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1984: Popper Falsifies Marx

1984
Popper Falsifies Marx
Written as a student hand-out in March 1984 for a first-year course in
the History of Ideas at Middlesex Poly. When Popper died I offered
to turn it into an article for International Socialism, but John Rees
declined the offer.

To begin with, two propositions about the History of Ideas


i)
No historian of ideas is neutral; every historian writes from a
standpoint, and uses thinkers of the past in the interests of the position s/he
seeks to advocate. This does not, however, mean that we cannot find such work
illuminating and valuable even if written from a standpoint very different from
our own.
ii)
The fact of commitment does not absolve the historian of ideas
from certain standards of honesty and intellectual rigour; the most basic of
these is a respect for the texts being studied.
These propositions can be examined in the light of Poppers critique of Marx.
Outside the circles of natural scientists Popper is best known for his critique of
Marx. Isaiah Berlin has described it as the most scrupulous and formidable
criticism of the philosophical and historical doctrines of Marxism by any living
writer (B Magee, Popper, Fontana, 1982, p. 9); and Brian Magee states I must
confess I do not see how any rational man can have read Poppers critique of
Marx and still be a Marxist. (ibid, p. 92) Clearly aspirant historians of ideas
have here the opportunity to watch a master craftsman at work. It will therefore
be interesting to look in some detail at Poppers method and approach.
References
a)
Works of Popper
A Pocket Popper (ed D Miller), Fontana, 1983 (PP)
The Open Society and its Enemies, Vols I & II, Routledge & Kegan Paul,
1962, (OSE)
Unended Quest, Fontana, 1982 (UQ)
The Poverty of Historicism, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961 (PH)

Conjectures and Refutations, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972 (C&R)


Also B Magee, Popper, Fontana, 1983 this appears to be an authorised
publication of the official Sir Karl Popper Fan Club.
b)
Others
In view of the multiplicity of available editions, references to the writings of
Marx and Engels will be simply to title and chapter. Other references will be
given in the text, or, where the authors name is followed by (B), in the
bibliography at the end of the hand-out.
I)
Poppers Standpoint:
In his autobiography Unended Quest Popper explains how he was a Communist
for a few months in 1919, and then, following a violent clash between workers
and police in Vienna, broke sharply with Communism:
By the time I was seventeen I had become an anti-Marxist. I realized the
dogmatic character of the creed, and its incredible intellectual arrogance. It was
a terrible thing to arrogate to oneself a kind of knowledge which made it a duty
to risk the lives of other people for an uncritically accepted dogma, or for a
dream which might turn out not to be realizable. It was particularly bad for an
intellectual, for one who could read and think. It was awfully depressing to have
fallen into such a trap. (UQ 34)
This gut anti-Communism long predates Poppers interest in scientific
methodology; indeed, he tells us it was in part a criticism of Marxism that had
started me, in 1919, on my way to Logik der Forschung. (UQ 113)
Popper now adopted a form of conservatism that went so far as to hold that
members of oppressed groups should not attempt to challenge that oppression
for fear of making things worse. Writing of Austria after the end of World War I,
Popper, himself of Jewish origin, writes:
many Jews, feeling that freedom and full equality had now become a reality,
understandably but not wisely entered politics and journalism. Most of them
meant well; but the influx of Jews into parties of the left contributed to the
downfall of those parties. It seemed quite obvious that, with much latent
popular anti-Semitism about, the best service which a good socialist who
happened to be of Jewish origin could render to his party was not to try to play

a role in it. Strangely enough, few seemed to think of this obvious rule. (UQ
106-7)
Poppers subsequent political alignments are consistent with his early positions.
He tells us thatThe Poverty of Historicism and The Open Society were my war
effort (UQ 115); that is, at a time when Russia was allied with Britain and the
USA against Nazi Germany, he devoted he devoted his time to writing a critique
of Marxism. In 1950 he visited the United States at the very beginning of the
McCarthyite anti-Communist witch-hunts; he notes that in the USA there was a
feeling of freedom, of personal independence, which did not exist in Europe
and which, I thought, was even stronger than in New Zealand, the freest
country I knew. (UQ 128)
II)
Poppers Method
It is a normal requirement of the scientific approach that the scientist should
indicate clearly the proposed area of study. Thus if a zoologist promised us a
treatise on elephants, we should be somewhat surprised if s/he dealt
exclusively with Indian elephants without reference to African elephants; and
even more surprised if s/he included sections on camels and field-mice on the
grounds that they had some features in common with elephants. Yet Poppers
approach to Marxism/historicism has much in common with such a treatment.
Poppers own account of his method gives us a rather surprising formulation:
I have tried hard to make a case in favour of historicism in order to give point
to my subsequent criticism. I have tried to present historicism as a wellconsidered and close-knit philosophy. And I have not hesitated to construct
arguments in its support which have never, to my knowledge, been brought
forward by historicists themselves. I hope that, in this way, I have succeeded in
building up a position really worth attacking. (PP 291)
The implications of this are curious:
i)
Popper must be presumed to be considerably more intelligent
than Hegel, Marx, or any other historicist, since he has discovered arguments
which they failed to produce, even though they devoted their lives to defending
the position;

