Learning About Marx with Jordan Peterson

During his debate with Zizek Jordan Peterson makes two main arguments against what he calls proposition number 1 of the communist manifesto: “history is to be viewed primarily as an economic class struggle.” Peterson appears to have derived this proposition from the opening sentence of the Communist Manifesto’s 1st chapter: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” (Marx and Engels 2002, 219)

First Argument

Peterson’s first argument is that Marx focuses on class struggle but ignores the human struggle for survival within the natural world. He says,

“The other thing that Marx didn’t seem to take into account is that there are far more reasons that human beings struggle than economic class struggle . . . 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. The primary conflict as far as I’m concerned, or a primary conflict human beings engage in, is the struggle for life in a cruel and harsh natural world and it’s as if 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. No, humans beings have problems because we come into 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.” 

There are several problems with what Peterson says here. Firstly, Peterson is wrong to claim that “it’s as if nature doesn’t exist” in Marx. This is because Marx consistently argues within both his early and later writings that in order to survive humans must engage in labour which uses or transforms the natural world. In The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 Marx claims that, “[t]he worker can create nothing without nature, without the sensuous external world” because “nature provides labour with the means of life in the sense that labour cannot live without objects on which to exercise itself, so also it provides the means of life in the narrower sense, namely the means of physical subsistence of the worker.” (Marx 1992a, 325)

Within his economic notebooks of 1857-8, which were published under the title The Grundrisse, Marx refers to the “obvious, trite notion” that “in production the members of society appropriate (create, shape) the products of nature in accord with human needs.” (Marx 1993, 88)

A decade later in Capital Volume 1 Marx writes that “labour is . . . a process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature. He confronts the materials of nature as a force of nature. He sets in motion the natural forces which belong to his own body, his arms, legs, head and hands, in order to appropriate the materials of nature in a form adapted to his own needs.” For Marx the “labour process” so understood “is the universal condition for the metabolic interaction between man and nature, the everlasting nature-imposed condition of human existence, and it is therefore independent of every form of that existence, or rather it is common to all forms of society in which human beings live.” (Marx 1990, 283, 290)

Marx reiterates this point in Capital Volume 3 when he writes that human beings “must wrestle with nature to satisfy his needs, to maintain and reproduce his life” and “he must do so in all forms of society and under all possible modes of production.” (Marx 1991, 959)

The importance Marx placed on the fact that humans must struggle for survival within the natural world through engaging in acts of production can be seen not only in the fact that Marx consistently advocates this position across both his early and later writings. It can also be demonstrated by the fact that within the German Ideology, which is an edited compilation of manuscripts that were written by Marx and Engels between 1845-6, he critiques previous historians for over focusing on the history of states, religions or ideas and in so doing excluding “the relation of man to nature” and “the real production of life” from history. (Marx 2000, 189)

Secondly, Marx talks about nature in chapter 1 of the Communist Manifesto. This is both the specific text Peterson claimed to have read in preparation for the debate and the specific chapter from which Peterson derives the proposition that he is responding to in this section of his speech. A few pages after saying that “[t]he history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” Marx describes how capitalism has created technology and human capacities which enable human beings to have a historically unprecedented ability to transform the natural world. He writes,

The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground — what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour? (Marx and Engels 2002, 224-5)

The fact that Peterson claims that “it’s as if nature doesn’t exist” in Marx therefore demonstrates not only the fact that Peterson has failed to read The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, The German Ideology, the Grundrisse, Capital Volume 1 and Capital Volume 3. It also shows that he failed to pay attention when reading the Communist Manifesto.

Thirdly, Peterson is wrong to claim that the relationship between humans and the natural world “doesn’t show up in Marxism in general.” Ecology has in fact been one of the main topics discussed in the recent academic literature on Marx. Peterson has clearly never heard of, let alone read, John Bellamy Foster’s 2010 book Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature, Foster and Paul Burkett’s 2017 book Marx and the Earth: An Anti-Critique and Kohei Saito’s 2017 book Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy. Peterson has in addition to this failed to familiarize himself with ecological Marxist texts more broadly, such as Jason Moore’s 2015 book Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital.

Given the above, in saying that Marx specifically and Marxism in general ignore nature and the fact that humans must struggle to survive within the harsh natural world Peterson was only demonstrating how little he knows about Marx.

2nd Argument

Peterson’s 2nd argument is that human beings are not motivated purely by economics and that Marx ignores non-economic motivations. He says, “there are many other motivations that drive human beings than economics and those have to be taken into account, especially that drive people other than economic competition, like economic co-operation for example. So that’s a problem.”

