I’ve just been looking at an interview by clinical psychologist and University of Toronto Professor Jordan Peterson dealing with postmodernism and the triumph of Marxism in Canada. In view of Peterson’s brave struggle against Political Correctness at the U of T (which my late wife attended in more tolerant times) I was ready to treat his venture into my own field (European intellectual history) with a certain indulgence, until I encountered this opinion:
Communism was not popularized in the West under the direct banner of communism. Instead, it came largely under the banner of postmodernism, and aimed to transform the values and beliefs of our societies through its Marxist idea that knowledge and truth are social constructs.
Why should we think that Communism did not enter North America under its own banner? The CPUSA had 100,000 members by the end of World War II and loads of fellow-travelers who had profound influence on American culture and education. Furthermore, for many decades Canada was home to a thriving Communist Party under the leadership of Tim Buck, whose son attended Yale with me. Marxists I’ve known or read do not believe that “knowledge and truth are social constructs.” The theory they propound is that belief systems belong to the superstructure of a society. What really determines a society’s direction is who controls productive forces; and this control brings political, economic, and, at least derivatively, cultural power.
More importantly, I’m underwhelmed by the assertions that postmodernism, which Peterson tells us entered Canada sometime in the 1970s, has transformed Canadians into Marxists. I shall readily concede that some self-described French postmodernists, like Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, and Jacques Derrida, voted for the French Communist or Socialist Party and expressed personal dislike for bourgeois society. What is more problematic, however, is that someone who reads postmodernist texts will be transformed into a Politically Correct leftist.
Although I’ve read such texts extensively, I’ve never felt the slightest urge to march in a Black Lives Matter demonstration. Nor can I locate anything in Derrida, Roland Barthes, or any other French postmodernist that would make me inclined to speak at a Women’s March. I’m certainly not a fan of these authors who try to deconstruct and decontextualize established meanings. They also inconsistently expect to be taken seriously as semanticists while reducing those shared understandings that create and sustain community to subjective interests. I’m also aware that Lacan, Giles Deleuze, and other postmodernists identified mental disorders with a capitalist economy. Less evident is that these attacks fueled contemporary political radicalism, which Peterson sees as penetrating Canada through postmodernist deconstructionism. The ascription of psychological disorder to capitalism was a favorite theme of the Frankfurt School, which belabored it for thirty years before Deleuze took it over in the 1960s. (Deleuze expressed a debt of gratitude to Herbert Marcuse for his fusion of erotic gratification with revolutionary politics.) Since the war against social normalcy pioneered by the Frankfurt School is flourishing in most Western countries today, why should I go to French deconstructionists in order to look for its source?
The suppression of free speech by the Canadian government and Canadian universities, a situation that Peterson has doggedly resisted, has nothing to do with Marxist beliefs. Peterson’s observation on this matter does not demonstrate such a connection:
The postmodernists built on the Marxist ideology. They started to play a sleight of hand, and instead of pitting the proletariat, the working class, against the bourgeois, they started to pit the oppressed against the oppressor. That opened up the avenue to identifying any number of groups as oppressed and oppressor and to continue the same narrative under a different name.
Postmodernists may or may not have “built on Marxist ideology” but the “sleight of hand” they carried out in order to create their own version of “the oppressed against the oppressor” generated ideas that are not Marxist in origin. No Marxist government I’m aware of has prohibited gender-specific language or criminalized negative references to gays and the transgendered. I couldn’t imagine any self-respecting Communist leader mandating transgendered toilets in public restrooms. Where exactly would I find such an idea in Das Kapital or in Stalin’s Foundations of Leninism? Communist states, moreover, have usually persecuted gays, and dealt quite harshly with drug-users and others they perceived as social deviants.
What we call “Political Correctness” is not a Marxist creation, as I argue strenuously in The Strange Death of Marxism. Rather, we are looking at a post-Marxist leftist ideology stressing universalism, equality, and the social guilt of white Christians, and more particularly heterosexual, male white Christians. Those who are labeled victimizers (and often accept this label for themselves) are charged with oppressing a steadily expanding range of designated victims, and they are expected to expiate their guilt by showing said victims special verbal and behavioral consideration. Conditioning factors that may help us understand what’s going on are the cultural Marxist-inspired war against “prejudice” and the social engineering imperative of the modern administrative state. Only by considering such variables can we explain the forces that have invaded Peterson’s country and threatened his job.
I’d caution against taking too seriously what Communist Parties out of power in Western countries say and do to attract support. The shrinking CPUSA in present-day America presents women’s issues and racial discrimination as key issues in its advertising for members. A bizarre entry for the CPUSA on Wikipedia would make it appear that American Communists spent most of the last century fighting for black civil rights while being viciously tormented by anti-Communist bigots. This, of course, is PR gibberish. The party leadership was almost always unswervingly Stalinist, as long as that Soviet mass murderer was in power; and it collapsed into total irrelevance after opposing Mikhail Gorbachev’s efforts to liberalize the Soviet regime. If the Communists came to power, judging by their behavior elsewhere, their present showcase “victims” would probably disappear into a re-education camp.