ii)
that the logic of an intellectual position can be completely
abstracted from the specific texts in which it was formulated and the whole
historical practice which gave rise to it.
Popper claims to be confronting both the historical individual Karl Marx and the
whole intellectual and political movement basing itself on Marx. Yet when we
examine the scope of references to Marx and Marxists in Poppers work we find
a number of omissions and limitations:
i)
Most of his references to Marx and Engels seem to be taken from
E Burns (ed) A Handbook of Marxism (1935), an official Communist Party
manual of the high Stalinist period; (OSE II 318)
ii)
There is virtually no consideration of such early works as
Marxs Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (1844), which laid the
philosophical foundations for Marxs later work, even though these works have
been the subject of considerable controversy since the 1930s;
iii)
There is little mention of Marxs historical writings on the
revolutionary developments in France in 1948-51 and 1871, even though these
show Marx at his best in applying his analysis to a concrete historical process
(cf. also section IV below on Marx and the State);
iv)
Popper seems totally ignorant of the work of Georg Lukcs
including History and Class Consciousness, published in Berlin in 1923
although this work represents the most sophisticated twentieth century attempt
to explore the philosophical and methodological foundations of Marxism;
v)
Nor does Popper give any attention to the work of Leon Trotsky,
who made a pioneering attempt to develop a Marxist analysis of the
degeneration of the Russian revolution, and to show that there was a Marxist
alternative to Stalinism.
(Popper does note that he had difficulty in obtaining all the books he had
wanted in war-time New Zealand (UQ 118); however, since 1946 he has had
access to the rich library resources of the London School of Economics, but
there is no indication that he has been willing to revise his judgments in the
light of more extensive reading.)
Moreover, Popper seems to have very little interest in the concrete history of
Marxist thought or the Marxist movement. He refers, for example, to the

Dialectical Materialism developed by Marx, although Marx never used the


term, which was invented by Plekhanov, and widely propagated in the Stalin
period. (C&R 332) On occasion Popper establishes a distinction between Marx
and the Vulgar Marxists (OSE II 100, C&R 125), but he never defines this
category or locates it historically; while it might be supposed that the Vulgar
Marxists are Stalinists, the identification is never clearly established. As for the
questions of the continuity or non-continuity between Marx, Lenin and Stalin,
Popper never tackles the question, although it is crucial to his thesis of the
pernicious influence of historicist theories. Popper suggests that Marxist and
Bolshevik ideas bear a major part of the responsibility for Stalinist Russia, but
never examines the concrete historical process by which this might have
happened. (He thus saves himself from having to answer awkward questions
such as why Stalin found it necessary to organise the deaths of ten out of
fifteen members of the first Bolshevik Government of 1917). In passing Popper
describes the Russian Revolution of October 1917 as a conspiracy (C&R 125).
But he does not deign to explain how a conspiracy could be carried through by
a Bolshevik Party with nearly 200,000 members. (One of Lenins fiercest
political opponents, the Menshevik Martov, had a rather better understanding
when he wrote Understand, please, what we have before us after all is a
victorious uprising of the proletariat almost the entire proletariat supports
Lenin and expects its social liberation from the uprising letter to Axelrod, 19
November 1917.)
An interesting sidelight on Poppers method is given by Walter Kaufmanns
essay (B) on The Hegel Myth and its Method. Kaufmann, a liberal Hegel
scholar, identifies a number of distortions in Poppers treatment of Hegel in
Volume II of The Open Society and Its Enemies:
i)
He shows the inadequacy of Poppers scholarship; his ignorance
of important critical works, and the fact that most of his quotations come from a
student anthology; Popper ignores important aspects of Hegels work and
perpetuates mistranslations.
ii)
He identifies Poppers use of quilt quotations i.e. amalgamations
of a number of shorter quotations, taken out of context and in many cases from
separate books.