There are once again several problems with Peterson’s argument. Firstly, Peterson is claiming to be refuting Marx’s notion that “history is to be viewed primarily as an economic class struggle.” Yet in this section of his speech he’s instead making an argument against the distinct idea that people are motivated solely or primarily by economic motivations. This ignores the fact that it doesn’t follow from the proposition that the main driving force of history is economic class struggle that the human beings who engage in class struggle do so because they are purely or largely motivated to do so by economic motivations. People could be psychologically motivated to participate in class struggle for non-economic reasons. For example, a person could be driven to overthrow capitalism because they empathise with the suffering of others or could decide to become a capitalist because they want to impress their conservative father who has read a dangerous amount of Ludwig von Mises.

Secondly, although Peterson is correct to say that Marx talks about economic competition as a feature of capitalism, such as in the Communist Manifesto (Marx and Engels 2002, 225), Peterson is wrong to claim that Marx ignores economic co-operation. In chapter 13 of Capital Volume 1, which is called co-operation, Marx writes that, “when numerous workers work together side by side in accordance with a plan, whether in the same process, or in different but connected processes, this form of labour is called co-operation.” For Marx such co-operation results in “an increase in the productive power of the individual” and “the creation of a new productive power, which is intrinsically a collective one.” (Marx 1990, 443) Marx returns to this idea in Capital Volume 2 when he claims that under capitalism “the working period . . . can be shortened in some branches simply by an extension of cooperation”, such as “the completion of a railway” being “hastened by setting afoot great armies of workers and tackling the job from many different points in space.” (Marx 1992b, 312)

Thirdly, Marx did not hold that people are motivated solely or primarily by economic motivations. Marx instead held that people deploy their powers, by which he meant capacities, to satisfy their needs. Although Marx thought that some very important needs within his society were economic, such as a worker’s need for a job in order to earn money or a capitalist’s need to out-compete other businesses, he did not specify that human needs as a whole are only or largely economic and in fact gives several examples of non-economic needs.

Peterson would know this if he’d been intellectually responsible and read the recent academic literature on Marx before publicly speaking on the matter to an incredibly large audience. According to David Leopold in his 2007 book The Young Karl Marx: German Philosophy, Modern Politics and Human Flourishing Marx refers to a variety of basic and complex human needs. Basic human needs are such things as,

a human need for sustenance (he talks about ‘eating, drinking’ and, more generally, ‘nourishment’), for warmth and shelter (he lists ‘heating’ and ‘clothing’ as well as a ‘dwelling’), for certain climatic conditions (he mentions both ‘light’ and ‘air’), for physical exercise (the need ‘to move about’ and the need for ‘physical exercise’), for basic hygiene (‘the simplest animal cleanliness’), and for reproduction and (heterosexual) sexual activity (he writes of ‘procreation’ and describes sexual relationships between women and men as characteristic of the ‘species’). (Leopold 2007, 228)

Complex needs, in comparison, are things like the,

human need for recreation (to ‘go drinking’, to ‘go dancing’, to ‘fence’, to ‘sing’), for culture (to ‘go to the theatre’), for education and intellectual exercise (to ‘think’, to ‘theorise’, to ‘buy books’, to engage in ‘learning’), for artistic expression (to ‘paint’), for emotional fulfilment (to ‘love’), and for aesthetic pleasure (Marx identifies ‘a musical ear, an eye for the beauty of form’ as among our essential human capacities and powers). (Leopold 2007, 229)

Some of the basic needs, such as needing food, could be construed as economic motivations in a broad sense. Others, such as needing to exercise or have sex, cannot. None of the complex needs Marx mentions can be construed as strictly speaking economic needs. Even those needs whose satisfaction within our society rests on the exchange of money, such as buying alcohol to drink or buying books from a shop, are entangled with other non-economic needs such as the desire to get drunk in order to have fun or the desire to read a book in order to learn about the history of socks.

Fourthly, although Marx did subscribe to the view that the economy plays a key role in shaping society he did not conceptualize this primacy in terms of the idea that people are primarily motivated by economic needs. In his 1859 preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy Marx wrote a highly condensed and simplified summary of his theory of history. According to Marx,

In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political, and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness. (Marx 2000, 425)

In claiming that the “economic structure of society” is the “real foundation” upon “which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness” Marx was not, as is often falsely asserted, committing himself to the view that the economy is always the main determining element of all other aspects of society throughout all of human history. This is clearly demonstrated by the fact that within Capital Volume 1 Marx writes in a footnote that “the Middle ages could not live on Catholicism, nor could the ancient world on politics. On the contrary, it is the manner in which they gained their livelihood which explains why in one case politics, in the other case Catholicism, played the chief part.” (Marx 1990, 176)

In this passage Marx explicitly states that politics played “the chief part” in the ancient world and that Catholicism played “the chief part” in the middle ages. Marx was therefore not a strong economic determinist who ignored that other aspects of society are important or can play a more important role than the economy at certain historic moments. Marx was instead committed to the weaker view that the economy provides the “real foundation” of other elements of society. What does this mean? On my reading Marx holds that the economy provides the “real foundation” of other elements of society in three main ways which I shall discuss in turn.

