Apramāda

Buddhist perspectives on society and culture

Karl Popper vs The Laws of History

Posted in: Philosophy
This article is part of the series Karl Popper. Articles in the series are:
The Lovers Whirlwind

In part 1 of this series I attempted to outline Popper’s theory of scientific method, and to formulate a Buddhist response. But as I said there, although his theory may be fairly simply stated, it is immensely fertile in its application. Indeed, having arrived at the basic formulation whilst a young man, Popper spent the rest of a long professional life as a philosopher working out its implications. It is to some of these further implications that I wish to turn here. In particular there are two connected areas that it seems most important to explore: history, and politics. As regards his own philosophy these topics are separable, and will be treated as such towards the end of this article. But they are connected – badly in his view – in some of the ideas he criticizes. In particular, he coins the term ‘historicism’ for ideas of a particular kind, which attempt to describe laws of history akin to the laws of science. Before dealing with Popper’s own approach to social science, we shall examine some of his arguments against historicism, and its equally dangerous twin, utopianism. We shall also touch on his attacks against the three main historicist philosophers that he identifies, namely Plato, Hegel and especially Marx. One of my reasons for writing this essay is that I believe Popper’s criticisms of Marx in particular deserve wider coverage. At a time when Marx’s ideas seems to be rather in the air – too much for comfort – I believe that Popper’s sympathetic but trenchant dismantling of them should be better understood both by those who promote and those who deride Marxism.

Popper’s Central Idea

But first, let us remind ourselves that according to Popper science progresses through a process of hypothesising explanations of phenomena, examining the hypotheses for internal logical consistency, deducing basic statements from them, and testing the truth of the basic statements in an attempt to falsify the hypotheses. Those theories that pass the most stringent tests may be provisionally accepted until they are overturned by better ones. Popper formulates this procedure in the following diagram, in which PS stands for ‘problem situation’, TT stands for ‘tentative theory’, and EE stands for ‘error elimination’.

         PS1 → TT1 → EE1 → PS2

The problem situation is an important coinage of Popper’s. It means the problems associated with the – necessarily limited – state of knowledge at any given point in time. A tentative theory is an attempted solution to the problem situation; and error elimination is the testing of the theory, both logically and empirically – as already described. In the testing of the theory, the problem situation is changed, either because the theory fails, in which case the problem situation is modified by the knowledge thus acquired, or because it passes, in which case new problems will arise in association with the new theory.

This process has no logical endpoint, and the basic sequence can be repeated indefinitely. But equally importantly, it has no beginning point either. Although the process can become conscious through the practice of science, and thereby more rigorous and precise, there is, Popper says, ‘no clearly marked division between the pre-scientific and the scientific experimental approaches.’1 Science is about making conscious and deliberate something that is natural and necessary to humankind. Man is by nature a problem-solving animal.

But this is not all. The evolutionary process itself follows precisely the same pattern.  Adaptations may be seen as attempts to address a problem situation with novel hypotheses, which are then tested by empirical reality, in the course of which those that pass the tests survive to be replicated. There is thus a direct comparison between Darwin’s formula of random mutation and natural selection, and Popper’s of conjecture and refutation. In fact they express the same principle, the one on a biological and the other on a theoretical level.

We can go further still. Popper seldom strayed far into metaphysical speculation, but here he offers a tantalizing glimpse of a grand philosophical perspective. 

I think science suggests to us a picture of a universe that is inventive or even creative; a universe in which new things emerge, on new levels.2

Seen thus, the pattern of conjecture and refutation expresses a deep principle, found within life itself, or even reality itself. As ‘new things emerge, on new levels’, the principle manifests accordingly. With humans it has the possibility of being deliberately applied, and this allows for a far more rapid progress of knowledge. And Popper believed that this happened decisively for the first time in Ancient Greece.