iii)
His discussion of Hegels influence shows that Popper makes
undocumented assertions, and that when he quotes twentieth century writers
he is not demonstrating influence, but rather implying guilt by association.
iv)
He demonstrates that Popper distorts Hegels view of the state,
and shows that Hegel was not a historicist.
We can find many similar examples of conflation, the association of ideas held
by quite different people in such a way as to suggest that they are really the
same. For example:
i)
In a discussion of historical evolution, Popper refers to Henry
Adams, the famous [sic] American historian, seriously hoped to determine the
course of history by fixing the position of two points on its track the one point
located in the thirteenth century, the other in his own lifetime. (PP 438) The
fact that Adams was a crank does not discredit other more serious theories of
history.
ii)
In a discussion of Marx and Goebbels (!) Popper refers to those
who believe they know how to make heaven on earth. (C&R 342) Neither Marx
nor any other serious political theorist has made such a claim (though Marx
would have accepted the quite distinct proposition that we invent heaven
because of our inability to control society on earth.)
III)

Marxism and Science

The concept of science is central to Poppers work and to his rhetoric. As


David Papineau has written:
The popular appeal of Poppers message gets latently reinforced by the way he
delivers it. For a start, there is the covert (if not exactly subtle) suggestion that
Poppers own work is of a piece with the great advances of twentieth century
science, conveyed by name-dropping mention of the occasions when he
discussed this and that with Einstein and other figures of similar status. (Times
Higher Education Supplement, 9.9.83)
It is particularly important to look critically at Poppers contrast between the
scientific Einstein and the unscientific Marx (UQ 38). Einstein in no way
shared Poppers conservative political prejudices; he advocated civil
disobedience against McCarthys anti-Communist crusade, and wrote an article
called Why Socialism for the independent Marxist journal Monthly Review in

1949. While seeking to bask in Einsteins reputation, Popper does not mention
this.
Poppers principal line of attack on Marxism and other forms of historicism is
that they aspire to a scientific status that they cannot justify:
It will be enough if I say here that I mean by historicism 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.
(PP 290)
On top of this, by using the concept of falsifiability, Popper demands a degree
of rigour which often the natural sciences, let alone the historical sciences,
cannot meet. As David Papineau has written:
When a prediction fails, it is always possible, and in general entirely sensible,
to query such bits of interpreting theory, rather than reject such fundamental
principles as the laws of motion. The central assumption of Newtonian physics
were no more falsifiable than those of Marxism or Freudianism or, for that
matter, of astrology or spirit worship. (art cit)
But Popper seems less concerned to establish a viable method for the social
sciences than to score points by imposing a kind of Catch-22. If the Marxists
stick rigidly to their original positions, they are guilty of blind dogmatism (the
mentality of the man with definitely fixed ideas, the committed man, is akin
to that of the madman. PP 364) If, on the other hand, they seek to modify their
positions in the light of experience, then they are guilty of cheating:
Thus one might say that Marxism was once a science, but one which was
refuted by some of the facts which happened to clash with its predictions
However, Marxism is no longer a science; for it broke the methodological rule
that we must accept falsification, and it immunised itself against the most
blatant refutations of its predictions. Ever since then, it can be described only
as non-science as a metaphysical dream, if you like, married to a cruel reality.
(PP 127)
This false alternative leaves no place for the attempt to preserve the broad
outline of a theory, but to modify the details to fit a changing reality. This is the
approach that, for example, characterises the 1872 Preface to the German

