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Jordan Peterson's Anti-Leftism Pulls Him Towards Fascism
Hating the left takes you bad places.
Image: Gage Skidmore, CC
In the United States, opposition to fascism and communism are often seen as compatible, even as necessarily complementary. Sensible centrists should hate the extreme right and the extreme left equally, we are told, since both lead to the dystopia of Big Brother and 1984.
Railing against communism and the excesses of the left is a protection against fascism, in theory. Some on the right even argue that fascism was really a leftist movement, or that leftists are the real fascists. The truth, though, is that rabid anti-communism and red-baiting can lead people who allegedly oppose fascism into a fever swamp of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and alt-right hate. To understand how this can happen, you have only to look at the career of Jordan Peterson.
Peterson is a Canadian psychology professor turned hugely successful pop philosopher and self-help author. His book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos has become a blockbuster bestseller, and Peterson has been profiled extensively in major outlets, including The New Yorker.
Like many self-help authors, Peterson preaches the gospel of individualism—though he's much more explicitly political about that gospel than some of his peers in the genre. For Peterson, embracing individual achievement and popularity goes hand in hand with rejecting totalitarianism on both the left and right.
The introduction to 12 Rules for Life, by psychoanalyst and popular author Norman Doidge, talks at length about Peterson's hatred of regimes that repress personal liberty. "I had never before met a person, born Christian and of my generation, who was so utterly tormented by what happened to the Jews in Europe," Doidge writes. He adds that Peterson's home is decorated with a "huge collection of original socialist-realist paintings of Lenin and the early communists commissioned by the USSR." Peterson, we learn, collected this art to remind himself of the atrocities of the Soviet Union, in which "a hundred million people were murdered in the name of utopia."
Doidge rather nervously acknowledges that Peterson's Leninist wall-paper aesthetic is a bit creepy. And indeed, despite Doidge's and Peterson's best efforts, the obsessive anti-communism sits uncomfortably with Peterson's supposed anti-fascism. The main opposition to Adolf Hitler's rise, after all, came, not from high-minded conservatives like Peterson, but from German socialist and communist worker's parties. And Hitler secured support domestically and internationally in part by promising to crush that leftist opposition.
Anti-leftism has continued to be a central part of far-right and fascist ideology, often mixed, inevitably, with antisemitism. A prime example is the right-wing rhetoric around "cultural Marxism"—a conspiracy theory that Peterson has helped bring into the mainstream.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the right-wing theory of cultural Marxism holds that the Jewish, Marxist philosophers of the 1930s Frankfurt School hatched a conspiracy to corrupt American values by promoting sexual liberation and anti-racism. Far-right ideologues like William Lind and Holocaust-denier Kevin MacDonald argue that cultural Marxism is at the root of political correctness. Efforts by academics to advance equal rights for gay people or Black people or women are seen as part of an insidious Jewish plot to undermine white solidarity and culture.
Peterson has tweaked this argument a bit. In his lectures, he mostly traces cultural rot to postmodernists like Derrida (whose work Peterson comically garbles) rather than to the Frankfurt School. In Peterson's book, though, he does explicitly link postmodernism to the Frankfurt school, and in other venues he regularly uses and approves the term "cultural Marxism." One of his videos is titled "Postmodernism and Cultural Marxism." On Facebook, he shared a Daily Caller article titled "Cultural Marxism Is Destroying America" that begins, with outright racism, "Yet again an American city is being torn apart by black rioters." The article goes on to blame racial tension in the U.S. on ... you guessed it: the Frankfurt School.
Peterson isn't an ideological antisemite; there's every reason to believe that when he re-broadcasts fascist propaganda, he doesn't even hear the dog-whistles he's emitting. Still, when you share the Daily Caller, those dog whistles are there—and they make Peterson's own conspiratorial and foam-flecked rhetoric even more disturbing. "The Ontario Institute for the Studies of Education?" he says in his cultural Marxism video, "that bloody thing is a fifth column! The people who are producing the educators who emerge from that institute, they should be put on trial for treason!" He goes on to claim that these educators are targeting kindergartners to infuse them with "these radical post-modern Marxist ideologies." There's a grand conspiracy to indoctrinate good, righteous Canadians in their cribs. Those Marxists are sneaky—and when you're channeling fascist propaganda about sneaky Marxists, you are also targeting antisemitism, even when, as with Peterson, that isn't what you intend to be doing.
Because Peterson says he hates Nazis, some of his proponents argue that he's an antidote to the alt-right. Angela Nagle, for example, writing in The Atlantic, muses that Peterson, "who has decried political correctness but claims to be as suspicious of the radical right as he is of the radical left, suggests one alternative path" for disaffected young proto-Nazis.
But how does Peterson suggest an alternate path to fascism when his philosophy is suffused with barely hidden fascist talking points and conspiracy theories? If Peterson is really "suspicious of the radical right," why does he swallow whole their red-meat rhetoric and then regurgitate it for his followers? And, moreover, why is a supposed anti-totalitarian literally calling for educators who disagree with him to be subject to McCarthyite purges and tried for treason?
The answer in each case is the same. Peterson's rabid anti-leftism makes him an easy mark for fascist propaganda. Right-wing antisemites in Hitler's day spun elaborate conspiracy theories linking Jews and leftists, and supposedly centrist politicians who hated and feared Communism believed them. Today, right-wing antisemites spin elaborate conspiracy theories linking Jews and leftists, and Peterson, gazing at the Soviet-era art on his walls, believes them. If Yair Netanyahu can be dragged into antisemitism via anti-leftism, there's no reason to expect Jordan Peterson to resist.
Of course, it is possible to criticize the left without falling into fascism. Joseph Stalin was a murderous monster; Communist regimes have done horrible things that led to the deaths of millions of people. But the left in the U.S. and Canada is not promoting armed revolution or mass murder. In his cultural Marxism video, Peterson argues that, whether you're talking about Leninist insurrection or folks criticizing sexism or racism in cultural products, "the end result is much the same." That's dangerous nonsense, which can easily be used to justify any extreme of violence. If your gender studies professor is the equivalent of Lenin ... well, we'd better destroy her, right?
Jews, like all people, have a wide variety of political beliefs. The idea that there is some sort of essential underlying connection between Jewish people and Marxism is a Nazi fantasy. That fantasy has power though. People who put Leninist posters on their walls to remind themselves to hate communists all day, every day, are leaving a door open to other kinds of hate too. Peterson does not want to be a member of the alt-right. But he shares their hatred of the left, and, as a result, he makes their arguments for them.
This originally ran at the much lamented Pacific Standard in 2018.
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