The Beginnings of the Open Society

Popper’s account of classical Greece is one of conflict – ideological, political, and martial – between a tribal culture, with its taboos, hierarchies, and superstitions, and the emerging ideals of humanitarianism, individualism, and free enquiry. The former he calls the ‘closed society’, the latter the ‘open society’. In a closed society, any learning that takes place is in the context of a ‘school’.

It is the task of a school to hand on the tradition, the doctrine of its founder, its first master, to the next generation, and to this end the most important thing is to keep the doctrine inviolate.3

By contrast, the decisive step forward in the transition to an open society happened in the Pre-Socratic philosophers, when something momentous happened: A disciple criticized the views of his teacher, and offered an alternative of his own. Popper identifies Thales as possibly the first philosopher who encouraged this kind of criticism. Thales’ suggestion was that the earth was floating on water, while his disciple, Anaximander, came closer to the mark with the idea that it was suspended in space.

The freedom to use reason to criticize authority and tradition tends towards, and requires, a spirit of humanitarianism and equalitarianism, which resulted in the world’s first steps towards democracy. But this development was by no means welcomed by everybody, and the great intellectual awakening that had started was met by equally powerful counter-forces, which largely succeeded in arresting and reversing the progress made. And the greatest of all the enemies of the open society was none other than Plato.

Plato

Popper’s account of Plato is distinctive and controversial. Although acknowledging his great contributions to philosophy, Popper strongly condemns his moral and political philosophy. The picture painted is of a man caught in a titanic inner struggle between the enlightened spirit of Socrates, and his own tendency to align with the reactionary conservatism of the aristocracy to which he belonged. The result is a perversion and betrayal of Socrates’ legacy. The wisdom that Socrates claimed for himself was that of acknowledging his boundless ignorance, and philosophy was the enquiry into the truth through the exercise of reason. In Plato, wisdom becomes an absolute ‘rational’ knowledge of eternal ‘Forms’. Such knowledge is in the possession of an initiated elite, whose natural place is to rule the ideal state. Under such a state, the notion of justice too is perverted, from such ideas as equality under the law, to the notion of the subservience of the individual for the good of the collective (which means to the stability of the state). In this way, the progressive and humane ideas of the Pre-Socratics, and of Socrates himself, were hijacked, twisted, and put to the service of a conservative reaction. This was a reassertion of the closed society of the  tribe, but now with a sophisticated philosophical apparatus to support it, which is fundamentally a rationalisation of totalitarianism, complete with slavery, eugenics, martial rule by an elite, enforced communism, state propaganda, suppression of free thought, indoctrination through education etc. Virtually all the characteristics of modern totalitarianism, the heyday of which Popper himself lived through, were prefigured in the political philosophy of the West’s greatest philosopher.

Between Plato and his historicist successors there is one other figure that comes into this story, namely Aristotle. In Popper’s account of Plato’s metaphysics, The Forms are the timeless originals, and the changing world we see through the senses consists in their imperfect copies. Therefore all change is deterioration. This is applied to the notion of the state. Since the ideal state exists prior to all its earthly manifestations it is no longer accessible to humanity; but since all change is deterioration, the best we can do is to arrest it, and thereby keep the state as close to the ideal as possible. Here we see why Popper considered Plato a historicist: change is deterioration, but it is also inevitable, which means that the future course of history can be predicted. Into this picture Aristotle introduced the notion of ends. Rather than all change being a deterioration from an ideal good, he posited the more optimistic notion that all things are moving towards an end which is a fulfilment of its nature. The importance of this for Hegel, whom we discuss next, will I hope be sufficiently apparent.

Hegel

For Plato and, as we will see, Marx, Popper tempered his criticism with considerable appreciation of their achievements. Not so Hegel, whom he regarded (as did Schopenhauer before him) as a charlatan and a hireling of the Prussian state, and whose philosophy he saw as entirely without merit or originality, but puffed up into pseudo-profundity by the tortuousness of its expression, in what he described as the greatest intellectual fraud in the history of civilization.4 And he holds Hegel accountable for providing the ideological foundation for both forms of totalitarianism, left and right, that plagued the Twentieth Century.

