Beware of Rule by Dreamers

Utopian attempts to realize an ideal state are likely to lead to dictatorship, warns the philosopher Karl Popper

Isaac Ben-Israel
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Isaac Ben-Israel

"The Open Society and Its Enemies" by Karl Popper, paperback, Princeton University Press, 5th edition (revised), 1974, Volume 1, 361 pages, $22.50, Volume 2, 420 pages, $24.95, translated recently into Hebrew by Aharon Amir, Shalem Press, 818 pages, NIS 139

The book "The Open Society and Its Enemies" deals with political philosophy - that is, with the normative question of upon what principle a society should be based in order to maintain the values of freedom, justice, civil rights and the welfare of the individual. The translation of this book into Hebrew is a cause for celebration for seekers of culture and adds to the shelf of masterpieces an accessible volume in Hebrew of a work that influenced generations of scholars and men of action during the 20th century. The translation today, about 60 years after the book was originally written, can only provoke questions as to why this was not done earlier.

Karl Popper (1902-1994) was born in Vienna, the capital of Austria, to a wealthy family of Jews who had converted to Christianity. His parents converted (before he was born) as an ideological attempt to solve the Jewish problem through assimilation. In his youth Popper witnessed events that changed the face of history in Europe (World War I, the Communist Revolution, the takeover of the expanses of Eastern Europe by the Marxist Soviet Union and the rise of the Nazis in Germany), and followed closely the scientific revolutions of the beginning of the century (the collapse of the classical world picture of the Newtonian school and the rise of the theory of relativity and quantum theory). All of these had a decisive influence on the two main axes that distinguish his philosophy: an attempt to understand the mechanisms of scientific progress in an era of revolution, on the one hand, and social liberalism that calls for an open society, on the other.

Rethinking communism

In 1918 Popper began to attend lectures at the University of Vienna, and conducted a brief romance with communism and Marxism. This romance ended with a rupture, which was never healed, following an incident in which the Austrian police opened fire on some of his communist friends. In the intellectual autobiography he wrote in his old age (which was published in English in 1974 as "Unended Quest" by Fontana Press), Popper says that this incident led him to rethink the way of communism and the fight against capitalism.

At much the same time something crucial occurred in the world of science: A research team headed by British physicist Arthur Eddington succeeded in measuring, during an eclipse of the sun, the effect of the bending of light passing close to the sun. This finding was considered the first empirical proof of the general theory of relativity. Albert Einstein lectured on this in Vienna, and the young Popper was among the audience. This lecture was the shaping experience of his life. Though Einstein had formulated, out of the blue, a real alternative to Newton's theory, the great influence on Popper was the fact that Einstein was prepared to admit that his theory would need to be rejected and replaced if its predictions did not stand the test of empirical experiment.

Thus, in fact, Popper discovered the way in which science progresses: It has at its disposal institutions that allow anyone interested to publish his hypotheses and put them to the test of criticism (and/or refutation) by his colleagues. This criticism is the breath of life for science. It succeeds because the scientific community, to a large extent, is an open society - i.e., a society in which alternatives can be freely proposed and criticized in a rational way.

Popper generalized this discovery (about which he wrote in 1935 the book that afforded him his reputation in the world of the philosophy of science, "Logik der Forschung" (published in English as "The Logic of Scientific Discovery") into a political principle: The desirable society for human beings is an open, liberal and democratic society. This is the core of the book before us, "The Open Society and Its Enemies." "The closed society," says Popper "is characterized by the belief in magical taboos, while the open society is one in which men have learned to be to some extent critical of taboos, and to base decisions on the authority of their own intelligence (after discussion)" (Vol. I, page 202).

According to him: "In `The Open Society' I stressed that the critical method ... can be generalized into what I described as the critical or rational attitude ... openness to criticism - readiness to be criticized, and eagerness to criticize oneself" (Vol. I, page 115).

