Category Archives: Paul Jay

Understanding the Soviet Union, Inequality, and Freedom of Expression

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?

In 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 a 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)

Understanding the Red Menace

For anyone who has read or listened to Jordan Peterson, it is obvious that he has an intense dislike of communism. On this subject his reasoning appears very shallow.

Thus the author asserts in his 12 Rules for Life: “Solzhenitsyn’s writing utterly and finally demolished the intellectual credibility of communism, as ideology or society.”1

First, Peterson’s claim that Solzhenitsyn’s writing demolished “the intellectual credibility of communism” is a non-sequitur for one fundamental reason: there is no dialectical validity whatsoever when support for a claim comes from places with similar or identical ideological views. In this case, for an apparently anti-communist thinker such as Peterson to quote another anti-communist thinker such as Solzhenitsyn in support for his thesis is a futile intellectual exercise in the art of persuasion. In terms of analogy consider this: what do you think of American supremacists or ultranationalists who when asked to prove the notion of so-called American exceptionalism, reply by citing what Barack Obama said on the subject?

Pertinently though, in none of his literary and political writings dealing with communist issues had Solzhenitsyn succeeded at demolishing Marxism — the ideological, economic, and philosophical matrix of communism. His ire, however, was directed at Soviet communism. But even here, Solzhenitsyn was mostly critical of the excesses of the Soviet state while never delving into the details of the positive social manifestations of Soviet social structures. In other words, his tight bias against communism was such that he just saw things through the prism of his personal views.

Second, I am not here to defend or denigrate communism; this is not the subject of this article. But from an intellectual viewpoint, if Peterson wants to demolish either Marxism or communism, he should do that by pointing to where Marx went wrong in his over 20 books and papers, or at least show us where Lenin, the founder of the first communist state, erred in his conception of such a state. It seems that he skipped this crucial step entirely, maybe because dealing with the Marxian concept of historical materialism from multiple angles requires special preparation that he was not ready to undertake. Said alternatively, what passages in Das Capital, Theories of Surplus Value, The Holy Family (Marx and Engels), Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, etc., did Peterson find to be intellectually corrupt enough to demolish communism? Based on the preceding, how is it possible then that Peterson goes straight to the climatic point by giving a verdict without trying to evaluate all philosophical, political, social, or economic debates initiated by Marx?

Furthermore, others might counter that Karl Marx demolished the credibility of capitalism as an ideology that has any place in a morally based society. However, I will not comment on the intellectuality of capitalism. I would not characterize Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations as intellectually devoid — quite the contrary. Likeliest, what passes for capitalism today would nonplus Smith. Yet Peterson would hold Marx’s Capital and Marx and Friedrich Engels’ Communist Manifesto to be intellectually deficient?

What, in essence, does such a statement reveal? To pronounce on intellectual credibility inescapably means that the person doing the pronouncing considers himself intellectually credible and sufficiently informed of the subject matter. In any case, such a person would be capable of reading Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago; tying it to communist theory, as applied in the Soviet Union and elsewhere; and determining the ineluctable, consequential impact of such an ideology on society.

A subsequent epistemological analysis would speak to the veracity of any conclusion having been reached and also to the intellectual rigor of the individual making such a claim.

The events that are documented in The Gulag Archipelago are not denied or contested. What I contest is that the prison labor camps, as is intimated by Peterson, are a predictable outcome of communism. Either the Gulag was an aberration that appeared in a society striving towards a communist state or it was an inevitable outcome of a state on the path to communism. Many more questions arise: for example, were prison labor camps the norm throughout the history the Soviet Union? Or were they bound, particularly, to the authoritarian rule of Josef Stalin? Does the Gulag system exist in other communist states? Does the Gulag system exist in capitalist states?

It is important to understand what is a Gulag. Writing in a forum — which Peterson touts — Konstantin Zhiltsov (whose profile identifies him with a LLB from Moscow State University) wrote: “GULag was a simple administration, not much different from US Federal Bureau of Prisons.”2 Specific to camps, as opposed to locked-in penitentiaries, Zhiltsov wrote that they “existed long before communists and will exist without them just as well.”

On the question of camps:

Do they exist in modern Russia? Of course, yes. The majority of prisoners serve their sentence there. Of course, the regime is much different from Soviet times, much more lenient (that depends on security level, though). For example, prisoner’s labour is a right and not a duty (in the GULag system of camps, for example, it was mandatory, nowadays prisoners decide themselves to work or not to work).