Hegel’s thought is complex and obscure, but one of his ideas is of particular importance for understanding Marx, which is that history develops according to a ‘dialectic’. Hegel’s notion of a dialectic was itself a development, or in Popper’s view of course a corruption, of Kant’s. For Kant, a dialectic exists between two positions, arrived at through pure speculative reason, both of which have equal claim to validity. He thought, for example, the existence or otherwise of a creator God was a question of this kind, and could not be settled by pure reason alone. Whatever one thinks of this proposition, Kant’s purpose was to warn against the use of reason in metaphysical speculation. Unfortunately, following him the opposite seems to have happened. Under Hegel in particular, the notion of a dialectic, which was supposed to be a tool to cure speculation, was itself subjected to the most ungrounded speculation imaginable. From Kant’s bold suggestion that reason has its seat not in reality but in the human mind, Hegel drew the unjustified conclusion that it is relative to the particular point in history in which it is exercised, and that in fact it develops according to historical laws. A ‘thesis’, that is considered true at one time, is contradicted by an ‘antithesis’, before giving way to a ‘synthesis’, which is a higher third containing and resolving the contradiction. This process is undergone by the ‘Geist’, or ‘Spirit’, which manifests ever more fully its own freedom through the historical dialectic. Or something.

The dialectical view of history paved the way for Marx, in whom Hegel’s baleful influence is most unfortunately apparent. Popper was in certain respects highly complementary of Marx, applauding his humanitarian concern, and acknowledging his contributions to philosophy, sociology and economics. But nonetheless Hegel’s influence led Marx to make some disastrous errors in his thinking. These are of two kinds. There are those that are to do with Marx’s conclusions, especially the historical prophecies that he made, the majority of which have turned out to be false. And there are those that are to do with Marx’s method, which is the apotheosis of historicism.

Marx’s Historicism

Let us consider the second first, since it is the more fundamental. By historicism, Popper tells us that he means ‘an approach to the social sciences which assumes that historical prediction is their principal aim, and which assumes that this aim is attainable by discovering the ‘rhythms’ or the ‘patterns’, the ‘laws’ or the ‘trends’ that underlie the evolution of history.’5 Under Marx in particular, these laws of historical development, and the predictions that flow from them, were given the status of science, comparable to the law of evolution. This claim Popper denies, saying that it comes from a confusion of two kinds of prediction. The first kind predicts the occurrence of something which we can do nothing to prevent, such as a solar eclipse. Such a prediction Popper labels a ‘prophecy’. The second kind predicts that if a certain action is taken, a certain result will ensue. These Popper calls ‘technological’ predictions. While science includes both kinds of prediction, in physics (the paradigm of the sciences) it is mainly technological prediction that is used, since it is through planned experiment, and not merely patient observation, that theories are tested. And according to Popper, it is very much technological prediction which is the proper method of the social sciences, whereas prophetic prediction is crucially flawed.

To understand why, let us remind ourselves that scientific method consists in the deduction of testable predictions from conjectured hypotheses, with those hypotheses that pass the most stringent tests being provisionally preferred. It will also be useful to remember that a superior hypothesis is one that not only explains a lot, but explains it in detail. This implies that among inferior hypotheses, some explain things in detail, but apply only to a limited range of phenomena, whilst others apply to a broad range of phenomena, but do not explain anything in detail. Historical prophecies are of the second kind. In contrast to the prophecies of astronomy, which are deductions from theories that have been well tested according to the technological method of prediction, the historical trends sought by the historicist are so broad that they can encompass anything and there is no method of testing them. They are therefore not scientific, and are largely useless.

It is Marx’s attachment to the historicist method of prophecy which is his biggest weakness, and from which his most disastrous errors come. Popper’s treatment of Marx is very detailed, and I shall choose only two points of particular importance to illustrate both the latter’s virtues as a thinker, and how he was misled by his poor choice of method.

