I’ve just been watching You Tube videos featuring Canadian right-wing public intellectual Jordan Peterson making a litany of claims against Marxism: basically to the effect that Marxism is ‘essentially and inevitably totalitarian’. I intend to criticise this viewpoint at length.
But bear with me a moment while I summarise some of his arguments.
Peterson claims Marxism is politically irredeemable in any sense. Numerous examples of Stalinism are provided to illustrate the arguments ; and to suggest an ‘essential causal link’ between Marxism and the Stalinist dystopias of the 20th Century.
Peterson makes the usual claims that Marxism leads to mediocrity and failure because it fails to reward excellence and initiative. That it fails to accommodate the functionality of inequality in that sense of providing incentive and reward for effort and innovation. And furthermore, Peterson argues that Marxism is a basically destructive ideology founded on envy ; and is ‘fundamentally authoritarian’ and antagonistic towards liberty. In response to Marxist critics of Stalinism, Peterson dismissively claims that their position can be written off as suggesting ‘the utopia would have been ushered in if only they had been the dictators’. Peterson links Marxism with atrocities having claimed millions of lives over the course of the 20th Century.
From his perspective he finds it hard to grasp how some people are still claiming ‘that was not real communism’ ; and that ‘real communism deserves to be tried’.
In response, you could just as easily argue that the First World War was waged between capitalist nations ; inspired by Imperialist rivalries ; and resulted in the deaths of tens of millions. Do we conclude therefore that is the only kind of capitalism possible? That is: a capitalism characterised by imperialism, aggressive nationalism and world war?
Many Marxists have made just that conclusion. Though by contrast Karl Kautsky suggested the possibility of an ‘ultra-imperialism’ whereby the Great Powers carved the world up between themselves in a relatively peaceful fashion.
Yes, there is a common, historical and functional link between capitalist imperialism and war. The drive for economic growth and political power provides a motivation to try and secure external markets in the context of Great Power rivalry. And to exploit the resources of ‘colonised’ and ‘Third World’ countries. But ideologies around competitive individualism, market economies and so on are not essentially linked with war. Do we not distinguish between pacifist liberals and imperialist hawks under capitalism? Nor should socialist ideologies be ‘essentially linked’ with oppression as if only one kind of outcome is possible.
On the other hand, those ideologies (of market based competition) are often appealed to in a misleading way. Socialists can also accommodate a place for competition and markets. For some socialists the real challenge is in working out ‘the best mix’. And that could involve a balance of competition, planning and economic democracy. (For instance imaginably in a context of producer’s and consumer’s co-operatives ; with peoples’ democratic organisation as producers and consumers providing checks and balances against each other).
Some markets deliver the goods in terms of innovation and responsiveness to consumer need. In other instances co-operation and civic responsibility deserve to be considered as options and as motivations. ‘Natural public monopolies’ can pass on superior cost structures to the broader economy ; assisting not only consumers – but even capitalist enterprises. There is no ‘one way’ in which to organise economies. The ‘essence’ of capitalism is neither markets nor competition (which existed before capitalism) : but rather capital as a form of property ; a social relationship and a process of accumulation ; a process through which the surplus value created by workers is appropriated ; with startling divisions resulting in both wealth and power. Divisions which are becoming more and more marked ; and with economic insecurity a means of disciplining the working class into submission.
Marx’s critique of capitalism focused on the intense human alienation which arose in the age of industrialisation. Extremes not only of inequality: but the brutality involved in long working hours, subsistence wages, inhuman and sometimes dangerous working conditions. And further: the distributive injustice arising from the expropriation of surplus value: that workers were not fully compensated for the value which they created through their labours. The division of labour under capitalism was dehumanising in that there was little opportunity for rewarding creative labour. Labour was commonly ‘broken into small, repetitive parts’ in a way which ruled out creative control or fulfilment. For many workers this is still the reality. As opposed to oppression, Marxism actually aimed to extend “personal freedom”, not of isolated individuals but through mutual “association” providing “the means of cultivating [our] gifts in all directions” (Marx and Engels Selected Works, Vol. I, pp 27-28, 68).