Edition of the Communist Manifesto, in which Marx and Engels try to reassess
their text after a quarter of a century:
However much the state of things may have altered during the last twenty-five
years, the general principles laid down in this Manifesto are, on the whole, as
correct today as ever. Here and there some detail might be improved. The
practical application of the principles will depend, as the Manifesto itself states,
everywhere and at all times, on the historical conditions for the time being
existing, and, for that reason, no special stress is laid on the revolutionary
measures proposed at the end of Section II. That passage would, in many
respects, be very differently worded today.
In more general terms it might be suggested that, by insisting on a rigorous
distinction between what is, and is not, science, and by denying legitimacy to
any work that does not meet this standard, Popper is guilty precisely of what he
elsewhere calls essentialism, a belief that there is a single essence of what
constitutes science.
A further Catch-22 seems to operate in relation to the distinction between the
natural and social sciences. On the one hand Popper seems to believe that the
social sciences should aspire to the same rigour as the natural sciences (the
social sciences do not as yet seem to have found their Galileo PP 289). Yet at
the same time Popper argues that the social sciences cannot achieve the same
results as the natural sciences:
The historicist doctrine which teaches that it is the task of the social sciences
to predict historical developments is, I believe, untenable.
My contentions are two.
The first is that the historicist does not, as a matter of fact, derive his historical
prophecies from conditional scientific predictions. The second (from which the
first follows) is that he cannot possibly do so because long-term prophecies can
be derived from scientific conditional predictions only if they apply to systems
which can be described as well-isolated, stationary, and recurrent. These
systems are very rare in nature; and modern society is surely not one of them.
(C&R 339)
Roger Harris (B) has tried to cut through the confusion:

Society is not subject to unvarying causal laws which yield to investigation via
explanatory hypothesis, prediction and test. It is subject instead to history
something Popper understands vaguely in respect of the growth of scientific
knowledge, but, for political reasons, will not allow to extend to his
understanding of human activity in toto. Yet here is a clear contradiction within
Poppers overall doctrine: if a systematic understanding, albeit a non-predictive
understanding, can be gained of the growth of scientific knowledge, through his
theory of scientific method, as Popper claims it can, then this is an instance of
just the sort of non-predictive systematic understanding of human activity
which is supposedly subjected to devastating criticisms in Poppers own work.
Most of these criticisms, in fact, are generated by mistakenly assuming that
Marx, Freud, etc. are seeking predictive theories of a natural science kind, and
then, surprisingly enough, showing that their theories are not falsifiable after
all. But if human activities, like Poppers own chosen field the search for
knowledge are susceptible to understanding without the need for a predictive
theory, then Poppers criticism that Marxs theories are not falsifiable, and his
criticisms that falsifiable theories cannot be constructed, and so systematic
knowledge is not possible, in the field of human activity, are both quite
misplaced.
Marx, in fact, saw a clear distinction between natural and social science: as
Vico says, human history differs from natural history in this, that we have made
the former, but not the latter. (Capital, vol. I, chapter XV, section 1). And as
Roger Harris has pointed out, the assimilation of social science to natural
science is a way of thought in which ones fellow men are seen as existing to
be exploited and manipulated for gain, much as nature is. (art cit)
In fact, Popper misrepresents the whole structure of Marxs thought. As Lenin,
quoting Engels, put it: Our doctrine is not a dogma, but a guide to action.
(Certain features of the historical development of Marxism, 1910) Marxs
fundamental aim is to analyse society as part of the project of transforming it.
In the course of this analysis he may make certain predictions; he may make
them rashly and they may turn out wrong. But the predictions are a secondary
by-product of the analysis, rather than, as Popper seems to believe, the
predictions being the main aim of the operation.
It is, of course, true that Marx and Engels claimed scientific status for their
work. But they did so in the specific context of establishing a distinction
between their work and that of the so-called Utopian Socialists. The Utopians
produced out of their own brains a vision of an ideal society, which was then to

be offered ready-made to the masses. As Marx and Engels saw, this was both
unrealistic and elitist; a scientific socialism must be based on social forces and
social conflicts actually existing in the present:
From that time forward, socialism was no longer an accidental discovery of this
or that ingenious brain, but the necessary outcome of the struggle between two
historically developed classes the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Its task was
no longer to manufacture a system of society as perfect as possible, but to
examine the historic-economic succession of events from which these classes,
and their antagonism had of necessity sprung, and to discover in the economic
conditions thus created the means of ending the conflict
These two great discoveries, the materialistic conception of history and the
revelation of the secret of capitalistic production through surplus value, we owe
to Marx. With these discoveries socialism became a science.
(Engels, Socialism: Utopian and scientific, chapter II)
For Marx truth is not a question of either verification or falsification, it is a
question of practice:
The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not
a question of theory but is a practical question. In practice man must prove the
truth, that is, the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking. The
dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice
is a purely scholastic question,
Social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which mislead theory to
mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the
comprehension of this practice.
(Marx, Theses on Feuerbach, II & VIII)
Hence Popper is quite misguided in his attempt to establish a dichotomy in
Marx between hisactivism and his historicism:
The demand that men should prove themselves in deeds is especially marked
in some of Marxs earlier writings. This attitude, which might be described as
his activism, is most clearly formulated in the last of his theses on Feuerbach:
The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point
however is to change it..
But as we already know, these strong activist tendencies of Marxs are
counteracted by his historicism. Under its influence, he became mainly a
prophet. He decided that, at least under capitalism, we must submit to