The Economic Substrate

One of Marx’s biggest mistakes is also one of his most significant achievements. For Hegel, the historical dialectic was undergone by the rather vague substance called ‘Spirit’. Marx rejected this, and thought that he had discovered the true source of the configuration of society in all its aspects, whereby his historical prophecies assumed their scientific character. It is economics that is the substratum, and especially the control of the means of production. Everything else – religion, culture, morality, politics – are part of the ‘superstructure’ that supervenes upon this fundamental base.

Popper recognised this as a fruitful idea. And indeed, we are now so accustomed to seeing culture through the lens of economics that it would be easy to forget that we owe this insight to Marx. The problem with it is that it mistakes a part for the whole. In particular, it mistakes the relationship between economics and politics. Because for Marx economics is fundamental and politics entirely dependent on it, there can be no change in society through political reform, but only through a change in the economic basis. Even democracy is rejected, as just another means for controlling the people on behalf of those with economic power. While there is undoubtedly an element of truth in this, it leads to a disastrous conclusion, namely the impotence of politics, and therefore a rejection of the principal means available for actually ameliorating the sufferings of the oppressed. Not only is this wrong in theory, it has been proved wrong in practice, since it is precisely the democratic intervention in the labour markets that has been successful in protecting workers from the kinds of exploitation against which Marx was railing – intervention of a kind that is misguided according to Marx’s own theory.

But the most disastrous result of this mistake was that Marx offered no account of the role of politics in post-revolution society. Since he saw politics as secondary to economics, he assumed that it will be redundant once the economic substrate has been transformed into collective ownership of the means of production. Of course, what in fact happened in every Marxist society is the opposite: The state became more powerful and tyrannical than anything the world had seen before. The theory of the impotence of politics was falsified by mountains of corpses.

Class

The second mistake I wish to highlight also stems from Marx’s historicist method, and the over-stating of the significance of economics relative to other factors in human life. Marx’s historical prophecies arose from his analysis of capitalism as he found it in the middle of the 19th century, and in particular of the conditions of the working class. This entirely necessary protest against the inhuman treatment of the industrial workers, and the awakening of the social conscience that followed from it, earns Marx a place among ‘the liberators of mankind’.6 But from the study of these conditions, in which Popper sees considerable merit, Marx goes on to claim to have discovered the laws of capitalism which allow him to predict the future course of its development, and eventually its demise. It is of the nature of capitalism to divide the population increasingly into two classes: capitalists, who have ownership of the means of production; and the proletariat, who has nothing to sell but its own labour. The selection pressures of capitalist production force the capitalist class to exploit the workers as much as possible in order to maximise profits. Those who do not do so successfully are selected out of the competition, thereby simultaneously swelling the ranks of the workers which they are forced to join, and concentrating more capital in the hands of those who remain. This continues until the oppression of the workers is so unbearable, and their numerical preponderance so overwhelming, that they rise up and seize ownership of the means of production, and institute a socialist society.

Expressed in its bare form in this way, it is hard to believe that such implausible ideas could have seduced so many intelligent people. The answer must lie, as Popper hints, in the combination of a genuine humanitarian concern with the quasi-religious character of the historical prophecies. But notwithstanding that, the problem here is a simplistic division of humankind into classes. It was too simplistic at the time, and it has proved yet more so since then. As Popper points out, Marx’s analysis takes insufficient account of other possible classes, including agrarian workers, big landowners, a new middle class of more skilled workers (those who look after the machines, for example), and a ‘rabble proletariat’ – a phrase used by Marx to refer to a criminal underclass who profit from the status quo. One might also add that the democratic interventionism that Marx did not foresee creates another class or classes, of those who are employed by the state to administer social welfare programmes, for example.

But even if Marx’s analysis had been in fact more accurate than it has turned out to be, it was an astonishing piece of naivety to assume that the ‘class consciousness’, which we are told unites the proletariat, will continue after the revolution, and result in a classless society. As Popper says, ‘There is no earthly reason why the individuals who form the proletariat should retain their class unity once the pressure of the struggle against the common class enemy has ceased.’7 This again is a mistake consequent on the overestimation of the importance of economics on all aspects of human life. The tendency of human beings to divide themselves according to tribal identities is far deeper than Marx realised.