We cannot go into some comprehensive rendition of ‘key Marxist concepts’ here ; but in short Marxism is a plural tradition spanning the best part of two centuries. Its prestige has declined with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. Triumphalist proclamations of its collapse and irrelevance have had a telling effect through sheer repetition and attrition ; amidst hostility in the monopoly mass media. In fact the world is always changing ; and ‘classical Marxism’ on its own is not enough to grasp every aspect of such a constantly changing world. That said ; Marx still grasps the fundamentals of capitalist accumulation and exploitation ; the problems of monopolisation and class bifurcation ; and the dilemmas where exchange value is emphasised sometimes to the exclusion of use value. (For example ; great swathes of unoccupied properties amidst widespread homelessness). He also recognised as early as the ‘Manifesto’ of 1848 that constant change (and hence insecurity) were ‘the essence of capitalism’ ; though Social Democracy has strived to ameliorate this through the welfare state, social wage and so on.
Marx provides a foundation upon which further theoretical innovation can progress – often in different directions. Every word ‘should not be taken as holy writ’. Sometimes even fundamental and iconic ideas deserve to be revised. But aside from the horrors of totalitarian misappropriation there are other traditions : traditions of the Democratic Left. For instance ; of the Revolutionary Social Democracy which preceded the ‘Social Democratic/Communist Split’ of 1914. And which survived on the Left of Social Democracy. The great plurality of modern Marxism – and of newer traditions – such as ‘Post-Marxism’ (eg: Mouffe and Laclau), and the Critical Theory developed by the likes of Jurgen Habermas – also demonstrate a productive engagement with liberalism.
Peterson concedes that much Marxist analysis withstands criticism and maintains its appeal ; but argues that it can only have one outcome when applied in practice. That is: totalitarian oppression and suppression of individual dignity and liberty. These kind of claims are fundamentally ahistorical. They look not to the specific historic conditions which saw Marxism twisted into an ‘official Ideology’ of authoritarian, and even totalitarian states. Rather they generalise that given such degeneration became widespread over the 20th Century that it is the only possible outcome.
But let’s remember also that the original (Marxist) social democrats were among the first to promote the fight for full, equal and universal suffrage at a time when the idea was unthinkable for most Conservatives and even most Liberals. And that Bolshevist pressure contributed to the conditions whereby liberal and parliamentary democracy was widely adopted in Europe following World War One. Let’s also remember Rosa Luxemburg’s critique of Leninism ; and the critiques of Bolshevism from figures such as the German-based Marxist – and most prominent theorist of ‘Marxist Centrism and Orthodoxy’ ; Karl Kautsky , as well as the Left-Social Democratic Menshevik leader, Julius Martov. In short: right from the beginning there was resistance to Bolshevist strategies from the revolutionary social democratic and libertarian communist Left. Right from the beginning there was resistance from within Marxism – on the basis that suppression of democracy and liberties ; and the progressive narrowing of decision making to an ever narrowing stratum of Party leaders – counter-acted the corrective forces of participatory democracy. And that the narrowing foundation for real power could very well corrupt the Revolution over the longer term. (As it did).
Further ; accelerating and entrenched Terror abrogated the Marxist principles of fighting human alienation and defending human dignity. Yes, Marx understood Terror could be inevitable in certain revolutionary contexts ; but those strategies also held certain dangers ; and pervasive Stalinist Terror became permanent and indiscriminate.
Bolshevist centralisation and Terror held the same danger of facilitating effective counter-revolution: as occurred also with the Terror in Revolutionary France ; and the transition from ‘the Republic’ to ‘The Empire’ of Napoleon. Stalinism is understood by some as exactly that: counter-revolution. Some ‘orthodox’ Marxists (including Martov and Kautsky) also viewed radical Bolshevist voluntarism regarding the establishment of socialism without the foundation of prior capitalist economic development – as involving dangerous potential risks and ramifications. Most importantly: that while the Bolshevists engaged in a ‘bold gambit’ of pursuing revolution and withdrawing Russia from the War ; that the ultimate degeneration of the revolution (under enormous pressure from isolation and foreign intervention and destabilisation) could see socialism discredited in the eyes of many for generations.