So, the form is the same, but the “soul” inside of them is much different.3

Penitentiaries, rightly or wrongly, exist in most nation states. And forced labor camps are found in the US. It is via the US that in communist Cuba, the most notorious Gulag continues. Irene Khan, Amnesty’s general secretary, described the United States’ incarceration facility at Guantánamo Bay (de facto US-occupied territory in Cuba) as “the gulag of our time.”

Did the fact that Solzhenitsyn criticized the Gulag in the Soviet Union confer his approval of capitalism in the West? Political analyst Radha Rajan wrote, “Solzhenitsyn was as critical of what America and Europe represented in the twentieth century as he was of the Soviet Union and Stalinist repression.”4

Does this point to a bias ingrained in Peterson’s thinking? Nowhere in 12 Rules did Peterson mention, for example, that “Noam Chomsky’s writing utterly and finally demolished the intellectual credibility of capitalism, as ideology or society.”5

What happened to the Soviet Union immediately after the fall of communism? Has capitalism burnished its credibility?

If communism is not defined by the Gulag system, then what is it? What is this communism that Peterson despises?

The Real News editor-in-chief Paul Jay spoke with Alexander Buzgalin, a professor of political economy and the director of the Center for Modern Marxist Studies at Moscow State University. Buzgalin has lived under communism in the Soviet Union and in post-communist Russia. Thus, he is uniquely positioned to comment on what communism is and was.

PAUL JAY: So, for an American or Western audience, that word, “communism,” has- less and less now, the further we get away from the cold war- but still, the idea of communism, socialism, particularly communism, it means “police state.” It means “tyranny.” For most American ears, they can’t understand how someone would actually hope for communism. What did that mean for your family?

ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: For us, it was absolutely another meaning because of literature, because of movies, because of some practical communal-associated activity. So, what was communism for us? First of all, labor is pleasure. I am glad, I am happy to have my work. I am going for the work because I like it, not because I must make as small as possible and receive as much money as possible. Another motivation, another logic. Second, at the workplace we have comrades, not competitors, and together we will do something interesting. This is communism. Communism is space where you have beautiful things; useful, beautiful, cheap things around you. Dress, furniture, everything. And these things are just, I don’t know, basis for your life, for interesting life, for communications, creativity. That was the image of communism. And if you read books of Strugatsky, Arkady Strugatsky or Boris Strugatsky, two very famous writers, you will find a very beautiful description of such a world, and some elements of this world, we had sometimes.

PAUL JAY: Like when?

ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Like when we were together as schoolboys and schoolgirls, we were making something good for Vietnamese kids. We were spending our free time, not to play games with computers, it was no computer or football- we were playing football, but not all the time. But it was interesting to work and to buy bicycles for Vietnamese kids together. Just one example. To help to the elder people together. To create museum with memory about victims of World War II in school, from the fortress of our parents and grandparents, and so on.

So, one example. And an example in university, we have a union of young students and young scientists, scholars. And we made ourselves with state finance, three, four conferences every year for free in different cities of Russia. We were travelling, we were inviting students from other cities and state paid for their trips, for airplanes, for hotels, for us to go to other places. And it was self-organization. We organized these conferences by ourselves. We had a scientific supervisor, but he or she was controlling the program, nothing else.

PAUL JAY: But this vision, I mean, communism, the Marxist vision, a classless society with very little government, if any, as the ideal. But the reality of life was quite the opposite.

ALEXANDER BUZGALIN: Yes, but not one hundred percent opposite.6

*****
Peterson continues his criticism of communism: “No educated person dared defend that ideology again after [Aleksandr] Solzhenitsyn published The Gulag Archipelago. No one could ever say again, ‘What Stalin did, that was not true communism.’” (loc 3845)7

Peterson attempts to support his contention by ad hominem against those who disagree. Peterson limits the parameters of debate: one must agree that Stalin’s governance was true communism. Moreover, according to Peterson, one must not defend communism or he will be counted among the uneducated. Once again, Peterson relies strongly on Solzhenitsyn to shoot down the entirety of communism:

Solzhenitsyn documented the Soviet Union’s extensive mistreatment of political prisoners, its corrupt legal system, and its mass murders, and showed in painstaking detail how these were not aberrations but direct expressions of the underlying communist philosophy. No one could stand up for communism after The Gulag Archipelago–not even the communists themselves. (loc 5314)

