Jordan Peterson delves into the reasons why Marxist ideology fails both in theory and in practice. For those like me who prefer to read a text, I have made a transcript of Peterson’s talk, with some light editing to transpose a verbal presentation into a written one. My bolds are added. H/T Chiefio.
Jordan Peterson’s critique of the Communist Manifesto
Since we are talking about Marxism, I tried to reread the Communist Manifesto. The first time I read it I was 18 years old, more than 40 years ago. When you read something, you you don’t just follow the words and follow the meaning, but you take apart the sentences. And you ask yourself:
At this level of phrase and at the level of sentence and at the level of paragraph, is this true?
Are there counter arguments that can be put forward that are credible?
Is this solid thinking?
And I have to tell you, and I’m not trying to be flippant here, that I have rarely read a tract that made as many errors per sentence, conceptual errors per sentence as the communist manifesto.
It was quite miraculous to re-read it and it was interesting to think about it psychologically as well.
Because I’ve read student papers that were of the same ilk in some sense. Although I’m not suggesting that they were of the same level of glittering literary brilliance and polemic quality. And I also understand that the communist manifesto was a call for revolution and not a standard logical argument.
But that notwithstanding, I have some things to say about the authors psychologically. The first thing is that it doesn’t seem to me that either Marx or Engels grappled with this particular fundamental truth: which is that almost all ideas are wrong. And it doesn’t matter if they’re your ideas or someone else’s ideas, they’re probably wrong. And even if they strike you with the force of brilliance, your job is to assume first of all that they’re probably wrong and then to assault them with everything you have in your arsenal and see if they can survive.
It struck me about the communist manifesto that it was akin to something Jung said about typical thinking, meaning the thinking of people who weren’t trained to think. He said that when the typical thinker has a thought, it appears to them like an object might appear in a room. The thought appears and then they just accept it.
They don’t go the second step which is to think about the thinking, and that’s the real essence of critical thinking. So that’s why you try to teach people in university to read a text and to think about it critically; not to destroy the utility of the text but to separate the wheat from the chaff.
And so when again reading the communist manifesto I tried to separate the wheat from the chaff. And I’m afraid I found, some wheat yes but mostly chaff. And I’m going to explain why in relatively short order. I’m going to outline 10 of the fundamental axioms of the communist manifesto. So these are truths that are basically held as self-evident by the authors. And they’re truths that are presented in some sense as unquestioned. I’m going to question them and tell you why I think they’re unreliable.
Now we should remember that this tract was actually written 170 years ago. That’s a long time ago and we have learned a fair bit since then about human nature, about society, about politics and economics. There’s lots of mysteries left to be solved but we are slightly wiser I presume. So you can forgive the authors to some degree for what they didn’t know. But that doesn’t matter given that the essence of this doctrine is still held as sacrosanct by a large proportion of academics.
The problems start with this one: History is to be viewed primarily as an economic class struggle. Let’s think about that for a minute. First of all there is the proposition that history is primarily to be viewed through an economic lens, which I think is debatable because there are many other motivations than economics that drive human beings. Those have to be taken into account especially that drive people other than economic competition, like economic cooperation for example. So that’s a problem.
An additional problem is that it’s actually not nearly a pessimistic enough description of the actual situation. To give the devil his due: It is absolutely true that one of the driving forces of history is hierarchical struggle. But it’s deeper than history, it’s biology itself, because organisms of all sorts organize themselves into hierarchies. And one of the problems with hierarchies is that they tend to arrange themselves into a winner-take-all situation.
Of course Marx believed that in a capitalist society capital would accumulate in the hands of fewer and fewer people, and that actually is in keeping with the nature of hierarchical organizations. So there’s accuracy in the accusation being an eternal form of motivation for struggle. But it’s an underestimation of the seriousness of the problem because it is attributed to the structure of human societies rather than the deeper reality of the existence of hierarchical structures per se.
Since hierarchies characterize the animal kingdom to a large degree, they are clearly not only human constructions. And the evidence for hierarchical competition among human beings goes back at least to the paleolithic times. So the next problem is: This ancient problem of hierarchical structure is clearly not attributable to capitalism because it existed long in human history before capitalism existed. and then it predated human history itself. So why would you necessarily at least implicitly link the class struggle with capitalism given that it’s a far deeper problem?