Popper decided to write "The Open Society and Its Enemies" in March 1938, the day the Nazis invaded Austria, and he completed it in 1943. His parents' conversion to Christianity did not avail him when it was put to the test and with the Nazi takeover, he had to flee Austria. He spent the war years in New Zealand. According to him, this book and "The Poverty of Historicism," mentioned below, "were my war effort" (Vol. I, page 115).

During the course of World War II, many intellectuals examined the dangers inherent in fascist, totalitarian regimes, especially the Nazi regime. However, many of them believed that communism was the correct solution to society's ills. Popper was one of the first Western intellectuals to discuss the social dangers inherent in Marxism, and especially the communist aspiration to "re-educate" people in order to build a better world. In his analysis, the Nazi regime and the communist regime were both based on a historicist approach whereby social development is believed to be deterministic and shaped by historical laws that are known in advance. Popper's message is therefore moral in essence: Mankind cannot rely on the laws of history, on divine providence, on evolution or on any other factor that will "lead" it in the right direction; our fate is dependent on ourselves, on our conduct, on the new ideas we create and on the decisions we make.

Roots in ancient Greece

"The Open Society and Its Enemies" was written, as noted above, with the aim of condemning "the two most important modern versions of historicism ... the historical philosophy of racialism or fascism, on the one (the right) hand, and the Marxian historical philosophy on the other (the left)" (Vol. I, page 9). The roots of these two totalitarian systems lie in Plato and Marx, and came into our world in the garb that received its form from Hegel. The enemies of the open society are, therefore, Plato, Hegel and Marx. The roots of Western culture are in ancient Greece and therefore Popper begins his discussion with the ancient Greeks and Plato.

"Although only a few may originate a policy, we are all able to judge it" (Vol. I, page 7), said Pericles of Athens in the year 430 B.C.E., and in a single sentence defined the idea of the open society. Eighty years later another great Athenian, Plato, said that "the greatest principle of all is that nobody, whether male or female, should ever be without a leader" (Vol. I, page 103), and thus became the first "enemy" of the open society.

In Popper's opinion, "... humanitarian ethics demands an equalitarian and individualistic interpretation of justice" (Vol. I, page 106). Plato, however, defined justice as that which serves the interest of the state and his worldview is collectivistic and anti-individualistic. The root of the evil is in Plato's view that human history progresses in accordance with the law of decay or the law of degeneration. As is well-known, in Plato's system only the idea is real; the rest is just illusion, passing shadows in the entrance to the cave, as in his famous metaphor.

However, Plato has a very pessimistic view of human nature. Even if we build the ideal state, the basic law of history (which derives from man's flawed nature) determines that it will at once begin to decay and atrophy. Any social change is corruption, decay or degeneration. In order to stop the degeneration, government institutions and the entire system must be built on collective principles that will freeze and prevent any political change. From here, the way is short to Plato's totalitarian state, in which everything is determined by the government, including censorship in matters of literature and music; both of them must be devoted entirely to reinforcing the stability of the state and instilling a stronger recognition of class discipline among the youth.

Plato, who is suspicious of individualism, which will lead (if it is given the freedom to do so) to the crumbling of society, finds the solution in the principle of leadership: If everyone behaves according to the will of the leader, corrupting anarchy will end. Therefore the individual must "teach his soul, by long habit, never to dream of acting independently, and to become utterly incapable of it. In this way the life of all will be spent in total community ... and from the earliest childhood on should be fostered - this habit of ruling others, and of being ruled by others. And every trace of anarchy should be utterly eradicated from all the life of all the men" (Vol. I, page 103).

I assume that to the modern reader this chilling paragraph speaks for itself.

`Renaissance of tribalism'

It would be no exaggeration to say that Popper lays the blame for all the great ills of the 20th century - the murderous totalitarian regimes of Nazi fascism, on the one hand, and the communist Stalin, on the other - on Hegel's historicist philosophy.