inexorable laws and to the fact that all we can do is to shorten and lessen the
birth-pangs of the natural phases of its evolution. There is a wide gulf
between Marxs activism and his historicism, and this gulf is further widened by
his doctrine that we must submit to the purely irrational forces of history. (OSE
II 201-2)
Marxs own formulation of the relation between activism and determinism was
considerably more fortunate:
Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they
do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under
circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. (The
Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, chapter I)
In the light of this, and of Marxs manifold writings on the 1848 revolutions, it is
scarcely possible to take seriously Poppers claim that for Marx Politics is
impotent. It can never alter decisively the economic reality. (PP 327)
Bryan Magee claims on behalf of Popper that
Marxisms fundamental tenet that the development of the means of production
is the sole determinant of historical change is shown to be logically incoherent
by the fact that no such theory can explain how it is that the means of
production do develop instead of remaining the same. (Magee, p. 98)
In fact, Engels dealt with this fundamental tenet before Popper was born:
According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining
element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. More than this
neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if someone twists this into saying
that the economic element is the onlyone, he transforms that proposition into a
meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase.
(Engels, letter to J Bloch, September 1890)
Marx was indeed aware from the beginning that any kind of economic
determinism not only denied human freedom, but led to elitist politics:
The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and
upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of other
circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men that change

circumstances and that the educator himself needs educating. Hence, this
doctrine necessarily arrives at dividing society into two parts, one of which is
superior to society (in Robert Owen, for example). (Theses on Feuerbach, III)
It is true that Marx writes of the laws of society. But those laws are not those of
some inescapable historical destiny, but of the capitalist mode of production
which he is seeking to abolish:
Free competition brings out the inherent laws of capitalist production, in the
shape of external coercive laws having power over every individual capitalist.
(Capital, volume I, chapter X, section 5)
As Herbert Marcuse (B) has argued:
It is also true that Marxian theory contains the notion of inexorable laws of
society although here it is precisely the abolition of these oppressive laws
which is the aim and the rationale of the socialist revolution.
The less a society is rationally organised and directed by the collective efforts
of free men, the more it will appear as an independent whole governed by
inexorable laws.
These laws are, of course, subject to modification by interaction with other
factors. If, in a particular capitalist society at a particular time, political or
economic circumstances mean that the rate of profit does not fall, the law of
the falling rate of profit is no more refuted than would be the law of gravitation
by my dropping a piece of paper off a high building on a windy day.
Popper makes great play of the fact that Marx has been refuted by the fact that
his predictions have turned out false. Undoubtedly Marx made some mistakes,
notably about the timescale of the hoped-for revolution. But this should not
obscure the considerable predictive power of his theory. Take for example the
account of the logic of capitalist development in chapter I of the Communist
Manifesto:
The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world-market given a
cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the
great chagrin of Reactionists, it had drawn from under the feet of industry the
national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have
been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new

industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised
nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw
material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are
consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe.
It is easy to argue that this account is truer today, in the age of the MultiNational Corporation, than it was when it was written.
Far from believing that revolutions could be predicted like eclipses, Marx and
Engels believed that revolution was simply one option facing capitalist society.
The alternative was the destruction of civilisation.
In other words, the reason is that both the productive forces created by the
modern capitalist mode of production and the system of distribution established
by it have come into crying contradiction with that mode of production itself,
and in fact to such a degree that, if the whole of modern society is not to
perish, a revolution in the mode of production and distribution must take place,
a revolution which will put an end to all class distinctions.
[the bourgeoisies] own productive forces have grown beyond its control, and,
as if necessitated by a law of nature, are driving the whole of bourgeois society
towards ruin, or revolution.
(Engels, Anti-Dhring, Part II, chapters I & II)
This alternative was summed up by Rosa Luxemburg (another great Marxist
whom Popper ignores) as either an advance to socialism or a reversion to
barbarism.
It may be argued that the survival of capitalism into the late twentieth century
has shown even this conditional prediction to be false. But consider:
i)
After the 1917 Revolution, the Russian Bolsheviks believed that
the revolution could survive only if spread to the more advanced parts of
Europe; Germany was the key. Between 1918 and 1923, three revolutionary
waves were defeated in Germany; but the price of that defeat was the rise of
Hitler, the extermination camps and the massive slaughter of World War II.
ii)
After World War II the capitalist system went into a prolonged
period of growth. However, this growth was inextricably linked to the nuclear

arms race, a race which leaves the whole world prey to an array of weapons
that could destroy the whole of human civilisation as the result of a technical
accident, if the radar misinterprets a flock of geese . or 99 red balloons.