You’ve need to understand that this is a deeper problem for people on the left not just for people on the right. It is the case that hierarchical structures dispossess those people who are at the bottom, as it does those animals who are at the bottom in their kingdom. That is a fundamental existential problem.
But the other thing that Marx didn’t seem to take into account is that there there are far more reasons that human beings struggle than their economic class struggle, even if you build the hierarchical idea into that. In a more comprehensive way of thinking about it, human beings
struggle with themselves with the malevolence that’s inside themselves, with the evil that they’re capable of doing, with the spiritual and psychological warfare that goes on within them.
And we’re also actually always at odds with nature and this never seems to show up in Marx, and it doesn’t show up in Marxism in general. It’s as if nature doesn’t exist. As far as I’m concerned the primary conflict that human beings engage in is this struggle for life in a cruel and harsh natural world. But that doesn’t exist in the Marxist domain. If human beings have a problem it’s because there’s a class struggle that’s essentially economic. It’s like no human beings have problems because we come into the life starving and lonesome and we have to solve that problem continually. And we make our social arrangements at least in part to ameliorate that.
So there’s also very little understanding in the communist manifesto that any of the hierarchical organizations that human beings have put together might have a positive element. And that’s an absolute catastrophe because hierarchical structures are actually necessary to solve complicated social problems. We have to organize ourselves in some manner and (again giving the devil his due) it is the case that hierarchies dispossess people and that’s a big problem. That’s the fundamental problem of inequality. But it’s also the case that hierarchies happen to be a very efficient way of distributing resources.
And it’s finally the case that human hierarchies are not fundamentally predicated on power. I would say that biological and anthropological data on that are crystal clear. You don’t rise to a position of authority that’s reliable in a human society primarily by exploiting other people. It’s a very unstable means of obtaining power, even though people go about it that way might laugh at the thought.
Another problem that comes up is that Marx also assumes that you can think about history as a binary class struggle with clear divisions between say the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. That’s actually a problem because it’s not so easy to make a firm division between who is exploiter and who is exploitee. Because it’s not obvious, for example, in the case of small shareholders, whether or not they happen to be part of the oppressed or part of the oppressor.
This actually turned out to be a big problem in the Russian revolution, a tremendously big problem because it turned out that you could fragment people into multiple identities. That’s a fairly easy thing to do, and you could usually find some aspect by which they were part of the oppressor class; it might have been a consequence of their education or because of the wealth that they strived to accumulate during their life. Or it might be the fact that they had parents or grandparents who are educated or rich or that they’re a member of the priesthood or that they were socialists, and so on.
Anyways the listing of how it was possible for you to be bourgeois instead of proletariat grew immensely and that was one of the reasons that the red terror claimed all the victims that it did. So that was a huge problem, probably most exemplified by the demolition of the kulaks, who were basically peasant farmers although effective ones in the soviet union. They had managed to raise themselves out of serfdom over a period of about 40 years and to gather some some degree of material security about them. And about 1.8 million of them were exiled, about 400 000 were killed and the net consequence of that was the removal of their private property because of their bourgeois status. There was also the death of six million Ukrainians in the famines of the 1930s showing that the binary class struggle idea led to bad outcomes for many people.
It’s also a very bad idea in another way, and this is a real sleight of hand that Marx pulls off. You have a binary class division–proletariat and bourgeoisie–and you have an implicit idea that all of the good is on the side of the proletariat and all of the evil is on the side of the bourgeoisie. That’s classic group identity thinking and one of the reasons i don’t like identity politics. Because once you divide people into groups and pit them against one another, it’s very easy to assume that all the evil in the world can be attributed to one group–the hypothetical oppressors–and all the good to the other. Well that’s naive beyond comprehension because it’s absolutely foolish to make the presumption that you can identify someone’s moral worth with their economic standing. So that actually turned out to be a real problem as well.