This comes across as pure bluster. Peterson seems to think that by citing a book he can draw a definitive conclusion. Moreover, even given that the events as described by Solzhenitsyn are unerringly accurate, this does not inextricably bind communism to the Gulag because the Gulag happened under nominal or experimental communism. Now whether that communism was as propounded by Marx is debatable. Marx’s communism was about the liberation of workers. The communism of Marx differs from that put into practice by Lenin and Stalin.8 Moreover, communism was not envisioned as a perfect theory, free from need for revision, to be applied to all societies in all situations. Unless Marx considered himself to embody perfection, then he would not construe his thought as free from error. Indeed, self-criticism is a key component of Marxism. As Marxists are aware: “The use of criticism-self-criticism is widely recognized in the Marxist-Leninist movement as a tool that is vital to improving our work.”9 Thus, just as different countries practice a particular form of capitalism construed to meet the needs of their societies (or, more accurately, to meet the needs of the elitists in society), communism has been adapted to the exigencies of time and location.

Peterson points to the Gulag system as the distinguishing feature of communism. The gulags existed, and as horrific and wicked such places were for so many people, they were an outcome of people in power with out-sized egos and blackened souls.

If the Gulag is not the distinguishing feature of communism, then what is? Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto stated: “The distinguishing feature of Communism is … the abolition of bourgeois property.”

Peterson commits the logical fallacy of cum hoc ergo propter hoc scenario. Because of communism, there are gulags. What is wrong with such a postulation? Did prisons and torture not exist under the Czarist regimes? Do gulags not exist under capitalism? To institute an analogy, did it occur to Peterson that United States gave torture a meaning worse than that used in the former USSR? Could Peterson educate us about “the Gulag Abu Ghraib,” “the Gulag Guantanamo Bay” or “the Gulag Bagram”?

Also, Peterson should realize that a state does not become a full-fledged communist state overnight, and in the Soviet case, not without fierce resistance. Capitalist powers were not inclined to permit a challenge to their preferred economic order.

Michael Sayers and Albert Kahn wrote that by the summer of 1919, 14 western nations and their client states had invaded Bolshevik Russia.10 US Senator William Edgar Borah admitted at that time that the US was at “war with Russia, while Congress has not declared war.… It is a violation of the plain principles of free government.”11

For the next two and a half decades “the anti-democratic and anti-Soviet conspiracy.… kept the world in an incessant turmoil of secret diplomacy, counterrevolutionary intrigue, terror, fear and hatred, and which culminated inevitably in the Axis war to enslave humanity.”12

Peterson writes,

Communism, in particular, was attractive not so much to oppressed workers, its hypothetical beneficiaries, but to intellectuals—to those whose arrogant pride in intellect assured them they were always right. But the promised utopia never emerged. (loc 3909)

This passage by Peterson is not only the epitome of intellectual manipulation because of how it was phrased, but it is also a demonstration that Peterson has no clues regarding the core tenets of Marxism — specifically Marx’s concept of communism.

On the side of manipulation, Peterson clearly implies that communism is no more than an intellectual product that oppressed workers could not possibly relate to or understand. In addition, he seems to be annoyed — better yet, intimidated — by certain intellectuals whom he debits to the arrogance for feeling “always right.” In psychological terms, clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson appears to acknowledge that he is short on deploying the necessary intellectual tools to counter the arguments of well-informed intellectuals. This impression is enforced by noting that he resorted to name-calling in the attempt to downgrade the competence of intellectuals on the subject while upgrading his own, which is obviously ridden with serious shortcomings.

On the side of Marxian tenets, the scope of communism is not as he erroneously painted it. Marx never thought of communism as a platform solely directed to workers. What he envisioned was for the working class and intellectual pioneers to lead the struggle to abolish the class system thus creating egalitarian societies without classes, exploitation, and discrimination.

Now let’s turn to the debate on the issue of “credibility.” Obviously Peterson must be referring to intellectuals without credibility, but some might argue that such a premise is a contradiction. This forces one to wonder how well Peterson understands the communism of Karl Marx. Peterson does not define the “promised utopia.” Marx and Engels wrote of an end to the struggle between proletariat and bourgeoisie. At which time the “purely Utopian character” would be revealed by “such as the abolition of the distinction between town and country, of the family, of the carrying on of industries for the account of private individuals, and of the wage system, the proclamation of social harmony, the conversion of the function of the state into a more superintendence of production.”13

Peterson’s second contradiction is acknowledging that workers are oppressed while also arguing that oppressed workers are not attracted to a system to end their exploitation. In other words, one surmises from Peterson that workers would prefer to be exploited by a capitalist class. Or Peterson considers that workers are not exploited under capitalism? But no one could be that deluded.