Hegel became the official philosopher of Prussia a few decades after the greatest beacon of light in the history of the open society - the French Revolution. Popper credits him with the revival - at that crucial moment - of the ancient tribal ideas, which lead to the closing of society, that were articulated by Plato and his colleagues: "Just as the French Revolution rediscovered the perennial ideas of the Great Generation [in Pericles' Athens - I.B.I.] and of Christianity, freedom, equality, and the brotherhood of all men, so Hegel rediscovered the Platonic ideas which lie behind the perennial revolt against freedom and reason. Hegelianism is the Renaissance of tribalism" (Vol. II, page 30). The root of the evil is in that Hegel taught his successors "to worship the state, history, and the nation" (Vol. II, page 31).

Or as Hegel put it: "We must therefore worship the State as the manifestation of the Divine on earth ... to the complete State belongs, essentially, consciousness and thought. The State knows what it wills ... the State is the actually existing, realized moral life" (Vol. II, page 31).

Hegel believed that the way matters proceed is determined by the essence, and that the essence, in the case of the state, represents the "spirit of the people" or the "spirit of the nation" and determines its hidden historical destiny. Every nation that wants to fulfill itself "must assert its individuality or soul by entering the `Stage of History,' that is to say, by fighting the other nations; the object of the fight is world domination" (Vol. II, page 37). The side that is right will win the war: "For the History of the World is the World's court of justice" (Vol. II, page 66), writes Hegel, who sees many positive sides to war: "War protects the people from corruption which an everlasting peace would bring upon it" (Vol. II, page 69).

The spirit of the nation must be realized, then, on the stage of history, and the person to accomplish this must be "the great man," or in Hegel's words: "The Great Man of his time is he who expresses the will of his time; and who carries it out. He acts according to the inner Spirit and Essence of his time, which he realizes" (Vol. II, page 73). It is with reason that Popper says of these ideas: "... all these ghosts from the past seem to haunt the brain of the Great Dictator while he performs his dance with his balloon ..." (Vol. II, page 40), referring directly to the character of Hitler as he appears in Charlie Chaplin's famous film.

As opposed to Plato's, which was pessimistic, Hegel's historicism is optimistic: History is progressing in the direction of the good. However, this is not a linear progress, but "dialectical," i.e., reason wrestles with internal contradictions through the formulation of a thesis, then an antithesis and finally a synthesis that allows it to live with it. Of course such a system of thought, which has an inbuilt contradiction within it, is impervious to refutation and stands in utter contradiction to Popper's basic worldview whereby "the spirit of science is criticism" (Vol. I, page 185), and criticism is nothing but refutation that is based on getting rid of contradictions. The attempt to give legitimization to contradiction is expressed in irrefutable statements that ultimately become mere words devoid of content: A statement that nothing in the world can refute does not transmit information to the world.

`Playing' with society

Plato's historicism was based on the law of degeneration; Hegel's is based on the fulfillment of the spirit of the nation. Marx, however, took off from a different historical law, which Popper calls "sociological determinism." He thought he had discovered the laws that control society, the equation of the motion that determines the development of history. These laws, of course, are the laws of economics and sociology, the social struggle between classes and so on. In his system, it is impossible to resist the huge forces of history, but it is possible to abbreviate processes and bring redemption closer. Of course this can be accomplished, again, through a strong totalitarian regime.

Popper approached the analysis of Marx's philosophy cautiously and at length (of the 24 chapters in "The Open Society and Its Enemies," 10 deal with Plato, two deal with Hegel and nine deal with Marx). In the course of doing this, he discusses the autonomy of sociology, Marx's economic historicism, class war and the social revolution it presages. A separate chapter is devoted to the moral theory of historicism in general and Marx's ethics, in particular. In it, it is evident that Popper feels affection for Marx and is full of admiration for him: "... there can be no doubt of the humanitarian impulse of Marxism ... one cannot do justice to Marx without recognizing his sincerity. His open-mindedness, his sense of facts ..." (Vol. II, pages 81, 82).

