Reply to Jordan Peterson on the Jewish Question — From His Heroes Part One: Solzhenitsyn

“The Aryan subconscious has a higher potential than the Jewish.”
G. Jung


I recently took some time to devote serious attention to the work of Jordan Peterson. Until a few months ago, my familiarity with Peterson had been limited to his very weak and ill-advised intervention in the Nathan Cofnas affair. At that time, I toyed with the idea of providing a series of historical examples (there are many) that would contradict every one of Peterson’s assertions regarding the Jewish Question, but, in the end, his intervention was dealt with so conclusively by Kevin MacDonald (see here), that I saw no reason to discuss it further and abandoned that essay at the “skeleton” stage.  Peterson is, however, hard to ignore. As MacDonald put it, Peterson is indeed a “celebrity intellectual,” and one who, despite an occasionally overt philo-Semitism, has engaged in spirited defenses against some manifestations of cultural Marxism. This is admirable, and he is generally pleasing and interesting to watch his TV appearances. Watching and listening to these appearances with any frequency, it’s hard to escape Peterson’s key influences. The Canadian academic is both vocal and (remarkably) repetitive in naming them: summaries, quotes, and interpretations of Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn, and Jung all feature very prominently in Peterson’s content.[1] It’s clear that all four men act as his foremost intellectual and personal heroes. But they share something else in common – they have all confronted the Jewish Question in a manner that quite clearly contradicts the view put forth by Peterson. This is not to say that everyone must follow all the ideas of their heroes, but it does call into question how carefully Peterson has both understood these writers and considered his own position on the Jews. The following essay is intended to tease out some problems and contradictions.

I’ve spent the last couple of months listening to Peterson’s lecture series on the Biblical stories, reading his 12 Rules for Life, and examining (and re-examining) his essay “On the So-Called Jewish Question.” I have to confess to finding his lecture series extremely strange. Listening to the audience question and answer sessions at the end of each lecture, it’s clear that Peterson has a sizeable Jewish following and that his lectures are, if not geared toward Jews, certainly holding great appeal for them. Part of this may be the fact that, for an ostensibly Christian apologist, thus far only one of Peterson’s sixteen lectures have concerned the New Testament. What I find particularly interesting about Peterson’s interpretation of these stories is that he extracts, in abstract psychoanalytic fashion, a series of self-help non-sequiturs without looking at how and why the stories were formulated in the first place, and how they have been understood by Jews during the many centuries since they were written. This is an especially ironic development because Peterson’s approach to these particular texts is rather like that of Jacques Derrida, the Jewish Marxist postmodernist he rebukes in 12 Rules for Life, who argued “there is nothing outside the text.” And it is quite unlike the suggestion of his hero Carl Jung, who, as Peterson notes in 12 Rules for Life, suggested that “if you cannot understand why someone did something, look at the consequences — and infer the motivation.”

Peterson doesn’t seem remotely interested in the psychological needs and motivations of the Jewish authors and readers of the stories, and, by his own admission (in the question and answer session following his discussion of the tale of Jacob and Esau) Peterson has never examined the Talmud to see how Jews have interacted with them.

This is certainly the case with the Book of Exodus. Peterson glosses over the barbarism of the Moses character and seems oblivious to evidence strongly suggesting the book was constructed as a response to a proliferation of Greek-Egyptian narratives in the third century B.C. about the eviction of subversive foreigners from the historical Nile Delta. Instead, Peterson presents the Moses character as someone in touch with a divine cosmic subconscious, who “bargains” with a largely benevolent and well-meaning deity that represents the future—god as a “judgmental father.” (In Peterson’s rendering of the development of religion, picturing the future as a “judgmental father” to whom we owe sacrifices is a stroke of genius.) In this approach, Peterson both borrows the methodology, and diverges from the conclusions, of the psychoanalytical examination of the Bible carried out by his hero Carl Jung, who, in his essays “Answer to Job” and “Christ, a Symbol of the Self,” characterized the Yahweh of the Torah as “savage,” “touchy,” “suspicious,” “two-faced,” “gratuitous,” “revolting,” “remorseless,” “brutal,” and “illogical.”[2]

Peterson’s obliviousness to the specificities of Jewish interpretations and uses of the texts he discusses is perhaps even more the case regarding the story of Jacob/Israel and Esau. Peterson sees the tale as a straightforward lesson in making the right sacrifices to achieve one’s goals and avoiding resentment when things don’t work out how you’d like them—an anodyne self-help platitude by any estimation. But how have Jews historically treated the story of one of their foremost Patriarchs?