Utopianism

We here arrive at a point that is common to all historicist doctrines, namely their utopian character. Although Marx was critical of utopian socialism, and attempted to replace it with scientific rigour, his vision of a socialist society, in which all class divisions are obliterated and ‘the state withers away’, was itself utopian in the extreme. It is worth asking why historicism and utopianism should be so connected, when there is no necessary theoretical connection between them.

Popper’s answer takes us back to his distinction between a closed and an open society. The closed society is the society of the tribe. And out of tribalism grows the doctrine of a chosen people. Historicism is always collectivist: its chosen people, whether the nation, the race, or the class, will one day reach its promised land, in which the strain of individuality will no longer be felt.

Understandable and forgivable as the psychological impulse to utopianism may be, its application within the political sphere tends to be catastrophic. This is because utopians, should they find themselves with any actual political power, are forced to confront the real world, which remains curiously intractable to the kind of complete transformation required for the establishment of a utopia. Moreover, historicism, which assumes that the coming utopia is a historical necessity, furnishes us with no effective methods for actually bringing it about. The Utopian therefore undertakes what Popper calls ‘utopian social engineering’, which ‘aims at remodelling the whole of society in accordance with a definite plan or blueprint.’8

The problems with such an endeavour are manifold, and I shall focus on only a few of the most important. Firstly, large scale social experiments have no basis in science. Genuine scientific experiments require the deliberate limiting of conditions in order to eliminate errors. The application of this principle to social engineering even on a small scale is hard enough, because ideal experimental conditions are difficult to obtain. But on a large scale it is impossible, because the more complicated conditions become, the less there can be any mechanism for comparing the results expected with the results obtained, which is necessary for any advancement in experimental knowledge. 

Secondly, large scale social planning requires centralization of power. And as Popper says, ‘it is easy to centralize power but impossible to centralize all that knowledge which is distributed over many individual minds, and whose centralization would be necessary for the wise wielding of centralized power.’9 Moreover, utopian engineering requires massive changes, and such changes will result in large inconveniences, provoking strong criticisms. But a centralized power will not only lack the capacity to listen to criticism, it will use its power to suppress criticism in order to realise its plans. It thereby removes the correctives that are necessary for the effective implementation of any plan. But when utopian engineering is less than successful, as with the suppression of informed criticism it must inevitably be, the tendency of those in power will not be to take responsibility for the failure, but to find enemies to blame – and to punish. And faced with the intractability of social institutions against utopian transformation, rather than re-moulding imperfect institutions to serve the people, the people must be re-moulded – through intimidation and indoctrination – to fit into the institutions. The result, to cut a long story short, is tyranny.

Tyranny, then, is the inevitable result of historicism and utopianism in practice. But what does Popper advocate in their place?

As we have seen, historicism, by attempting to find social laws embedded in history, combines history with social science in an illegitimate way. To understand Popper’s views on these two topics they must be examined separately. Before turning to the question of social science, we shall touch on his view of history.

History

Popper’s view of history is connected with his general philosophy of knowledge and especially of scientific method. He points out that neither history nor science is merely a collection of facts. In both, the possible facts that could be obtained are virtually infinite, but they must be selected according to criteria, and given coherence once selected. In the natural sciences this coherence is provided by theories. In history, by contrast, it is provided by ‘points of view’, or ‘historical interpretations’.

It is possible, for example, to interpret ‘history’ as the history of class struggle, or of the  struggle of races for supremacy, or as the history of religious ideas, or as the history of the struggle between the ‘open’ and the ‘closed’ society, or as the history of scientific and industrial progress. All these are more or less interesting points of view, and as such are perfectly unobjectionable.10

The mistake historicist thinkers make is to treat interpretations of these kinds as though they were of the same order as scientific theories – as Marx did with his theory of dialectical materialism. In science one is looking for theories that apply at the utmost level of generality. In history this is a futile endeavour.