But make no mistake: It is necessary to realize that "of Marxism, so far the purest, the most developed and the most dangerous form of historicism ... Marx is responsible for the devastating influence of the historicist method of thought within the ranks of those who wish to advance the cause of the open society" (Vol. II, pages 81, 82). In his intellectual autobiography, Popper also writes on these same pages that he needed several years of research until he felt that he apprehended the roots of the Marxist argument: "It consists of a historical prophecy, combined with an implicit appeal to the following moral law: Help to bring about the inevitable!"

Marx, as a historicist, thought that the individual in a society cannot resist the flow of history. This might suggest passive conclusions: If historical inevitability in any case leads us to a better future, why exert effort to cause change? Marx did not share this view: The individual must act energetically in order to accelerate the process and bring about the desired socialism quickly, in our own times. Popper believes that the attempt to realize the Marxist utopia is very dangerous. It predicates "playing" in a big way with the fate of an entire society. And what is a person to do if he does not agree with Marx's view? There were, as must be recalled, those who thought that in such a case it was necessary to "re-educate" him.

Ultimately, says Popper, if we relate to Marx's predictions literally, it is clear that historical developments have refuted them. It is possible of course to "immunize" Marx's prophecies from criticism by formulating them as dialectical statements that are immune to refutation. In such a case Marxist theory becomes hollow verbiage that lacks content. Thus, in a interview he gave to the German periodical Der Spiegel on the occasion of his 90th birthday, Popper enumerates among the reasons for the collapse of the Soviet Union and communism in Eastern Europe "the intellectual wilderness. What remained of Marxism was only hollow talk" (quoted in Haaretz, September 27, 1992).

Plato, Hegel and Marx started from different assumptions concerning the laws that determine human history, but philosophically the three of them made the same mistake: They assumed that there are laws that determine human history. According to Popper, there are no such laws: It is impossible to predict the fate of humanity in the future, even if we have "full" knowledge of all the factors that influence society today. In Popper's view, Plato, Hegel and Marx all share the primal historicist sin, even if each has a different view of the nature of the historical laws.

Rather than Marx's approach to causing changes in society, which he calls "utopian engineering," Popper prefers a more cautious approach, which in the book before us he calls social piecemeal engineering. The social piecemeal engineer is aware of his ability to err, and that he is not in control of all the factors that influence the social change he wishes to bring about. Therefore, his steps will be measured, cautious and regulated, so that it will always be possible to cancel them in case a significant deviation from the prediction is discovered.

"The Open Society and Its Enemies" is a warning of unparalleled stringency against utopian idealism: Be careful of rule by dreamers, Popper tells us, or in his own words: " ... the Utopian attempt to realize an ideal state, using a blueprint of society as a whole, is one which demands a strong centralized rule of a few, and which therefore is likely to lead to a dictatorship" (Vol. I, page 159).

"The Open Society and Its Enemies" is a book rich in ideas, yet at the same time its philosophical argument is not strong. The book identifies the root of evil in political philosophy - historicism, i.e., the view that human history necessarily develops according to known laws. Popper does not prove this claim, but rather exemplifies it through an analysis of the writings of Plato, Hegel and Marx. He attempted to provide what was lacking in a long treatise that was first published as a series of articles (in 1944-1945), and ultimately as a book (1957) called "The Poverty of Historicism." But here, too, the historicist outlook was not refuted; this effort only described its poverty.

A more satisfactory attempt to refute historicism was made only in 1950 in the article "Indeterminism in Classical Physics and Quantum Physics," in which Popper refuted the thesis that it is possible to know the laws that determine the development of human society.

Major General (res.) Prof. Isaac Ben-Israel's book (in Hebrew), "The Philosophy of Military Intelligence," was published by Israel MOD Press in 1999.