan Peterson's Digressions

In a book which seemingly offers simple, but clever, rules to help people gain control over their lives, psychologist Jordan Peterson curiously pours a lot of vitriol on Marxism/communism and the nation states that practice(d) communism.1

Peterson writes that Marx discombobulated history and culture:

Marx attempted to reduce history and society to economics, considering culture the oppression of the poor by the rich. 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. Hundreds of millions were subject to oppression rivalling that still active in North Korea, the last classic communist holdout. (loc 5256-5257)

As a minimum, what Peterson stated is overtly brazen defamation of Marx. But before defending Marx from the groundless invectives of Peterson, it should be noted with utmost comfort that Peterson’s approach to analyzing the thought of Marx and his role in history and issuing verdicts thereof manifestly demonstrates Peterson’s poor knowledge of Marxian thought. What is remarkable here is that naïve ideological parochialism supplants informed elements of debate. To explain, Peterson is overconfident that he, as a psychologist, can read the mind of Marx. So he volunteered to tell us that when he summoned his spirit to his couch, this told him that he was attempting to “reduce history and society to economics.”

Surprisingly, Peterson comes across as incognizant that Marx’s principle pillar of historical materialism rests on the paradigm that all societies, regardless of stage of development, follow specific and historically developed economic models that inexorably shape their lives and societal structures. Marx gave the greatest example on this matter when he described the endless cycles of a typical Indian village that persisted since the dawn of history until Britain colonized India thus introducing its economic model that gradually obliterated the old system. Another example, when Britain colonized Mali, it instituted that villagers could not tender their produce for barter and had to use money (introduced by the colonial office) as a means of exchange. This forced the villagers to abandon their villages and work as salaried labor in town — and this is exactly what Britain wanted to tighten its grip on Mali.

To expand on this argument, Peterson is attempting to reduce Marxism to what he claims was put into practice in the Soviet Union and Eastern Asia. Marx did not say that culture, per se, oppressed the poor. Marx said that each historical epoch is constructed around a particular mode of production that helps to shape culture. Under capitalism it is the capitalists that control the means of production, thus the bourgeoisie (the rich) are able to manipulate culture to benefit their self-interest over that of the proletariat (working class). John Storey, a British emeritus professor of Cultural Studies explains that Marx situated culture on a ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’:

The ‘base’ consists of a combination of the ‘forces of production’ and the ‘relations of production’… The superstructure consists of institutions (political, legal, educational, cultural, etc.), and what Marx calls ‘definite forms of social consciousness’ (political, religious, ethical, philosophical, aesthetic, cultural, etc.) generated by these institutions. Marx provided a general theory of history and politics, in which it is important to locate a cultural text or practice, there will always remain questions that relate to its formal qualities and specific traditions.

Finally, has Peterson ever been to North Korea? What information does he rely on to draw his conclusions? Wikipedia? Western corporate-state media? Has his home-and-native land, Canada, ever achieved housing for all its citizens? Tuition-free university education for all? Jobs for everyone? One should be aware and cautious before parroting monopoly-media disinformation.

Plunging further into history, Peterson notes:

The decayed social order of the late nineteenth century produced the trenches and mass slaughter of the Great War. The gap between rich and war was extreme, and most people slaved away in [bad] conditions … Although the West received word of the horrors perpetrated by Lenin after the Russian Revolution, it remained difficult to evaluate his actions from afar. (loc 5270)

Peterson leaves out many crucial points. For example, why was there a gap between the rich and the poor? What political-economic ideology precipitated WWI? Why does Peterson not mention western forces fighting in Russia to overturn the revolution? Why would western powers want the revolution overturned?

Part 2 of the Real News interview with Marxist Alexander Buzgalin deals with these points and more:

PAUL JAY: Good. Once again, let me get this right- Professor Buzgalin is Professor of Political Economy and director of the Center for Modern Marxist Studies at Moscow State University. So, picking up from part one, the 1920s in the Soviet Union, after the revolution, my understanding, at least. It was a time of tremendous excitement, of transformations, beginnings of modern movie-making takes place in the Soviet Union, some of the innovations are world class. Why and how, and I know this is an enormous question, really boil this down- how does something so transformative turn into such bureaucracy?

ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: It’s a really great, very important and very difficult question. A brief and little bit primitive explanation: The Soviet Union was born in the- appeared in a period of terrible contradictions. So, world capitalism, World War I, terrible bloody war, for what? For killing of millions of people for the profit of corporations. And one result was material basis and cultural basis for a new society. So, it’s like a kid that appeared in the dusty, cold atmosphere without good parents or without parents at all. How to survive? It will be some mutations. And we had mutations and we had very small chances for growing up, for normal development of this kid.

New socialist trend, not socialist country, but trend, movement in socialist direction. And of course, we received a lot of mutations. Firstly, it was real huge energy, created by revolution, by victory in civil war. Energy of creation of new society, enthusiasm and so on. In the same time, in new economic policy in the 1920s, we had a lot of elements of market capitalism and so on. It was, by the way, not a bad model of combination of capitalism, market, and new socialist trends, with big contradictions. But then, because of terrible conditions, absence of material base inside, and the very dangerous, very aggressive-

PAUL JAY: Meaning the absence of any modern industry.

ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Yeah. It was necessary to create, during ten years, modern industry and a huge military complex in order to prevent defeat in the war against world fascism. By the way, I want to stress, in 1930s, fascism became rule. It was Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, then all Europe capitulated.

PAUL JAY: And strong support in Britain and the United States, including the King of England.

ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Yeah, and by the way- yeah, Britain and the United States were not very sympathetic to the Soviet Union rule at all. And one minute, one very important fact. When German fascists, Nazi, took power, it was one country around France, Belgium, Denmark, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, strong industrial states altogether- Britain, the U.S.- no problem to defeat Germany. And what was the result? Germany occupied France, Poland, Belgium, Denmark, Czechoslovakia, Austria. Nobody can resist- democratic liberal capitalism could not resist to fascism. And only this strange mutation, Stalin’s socialism, could have a victory.

PAUL JAY: And I think a lot of people in the West don’t understand how clear this was, what was coming as early as 1930, 31, 32-

ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Yeah, but after that, we had this bureaucratic mutation because of all these reasons. And the more we had power of bureaucracy and the less we had the real control from below, real opportunity to make something in social organization from below, the more we had degradation of socialist trends. And we moved from domestic socialism, in the atmosphere of capitalism around, towards attempts to build consumer society, but without the opportunity to consume. The economy of shortage consumer society.2

Peterson read a book by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, yes, a book that details horrible injustices. But Buzgalin lived in the USSR, saw the fall of the Soviet Bloc, and lived through the transformation to modern Russia. Russia is not communist today, but Russians did try to bring back communism and were thwarted by American interference in the Russian presidential election to get their man, the inebriate Boris Yeltsin, into the Federal Assembly.

Peterson turns to another writer, George Orwell, to expose Stalin’s crimes: “He [Orwell] published Animal Farm, a fable satirizing the Soviet Union, in 1945, despite encountering serious resistance to the book’s release.” (loc 5301)

In the preface to the Ukrainian translation of Animal Farm Orwell wrote:

I have never visited Russia and my knowledge of it consists only of what can be learned by reading books and newspapers. Even if I had the power, I would not wish to interfere in Soviet domestic affairs: I would not condemn Stalin and his associates merely for their barbaric and undemocratic methods. It is quite possible that, even with the best intentions, they could not have acted otherwise under the conditions prevailing there.

But on the other hand it was of the utmost importance to me that people in western Europe should see the Soviet régime for what it really was. Since 1930 I had seen little evidence that the USSR was progressing towards anything that one could truly call Socialism. On the contrary, I was struck by clear signs of its transformation into a hierarchical society, in which the rulers have no more reason to give up their power than any other ruling class.

