39) Jordan Peterson: Part 1, Subsection 2: Philosophical Foolishness

Jordan positions many of his key opinions as being True, his extensive knowledge gathered from modern scientific ‘facts’ and the symbology of archetypes and myths.  In much of his work, the way he presents his knowledge comes across more or less the same as any other passionate scientist, and I can accept a lot of hyperbole and not-perfectly-grounded-claims as rhetorical flourish.  Whatevs dude, no problem.

But in the extremely important and central-to-his-work case of being against NeoMarxism and arguing that socialism is a bloody murderous ideology, etc., Jordan’s claim to truth is disastrously philosophically problematic.

For example, watch the first couple minutes of this — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mzXXjiwlxmU

Jordan doesn’t pull any punches.  This is a War of ideas.  Postmodern NeoMarxists are intellectually, ethically, and emotionally bankrupt.  The intellectuals who put forth Marxist ideas are a pack of liars and deceivers with malevolent intentions.  You should go after these charlatans and pseudo-intellectuals “as hard as possible” from an informed intellectual perspective.  And “there is absolutely no excuse whatsoever in the 21st century to put forth Marxist doctrines as if they’re the balm that’s administered by the compassionate to the downtrodden…”  After all, 100 million corpses should be more than enough evidence for anyone, unless they are ignorant or evil.

His claim to being right is based on a few key tenets:

1) he has studied hard, read lots, and thought about stuff intensely and for a long time;

2) history gives us INCONTROVERTIBLE examples that confirm his claims.  (Note:  Arguing that an example, such as “the Gulag Archipelago and Russia’s experiment with socialism” is incontrovertible in the first place is just another layer of “my opinion is the Truth”);

3) the consequences of being wrong are so horrendous (100 million corpses!) that we simply cannot be willing to even entertain different opinions, particularly about something as murderous, and intellectually naive, as Socialism/Marxism.  .

If you examine this rhetoric and restate it in the simplest terms, it would be something like, “If you disagree with me (about this), you are Ignorant, Evil, or both.”

I should not need to point out how incredibly dangerous an ideology this is.  In fact, in the Great Pissing Contest of Most Murderous Ideologies of All Time, I nominate as my champion, this specific belief system:  “I and mine are right and good; you and yours are ignorant and evil.”

But hold on there, Leftie snowflake, Jordan is right about Russia and Stalin and the Gulag, isn’t he?  I mean, 100 million corpses IS hard to ignore….

Well, IS Jordan’s interpretation of history accurate?  Are his conclusions legit?  Were Russia and Stalin and the Gulag resounding testaments to the failures of socialist and Marxist ideologies?  It sure seems that way, doesn’t it? I mean, they were the Commies, after all….

I ask you to consider for a moment, Noam Chomsky, on the same video “Dr. Gavagai” so conveniently pieced together for us on YouTube.  Keep in mind, Noam has a bit more to say about this topic in the god-knows-how-many books and articles he’s written and speeches he’s given over more decades than Jordan has yet been alive for.  You know, the man does have a few pieces of interesting knowledge he’s picked up over the years….

From even this short clip, it is clear that Noam disagrees radically with Jordan’s interpretation of the history of Russia and the apparently ‘communist’ experiment that is the linchpin of so much of Jordan’s political reasoning and anti-PMNM campaigning.  Chomsky argues, in short, that Russia was NOT AT ALL an experiment in “socialism” or “communism”, in practice or ideology, and was in no conceivable way an implementation of Marxist ideas (with one small, but exceptionally important way in which you could argue that it’s still about socialism failing, if “socialism” weakens society so that authoritarians inevitably take over — see Part 8:  Postmodernism, where we discuss and refute this).

According to Chomsky’s analysis, “socialism” in Russia certainly existed as an intellectual and political movement, dramatically rising to power at the waning of WWI.  But right from the very, very beginning, in its first weeks of life, it ceased being an experiment in socialism/communism, and was twisted into a highly hierarchical, authoritarian leadership structure, whose first moves, immediately upon taking power, were to dismantle the social-communal infrastructures that actually were the umbilical cord and developing fetus of the socialist society that was just beginning to emerge.

In short, socialism was murdered in its infancy, crushed under the boots of authoritarianism and tyranny as soon as it came out of the cultural birth canal.  What resulted was totalitarianism of the worst kind, culminating in Stalin, and resulting in the hemorrhaging of the Russian people for decades, the immense centralization and escalation of military power, an autocratic, rigid political structure, a massive network of spies and police, state control of the media, and other regressive laws disallowing self-organization at the communal level — all precisely the opposite of any form of socialism or communism inspired by Marx.