It surely has great significance for any psychological rendering of the tale that Jacob translates as “usurper” or “he who cheats,” and that Jews have always conceptualized Esau as representing gentiles, especially Europeans, or the racial or cultural descendants of the Romans. Daniel Elazar, writing for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, comments that Esau displays “characteristics which are later to become part of the Jewish stereotype of non-Jews (“goyim”).” Meir Levin adds that “the rabbinic identification of Rome with the Biblical figure of Esau is basic to the traditional understanding of much of the relevant sections of Chumash Bareishis [Genesis].” Levin continues that the Talmud and later rabbinical commentaries presented Esau and Western civilization as sharing negative characteristics such as hypocrisy (Shocher Tov 14,3), individualism, and placing an emphasis on style over substance. Maimonides pictured Esau as an “evildoer” whose descendants were “Amalekites” who were “to be destroyed and their name blotted out.” Maimonides wrote that survivors of the Amalekites were “Rome and the Catholic Church.” Salo Baron writes that the idea that Europeans were the descendants of Esau was “widely accepted in medieval Jewry” along with the idea that the dominion of Edom-Rome would end with the coming of a Jewish messiah.[3] The Jewish-American History Foundation concurs that “Babylon, Rome, Edom, and Christianity are synonymous,” and remarks that the final end of Edom/descendants of Esau is interpreted from Jewish texts as meaning “that every one of the Mount (or House) of Esau may, or shall, be cut off by slaughter,” [Obadiah v.9] and will “perish forever.”

This interpretive pedigree is more than a little darker in tone than Jordan Peterson’s “clean your room” rendering. But it’s easy to see why Jews would applaud and promote the latter’s presentations. A takeaway message for Christian and atheist alike from Peterson’s lectures would be that these texts are full of rich and benevolent wisdom, with no mention of even the possibility of malignant intent or usage. As stated above, it’s highly likely that Jordan Peterson is naively ignorant of this interpretive pedigree, and there is nothing in his work or activism that suggests he has ever seriously engaged with Jewish cultural activity, or critical commentary on it (for all his bluster, I sincerely doubt he’s read a single sentence written by Kevin MacDonald). Indeed, if any reader wanted a serious, and novel, psychological profile of the Biblical stories, the third chapter of Kevin MacDonald’s A People That Shall Dwell Alone makes a succinct but powerful case for evolutionary aspects of the Tanakh. All things considered, I find it difficult to separate Peterson’s dubious approach to the lecture series from his 12 Rules for Life and later essay “On the So-Called Jewish Question.”

On a fundamental level, I believe that Peterson is hopelessly wrong in his approach to Jewish matters, and especially the issue of anti-Semitism. Since the opinion of an anonymous “anti-Semite” is likely to hold little sway with the celebrity intellectual, however, what follows is a critique of the latter essay by each of the four men whom Peterson holds most dear; by those we might, or he might, even call his intellectual fathers. So Jordan, it’s time for a father-son talk.

A Reply from Solzhenitsyn

Jordan Peterson references Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in almost every interview, talk, or text he delivers. His admiration for the Russian author is considerable and is made clear in 12 Rules for Life. In 12 Rules, Peterson refers (p.115) to Solzhenitsyn as “the great writer, the profound, spirited defender of truth.” He writes (p.116) that Solzhenitsyn was an extremely brave man whose courage was one of the reasons for the fall of Communism. He (p. 140) wrote “definitively and profoundly about the horrors of the twentieth century,” and (p.152) “wrote the truth, his truth, hard-learned through his own experiences.”

Solzhenitsyn came to mind immediately when I read the early part of Peterson’s essay “On the So-Called Jewish Question.” The title itself is almost unforgivably flippant and dismissive, and illustrative of a deep ignorance of history. In essence, Peterson appears to deny the possibility or reality of fundamental clashes of interest between Europeans and Jews, both in the past and in the present, along with a rejection of the notion that these clashes have historically revolved around issues of identity—especially the expression of Jewish identity in Western civilization. These issues are what is essentially meant by the term “the Jewish Question.”