Unlike Peterson who sees Marxism as an ideology predestined to produce atrocities, Orwell sees that corrupted humans have corrupted Marxism. Orwell was a contemporary who refused to judge Stalin, whereas Peterson removed in time does judge Stalin. Orwell considers that there may have been circumstances that forced Stalin to act in barbaric fashion. Buzgalin cited some of those circumstances above, although he does not name such as an excuse for Stalin’s barbarity.3 Does Peterson take into account the circumstances and the times when he passes wholesale judgment?

Inequality

Turning to the present, communism has waned in many countries while at the same time the burgeoning of neoliberalism has seen inequality soar.

Peterson offers a puzzling take on inequality. He favors a hands-off approach to it: “We don’t know how to redistribute wealth without introducing a whole host of other problems…. But it certainly is the case that forced redistribution, in the name of utopian equality, is a cure to shame the disease.” (loc 5351)

Tim Di Muzio, a senior lecturer in international relations and political economy at Wollongong University in Australia, states that capitalism is a pathological addiction in which capitalists seek differential accumulation – to primarily increase the wealth gap between themselves and others; in other words, greater wealth inequality. (p 49) For this reason, the capitalist system cannot rid wealth inequality or significantly reduce the inequality, and neither is capitalism — the nebulous invisible hand aside — designed to do this.4

Peterson says we don’t know how to redistribute wealth. Certainly he admits that he doesn’t know how to do it. Indeed, he even warns against trying redistribution, by implying redistribution to be an untoward “utopian equality.” Why in the name of “utopian equality”? Why not in the name of fairness and dignity for all humans? Peterson is at odds with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which states that one of the freedoms sought is a world where humans are free from want. As stipulated by the UDHR, among those human rights affected by inequality are:

  • Article 23: Right to work, to equal pay for equal work, and to form and join trade unions
  • Article 24: Right to reasonable hours of work and paid holidays
  • Article 25: Right to adequate living standard for self and family, including food, housing, clothing, medical care and social security.

Does Peterson think that the current distribution of wealth is fair? If it is not fair, then does Peterson suggest leaving the current maldistribution as is? And what caused a maldistribution to occur? Should not the conditions that caused such a maldistribution be dealt with? The gap between the rich and the poor is widening. In 1820, the gap was 3:1, in 1950, 35:1, and in 1992, the gap was 72:1.5 The “World Inequality Report 2018” declares an increasing gap between haves and have-nots and points to capitalism as a cause. That this is a gargantuan problem, is adduced by the fact that about half of the planet’s population must get by on less than $2.50 a day (80% of humanity lives on less than $10 a day). What “host of problems” is it that Peterson would consider to supersede the dignity of half the globe’s population?

Why focus on redistribution of wealth? What about the capitalist system wherein the maldistribution occurred? Peterson says don’t redistribute. However, if communism leads to Gulags as Peterson claims, then by the same logic does capitalism not lead to maldistribution and inequality? But Peterson does not argue for an economic reform. Would it not be logically and morally preferable to have a system that allows for a fair distribution at the outset that would not require a redistribution. But that might require a revolution, something Peterson also eschews as he considers that would cause suffering.6

Peterson on Compelled Speech

Peterson came into wider public prominence when he railed against the Canadian government’s Bill C-16 which amended the Canadian Human Rights Act to include “gender identity or expression” as grounds protected from discrimination. Peterson mischaracterized the bill as compelling speech by using hate laws. Nonetheless, Peterson gained a following based on his pro-freedom of expression.

In his book, Peterson seemingly contradicts this pro-freedom of expression stance:

I do not understand why our society is providing public funding to institutions and educators whose stated, conscious and explicit aim is the demolition of the culture that supports them. Such people have a perfect right to their opinions and actions, if they remain lawful. But they have no reasonable claim to public funding. (loc 5359)7

Unlawful opinions? Really?