However, seeing the horrors of Stalin and the Gulag gave the perfect “proof” to the Red-fearing Western governments, media and population, so that the interpretation that “communism-socialism failed” became the dominant narrative.  Ironically, IT became “the party line” for those of us in the West in particular.  And as they say, the rest is history…

But if Chomsky is right, then much of Jordan’s entire set of arguments about the apparently incontrovertible, indisputable failures of Marxism, crumbles, like a tower whose supports have just been knocked out.

If Chomsky is right, then Socialism was never on trial and Russian Communism wasn’t Communism at all, but a perverted Orwellian doublespeak power structure, defining itself as its opposite in order to brilliantly disempower and invalidate (and exterminate) all those who would stand against the Party.  Once the actual flesh and blood ‘infrastructure’ of Socialism was destroyed, and communities and families were sufficiently torn apart by fear and distrust and general suffering, there was nobody left to challenge the centralization of power in the State.  But this isn’t about Socialism at all.  It’s about hierarchical Tyranny.

If Chomsky is right, then Jordan seems to commit a kind of bait-and-switch tactic, unwittingly, on himself.  Kind of like in science when you commit a ‘third variable error’ or you miss the confound in an experiment’s design; you end up drawing conclusions about the wrong thing, and mistaking something for what can even be its opposite.  Interestingly, Freud talked about the same sort of thing with regards to projection, and Jung pretty much agreed with him — we don’t see our shadow so well in ourselves, but man, can it ever darken the way we see ‘the other’ and read malevolence into others who are “not like us”.   

In this case, consider the possibility that what actually, in factual terms, led to Stalin and the Gulag and the “100 million corpses” Jordan describes, was this:  at a particularly vulnerable moment in history, the moment when a decentralization-of-power experiment was just being birthed into the world in Russia, a small but influential and politically savvy group of Dominance-seeking people wrested control of the political power structure and perverted it into their own ideologically-driven crusade for power. 

In times of massive change and upheaval, there is lots of confusion, lots of uncertainty, lots of different opinions flying around, lots of chaos.  Times of change can be highly stressful for many people, as Jordan talks about extensively in Maps of Meaning.  This strongly motivates people to yearn for and emphasize law and order, tradition and security, and to discourage and disapprove of dissent and protest, disobedience and questioning.

In times of change, people are very vulnerable to strong-man types of messages and people.  The vulnerable are suckers for the strong, because at our base, we yearn for security, and if we don’t have enough of it and can’t find it in healthy ways, we cling to the confidence and strength and simplicity and identity provided by The Great Leader.

So in this critical moment of Russia’s historical vulnerability at the waning of WWI and destabilization of traditional power structures, “Bad Guys” took power and used the disarray of society as an opportunity to completely eliminate all those who would stand against them (which in this case, was the actual Socialists/Communists who were trying to set up collective self-governance systems).  Once they had done so, and Power was centralized, they could win over, or at least subjugate, the public-at-large through propaganda, punishment, confusion and division.

If Chomsky is right, then the Gulag Archipelago does not exist as a critique of Socialism.  It exists as a critique of exactly the opposite of Socialism — the concentration of power in the hands of the few, and especially, the adherence to ideology that drives and empowers the ambitions of the most power-hungry among us!  Solzhenitsyn wasn’t warning us about socialism itself, but about the centralization of power and the inevitable corruption of hegemonic ideologies.  Granted, some degree of centralization of power is inevitable, even desirable for pragmatic reasons (i.e., dominance hierarchy logic).  But, unless this power is constrained and guided wisely by “the people” (see Part 8:  Postmodernism), it will become more like a cancer than like a functioning organ it should be.

If Chomsky is right, then Jordan’s words get turned on Jordan himself; should we consider it legitimate to call him historically naive, or accuse him of subscribing to a murderous ideology, or perhaps being malevolently intentioned?  Intellectually deceptive?    

This is where I would expect a pro-Peterson supporter to point out that it’s not JUST the Gulag that he talks about; it’s also Maoist China, and Nazi Germany, Italy under Mussolini, etc.  There are apparently endless examples of the Epic Fails of Socialism on YouTube.

But this is also not true, necessarily. Many if not all of the big examples of the “failure of socialism” are misattributed, in a similar way to Chomsky’s views on Russia.  But I am not a historian and sure as hell don’t want to spend weeks or months or years unpacking the historical particularities of example after example.  And in any case, that’s not my point.