IV) The Open Society


Poppers political alternative to Marxism is liberalism; indeed much of what he
has to say is far from original. As Roger Harris (B) has argued:
The germ of Poppers work, nonetheless, consists almost entirely of various
platitudes of liberalism: the empiricism of trial and error; the virtues and
rewards of taking risks; free competition in the market-place of ideas; reason as
antithetical to violence; the unimportance of being right (its not what you do,
its the way that you do it); the less we are governed, the better the
government; history is bunk; etc.
Popper tries to establish a close connection between the critical methods of the
sciences and the political freedom of the open society:
For the progress of science depends on free competition of thought, hence on
freedom of thought, and hence, ultimately, on political freedom. (PP 443)
In the abstract this is unexceptionable; a dogmatic authoritarian society is
hostile to scientific enquiry. However, Poppers tendency to identify the open
society with the free world (C&R 371) of the West is open to rather more
doubt. Some points to consider:
i)
The parallelism of the arms race suggests that scientific progress
is not significantly faster or slower in either the open society of the United
States or the unopen society of Russia.
ii)
The Economist (21.1.84) reported on the high degree of cheating
and fraud in US academic and research circles. One cancer research worker
painted black areas on experimental mice to simulate the results he desired;
another scientist faked medical research for 16 years at Notre Dame, Emory
and Harvard Universities before he was exposed. Explanations of this stress the
pressures of the highly competitive scientific milieu.

iii)
One of the reasons why the open USA got embroiled in the
Vietnam war was that in the fifties virtually all the state experts who knew
about the Far East were purged for being soft on Communism; as a result
there was no-one left to explain that the Vietnamese Liberation movement had
a mass popular base and would be very difficult to defeat. (Cf. D
Halberstam,The Best and the Brightest, Pan, 1974)
Popper disregards one of Marxs most fundamental declarations, that the
emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes
themselves (General Rules of the International Working Mens Association).
Hence he is unable to see that Marxs alternative to liberalism is not
authoritarian, centralised or elitist, but far more democratic.
Popper complains that Marxism neglects the problem of institutions:
Marxists nowadays do not think in terms of institutions; they put their faith in
certain personalities, or perhaps in the fact that certain persons were once
proletarians a result of their belief in the overruling importance of classes and
class loyalties. Rationalists, on the contrary, are more inclined to rely on
institutions for controlling men. (C&R 345)
And he recommends governmental forms in which the social institutions
provide means by which the rulers may be dismissed by the ruled. (PP 323)
Yet Popper seems quite unaware that Marx addressed these problems, not in
the abstract, but on the basis of the concrete historical experience of the Paris
Commune of 1871, in his bookThe Civil War in France. (Popper does refer to this
work once (OSE II 342), but in chapter 17 of the Open Society, The Legal and
Social System, which in The Pocket Popper becomes Marxs Theory of the
State, no mention is made of Marxs work on the Paris Commune.)
This is how Marx describes proletarian rule in Paris in the Spring of 1871:
The Commune was formed of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal
suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short
terms. The majority of its members were naturally working men, or
acknowledged representatives of the working class. The Commune was to be a
working, not a parliamentary, body, executive and legislative at the same time.
Instead of continuing to be the agent of the Central Government, the police was
at once stripped of its political attributes, and turned into the responsible and at