Marx and Engels shot down the notion of worker acquiescence to the capitalist structure: “But does wage-labour create any property for the labourer? Not a bot. It creates capital, i.e., that kind of property which exploits wage-labour, and which cannot increase except upon condition of begetting a new supply of wage-labour for fresh exploitation.”14

Moreover, utopia, if ever promised, was never promised overnight. As long as communist countries were surrounded by opposing capitalist countries, the class struggle remained ongoing.

Communism, in name, was brought about through revolution. Hated regimes like Batista in Cuba, the Czars in Russia, and the Guomindang in China were capitalist or feudalistic in orientation.

Peterson seems eager to criticize and excoriate communist states, yet in his book his home country, Canada, emerges relatively unscathed. Peterson rightly denounces Nazi atrocities committed against Jews, although he does not condemn Nazi atrocities against communists, Roma, homosexuals. Now let’s consider Canada. It is a capitalist state established through genocide against the Original Peoples. Why no criticism by Peterson?15

One shouldn’t just read Chomsky, Solzhenitsyn, Marx, and Adam Smith to get a handle on capitalism versus communism and socialism. In particular, one should not solely rely on the clinical psychologist Peterson to get an understanding in political-economics and associated ideologies. However, one should be open to learning from other political-economic systems, especially adding anarchism to one’s reading list. Become well informed. Devour information with open-minded skepticism and form your own conclusions. Above all, don’t unquestioningly accept ex cathedra statements from professors, politicians, intellectuals, or non-intellectuals.

  1. Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.
  2. In Part 5: understanding the Soviet Union and the fallibility of capitalism
  1. Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life, (Penguin Random House UK, 2018): loc 2879.
  2. Konstantin Zhiltsov, “Do Gulags still exist in Russia?” Quora, 26 December 2017.
  3. Konstantin Zhiltsov, “Do Gulags still exist in Russia?” Quora, 26 December 2017.
  4. Radha Rajan, “Russian nationalism through the eyes of an Indian nationalist – 1,” Vijayvaani.com, 28 November 2018.
  5. Chomsky’s focus is not the intellectual credibility of capitalism but the morality of an economic system that leaves behind so many in society. See, e.g., Noam Chomsky, Profit Over People: Neoliberalism and Global Order (Seven Stories Press, 1999).
  6. Growing Up in the USSR – RAI with A. Buzgalin (1/12),” The Real News, 11 July 2018.
  7. Later Peterson’s repeats “The Gulag Archipelago … utterly demolished communism’s moral credibility…” (loc 5307).
  8. See Thomas G. West, “Marx and Lenin,” in Marx and the Gulag (Claremont Paper No. 8, 1987).
  9. Workers Congress (Marxist-Leninist) and Friends from the East Coast, “Open Letter on Criticism-Self-Criticism,” in The Communist, Vol. IV, No. 12, 11 September 1978. Available online at marxists.org.
  10. Michael Sayers and Albert Kahn, The Great Conspiracy: The Secret War Against Soviet Russia Proletarian Publishers (Little, Brown and Company, 1946): 79.
  11. Michael Sayers and Albert Kahn, 85.
  12. Michael Sayers and Albert Kahn, 392.
  13. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “Chapter III. Socialist and Communist Literature” in Karl Marx: Selected Writings.
  14. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Communist Manifesto in Karl Marx: Selected Writings (London: Essential Thinkers, 2004): 39.
  15. The professor Noam Chomsky proffered a moralistic guideline that people should focus on the actions of their own states: “My own concern is primarily the terror and violence carried out by my own state, for two reasons. For one thing, because it happens to be the larger component of international violence. But also for a much more important reason than that; namely, I can do something about it. So even if the U.S. was responsible for 2 percent of the violence in the world instead of the majority of it, it would be that 2 percent I would be primarily responsible for. And that is a simple ethical judgment. That is, the ethical value of one’s actions depends on their anticipated and predictable consequences.” See Noam Chomsky, On Power and Ideology: The Managua Lectures (South End Press, 1987).