Marx also came up with this idea which is a crazy idea, using the technical term crazy as far as i can tell, and that’s the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat. I really stumbled over that. Okay so what’s the problem? Well the problem is the capitalists own everything— they own all the means of production and they’re oppressing everyone, that means all the workers. And there’s going to be a race to the bottom of wages for the workers as the capitalists strive to extract more and more value from the labor of the proletariat by competing with other capitalists to drive wages downward. By the way, that didn’t happen partly because wage earners can become scarce and that actually drives their market value upward.
But the fact that that you assume a priori that all the evil can be attributed to the capitalists and the bourgeoisie and that all the good could be attributed to the proletariat meant that you could hypothesize that a dictatorship of the proletariat could come about, and that was the first stage in the communist revolution. And remember this is a call for revolution, and not just revolution, but bloody violent revolution and the overthrow of all existing social structures.
So you see the problem is because all the evil isn’t divided so easily up into oppressor and oppressed you can not establish a pure dictator of the proletariat (to the degree that you can do that which you actually can’t because it’s technically impossible, and an absurd project not least because of the centralization problem.) I mean you have to imagine that you can take away all the property of the capitalists and you can replace the capitalist class with a minority of proletariats. How they’re going to be chosen isn’t exactly clear in the communist manifesto nor is it clear how none of the people who are from the proletariat class are going to be corrupted by that sudden access to power despite their being good by definition.
So then you have the good people who are running the world and you also have them centralized so that they can make decisions which are insanely complicated to make; in fact impossibly complicated to make and so that’s a failure conceptually on both dimensions.
Because firstly all the proletariat aren’t going to be good and then you put those people in the same position as the evil capitalists. Marxists certainly believe that social pressure is one of the determining factors of human character. So why then wouldn’t you assume that the proletariat would immediately become as or more corrupt than the capitalists? Which is of course exactly what happened every time this experiment was run.
And then the next problem comes when you take some system as complicated as as a capitalist free market society and centralize that putting decision-making power in the hands of a few people, without specifying the mechanisms by which you’re going to choose them. What makes you think they’re going to have the wisdom or the ability to do what the capitalists were doing unless you assume as Marx did that all of the evil was with the capitalists and all the good was with the proletariats.
And that nothing that capitalists did constituted valid labor which is another thing that marx assumed. Which is palpably absurd unless you are thinking of people like a dissolute aristocrat from 1830 or earlier and you run a feudal estate and all you do is spend your time gambling and chasing prostitutes. Well then your labor value is zero.
But if you’re running a business and it’s a successful business first of all because you’re not a bloody fool who exploits your workers. Because even if you’re greedy as Sin, you’re not going to extract the maximum amount of labor out of them by doing that. And the notion that you’re adding no productive value as a manager rather than a capitalist is absolutely absurd. All it shows is that you either know nothing whatsoever about how an actual business works or you refuse to know anything about how an actual business works. So that’s also a big problem.
The next problem is the criticism of profit. Well what’s wrong with profit? The problem with profit was that profit was theft from the Marxist perspective. You know profit well can be theft because crooked people can run companies and so sometimes profit is theft. That certainly doesn’t mean that it’s always threat theft, because in part at least if the capitalist is adding value to the corporation then there’s some utility and some fairness in him or her extracting the value of their abstract labor–their thought, their work, their ability to manage the company and to engage in proper competition and product development and efficiency and the proper treatment of the workers. If they can do all of that and then can create a profit, well then they have a little bit of security for times that aren’t so good. And that seems absolutely bloody necessary as far as I’m concerned.
Then the next thing is how can you grow if you don’t have a profit and if you have an enterprise that’s valuable and worthwhile? Some enterprises are valuable and worthwhile then it seems to me that a little bit of profit to help you grow seems to be the right approach. So then the other issue with profit, and you know this if you’ve ever run a business, is it’s really useful constraint. You know it’s not enough to have a good idea, not a good enough to have a good sales and marketing plan and then to implement that and all of, even though that’s bloody difficult in itself. Even with a good idea and plan, it’s not easy to find customers and satisfy them. And so profit constitutes a limitation on what it is that you might reasonably attempt. It provides a good constraint on wasted labor.