(a) the economy produces the necessities of life and so guarantees the survival of humans. The consequence of this fact is that although humans can survive without social structures like religion or the state they cannot survive without an economy because in the absence of production humans would die. As Marx writes in the German Ideology, “the first premiss of all human existence and, therefore, of all history” is “that men must be in a position to live in order to be able to ‘make history’. But life involves before everything else eating and drinking, a habitation, clothing, and many other things. The first historical act is thus the production of the means to satisfy these needs, the production of material life itself.” (Marx 2000, 181) There is therefore a sense in which other social structures rest on the economy because the economy is a necessary condition for human existence over time in a way that other social structures are not.

(b) the production of material life itself is a concrete form of activity which necessarily shapes those who engage in it in significant ways. Marx writes that the “mode of production must not be considered simply as being the production of the physical existence of the individuals. Rather it is a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part. As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce.” (Marx 2000, 177)

(c) the economy establishes the real possibilities for other forms of human action and thereby sets the parameters in which other social structures exist. One of the main reasons why Marx thinks that the economy plays this role is because what social structures humans can potentially establish are inherently limited by what technology and skills to use this technology humans possess. The manner in which a modern state is organised for example is only made possible due to computers, the internet, email etc and the ability to use this technology, such as knowing how to use Microsoft office. In the absence of these necessary productive forces the modern state would have to be organised in a very different manner or could not even exist in the first place. Hunter gatherers living in the Palaeolithic, for example, would not be able to create a modern state and its accompanying bureaucracy even if they somehow wanted to due to lacking key productive forces, such as writing or the mass production of pens and paper.

It is in turn the case that the development of new productive forces transforms how society is organised due to the new real possibilities for human action they enable. The invention of instant messaging for example transformed how humans were able to socially relate to one another and thereby transformed how society was structured. The technology and its application provided humans with the real possibility to enter into sexual relationships through tinder or grindr, rather than previous methods which were limited by earlier forms of technology, such as arranged marriages established through letters or dates organised via adverts in lonely hearts sections of newspapers. As Marx writes in the Poverty of Philosophy,

Social relations are closely bound up with productive forces. In acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production; and in changing their mode of production, in changing the way of earning their living, they change all their social relations. The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist. (Marx 1955, chapter 2: second observation)


Given the above, Jordan Peterson’s two main arguments against the idea that “history is to be viewed primarily as an economic class struggle” are wrong and rest on an entirely inaccurate understanding of Marx. Peterson made these false claims about what Marx thought with total confidence despite the fact that he himself knew that his understanding of Marx is based on reading the Communist Manifesto, rather than an extended study of Marx’s other major and much longer works, such as volumes 1 to 3 of Capital, The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts or the Grundrisse.

Jordan Peterson fans often complain that critics of Peterson have not read his most scholarly book Maps of Meaning and so do not understand his worldview. But for some reason they have not to my knowledge applied this same standard to Peterson himself who has publicly critiqued Marx to a huge audience without actually bothering to find out what Marx thought. In 12 Rules for Life Peterson argues that “in societies that are well-functioning . . . competence, not power, is a prime determiner of status.” (Peterson, 2018) If we apply this yardstick to Peterson we are forced to conclude that in a well-functioning society he would exist at the bottom of the knowing things about Marx competence hierarchy. The fact that so many people in our society wrongly view Peterson as a source of knowledge on Marx who has raised a number of powerful objections to Marx’s worldview only demonstrates the extent to which society has failed to conform to Peterson’s own ideals.


Leopold, David. 2007. The Young Karl Marx: German Philosophy, Modern Politics and Human Flourishing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich. 2002. The Communist Manifesto. London: Penguin.

Marx, Karl. 1955. The Poverty of Philosophy. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Marx, Karl. 1990. Capital Volume 1. London: Penguin.

Marx, Karl. 1991. Capital Volume 3. London: Penguin.

Marx, Karl. 1992a. Early Writings. London: Penguin.

Marx, Karl. 1992b. Capital Volume 2. London: Penguin.

Marx, Karl. 1993. The Grundrisse. London: Penguin.

Marx, Karl. 2000. Karl Marx: Selected Writings 2nd Edition. Edited by David McLellan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Peterson, Jordan. 2018. Maps of Meaning. Allen Lane.

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