all times revocable agent of the Commune. So were the officials of all other
branches of the Administration. From the members of the Commune
downwards, the public service had to be done at workmens wages. The vested
interests and the representation allowances of the high dignitaries of State
disappeared along with the high dignitaries themselves. Public functions ceased
to be the private property of the tools of the Central Government. Not only
municipal administration, but the whole initiative hitherto exercised by the
State was laid into the hands of the Commune.
(The Civil War in France, chapter III)
Note that Marxs insistence that the members of the Commune
were revocable i.e. subject to recall precisely meets Poppers demand for
institutional guarantees against the abuse of power.
The Commune experience was seen as central by Engels:
Of late , the Social-Democratic philistine has once more been filled with
wholesome terror at the words: Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Well and good,
gentleman, do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the
Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. (Introduction to
2nd edition of The Civil War in France, 1892)
Lenin, likewise, made the Commune experience central to his book The State
and Revolution, written on the eve of the October Revolution. And the Soviets
which flourished in the first years after 1917 took up the principles of
proletarian democracy developed in the Commune. See, for example, the
description by an American journalist John Reed (Hero of the film Reds):
No political body more sensitive and responsive to the popular will was ever
invented. And this was necessary, for in time of revolution, the popular will
changes with great rapidity. For example, during the first week of December,
1917, there were parades and demonstrations in favour of the Constituent
Assembly that is to say, against the Soviet power. One of these parades was
fired on by some irresponsible Red Guards and several people killed. The
reaction to this stupid violence was immediate. Within twelve hours the
complexion of the Petrograd Soviet changed. More than a dozen Bolshevik
deputies were withdrawn, and replaced by Mensheviki. And it was three weeks
before public sentiment subsided before the Mensheviki were one by one
retired and the Bolsheviki sent back.
(article in The Liberator, October 1918)

In the light of this stress on working-class self-organisation and democracy,


Poppers diatribes against the alleged Marxist cult of the benevolent planning
authority (PH 91) are quite simply misdirected. As Engels points out, state
ownership unrelated to working-class power has nothing to do with socialism:
Certainly, if the taking over by the state of the tobacco industry is socialistic,
then Napoleon and Metternich must be numbered among the founders of
socialism. If the Belgian state, for quite ordinary political and financial reasons,
itself constructed its chief railway lines; if Bismarck, not under any economic
compulsion, took over for the state the chief Prussian lines, simply to be the
better able to have them in hand in case of war, to bring up the railway
employees as voting cattle for the government, and especially to create for
himself a new source of income independent of parliamentary votes that was,
in no sense, a socialistic measure, directly or indirectly, consciously or
unconsciously. Otherwise, the Royal Maritime Company, the Royal porcelain
manufacture, and even the regimental tailor of the army would also be
socialistic institutions, or even, as was seriously proposed by a sly dog in
Frederick William IIs reign, the taking over by the state of the brothels.
(Anti-Dhring, part III, chapter II)
Bryan Magee echoes Poppers demand for democratic institutions:
If the open society is to be a reality the most fundamental requirement is that
those in power should be removable, at reasonable intervals and without
violence, and replaceable by others with different policies.
(Magee 78)
Without unduly personalising the argument we may note that in 1979 Magee
was elected to parliament on the Labour Party programme; two years later he
joined a party with a quite different programme, but continued to draw his
salary (somewhat in excess of a workmans wage) without giving his electors
the opportunity to recall him.

V) The Critique of Holism

As Marcuse (B) notes, Popper denounces as holist the view that society must
be seen as a totality; and moreover he sees a close link between this
methodological use of totality and totalitarian politics. The principle Popper
advocates in its place is piecemeal engineering, that is, a gradual process of
social reform. Popper advocates the piecemeal approach at least as
dogmatically as any Marxist advocated revolution, and he fails to consider the
main objections to it.
i)
If, in fact, the world economic and political system is a single
interconnected whole, as could be argued on the basis of a considerable
amount of empirical; evidence, then piecemeal engineering would be both
illusory and dangerous. (For a recent argument of the case, see N Harris, Of
Bread and Guns, Penguin, 1983)
ii)
If a strong enough force has a vested interest in the status quo,
they will not allow their privileges to be whittled away; as RH Tawney put it: You
can peel an onion leaf by leaf, but you cant skin a tiger claw by claw.
iii)
The empirical record of piecemeal engineering is not that good. To
take a recent case. In 1981 a French Socialist government was elected under
the leadership of Franois Mitterrand. It was pledged to introduce reforms
without attacking either the basic pattern of ownership of wealth or Frances
place in the world order. Three years later Mitterrands policies are largely
indistinguishable from Thatchers.
However, we must be grateful to Popper for giving us some examples of
refutable predictions. In a lecture delivered in 1956 called The History of Our
Time Popper listed what he saw as the enduring achievements of the societies
of the free world:
Abject poverty has been practically abolished. Instead of being a mass
phenomenon, the problem has almost become one of detecting the isolated
cases which still persist.
The problem of unemployment and of some other forms of insecurity have
changed completely. We are new faced with new problems brought into being
by the fact that the problem of mass-unemployment has largely been solved.
Fairly continuous progress is being made in dealing with the problems of
sickness and pain.