Most of the things that I’ve done in my life even psychologically were efforts designed to help people’s psychological health. I tried to run on a for-profit basis and the reason for that, apart from the fact that I’m not averse to making a profit, was partly so my enterprises can grow but was also so that there were forms of stupidity that I couldn’t engage in because I would be punished by the market enough to eradicate the enterprise.
The next issue is a weird one. So Marx and Engels also assume that this dictatorship of the proletariat which involves absurd centralization, the overwhelming probability of corruption, and the impossible task as the proletariat now try to rationally compute the manner in which an entire market economy could run. Which cannot be done because it’s far too complicated for anybody to think through.
The next theory is that somehow the proletariat dictatorship would become magically hyper productive and there’s actually no theory at all about how that’s going to happen. And so i had to infer that the theory seems to be that once you eradicate the bourgeoisie because they’re evil and you get rid of their private property, and you eradicate the profit motive, then all of a sudden magically the small percentage of the proletariat who now run the society determine how they can make their enterprises productive enough so they become hyper productive now.
And they need to become hyper productive for the last error to be logically coherent in relationship to the Marxist theory which is that at some point the dictatorship of the proletariat will become so hyper productive that there’ll be enough material goods for everyone across all dimensions. And when that happens then people will spontaneously engage in meaningful creative labor from which they had been alienated in the capitalist horror show. And the utopia will be magically ushered in.
But there’s no indication about how that hyper productivity is going to come about and there’s no understanding that the utopia isn’t going to suit everyone because there are great differences between people. And some people are going to find what they want in love, and some are going to find it in social being, and some are going to find it in conflict and competition, and some are going to find it in creativity as Marx pointed out. But the notion that that that will necessarily be the end goal for the utopian state is preposterous.
And then there’s the Dostoyevsky observation, which is one not to be taken lightly. What sort of shallow conception of people do you have that makes you think that if you gave people enough bread and cake, and nothing else to do except busy themselves with the continued continuity of the species that they would all of a sudden become peaceful and heavenly? Dostoyevsky’s idea was that we were built for trouble, and if we were ever handed everything we needed on a silver platter the first thing we would do is engage in some form of creative destruction just so something unexpected could happen; just so we could have the adventure of our lives. I think there’s something honest and true in that.
Then there’s the last error, although by no means was this all of them, and this is one of the strangest parts of the communist manifesto. Marx and Engels admit repeatedly in the communist manifesto that there has never been a system of production in the history of the world that was as effective at producing material commodities in excess than capitalism. That’s extensively documented in the communist manifesto.
So if your proposition is to get as much material security for everyone as as possible as fast as we can, and capitalism already seems to be doing that at a rate unparalleled in human history, wouldn’t the logical thing be just to let the damn system play itself out? Unless you’re assuming that the evil capitalists are just going to take all of the flat screen televisions and put them in one big room and not let anyone else have one. The logical assumption is that you’re already on a road that’s supposed to produce the needed material productivity.
So that’s ten reasons as far as I can tell that what I saw in the communist manifesto is seriously flawed in virtually every way it could possibly be wrong. And also it is evidence that Marx was the kind of narcissistic thinker who could think he was he was very intelligent person, and so was Engels. He thought that what he thought was correct, but he never went to the second stage, which is to ponder: How could all of this go terribly wrong?
And if you’re a thinker, especially a sociological thinker and on the broad scale a social scientist for example. One of your moral obligations is to consider seriously how you might be wrong about one of your fundamental axioms or two or three or ten of them. As a consequence you have the moral obligation to walk through the damn system and question: What if I’m completely wrong here,and things invert and go exactly the opposite way?
For the life of me, I just can’t understand how anybody could come up with an idea like the dictatorship of the proletariat, especially after advocating its implementation by violent means which is a direct part of the communist manifesto. How could they call for that if they knew anything about human beings and the proclivity for malevolence that’s part and parcel of the individual human being. How could they not know that it could only lead to a special form of hell, which is precisely what did happen.