To better understand why, let us look at a distinction that Popper makes between the ‘generalizing’ and the ‘historical’ sciences. All sciences (using the term in the broadest sense) make use both of general laws and of particular instances. The distinction between generalizing and historical sciences pertains to the degree of emphasis given to each. In theoretical physics, general hypotheses are proposed, from which particular testable predictions are deduced. The purpose of the particular predictions is to test the general hypotheses, the refutation or corroboration of which is the main pursuit. With the ‘historical’ sciences the situation is reversed. An engineer building a bridge, to use Popper’s example, assumes a range of general physical laws, but his focus is not on testing them but on applying them, and thus on the particular more than on the general.

History is more akin to this second kind. Historical explanations do make use of general laws, but they are subordinate to the examination of the particular. Moreover, the general laws utilised tend not to be particularly interesting in themselves. For example, Henry VIII’s infatuation with Anne Boleyn was of great historical consequence, but the general statement that men can become infatuated with women is hardly a great psychological insight.

Because history’s focus is on explanations of the particular, the historicist method to seek general laws in history is inherently misguided. The facts of history are given meaning and coherence not by scientific theories, but by interpretations. But whence do such points of view come? Not from history itself, but from us; from decisions we make. 

There can be no ‘history of the past as it actually did happen’; there can only be historical interpretations, and none of them final; and every generation has a right to frame its own. But not only has it a right to frame its own interpretations, it also has a kind of obligation to do so; for there is indeed a pressing need to be answered. We want to know how our troubles are related to the past, and we want to see the line along which we may progress towards the solution of what we feel, and what we choose, to be our main tasks.11

There is, in sum, no one true interpretation of history. Moreover, there is no inherent direction of history, whether of progress or decay. The way we interpret history is not given to us by history itself, but by our values and interests today; and nor is the future determined by the trends of history, but is something we are free to fashion according to our own decisions in the present. We cannot leave it to the laws of history to make a better world. We must take responsibility for doing so ourselves. But how does Popper suggest we go about it?  

Piecemeal social engineering

While Popper was critical of utopianism, he was nonetheless a humanitarian, concerned with how best to improve the lot of humanity. We shall now look at his ideas on how this should be done.

Popper’s view of social science and of the amelioration of society is an application of his views on scientific method. He held that the proper method of the social sciences is the study of human society and how it functions. Not how it is destined to develop, but how it actually functions here and now. The laws that are to be discovered are not those of historical destiny, but of the functioning of human institutions. These include economic laws such as ‘if demand increases, prices rise’, as well as political ones such as ‘power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. The knowledge that results from such study Popper calls ‘social technology’; and the application of this knowledge to the development of society he calls ‘piecemeal social engineering’. This is, in my opinion, one of his most important ideas, and we shall let him explain it.

The characteristic approach of the piecemeal engineer is this. Even though he may perhaps cherish some ideals which concern society ‘as a whole’ – its general welfare, perhaps – he does not believe in the method of redesigning it as a whole. Whatever his ends, he tried to achieve them by small adjustments and re-adjustments which can be continually improved upon…. The piecemeal engineer knows, like Socrates, how little he knows. He knows that we can learn only from our mistakes. Accordingly, he will make his way, step by step, carefully comparing the results expected with the results achieved, and always on the look-out for the unavoidable unwanted consequences of any reform; and he will avoid undertaking reforms of a complexity and scope which make it impossible for him to disentangle causes and effects, and to know what he is really doing.12

The piecemeal engineer is thus interested in gradual development rather than revolution, in the careful acquisition and application of knowledge rather than the forced imposition of ideology. It may seem that we are being offered two methods of social engineering, the utopian and the piecemeal. But it is not quite so, for the simple reason that in practice there is in fact no such thing as the wholesale and sudden transformation of society; there is only more or less partial and gradual transformation. Therefore in confronting the task of changing society in accordance with his blueprint, the utopian is forced to adopt piecemeal methods, but he will do it badly. There is, in fact, no option than to change society piecemeal. The choice is whether to apply piecemeal methods in a utopian manner, in which case they will be applied badly, or whether to apply them consciously and carefully, in which case there is at least a chance that they will be applied well.