On the other hand: while these flaws in Bolshevist strategy can be appreciated, assumptions of ‘inevitable, irresistible and gradual progress towards democratic socialism’ were also flawed. For example, while the Austrian Revolution of 1918 did not replicate Bolshevist strategies, the failure of the Austrian Social Democrats to fully and permanently consolidate their control of the state apparatus of force when the opportunity provided actually left the way open for the undermining of democracy in Austria from within – and the eventual rise of a domestic ‘Austro-Fascism’ over the longer term.
The fact is that a more liberal capitalism is possible ; but so is a more liberal socialism. Also let’s remember the ambitions of (pre-Leninist) Marxism – for whom the aim was economic development with the aim of promoting cultural growth, development and freedom. The drift of socialism into more authoritarianism and repression that occurred under Lenin – and radically accelerated and deepened under Stalin – also need to be understood in context.
Again: Lenin and the Bolsheviks seized power amidst World War. The Entente responded to the loss of their former Russian ally by promoting destabilisation and supporting the White Armies. Desperation accelerated: became a matter of life and death – as heating materials, food supply and so on – were threatened in the context of civil war. And so Bolsheviks such as Trotsky were led to embrace war, militarisation of labour, political repression – to prevent the collapse of the communist government – and broader social and economic disaster. Everything became justifiable because it was done in the name of the (nominally) proletarian state. But that very state became more and more divorced from any real accountability to the Soviet People in practice. Again: Democratic and libertarian communists such as Luxemburg, Kautsky, Martov (who were also significantly different from one another in important respects) did see that justifying everything and anything for the sake of the ‘end cause’ was a dangerous path which could lead to the discrediting of socialism for generations.
But still: why is it that the Right can judge Marxism as a whole (and in an undifferentiated way) so harshly – but has so little so say about Western Intervention in the Civil War, and the World War that led to Russian social collapse, the deaths of tens of millions; the desperate struggles for survival under Lenin ; and ultimately that setting the preconditions for the degeneration under Stalin? Why is it there is so little historic memory of anti-Communist Cold War atrocities? (Chile, Guatemala, half a million murdered in Indonesia ; the social and psychological trauma of McCarthyist paranoia and repression) Why the double standards and selective historic memory? If you want some idea of what socialism and Marxism COULD have been – better to look to the examples of Red Vienna under the Austrian Social Democrats during the interwar period. Look to the mass movements in Austria which promoted working class cultural growth, democratic freedoms, and the provision of social goods and services – especially in Vienna itself. As well as effective conditions of ‘dual power’ with the maintenance of the republican ‘Schutzbund’ ; a working class militia with the aim of providing an ‘insurance policy’ for the preservation of Austrian democracy.
There was a ‘middle way’ between Marxism-Leninism, and the ultimate degeneration under Stalin that followed on the one hand – and ‘the social democratic Chauvinists’ on the Right who rationalised support for a World War (WWI) in which tens of millions were slaughtered, disfigured and traumatised. Let’s again restate how democracy was trailblazed in Revolutionary France – and the stated principles of the French Revolution inspire still. But also let’s remember they faced comparable dilemmas re: revolutionary Terror in the face of destabilisation, war and invasion, starvation and so on. And the Terror eventually devoured its own; and led to a kind of counter-revolution – much as in Russia. But we do not therefore abandon democracy on account of the fate of the French Revolution, do we? The French Revolution led to Bonapartism and Empire – But democrats never concluded that that was the only possibility arising from democratic and liberal revolution. Which is what Conservatives like Peterson effectively argue about socialism, and especially Marxism. Soviet and Eastern Bloc Socialism degenerated under very specific historic circumstances. But that was not the only socialism possible ; nor was it the only Marxism possible.
So a different kind of socialism and indeed a different kind of Marxism is possible.