My point is, while Jordan can go ahead and argue that the Gulag is a death-sentence for socialism, another real smart and book learnin’ person, like Chomsky, can also legitimately argue, with lots of facts and theoretical subtlety and vast knowledge of history, that Jordan is wrong.

You can take it even further than that, and argue quite legitimately that Socialism actually works, in the vast majority of circumstances across history, and at most levels of scale, to the degree that it has ever been able to gain a foothold outside of the crushing grip of authoritarian governments, religious institutions, and other strict socio-political power hierarchies.  For every apparent failure of “socialism”, I would argue there are many more examples of successful implementation.  The main issue we haven’t figured out is scale (see Part 2, B:  where we discuss “issues of scale”).

This isn’t to say that Communal/Socialist systems always work, even at the small scale.  That would be absurd.  There’s an extensive anthropological literature of the failures of communal societies and “intentional communities” such as  a number of well-intended utopian experiments, from the small scale of backwoods cults to the large scale national experiments that ended, as Jordan points out, so disastrously.  But if Socialism USUALLY works (rather than “practically always fails disastrously”), then the conclusions are not to abandon “socialist” ideals, but instead to learn from the past mistakes that were clearly made, and fix them.

Again, I have to set this aside, and refer you to Part 8: Postmodernism; but if you’re interested in where I’m headed and want to think ahead, so to speak, some good clues I’d suggest are

– Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States;

– Jared Diamond,  Guns, Germs and Steel;

– Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan;

– Robert Putnam, Making Democracy Work;

– pretty much everything by Thomas Homer-Dixon.


But let’s make the point very clear here, because this is not about Socialism or Marxism or whether Jordan or Noam is right about Russia — this is about the fact that you cannot, with 100% certainty, ally yourself with either Jordan or Noam.  You just can’t, unless you know a hell of a lot more than I do, and clearly, than either of them does.  If you can resolve their deep disagreement because you have even greater knowledge than, say, Noam Chomsky on Russian history and the socio-politics of the 20th century, then by all means, preach brother!  But otherwise, no, you can’t KNOW with 100% certainty, or realistically, anything that is even close to it, which of them is right.  (Although I do know where I’d place my bets in this case…)

“The Truth” is clearly NOT incontrovertible or self-evident here.  You have two people, who have spent far more time than most, learning about the history of socialism, communism, etc., and working on their ideas about this.  Both of them seem to “know what they’re talking about” to the person who dips his toe into the debate to find out “the truth,” and they probably know it well enough that if YOU were to challenge them, go toe-to-toe in a debate, would you be confident that you could win?

For example, if you disagree with Chomsky here, how deeply informed is that disagreement?  Do you have a sense of how extensive and specific his knowledge of Russian history is?  Have you taken a look at the vast number of original documents that he pulls his information from, the books and articles he has read and many talks he has given, and the careful historical analyses that he has done over this lifetime of work?  Heck, there’s no way I’d win a debate on Russia with Chomsky.  He’d eat me alive.  As much as I’m “pretty sure” about my conclusions, I can’t claim 100% certainty.  And I don’t think Jordan can either with any intellectual integrity.   

Something I am pretty darn close to being 100% certain of though, is that anybody who does claim 100% certainty on issues as complex as political history and the precise causes of massive forces of societal change, is either an incredible super-genius that towers over and throws shade on the entire planet’s worth of geniuses who haven’t been able to figure all these things out with utmost certainty, or is deeply mistaken, even deluded.  In any case, this behaviour certainly meets my criteria for being philosophically Foolish.


In closing this section, I want to emphasize just how important it IS to determine whether Jordan or Noam’s take on history is the correct one (if either is).  Because what IF socialism is to blame for hundreds of millions of deaths?  We want to get rid of that poison, that cancer, for sure!  But, on the other hand, what IF toxic, socially disconnected individualism is actually the cause of these hundreds of millions of deaths, and Socialism is the cure?  Yikes!  We better find out!

If Chomsky is right though, Jordan’s passionate rhetoric about the Gulag, used to justify his rejection of socialism/Marxism, is just wrong.  Not only does Jordan’s use of facts become invalid for supporting his conclusions, the same facts actually support the opposite conclusions even better!  The Gulag and the 100 million corpses become a chilling warning against the excessive centralization of power into dominance hierarchies, particularly at the socio-political level; it becomes practically a moral imperative (in the Kantian sense) for all of us to resist, with all our collective might, the rising of ‘the elite’ into positions of excessive power. 

If Chomsky is right, then Jordan’s own reasoning becomes a clarion call for socialist revolution!  (We will revisit this in Part 7: Psychology at the ending of the world: “truth” and collective action).

