On Petersons ‘Postmodern Neo-Marxism’
Proclaimed as “the most influential public intellectual in the western world” by economist Tyler Coen. But are Jordan B Petersons bold attacks on left-wing intellectuals, social justice warriors, and trans activists as Postmodern Neo-Marxists justified?
Peterson at first strikes a calm calculated figure, but behind this vague veneer of calculated pseudo-intellectualism is there actual substance to his claims and theories? One of his most prominent accusations of the left, is that of ‘Postmodern Neo-Marxists’. If at first you are baffled at what a ‘Postmodern Neo-Marxist’ is then you’re not alone, Peterson himself doesn’t even seem to be able to define it coherently and is used to describe an extremely diverse vague group of people from leftist groups, social justice activists, HR departments as well as universities and college campuses.
If we take Postmodernism and Marxist individually, from a philosophical perspective Marx is fundamentally a modernist theory. Modernists utilise grand philosophical narratives to define and rationalise concepts; in the instance of Marx, his theory is used to describe why economic inequality and class struggle shape history. But Postmodernism is sceptical of these grand narratives, and this is why so many Postmodernists are in turn sceptical of Marxists. This would make Petersons definition inherently contradictory, I mean frankly Postmodernism and Marxism are incompatible. So, what does Peterson mean by his proclamations that the left is infiltrated by Postmodern Neo-Marxists? In general (and Petersons use is broad and vague) it supposedly refers to individuals who are destroying ‘western civilization’ by contradicting absolute biological truths such as gender, and in Petersons view are involved in restricting freedom of speech. Naturally due to the vague and relatively incoherent definitions outlined by Peterson, in response to criticism of his definition of ‘Postmodern Neo Marxists’ (also ‘Postmodern Neo Marxism’) Peterson has suggested some revisions and explanation to his theory:
Postmodernism is essentially the claim that (1) since there are an innumerable number of ways in which the world can be interpreted and perceived (and those are tightly associated) then (2) no canonical manner of interpretation can be reliably derived.
That’s the fundamental claim. An immediate secondary claim (and this is where the Marxism emerges) is something like “since no canonical manner of interpretation can be reliably derived, all interpretation variants are best interpreted as the struggle for different forms of power.”
Essentially what Peterson is outlining here is vague, but essentially, he states that because Postmodernists find absolute truth problematic, a canonical interpretation (basically a theory / intellectual movement based on established principles / literature) of postmodernism based on an intellectual history, or underlying theory like Marxism is not reliable. Although Peterson’s reading is not inherently wrong, and his assessment that Postmodernists see objective truths is technically correct, but Peterson makes the assumes that Postmodernists don’t have some canonical manner to their theories. I mean as established earlier the outward rejection of modernist theories is one unifying concept of Postmodernism — which could be read as the canonical component of Postmodernism. Petersons further explanations on the unity between Postmodernism and Marxism is even vaguer and categorically wrong. He states that since Postmodernists do not have unifying concepts as they believe that all truths could objectively be true, therefore all interpretation can be true, that the best way to express these interpretations are with power struggles (the component of Marx). This attempt to intertwine a reading of Foucault here is strange, but also so vague that essentially what Peterson says can objectively be true; yet in actuality this is simply just pseudo-intellectual lingo, which amounts to very little coherence or even explanation. On attempting to clarify the link between Postmodernism and Marxism Peterson states this:
So the formal postmodern claim, such as it is, is radical scepticism. But that’s not at all how it has played out in theory or in practice. Derrida and Foucault were, for example, barely repentant Marxists, if repentant at all. They parleyed their 1960’s bourgeoisie vs proletariat rhetoric into the identity politics that has plagued us since the 1970’s. Foucault’s fundamental implicit (and often explicit) claim is that power relations govern society. That’s a rehashing of the Marxist claim of eternal and primary class warfare. Derrida’s hypothetical concern for the marginalized is a version of the same thing. I don’t really care if either of them made the odd statement about disagreeing with the Marxist doctrines: their fundamental claims are still soaked in those patterns of thought.
You can see this playing out in practical terms in fields such as gender studies and social work (as well as literary criticism, anthropology, law, education, etc.).
Petersons mischaracterization becomes much clearer here, and really complicates his initial definition. His evidence for Postmodernist and Marxist intellectual unity was the previous political associations of Derrida and Foucault left-wing Postmodernists, as well as the influence of “Marxist doctrines” in their theories. Yet Foucault was not a “barely repentant” Marxist he left all his associations with Marxist parties and expunged his earlier works of Marxist themes. Just because a thinker has held previous political associations to Marx, and then later criticised Marx does not equate to an alliance between their evolution of thought. Furthermore, Postmodernists actually have quite a diverse stance on political issues, not all Postmodernists like Derrida and Foucault are on the left. Furthermore, exploring themes of class and societal power structures does not actually automatically make your philosophy Marxist. This dismissive dogma by Peterson simply just goes to show his weak understanding of not only Postmodernism, but also of political theory as a whole. Ergo, to make the link that simply because the reading/ content in gender studies, contains both Marxists and postmodernists, highlights this intellectual unity between Marxists and Postmodernists is just untrue. Reading / course material is more likely to provide greater scope to these courses to provide students a breadth of academic opinion. I mean come on Peterson is a professor, so surely must be familiar with this. In actuality this shows an extremely narrow perspective on postmodernism simply to fit the shallow political narrative Peterson wishes to persist with.
But there is a larger issue with Petersons obfuscated rhetoric, vague language, and academic incoherence. This dismissal of the left as being ‘Postmodern Neo-Marxists’ is more symptomatic of trying to create a “reds under the bed” attitude towards left-wing politics, rather than an actual constructive debate about the issues (which there are numerous) on the left. I mean the absurd nature in which Peterson so readily states vaguely that trans rights activist’s underlying philosophy is the same as Mao is just wrong. This modern McCarthyism is more to create a conversation to dismiss the left, and progressive movements such as the fight for trans rights than anything else, and Petersons often weak knowledge and misapplication of anthropology, philosophy, history, and biology (I mean for god’s sake go look at his strange take on lobsters) to fit his personal narrative shine through in his theories. Petersons application of the ‘Postmodern Neo-Marxist’ has the air of being almost a conspiracy theory, in which rational objective argument is misplaced, definitions are obfuscated with the air of pseudo-intellectual prominence, to edge Petersons narrative of the destruction of the west forward. While I commend Peterson for making his lectures accessible, and don’t take too much issue with his most recent work which is largely a self-help book. His influence on not only the right in the US as well as the UK should not be overlooked, if this is the figure in which the right is so ready to defend and uphold, even when some of his theories are just pseudo-intellectual garbage then we must hold him to account. Rather like any Postmodernist would, we should be sceptical of Peterson. His underlying right-leaning political narratives for his grand theories on the evils and totalitarian nature of identity politics, as well as his flirtations with the alt right should evoke some caution and pushback from the “most influential public intellectual in the western world” .