Sunday, 18 January 2004

The open society and its enemies

Listening to:

Dinah Washington, Love for sale.

Just read:

Karl Popper, The Open Society and its enemies.

This is a classic work of 20th-century philosophy. It was written during the Second World War (mainly in New Zealand, as it happens), and is a spirited defence of the ideals of the Open Society: democratic society constructed in such a way that the ruled have a way of changing their rulers, and with its aim the minimisation of misery (Popper prefers this formulation to “the maximisation of happiness”). At the time, it really did seem as if fascism and communism represented the way of the future, and as if liberal democracy was destined for the dustbin of history.

Popper is probably most famous for his philosophical treatment of the question of determining what is and is not science, and his investigation into the nature of scientific knowledge. His work in these areas is referred to in the course of The Open Society, but the majority of the book is a political and moral criticism of the important thinkers behind those who would attack the Open Society.

Most important, and given almost an entire volume to himself, is Plato. Popper begins Volume I, The spell of Plato, with the following quote from Plato’s Laws:

The greatest principle of all is that nobody, whether male or female, should be without a leader. Nor should the mind of anybody be habituated to letting him do anything at all on his own initiative; neither out of zeal, nor even playfully. But in war and in the midst of peace—to his leader shall he direct his eye and follow him faithfully. And even in the smallest matter he should stand under leadership. For example, he should get up, or move, or wash, or take his meals... only if he has been told to do so. In a word, he should teach his soul, by long habit, never to dream of acting independently, and to become utterly incapable of it.

Plato was, according to Popper, distressed by the unsettled times in which he lived (the late 5th century BC and into the 4th century BC), and modelled his ideal state on those contemporary societies that had arrested change the most, Sparta and Crete. Plato believed that true happiness and stability could only be achieved in a society that prevented change and disruption. To do this, the ideal state should be led by philosopher-kings. People who know nothing else about Plato tend to know about the philosopher-kings, and perhaps believe that this is an idealist but harmless idea (how dangerous are philosophers, after all?) But if you delve a little deeper, you also find that Plato tells his philosopher-kings that they should

  • control their subjects’ marriages, and thereby ensure the quality of the state’s children;
  • lie to the populace and pretend that marriage arrangements have been decided by lottery;
  • be prepared to use violence and murder to preserve the state; and
  • to generally ensure that justice is everywhere interpreted as being served when the state’s interests are served.

This is argued at length, and supported with extensive quotations from Plato’s writings. All in all, it’s extremely convincing.

In Volume II, Hegel and Marx, Popper gives Aristotle a chapter, before moving onto more modern targets. Hegel is dismissed in a chapter that makes it quite clear that the man was a reactionary fraud, whose sole interest seemed to be justifying the anti-democratic policies of the Prussian state. Then Popper has 13 chapters discussing Marx and his theories. Popper is basically quite admiring of Marx the man, lauding Marx’s sympathy for the plight of the working man of the period. Nonetheless, he goes on to demolish Marx’s arguments, and his theories of the inevitable pattern of historical development. Even if the events of the last 150 years hadn’t made it clear that Marx’s predictions were bogus over this period, Popper provides good reasons to doubt their general applicability.

(Marx is an enemy of the Open Society not just because his theories led to establishment of totalitarian states like the USSR and communist China. Perhaps more significantly, it is also because his theories of historical inevitability lead one to believe that piece-meal reform of institutions for the benefit of the public (and it is this which is the ongoing democratic project), is pointless; perhaps even harmful if it were to prolong the “birth-pangs of communism”. Finally, one shouldn’t assume that Popper’s choice of Marx as a target makes him some sort of rightist conservative. He doesn’t much bother to criticise fascism, except inasmuch as it derives from Hegel. But I’m confident this is because of fascism’s general intellectual paucity, rather than because Popper has any closet sympathy for it. After all, Popper was in New Zealand during the War because he had fled Austria in the 1930s.)

I’ve summarised over 800 pages in a very cursory way, and there’s much more to this book than I’ve presented here. It’s very well written and I strongly recommend it. It’s a powerful defence of the ideals of the liberal democracy, and a brilliant rejoinder to wannabe collectivists and totalitarianists everywhere.


I haven't read the Open Society, but Popper does more criticism of theories of historical inevitability in "The Poverty of Historicism" which you're welcome to borrow next time you're in Sydney. :-)

If I recall correectly, the "Poverty" is essentially the inevitable :-) poverty of imagination in not being able to predict technological (and other?) advancements.

Posted by: Mark Staples at February 5, 2004 09:16 AM

Yeah, Popper cites “The poverty of historicism” a few times in “The open society”, often along the lines of “I completely demolish this ridiculous idea in my other book; read all about it there.”

Posted by: Michael at February 5, 2004 09:27 AM

Please do. I'd appreciate a link back to my web-log if possible.


Posted by: Michael at August 9, 2004 09:42 AM


In a roundabout way I got onto your(?) review of Karl Popper's book. How? Well I tried to search the web for the origin of the phrase "Conspiracy theory v cock-up theory" and from there I got here. I will go ahead and read the book but do you have any idea of when and by whom the phrase above came about? Its driving me nuts - like who killed JFK?

Posted by: Heather Henderson at August 19, 2004 12:52 PM