This probably sounds scary, extreme.  Maybe borderline bat-shit crazy.  But that’s the problem with propaganda that is sufficiently successful; it practically defines those who would challenge and dismantle it as “crazy and evil”.  We have all been so deeply steeped in the (poorly informed) narrative that fits with our faith in the superiority of Western democracies over our enemies (the Commies), that it’s difficult to step outside of it and think, wait a minute, maybe WE have been lied to and it’s us who drank the Kool-Aid?

Propaganda by government is like gas-lighting in an intimate relationship; after enough time and consistent messages, enough doubt about your own perceptions and insistence on the Official Story, you start to lose faith in yourself, and become dependent on the power structure, or “dominance hierarchy”.  You believe them, think like them, internalize their values.  The box becomes you, and you see the box as a good thing, or even forget you’re in one most of the time.  But sometimes, the Emperor really does have no clothes, and needs to be brought into the spotlight….. and it’s okay to mix a ton of metaphors together to make a point.  🙂


— but…waaaait a minute, what does this have to do with Dominance & Compassion?  — that’s the next part, honest — Subsection 3:  Theoretical Foolishness.

  3 comments for “39) Jordan Peterson: Part 1, Subsection 2: Philosophical Foolishness

  1. September 27, 2018 at 9:39 pm

    Dr. Dolderman,
    You raise some excellent points (as does Dr. Chomsky) and contrast the two opposing views very well. I am personally not familiar with Dr. Chomsky’s views and commentary on political ideologies and history, and I have probably not even been alive for as many years that either Dr. Peterson or Dr. Chomsky have even spent studying these ideas and so I am well aware that my opinion may not have much merit and may very well be wrong. Nevertheless, given the power the internet has granted us in this day and age and since I came across your posts today and really liked them, I figured why not throw in my 2 cents as well (haha)?
    This is in regard to the question of who’s interpretation of political history is more correct. As somebody who lived in Iran, where the political revolution that happened in the 80’s was (one could argue) motivated by Marxist ideals and then later resulted in a dictatorship, I would have to side more with Jordan when it comes to this particular issue. Ignoring Iran, the argument that Russia was not at all an experiment in communism or an implementation of Marxist ideas makes sense. But maybe that’s also the problem; such a political and economic system was never able to progress past a certain point, which I would argue was not something that continued to happen repetitively throughout history merely by chance. Like you mention, it’s less likely that socialism/communism is 100% evil and more likely that it’s a scaling issue, kind of like figuring out the right dose for a strong medication. It would be (in your words) Foolishness to ignore the positive contributions of Das Kapital to many modern societies; certainly, countries with mixed socialist-capitalist economies like Denmark seem to be doing quite well.
    However, one of Peterson’s biggest arguments has been , at least in terms of communism, that proponents of communist-like politics are more motivated by resentment toward the people “at the top” (or the bourgeoisie) even though they claim to be motivated by compassion or improving the conditions for those “at the bottom” (or the proletariat”). And maybe that’s why such ideologies have never gotten past a certain point when they were being (supposedly) implemented full-scale. Like you mentioned in previous posts, POWER is an important thing. If you look at communism as a gnostic mass movement, in that sense the ideology is centered around holding a particular group (e.g., the bourgeoisie, capitalists, white men…) responsible for all of the misfortunes of the masses. And even though Marxist ideas aim at empowerment and solidarity-building, they do so as a function of resentment towards one omnipotent source of evil. Maybe anybody/any group of people would become tyrannical if they had that much power and control in a society.
    In addition, in terms of an economic system, perhaps the reason that capitalism has triumphed more than communism and has not been overturned into a dictatorship so many times like communism has is because of what capitalism brings to the table, its special niche: a free market. Much of my free time is spent thinking about these ideas, and in one of my most recent day dreams I thought perhaps maybe one advantage a free market has over a controlled one, at a deeper level, is that it allows for a free and unrestrained war of ideas. The same way that the right to free speech is required for discussion, understanding, and further advancing of ideas and issues, a system that allows for free competition of ideas, whereby the winning ideas are determined by market supply and demand (and thus profit), enables progress and innovation. The need for power is imbedded within us, and we are always trying to obtain more (i.e.,
    climb up the social dominance hierarchy). That much is almost always inevitable. But how should it be determined who should have more power? In a free market society, those who put forth the best ideas and display the most competence and do the best in making ideas become profitable. In this sense, dominance is ultimately determined by wealth (for the most part, you can argue). In other systems like communism, I think the goal is to really minimize one group/person’s dominance over another’s (because then individuals end up having enough power single-handedly to take advantage of less powerful people)? Maybe the problem in this system is that this creates a bigger power-gap between the masses and the government, and again, maybe the government ends up having enough control to be able to exercise it and become tyrannical, which possibly might ALWAYS happen in these situations since people will always want more power. Maybe this is why Solzhenitsyn said, “if men are free, they are not equal; and if men are equal, they are not free”. In terms of full-scale capitalism, I think what a lot of people grapple with, and have trouble accepting, is that while in theory the idea is that the harder you work, the better the outcome and “you get what you give”, it is the reality that some people are going to have to work much harder for the same or lesser outcome while some others may have it the other way around. Be it because of deeply embedded colonial relations, unequal power dynamics between genders, or what have you, this has been and continues to be the unfortunate and dominating reality of our world in this day and age. Without a doubt, this is not 100% fair, and it’s even more unfair that someone having to work harder for the same outcome might just be because they’re a POC and disadvantaged by racism. But the differences that separate people and disadvantage one over another span far beyond just race and gender (i.e., differences in IQ, attractiveness, personality, etc.) and differences in dominance will exist no matter what a society/government does; intersectionalities can continue on forever. Thus, arguably, you had might as well let there be free competition of these individual differences and “may the best man win” and not have the government intervene on it and control it so much (the psychological implications of this radical individualism and greed and obsession with financial success is a separate but important issue, but for now I am just referring to capitalism as a system).