What does Peterson mean by “demolition of the culture”? Culture is an abstract, something that cannot be physically demolished. Sure, artifacts of the culture can be destroyed, but Peterson did not write cultural artifacts. And what does Peterson mean by “lawful”? He gives no examples of institutions and educators behaving unlawfully. What Peterson writes sounds curiously like a call for censorship. One wonders whether orating for the replacement of capitalism (and its maldistribution of wealth) with communism in western society is beyond the bounds of accepted discourse. In other words, if you don’t like the cultural set-up, and you want to exercise your freedom of speech, then the dominant culture will put you on the street. That would be, in essence, governmental violence, and it would cause suffering — something Peterson says he seeks to avoid.

Peterson appears to be treading a tightrope here. He supports freedom of speech, but seemingly sets out parameters in which free speech may not occur. First, Peterson holds that it must conform to societal dictates as far as public funding is concerned. Yet is that not censorship? It stands as an antipode to compelled speech – something Peterson adamantly opposes. Hate speech aside, but are not forced speech patterns similarly egregious as enforcement aimed at preventing utterances? Second, one might wonder exactly what Peterson means by the “conscious and explicit aim is the demolition of the culture that supports them.” Culture? That is a wide-encompassing term. Does Peterson consider “the demolition of the culture” that sends soldiers abroad to overthrow governments not to the home government’s liking, to devastate foreign lands, to decimate civilian populations, and to plunder the resources as deserving of being cut off from public funding? Third, Peterson argues that speech must “remain lawful.” Where is the freedom in that? Of course, freedoms come with responsibilities. One does not run into a public school and foolishly yell “Shooter!” while knowing full well that no shooter has been spotted on campus, thereby causing a stampede of students and a potential for injuries. But the right to dissent, even against a prevailing view in society, is a sine qua non of a country that professes to cherish democracy and freedoms. After all, how often is it that a majority, or substantial section, of a society has gone amuck? Nazi Germany, imperialist Britain, imperialist USA, colonial Canada, Wahhabists, Zionists, all spring to mind to be parked alongside the brutal excesses of some communist governments. It is incumbent upon people whose consciences are pricked by iniquity caused by or in complicity with their society and country to speak out and steer the ship-of-state back on a proper course. Most people whose consciences are seared are not about to be dissuaded from doing what they consider right by a cut off in public funding. Lastly, what does Peterson propose for the criteria and regulating of the “institutions and educators whose stated, conscious and explicit aim is the demolition of the culture,” so as to determine what and who should be deprived of public funding? Who should decide? As a basis, a standing bureaucracy would be required for this task.

In a so-called representative democracy such as the United States, universities and research and development are largely funded by government. If these institutions and scientists are antithetical to the agenda of the government, then should their funding be cut off? Case in point, the overwhelming majority of the scientific community has sounded the alarm about the increasing potential of a looming catastrophe: fossil-fuel burning causes emissions of greenhouse gases and this is cited as the cause of global warming, melting ice caps, thawing permafrost, and weather calamities. Yet, one can observe the Donald Trump government stacking agencies whose purported agenda is to protect the environment signalling a rejection of climate change, raising the profile of a sprinkling of climate skeptics, and caving in to the interests of Big Oil.

  1. Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.
  2. Part 6 will discuss IQ, equal pay for equal work, Mao Zedong, and Chinese communism
  1. Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote for Chaos (Penguin Random House UK, 2018). []
  2. Success and Mutation in the Soviet Union – RAI with A. Buzgalin (2/12),” The Real News, 12 July 2018. []
  3. The longtime communist ruler of Albania, Enver Hoxha, in his With Stalin: A Memoir, paints a far more flattering portrait of Sta1in than western historical accounts. []
  4. Tim Di Muzio, The 1% and the Rest of Us: A Political Economy of Dominant Ownership (Zed Books, 2015): 48-49. []
  5. Anup Shah, “Causes of Poverty,” Global Issues, 30 April 2006. []
  6. See part 3. []
  7. Peterson: “Neither should we teach them [our children] unsupported ideologically-predicated theories about nature of men and women—or the nature of hierarchy.” (loc 5382). []
Kim Petersen is a former co-editor of the Dissident Voice newsletter. He can be reached at: kimohp@gmail.com. Twitter: @kimpetersen. Read other articles by Kim.