Should You “Put Your Life In Order” Before Criticizing the World?

Karl Marx’s home life was a hot mess. Jordan Peterson can’t keep his room clean. So what?

At the Foundation For Economic Education (whose defense of child labor we have discussed in this magazine before), Jon Miltimore argues that 19th century economist Karl Marx was guilty of “trying to fix the world while neglecting to clean one’s own room first,” and could have benefited from the advice of Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, the author of 12 Rules for Life. Rule No. 6 is “Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world,” and Peterson has become famous for telling people to “clean their room,” get their act together, and stop whining.

Now, Peterson himself has not always been a stickler for Rule No. 6 in his own life. His own room occasionally appears more than a bit messy, and he has undergone treatment for drug addiction, suggesting that he’s often been comfortable criticizing the world without having his house in perfect order. But the validity of an idea does not depend on the personal virtues of the individual expressing it (a point to which we shall return), so the fact that Peterson is a laughable hypocrite doesn’t necessarily mean Marx couldn’t have benefited from reading the best-selling 12 Rules. Miltimore elaborates: 

It was almost as if all of the worst traits of humanity were bundled into this one spiteful man, who then constructed a philosophy based on his own bitterness and self-loathing. He was lazy but greedy, always begging for money from family and friends who feared for his happiness and sanity. Marx didn’t seem to notice or care. They were simply a means to an end for him. He was so self-centered one wonders if he was on the spectrum. His lechery and drunkenness are well chronicled. But what really struck me is that Marx was a total slob.

Miltimore concludes that Marx, being a personal failure, should not have been constructing prescriptive theories, and should have instead pursued “individual growth,” which is “the path to a better world.” Marx failed to “fix himself first,” and thus “stunk badly,” and lived in a house “filthy, disordered, and disheveled.” That Marx couldn’t sort out the simple tasks of how to live means he should not have been producing a “system for living that had universal ambition.”

Personally, I try not to evaluate systems of philosophy on the basis of whether or not their authors had body odor. One reason for this is that if you give undue importance to, say, Karl Marx’s personal cleanliness, and from it you conclude negative things about socialism, then you will be in a tight spot intellectually if you ever meet a socialist who is well-groomed and sober. Many conservatives like to point out that Karl Marx mooched off his friend Friedrich Engels for years and could not have done his work without Engels’ ongoing subsidies. Paul Kengor, whose The Devil and Karl Marx Miltimore quotes favorably, is even more scathing, calling Marx a “moocher” off Engels and other relatives, and writing that “Marx would have ached for an all-encompassing, cradle-to-grave, womb-to-tomb, collectivist-welfare state that confiscates revenue from wealthy people and redistributes it to lazy socialist academics and theorists peddling inane ideas from their messy desk piled with papers.” He continues: 

“Marx was, in short, a slob. He was sloppy in his home life, in his desire to earn an income, in his keeping of papers, and even in his research. He avoided the factories and farms for which he devised prodigious plans for their mass nationalization and collectivization. He did his research never from the field but exclusively from the library. He embodied the worst stereotype of isolated academics who never deign to intermingle with the rubes they profess to represent.”

The problem with applying these criticisms to Karl Marx is that Marx had an intellectual partner, Engels, to whom they do not apply. Engels did not “avoid the factories,” and in fact many of his conclusions were based on first-hand observations from his work in his family’s textile business. Engels’s The Condition of the Working Class in England was grounded in a great deal of firsthand observation, hardly the abstract theory of an unworldly philosopher. Engels was also a successful businessman, albeit one who inherited his position. If Karl Marx’s criticisms of the economic system are risible because he was poor, smelly, bookish, and hopeless at managing money, can we listen to Engels making the same criticisms, since he was rich, charming, and experienced? 

Personally, I’ve always seen Marx’s destitution not as evidence against his theories, but if anything a demonstration of them. It’s clear that Marx squandered money and was untidy, but he was also a German immigrant in Dickensian London, and it was inevitably going to be far more difficult for him to make a career as an intellectual than it was for, say, Marx’s contemporary John Stuart Mill, who was the son of one of the country’s leading public intellectuals. It’s true, as Kengor says, that Marx would have loved a cradle-to-grave welfare state that would have allowed him the freedom to think and write. But those born to the British aristocracy had exactly the equivalent of this kind of welfare state, and it was far easier for them to pursue the life of the mind. Kengor thinks Marx shouldn’t have spent so much time on Das Kapital in part because he thinks Das Kapital was rubbish (he calls it “a long, ridiculous tome, a waste of money as well as time.”) Another way of looking at it is that because nobody gave a research grant to a poor immigrant, Marx had to endure penury in order to produce one of the most widely-read and cited works of economics, sociology, and philosophy in human history. 

I’ve previously discussed the way that a certain amount of material comfort is a necessary prerequisite for intellectual activity, a fact vividly demonstrated in Marx’s own life by the fact that when his winter coat was at the pawn shop, he couldn’t go to the British Museum to do his research. It’s true that Marx’s home life was a shambles (although Miltimore’s view that he had “all of the worst traits of humanity” is false; he was adored by many of those around him and by many accounts was tender with his children). But if we place value on intellectual work, the story of Marx’s poverty, and his dependence on the largesse of a wealthy businessman, does not show that Marx was simply a hopelessly weak and terrible human being. It shows that Dickensian London was no place for a philosopher. If Marx had been in different circumstances, with ideas more popular among the rich, he might have prospered, and a team of servants might have made sure his room was always clean.

Miltimore’s article is so fatuous that I’ve already insulted the reader’s intelligence by spending so long on it, but the Peterson principle that one should “fix yourself first” is entirely wrong. In fact, some of the things that are wrong in our own lives have broader structural causes, and “fix yourself first” can be cruel advice. As a basic principle, arguments should be accepted or rejected on the basis of whether they are correct, not whether the person propounding them is a hypocrite. Sometimes my own desk is messy, and sometimes it is clean. The Current Affairs office is tidier since we moved to a building whose landlord employs a cleaning service, which we were able to do because we have more money than we used to. The tidiness of my desk and office, though, is not relevant to my case for socialism. If Karl Marx had been the world’s tidiest man, it would not have not have made the labor theory of value any more valid, or affected whether exploitation and alienation are inherent features of the capitalist system. Martin Luther King Jr., it turns out,was an unfaithful husband, but his writings and speeches still hold timeless lessons that have been in no way diminished by this revelation. The Peterson principle is not only ignored by Peterson himself, but is only valid as general life advice. It has no place in discussions of ideas, where it can never be anything but a cheap, fallacious ad hominem. 

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