I’m going to close with a bit of evidence that Marx also thought that what would happen inevitably as a consequence of capitalism is that rich would get richer and the poor would get poorer so there would be inequality. Firstly, we do not know how to set up a human system of economics without inequality. No one has ever managed it, including the communists, and the form of inequality changed and it’s not obvious by any stretch of imagination that the free market economies of the west have more inequality than the less free economies in the rest of the world.
And the one thing you can say about capitalism is that although it produces inequality, which it absolutely does, it also produces wealth while all the other systems just produce inequality. So here’s here’s a few stats. From 1800 to 2017 in free market societies income growth adjusted for inflation grew by 40 times by for production workers and 16 times for unskilled labor. GDP rose by a factor of about 0.5 from 180 a.d. to 1800 a.d. So the increase was almost flat for 1600 years, and then all of a sudden in the last 217 years there’s been this unbelievably upward movement of wealth.
And it doesn’t only characterize the tiny percentage of people at the top who admittedly do have most of the wealth. The question is not only what’s the inequality, but also what’s happening to the absolutely poor at the bottom? And the answer to that is they’re getting richer faster now than they ever have in the history of the world. And we’re eradicating poverty in countries that have adopted moderate free market policies at a rate that’s unparalleled.
For example one of the U.N. Millennial goals was to reduce the the rate of absolute poverty in the world by 50% between 2000 and 2015. And they defined that as $1.90 a day; pretty low you know but you have to start somewhere. We hit that at 2012, three years ahead of schedule. Well, you might be cynical about that and say that it’s an arbitrary number, but the curves are exactly the same $3.80 cents a day and $7.60 a day. Not as many people have hit that but the rate of increase towards that is the same. The bloody U.N. thinks that we’ll be out of poverty defined by a dollar ninety a day by the year 2030. The progress is unparalleled because as rich are getting richer the poor are getting richer too.
Under capitalism, the poor are not getting poorer, but getting richer by a large margin. For example, in Africa the child mortality rate is now the same as the child mortality rate was in Europe in 1952. That happened within the span of one lifetime. So if you’re for the poor, if you’re actually concerned that the poorest people in the world rise above their starvation levels, then all the evidence suggests that the best way to do that is to implement something approximating a free marke economy.
Footnote: Why Marxism is Incompatible with Democracy
The Marxist endgame and democracy’s end
The most basic thing one needs to know about a democratic regime, then, is this: You need to have at least two legitimate political parties for democracy to work. By a legitimate political party, I mean one that is recognized by its rivals as having a right to rule if it wins an election. For example, a liberal party may grant legitimacy to a conservative party (even though they don’t like them much), and in return this conservative party may grant legitimacy to a liberal party (even though they don’t like them much). Indeed, this is the way most modern democratic nations have been governed.
But legitimacy is one of those traditional political concepts that Marxist criticism is now on the verge of destroying.
From the Marxist point of view, our inherited concept of legitimacy is nothing more than an instrument the ruling classes use to perpetuate injustice and oppression. The word legitimacy takes on its true meaning only with reference to the oppressed classes or groups that the Marxist sees as the sole legitimate rulers of the nation. In other words, Marxist political theory confers legitimacy on only one political party—the party of the oppressed, whose aim is the revolutionary reconstitution of society. And this means that the Marxist political framework cannot co-exist with democratic government. Indeed, the entire purpose of democratic government, with its plurality of legitimate parties, is to avoid the violent reconstitution of society that Marxist political theory regards as the only reasonable aim of politics.
Simply put, the Marxist framework and democratic political theory are opposed to one another in principle.
An old woman asks her granddaughter: “Granddaughter, please explain Communism to me. How will people live under it? They probably teach you all about it in school.”
“Of course they do, Granny. When we reach Communism, the shops will be full–there’ll be butter, and meat, and sausage. You’ll be able to go and buy anything you want…”
“Ah!” exclaimed the old woman joyfully. “Just like it was under the Tsar!”
Q: What’s the difference between a capitalist fairy tale and a Marxist fairy tale?
A: A capitalist fairy tale begins, “Once upon a time, there was….”. A Marxist fairy tale begins, “Some day, there will be….”
A Soviet history professor addressed his university students: “Regarding the final exam, I have good news and bad news. The good news: All the questions are the same as last year. The bad news: Some of the answers are different.”