In addition, Peterson’s scorn for what he dismissively terms “identity politics” may be rhetorically fashionable among civic nationalists willfully ignorant of the determinant role of race and ethnicity in world history, but it’s largely meaningless considering that identity (racial, religious, cultural) has influenced politics from time immemorial. All politics are ultimately rooted in identity, and all identities are ultimately political. Given serious reflection, Peterson’s position may be deemed even more harmful and dangerous to Whites than the Left-Liberal position, because while the latter is merely hypocritical in denying the positive aspect of ethnic identity to Whites (i.e., denial of the right to ask the question “is this good for my group”), Peterson would have us believe that all our deep interests are essentially synonymous or at least reconcilable, and that conflicts based on group interests are both essentially wrong and in some way escapable. This can only be described as a facile understanding of the development and manifestation of ethnic conflict.

In Solzhenitsyn’s Russia, the cultural and political clash of Jewish and European identities was, of course, both inescapable (beginning with large-scale Jewish settlement and subsequent population growth), and utterly catastrophic. So one has to ask how Solzhenitsyn, with his “truth, hard-learned through his own experiences” might respond to Peterson’s dismissal of the Jewish Question in relation to “identity politics.”

Fortunately, we know exactly how Solzhenitsyn would reply to the Canadian celebrity intellectual because he answered an almost identical situation in 1985, when he came under fire for implying that Jewish identity played an influential and negative role in the Bolshevik revolution. In particular, many Jewish critics came forth to declare that there had been no such “Jewish Question” in the development of the revolution, and that Solzhenitsyn was an anti-Semite for declaring the opposite. Solzhenitsyn’s reply now comes across the decades, speaking directly to a man who would lay claim to be his protégé:

A Jewish Question existed and was a burning issue. But at that time hundreds of authors, including Jews, wrote about this; at that time, precisely the omission of mentioning the Jewish Question was considered a manifestation of anti-Semitism — and it would be unworthy for an historian of that era to pretend that that question did not exist. … My task is to write true historical research on the Russian Revolution. [emphasis added]

Solzhenitsyn, as is well known, did this and more. After publishing Two Hundred Years Together, Solzhenitsyn was accused of anti-Semitism for asserting that pogroms against Jews in Russia were rare, spontaneous, and originated “from below” rather than being government-sponsored. He was further accused of anti-Semitism for implying that Jews avoided conscription and, in particular, frontline military service. Both fall into the category of thought that Peterson dismisses in his essay as “conspiratorial claims based on ethnic identity.” And yet it’s a testament to the lingering vitality of the historical profession that more recent archival research and published studies (from Cambridge University Press and Princeton University Press) have vindicated both of Solzhenitsyn’s claims.[4]

Peterson also caricatures the critique of Jews as being ignorant of the role of IQ. In reality, however, most historical ‘anti-Semites’ have struck a balance between the role of intelligence/capability in the acquisition by Jews of what may be termed sociopolitical gatekeeping positions, and the role of ethnocentrism in the further development and ultimate consequences of Jewish demographic over-representations resulting from Jews in these positions acting according to their perceived ethnic interests.

Solzhenitsyn, in Two Hundred Years Together, provides many examples where Jews were given equal opportunities based on ability and became over-represented in several key areas of public life. The most widespread and justified concerns, however, where not about how these over-representations were achieved, but about the potential consequences of Jewish over-representations in aspects of Russian life. In one example from 1870, Solzhenitsyn discusses the introduction of municipal reforms:

Initially it was proposed to restrict Jewish representation among town councillors and in the municipal executive councils by fifty percent, but because of objections by the Minister of Internal Affairs, the City Statute of 1870 had reduced the maximal share to one third; further, Jews were forbidden from occupying the post of mayor. It was feared that otherwise Jewish internal cohesion and self-segregation would allow them to obtain a leading role in town institutions and give them an advantage in resolution of public issues. [emphasis added]

Solzhenitsyn was also acutely aware of the role of revenge in Jewish political choices and actions. Regarding food shortages and famines, he notes:

What would you expect from peasants in the Tambov Guberniya if, during the heat of the suppression of the great peasant uprising in this Central-Russian black-earth region, the dismal den of the Tambov Gubcom was inhabited by masterminds of grain allotments, secretaries of Gubcom P. Raivid and Pinson, and by the head of the propaganda department, Eidman? (A. G. Shlikhter, whom we remember from Kiev in 1905, was there as well, this time as the chairman of the Executive Committee of the guberniya.) Y. Goldin was the Foodstuffs Commissar of the Tambov Guberniya; it was he who triggered the uprising by exorbitant confiscations of grain, whereas one N. Margolin, commander of a grain confiscation squad, was famous for whipping the peasants who failed to provide grain. (And he murdered them too.) According to Kakurin, who was the chief of staff to Tukhachevsky, a plenipotentiary representative of the Cheka headquarters in the Tambov Guberniya during that period was Lev Levin. Of course, not only Jews were in it! However, when Moscow took the suppression of the uprising into her own hands in February 1921, the supreme command of the operation was assigned to Efraim Sklyansky, the head of “Interdepartmental Anti-Banditry Commission,”—and so the peasants, notified about that with leaflets, were able to draw their own conclusions.

And what should we say about the genocide on the river Don, when hundreds of thousands of the flower of Don Cossacks were murdered? What should we expect from the Cossack memories when we take into consideration all those unsettled accounts between a revolutionary Jew and a Don Cossack? In August 1919, the Volunteer Army took Kiev and opened several Chekas and found the bodies of those recently executed; Shulgin composed nominal lists of victims using funeral announcements published in the reopened Kievlyanin; one can’t help noticing that almost all names were Slavic. … Materials produced by the Special Investigative Commission in the South of Russia provide insights into the Kiev Cheka and its command personnel (based on the testimony of a captured Cheka interrogator): “The headcount of the ‘Cheka’ staff varied between 150 and 300. … Percentage -wise, there was 75% Jews and 25% others, and those in charge were almost exclusively Jews.” Out of twenty members of the Commission, i.e., the top brass who determined people’s destinies, fourteen were Jews.

Peterson’s remark that “high IQ is associated with Openness to Experience, which is in turn associated with liberal/left-leaning political proclivities” is simply insufficient for a serious analysis of the fact that many intelligent and capable Jews cohered, as Jews, around each other in late-nineteenth-century Russia with the primary goal of destroying Russian culture and the Russian state, and engaging in the mass murder of perceived historical oppressors and enemies—something infinitely more extreme than the term “liberal/left-leaning political proclivities” could ever possibly convey. Solzhenitsyn cites I. O. Levin as writing:

There is no doubt that Jewish representation in the Bolshevik and other parties which facilitated “expanding of revolution” — Mensheviks, Socialist Revolutionaries, etc. — with respect to both general Jewish membership and Jewish presence among the leaders, greatly exceeds the Jewish share in the population of Russia.  This is an indisputable fact; while its reasons should be debated, its factual veracity is unchallengeable and its denial is pointless; and a certainly convincing explanation of this phenomenon by Jewish inequality before the March revolution … is still not sufficiently exhaustive.

One could reasonably and similarly surmise that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn would concur with the assessment that Jordan Peterson’s explanation of Jewish “over-representation in positions of authority, competence and influence (including revolutionary movements)” as being due to the association of “high IQ with Openness to Experience, which is in turn associated with liberal/left-leaning political proclivities” is, to say the least, not sufficiently exhaustive. And it is at this point that we pass the floor to Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Go to Part 2 of 3.

[1] Jung is perhaps the most important figure in Peterson’s thought, understandable given their overlapping professional interest in psychology and psychoanalysis. The Canadian has most notably brought these interests to bear in his series of lectures on the psychological significance of the Biblical stories.

[2] All quotes taken from Anthony Storr (ed), The Essential Jung: Selected Writings (London: Fontana, 1998). These traits are so manifest that Europeans/Christians have struggled for many centuries with their distaste for the God of the Old Testament. An excellent recent example of the Christian attempt to wrestle with this problem, and an overview of the history of debate on the issue, is Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan’s Did God Really Command Genocide? Coming to Terms with the Justice of God (Michigan: Baker Books, 2014).

[3] Baron, S. W. (1934). “The Historical Outlook of Maimonides.” Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research, Vol. 6, No. 5, 24.

[4] See John Doyle Klier, Pogroms: Anti-Jewish Violence in Modern Russian History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008) and Derek J. Penslar, Jews and the Military: A History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013).

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