    • October 9, 2018 at 8:13 pm

      Hi aiidaab! Thank you for these wonderfully articulated thoughts. In particular, two stood out for me. One was to think very carefully about exactly what was “on trial” in the communist/socialist experiments of Russia, China, etc. Jordan argues it was socialism; I would argue that it’s not, that socialism as a form of social organization can be extremely effective and sustainable, but that it is vulnerable to being taken over by those hungry for power. Thus, what ends up resulting in disaster is not because of socialism per se, but because we have not historically understood how to shift on a large-scale towards socialism without going through a phase of destabilization that creates a power vacuum. But if this is true, then it’s important to reframe the discussion from whether “socialism” works or not, to how to appropriately protect society during the vulnerable stage of transformation from one system into another. This is a serious challenge, but I think it’s one that we not only CAN overcome, but have to, because the old ways of structuring society along hierarchical lines with deep divisions between “us” and “them”, just isn’t going to cut it for the globalized problems coming down the pipe. We’ll talk about this more in Part 7: Psychology at the Ending of the World, and then explore solutions in Part 8: Postmodernism.

      The second part of your comments that really stood out for me was the acknowledgement that this framing is too simplistic. It’s not “capitalism vs. socialism” or some such simplistic dichotomy as that. As you noted, there are more complex ways of blending these approaches together in figuring out how to govern/regulate a society. I know of some really exciting work being done in economics, for example, to square traditional economic models with the reality of a global commons, emerging ‘sharing economies’, coming resource scarcities, and interconnected security concerns between virtually all nation-states at this point. In the near future as we tackle things like climate change in earnest, these conversations will become far more mainstream, and good solutions will need “the will of the people” behind them in order for governments to make visionary changes to the status quo….

      So, if you have any thoughts or resources that would be informative for people wanting to learn about how society might be restructured and economics might be re-jigged in order to find more effective solutions to global governance problems, then please share! That would be amazing! 🙂

      • October 9, 2018 at 10:13 pm

        Thank you for the reply! And if I find some relevant material, I will for sure share it.

        But I was thinking, with regard to how society may be restructure and economics may be rejigged, I will take a (somewhat) controversial stance and say that I think for something like that to really happen, it’s people that need to change before any changes can be made to the system. In other words, while the structure of a system can surely account for a certain percentage of what contributes to the whole problem, I think it’s the people of a nation and human nature as a whole that determine the outcome. While the interaction between systemic outcome and human behaviour is obviously intermingled, I think that SERIOUS solidarity and common understanding and goals are needed amongst the people of a society for a system like socialism (let’s say) to happen successfully. And to establish that unity between people is an unbelievable challenge because people possess the capacity to be greedy and selfish. But hey, I’m hopeful! I’m personally not TOO familiar with the behavioural economic word done on the subject but I’m happy to look into it. But I’m personally more in favour of a more capitalist system (whether it’s blended with something else or not) because I think, at least in today’s world, economic power of a country yields advantages and I think it’s pretty shitty that the United States is the only country in that powerful of a position as to be able to make decisions for everywhere else in the world, because quite frankly that place is a circus.

        PS. Although I have just begun my blog, I write/plan on writing relevant material. I would be honoured if you checked out my blog and leave some feedback!

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