Although Popper’s piecemeal engineering is an approach to government intervention, his political philosophy is by no means only of relevance to those who lean left. Although he did not accept that laissez-faire capitalism was tenable, he acknowledged the danger of increasing the power of the state.

…economic intervention, even the piecemeal methods advocated here, will tend to increase the power of the state. Interventionism is therefore extremely dangerous. This is not a decisive argument against it; state power must always remain a dangerous though necessary evil.13

Moreover, even non-interventionism involves a technological approach to social problems. ‘For to assert that interventionism makes matters worse is to say that certain political actions would not have certain effects – to wit, not the desired ones; and it is one of the most characteristic tasks of any technology to point out what cannot be achieved.’14 For example, one might propose the rule that ‘one cannot impose a minimum wage without raising unemployment’, and use that as a basis for rejecting an interventionist measure. However, if we are in possession of such technological knowledge, it must be admitted that we might also find out things that can be achieved, and the idea that government intervention always makes things worse appears as nothing more than another untestable dogma.

Piecemeal social engineering, being a matter of method rather than doctrine, takes politics away from ideology, and towards rational examination of problems and their possible solutions. As such it is of value both to those who lean left and those who lean right. In my opinion, however, it tends towards centrism, as I suspect Popper did himself. But one thing his approach does require is a commitment to democracy, which is the next point of Popper’s that I will examine.

Democracy

Popper considered that in political theory going all the way back to Plato, the wrong question has usually been asked: Who should rule? ‘The wise’, says Plato; ‘the divinely anointed’, says the royalist; ‘the proletariat’, says Marx; ‘the strong’, says the fascist; ‘the people’, says the naive democrat. All of these answers are open to the same theoretical flaw, which Popper calls the ‘paradox of sovereignty’. For suppose the King abdicates, in favour of democracy? Suppose ‘the people’ choose a fascist leader? This paradox is a result of the wrong question having been asked. The correct question is this: Given that we will inevitably be subjected to bad or incompetent rulers, how can we organize our political institutions so that they cannot do too much damage? The answer is that we can make those who rule us accountable for their incompetence, by removing them from office by democratic means. We can ensure that our political institutions protect the freedom to criticize the actions of the rulers, and most importantly that they allow a non-violent transition of power from one set of rulers to another. Imperfect as Western liberal democracy is, it is the only political system yet devised that offers these things.

In sum, if we truly want to make the world better there is no option than to do so piecemeal. We should study society as scientifically as possible, and any knowledge thus acquired should be applied cautiously and with the humble acknowledgement of the limitations of our understanding. Any measures proposed should be subjected to rigorous criticism, both before, during and after their implementation. Only in this way can we learn from our mistakes and weed out the bad ideas. This requires an ‘open society’, in which there is a culture of free enquiry and criticism, and the institutions of society should be committed to upholding such freedom. Representative democracy is the only political system yet devised that allows any possibility of this, not because it expresses the ‘will of the people’ or any vague notion of that kind, but because it allows a range of views represented in government, and the possibility of holding those in power to account for their corruption and incompetence.

What this leaves us with is both a powerful attack on totalitarian ideologies, especially those of the radical left (perhaps because Popper considered the evils of fascism sufficiently obvious), and a robust defence of Western liberal democracy. Popper continued to defend the West throughout his long life. In 1986, at the age of 84, he wrote the following words.  