Capitalism is not ‘essentially’ about freedom either – especially for the most exploited. And in reality wealth polarisation suppresses opportunity rather than promoting it ; and effectively narrows the cultural, social and economic support base upon which real power rests. The capitalist Ideology often bears little resemblance to the reality. Just like Stalinism bore little resemblance to the original communist ideology. But a ‘good and decent Marxism’ today will also engage with liberalism. Hence the pluralism of Agonists and post-Marxists like Chantal Mouffe on one hand ; or liberal social democrats like Habermas on the other. They are radically different from one another in many respects. One (Habermasian critical theory) believes that through Reason and the application of Enlightenment principles Modernity can resolve its shortcomings with the growth of rational consensus through dialogue. The other (Agonism) sees difference of values as perhaps perpetually inevitable ; but asks how this can be accommodated via a genuine and deep liberal pluralism. But both defer in a sense at least to liberalism.
As for the final word on ‘Communism’ ; most of us have forgotten what communism really meant. It did not originally equate with permanent Terror, Cult of Personality and so on – nor should it do so today. It’s not about an ‘essential human nature’ provided for under capitalism and suppressed under communism. The ‘fate of Communism’ revolved around ethically treacherous tactical and strategic decision-making amidst some of the worst possible historic circumstances ; which saw the Marxist (formerly Social Democratic) movements diverted in many instances for decades – into the historical dead end of Stalinism. But the (Marxist) Left Social Democrats stand out still by the examples they gave and stood for as well.
Stalinism emerges from the desperation and degeneration which occurs under conditions of permanent Terror – which in of themselves arose under extraordinary historic conditions of social and economic disintegration. It also arose in the context of war, civil war, foreign intervention, the threat of starvation – and the furious response of the Entente Powers who could not forgive Lenin for withdrawing from World War One. Without World War One – and without Western intervention – there may have been no Stalinism. Without those treacherous dilemmas and desperate historic circumstances – maybe there really could even have been a (relatively) ‘peaceful march forward for socialism and democracy’. But history rarely progresses just as we would like.
Of course the ‘Marxist Centrist’, Kautsky is not without fault either ; arguing for abstention on the issue of war credits in 1914 rather than outright opposition. But by 1915 most Marxist social democrats (including Kautksy) were agitating relentlessly for a separate peace. Lenin drew a certain prestige from never compromising or conceding in the face of a War which claimed tens of millions of lives. What he was not open or honest about was the fact he could not deliver the peace which working people wanted ; because under the specific circumstances Civil War was inevitable. Lenin wanted a world revolution which ended war, repression, exploitation and capitalism permanently. What we eventually got under Stalin was a regime whose cynicism and brutality discredited Marxism in the eyes of millions for generations. Martov and Kautsky clearly understood this.
And for working people the Horror of War is similar whether in the name of Imperial Russia or the (nominally) Proletarian State. (Trotsky argued the Proletarian State made all the difference ; But after decades through which workers suffered War, Forced Industrialisation, Labour militarisation and so on – the ‘end goals’ must have seemed like a mirage). In any case though, we should concede that Horrors and brutality have occurred under both capitalist and (nominally) communist regimes. It’s historic contingency more so than ‘human nature’ which saw the degeneration of those nominally communist regimes.
A different kind of revolutionary social democracy is possible – which draws what is best from the history of Marxism – and grapples to understand the worst of it ; that those outcomes can be avoided into the future. That also means grappling honestly with liberalism – both its insights and its limitations. Again: it involves taking the best from the Marxist traditions ; but being open to revision and innovation where necessary.
An ‘essential’ link with personal dictatorship?
As opposed to Peterson’s arguments: if you actually read Kautksy, Martov, Luxemburg – You will see that they are NOT arguing ‘things would have been different if THEY were the dictators’. If you look at Karl Kautsky for instance you will see that for him ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ was interpreted as the ‘dictatorship of a class’ as opposed to the dictatorship of an *individual*. And if you look further to Kautsky, Martov, Luxemburg (or Otto Bauer for instance if you look to the Austro-Marxists) – you will also see that for them this could be interpreted as a form of democratic majoritarianism. That is: the implementation of a democratic mandate provided by the working class democratic majority. But if you look to Kautsky also you will see things are more complex than this even as well. That is: the liberties of minorities are important ; and ideally that includes the liberties of your ideological rivals. Which is basically what Kautsky argued in response to Lenin. Though the worst circumstances inevitably complicate matters. (Best to avoid those circumstances in the first place if possible).
