Last month, Penguin published a new edition of “Gulag Archipelago” by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. A quote on the back cover says that the book “helped make the world we live in today.”
And what a hellish world that is. Fascist movements are on the rise globally as the gap between rich and poor grows wider and wider. But this may be just the home for someone like Solzhenitsyn, who from 1978 until his death in 2008 called for a patriarchal ethno-state in what was once the USSR and is presently Russia. Even Henry Kissinger admitted Solzhenitsyn was “to the right of the Czar.”
In 2017, Steve Bannon’s Breitbart News recommended the book to its readers in a list of “seven conservative classics every American should read.” A year later, we have a new edition of this “conservative classic” with a forward by Jordan Peterson.
The far right has seized on Solzhenitsyn in this period. But why?
Solzhenitsyn’s audience today
As explained in Part 1 of this series, Peterson and Solzhenitsyn hold similar views, but there’s more to the story than ideological affinity. To understand the impact a new edition of “Gulag Archipelago” could have today, it’s necessary to know who listens to Jordan Peterson and, by extension, who will listen to Solzhenitsyn.
Despite the scorn heaped on him by the mainstream press, Peterson has developed a huge audience using the same communication channels that other far-right forces have organized through in the last decade.
To briefly give a sense of the numbers: Peterson’s last two appearances on the Joe Rogan Experience, a popular right-wing podcast, have each garnered over 4 million views; his Twitter account has nearly a million followers; and his YouTube channel, where he uploads his bigoted lectures, has 1.6 million subscribers.
It’s these numbers that propelled Peterson’s recent book, “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote for Chaos,” to the top of Amazon’s best sellers list when it was first published in January 2018. Almost a year later, it remains number three on the list.
So who are these millions? As Peterson himself admitted, 91 percent are men. Other commentators have pointed out that a majority are young and white. This should come as no surprise, given that the author built his career advocating for enforced monogamy and attacking the concept that white privilege exists.
But it’s also clear that Peterson is deliberately targeting these young white men. “12 Rules for Life” very consciously presents itself as a self-help book for this group. To what end?
Jordan Peterson, fascist recruiter
Despite efforts by the liberal media to blame Trump’s election on the alleged backwardness of the white working class, the truth is that Trump was elected by the white middle class, who constituted his largest voting bloc. Historically, it has always been the case that fascism grows out of the middle class in periods of crisis.
This, however, does not mean that the middle class can only be fascist. As Leon Trotsky assessed in the 1930s, the middle class is contradictory, one that aspires to be in the ranks of the bourgeoisie but is always at risk of being pushed into the ranks of the proletariat by the forces of capitalism.
Depending on a number of factors, its political views during a crisis can waver — sometimes toward fascism and sometimes toward socialism. For this reason, the right-wing can’t take for granted that the middle class will remain on its side. And in this period, they have reason to worry.
A recent survey showed that the majority of young people today prefer socialism to capitalism. For good reason. Studies have shown that downward mobility is nearly universal for young people. They make less money than their parents, work multiple jobs and have more debt. Capitalism isn’t working for them. This is particularly true for Black and Brown young people, but in this period it has also become increasingly true for young white people, for whom whiteness is less and less the guarantor of safety and comfort that it once seemed to be in the U.S.
Jordan Peterson’s objective, then, is to pull elements of this oscillating middle class rightward. Young people are targeted because they face a dead end and are desperate for a way out of the crisis. Of this group, white men are a prime target because the ruling class has age-old tools for luring them into acting against their own interests.
Those tools are patriarchy and white supremacy.
Below a veneer of individual rights and liberty (most likely sponsored by the Koch brothers), Peterson is, in essence, trying to sell young, white middle-class men the narrative that they are miserable because their rightful place in the social order has been taken by people who are “biologically inferior” to them, who happen to be Black and Brown, and women who should be in the home, not the workplace.
Since it was first conjured up, white supremacy has always functioned as a tool to divide the working class by convincing white workers that they have more in common with their white bosses than they do with their fellow Black and Brown workers. Patriarchy, while serving many functions under capitalism, has also played a role in dividing the working class by enabling misogynistic behavior.
While neither patriarchy nor white supremacy actually addresses the economic impoverishment with which capitalism threatens the ranks of the middle class, the strength of this hatred in poisoning the mind should not be underestimated in a society organized on the basis of white supremacy and patriarchy.
The only way to disprove this ideological poison, and to pull the middle class away from these illusions, is a strong socialist movement of the working class and oppressed.
The far right knows this, especially today when fascist forces are being smashed in the streets by communists, socialists and anarchists. And so they turn to Solzhenitsyn to bolster their claims.
They roll out “Gulag Archipelago” — a book written by a man who refused to say one good word about socialism, who painted a picture of unrelenting horror and cruelty in the Soviet Union, and who apologized for Nazi collaborators — in order to eliminate socialism as a possibility within the minds of young people and create the illusion that the only solution to the crisis is the path laid out by Peterson.
But Peterson and the far right are bound to fail. The only “antidote to chaos” is socialism.