I know very well that much is wrong in our Western society. But I still have no doubt that it is the best that ever existed. And much that is wrong is due to its ruling religion. I mean the ruling religious belief that the social world we live in is a kind of hell. This religion is spread by the intellectuals, especially by those in the teaching profession and in the news media. There is almost a competition of gloom and doom: the more radically one condemns our Western society, the greater seems to be one’s chance to be listened to (and perhaps play a leading role in it).15

These words perhaps resonate more than ever today, when the freedoms for which Popper argued are gradually being eroded, and the intelligentsia of the Western world largely consists of people committed to deriding their own culture at every opportunity. And behind it all, one senses the continued influence of Marx. I will finish with some thoughts on this.

Marx’s Continued Influence

In this article I have been able to do no more than offer a taste of Popper’s critique of the historicist thinkers. To this topic, and to Marxism in particular, Popper turned his extraordinarily powerful intellect, and applied his characteristic method of criticizing a position not at its weakest points but at its strongest, and in their strongest formulation. The result is devastating. Bryan Magee went so far as to say ‘I must confess I do not see how any rational man can have read Popper’s critique of Marx and still be a Marxist.’ 16 If this point is accepted (and of course some will not), it is worth asking how it is that Marxism remains influential. I can suggest a few reasons.

One is that philosophy tends to move slowly, and an intellectual achievement such as Popper’s can take longer than the seven or so decades that have since elapsed before its full effects are felt. This is partly because intellectual culture is itself influenced by wider cultural trends. But also, it requires considerable effort to follow the arguments Popper makes against Marx in all their forensic detail, and it is an effort that too few make.

Secondly, while Popper attacked what has been called ‘classical Marxism’ (the ideas of Marx himself, along with the additions made by Engels), Marxism has changed significantly since then. Probably few would call themselves classical Marxists these days, and Marx’s influence can be seen in ideas that he himself wouldn’t necessarily recognise, especially the ‘identity politics’ that seems to have developed out of such Marxist thinkers as Gramsci, and following him the Frankfurt School. But some of Popper’s criticisms of Marxism can apply to these too, including the rejection of utopianism, of the assumption of a progressive trend in history, and of the simplistic division of humanity into identity groups and the excessive explanatory power given to such identities over the life and fate of individuals. 

But perhaps more fundamentally, Marx’s ideas have survived the incisions of the likes of Popper because the psychological impulse to utopianism persists. As well as giving a superficially plausible account of the world’s wrongs, Marxism offers a vision of a better world. This is a seductive combination to a certain type of person (including the odd Buddhist). Although Popper demolished utopianism as a political position, it is in addressing the psychological – or, dare I say it, spiritual – need behind it that the limitations of his worldview reveal themselves. Just as I argued in part 1 that Popper’s ideal of rational individualism doesn’t do justice to the spiritual side of human nature, so I also suggest here that the open society that he advocates is too limited an ideal, that it doesn’t capture all possibilities for humanity’s collective life, and that Buddhism has something more to offer. This will be the topic for the third and final article in this series.

Footnotes

  1. Popper, The Poverty of Historicism, Routledge, p87
  2. Miller, Popper Selections, Princeton, p240
  3. Ibid,p26
  4. Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, Volume 1,Routledge, p79. For myself, although I have a high regard for both Schopenhauer and Popper, I have not read Hegel so must to that extent reserve judgement.
  5. Popper, The Poverty of Historicism, Routledge, p3
  6. Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, Volume 1, p122
  7. Ibid, p138
  8. Popper, The Poverty of Historicism, p67
  9. Ibid, p89-90
  10. Ibid,p151
  11. Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, Volume 1, p268
  12. Popper, The Poverty of Historicism, p66-67
  13. Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, Volume 1, p130
  14. Popper, The Poverty of Historicism, p61
  15. Popper, Unended Quest, Flamingo, p197
  16. Bryan Magee, Popper, Fontana, p92
Vidyaruchi

Vidyaruchi has been a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order for 12 years, for the first four of which he was personal assistant to its founder, Urgyen Sangharakshita. Since then he has been a freelance Buddhist. When not engaged in teaching or travelling he mainly lives in a shed in his parents' garden.

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