Marxism should have a future ; but it needs to ‘settle accounts with liberalism’. And it needs to eschew simplistic romanticism about revolution. Desperation leads to treacherous ethical dilemmas – and ultimately can lead to degeneration into regimes such as Stalinism. But let’s not be historically selective about our memories here ; let’s concede that atrocities occurred under both sides during the Cold War. Western intervention could even be accused as accelerating that degeneration by escalating the sheer desperation involved. The Ideology of the ‘victors’ is stronger of course ; and you’d expect that given the narrow economic base upon which much cultural power rests. But those who do not heed the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it. THAT can be applied to BOTH the Right and the Left.
Socialists like Eduard Bernstein never argued there would (or should) be ‘perfect and simple economic equality’. As far as they were concerned there should always be recognition that there should be differences to account for varieties in skill, effort and so on. Even under socialism. But the reality under capitalism today is radical and accelerating economic polarisation. We’re not talking about ‘functional inequality’ ; we’re talking about a narrowing economic and hence cultural basis for power. Which has a corrosive effect on democracy. We’re talking about (in the US) an outrageous gap between the destitute and the working poor on one hand ; and the wealthy on the other. Indeed there is a yawning gap between the capitalist class and the middle income layers of the working class as well. Meanwhile efforts are made to construct certain (largely, objectively working class people) as ‘the middle class’ – and undermine solidarity between these and the working poor and destitute.
So no – there should not be perfect and absolute economic equality. But nor should there be accelerating polarisation and exploitation. And nor should the working class be ‘disciplined’ by the threat of destitution. There should be equality in educational opportunity ; and there is a moral imperative for equality in health care ; and provision of basics like housing as ‘non negotiable needs’ for everybody. Cultural opportunity should also arguably be extended to society in general. Enterprise and initiative can (and should) exist ; but how much better to have enterprise and initiative exercised with the involvement of co-operatives of working people than to have the economy – and hence culture and politics – dominated by a narrowing stratum of ultra-rich? How much better can goods and services become when working people have a clear and genuine stake in their production and provision?
Competition can be much of a motivation – but also in certain contexts a drag – on the broader economy. Competition can mean economic responsiveness. It can also mean enormous waste. The answer is a genuinely mixed economy ; preferably a *democratic* mixed economy. With natural public monopolies and collective consumption via tax. But also where effective the competition that fires market responsiveness: which can even exist in an economy marked by a strong co-operative movement. Getting rid of economic waste (eg: the inefficient cost structures that have been involved in privatisation) can also be the basis of providing for base economic needs more efficiently ; and from that is the possibility of going beyond the vicious circle of consumerism. That is: there is the economic basis to provide cultural opportunity for everybody. And broader cultural opportunity is more important that the dynamic of ‘more, ever more’ under capitalism ; where the sheer scale of economic consumerism lends stability to a system which needs perpetual growth and control of ‘external’ markets in order to offset its enormous waste. In the end that is both socially and environmentally unsustainable. Hence the need for a ‘democratic mixed economy’ providing a better mix of natural public monopoly, collective consumption and democratic markets.
Jordan Peterson is developing something of a reputation as an anti-Communist public intellectual. But many of his arguments involve simplifications and distortions. Peterson has every right to denounce historical Stalinism. Indeed he has the right (under free speech) to put his broader arguments on socialism forward as well ; even where these are so terribly misconceived. But it is for socialists to meet Peterson and others like him on ‘the democratic battle-field of ideas’. We cannot let Peterson and others like him ‘utterly write socialism off’ based on selective examples, distortions and simplifications. The truth of Marxism is that it is a highly plural tradition. Much of which has been firmly grounded in the principles of liberty and democracy. ‘Another Socialism’ is possible. And there are clear historical examples which illustrate this. This is what we need to argue in response to Jordan Peterson.
This article was originally published on ALP Socialist Left Forum.
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