Religious discrimination has practically disappeared. Racial discrimination has


diminished to an extent surpassing the hopes of the most hopeful. (C&R 370-1)
In accordance with his own principles Popper should surely recognise that his
political beliefs of the 1950s have been refuted. To my knowledge he has not
done so. It may be objected that he is an old man. But we may recall that
Bertrand Russell, who in the late 1940s called for pre-emptive nuclear war
against Russia, was by the 1960s aged well over 80 calling for direct action
against nuclear weapons, and in his nineties he helped to launch the campaign
against the American war in Vietnam. But then Russell represents a quite
different type of intellectual integrity to Popper.

VI) Historicism and History


Popper rejects historicism because of its search for patterns in history. Yet the
version of history Popper presents us with is a highly schematic one, without
any of the richness and complexities of the real historical process. The concrete
problems and real defeats suffered in post-revolutionary Russia evaporate;
everything can be attributed to the historicism of Marx and Lenin. He notes that
when fascism came to power in Germany, the Communists did not put up any
resistance. (OSE II 165) But he does not explain this in terms of the specific
conjuncture, the particular line (the Third Period) imposed by the Communist
International on the German Communist Party. Everything is traced back to the
original sin of historicism. Poppers method, in fact, enables him to avoid doing
the real hard work involved in writing history. And so we may conclude with
Marcuse (B):
Poppers construction is general enough to include practically all theories
which take history seriously, which see in it the fate of mankind: his opposition
to historicism is in the last analysis opposition to history.

BIBLIOGRAPHY
H Marcuse, Karl Popper and the Problem of Historical Laws, in From Luther to
Popper, Verso, 1983.
R Harris, Popper for the People, Radical Philosophy 6, 1973 (review of Magee)

P Anderson, Components of the National Culture, in A Cockburn & R Blackburn


(eds), Student Power, Penguin, 1969.
G Novack, Empiricism and its Evolution, Merit, 1968, chapter X, Materialism
and Empiricism Today.
W Kaufmann, The Owl and the Nightingale, Faber & Faber, 1960, chapter 7, The
Hegel Myth and its Method.
A Callinicos, Is There a Future for Marxism?, Macmillan, 1982, chapter 7, For
and Against Epistemology.
See also debate in this book with contributions from P Binns, A Callinicos, C
Harman, inInternational Socialism nos 17, 19, 21
I Lakatos, A Letter to the director of the London School of Economics (1968), in
I Lakatos,Mathematics, Science and Epistemology, Vol II, Cambridge UP, 1978.
(An example of hostility to student militancy by a man described Magee as
more Popperian than Popper.)
For some presentations of Marx rather more honest than Poppers:
D Riazanov, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Monthly Review, 1973.
D McLellan, Marx, Fontana, 1975.
A Callinicos, The Revolutionary Ideas of Marx, Bookmarks, 1983.

1984
Popper Falsifies Marx
Written as a student hand-out in March 1984 for a first-year course in
the History of Ideas at Middlesex Poly. When Popper died I offered
to turn it into an article for International Socialism, but John Rees
declined the offer.

To begin with, two propositions about the History of Ideas


i)
No historian of ideas is neutral; every historian writes from a
standpoint, and uses thinkers of the past in the interests of the position s/he
seeks to advocate. This does not, however, mean that we cannot find such work
illuminating and valuable even if written from a standpoint very different from
our own.
ii)
The fact of commitment does not absolve the historian of ideas
from certain standards of honesty and intellectual rigour; the most basic of
these is a respect for the texts being studied.
These propositions can be examined in the light of Poppers critique of Marx.
Outside the circles of natural scientists Popper is best known for his critique of
Marx. Isaiah Berlin has described it as the most scrupulous and formidable
criticism of the philosophical and historical doctrines of Marxism by any living
writer (B Magee, Popper, Fontana, 1982, p. 9); and Brian Magee states I must
confess I do not see how any rational man can have read Poppers critique of
Marx and still be a Marxist. (ibid, p. 92) Clearly aspirant historians of ideas
have here the opportunity to watch a master craftsman at work. It will therefore
be interesting to look in some detail at Poppers method and approach.
References
a)
Works of Popper
A Pocket Popper (ed D Miller), Fontana, 1983 (PP)
The Open Society and its Enemies, Vols I & II, Routledge & Kegan Paul,
1962, (OSE)
Unended Quest, Fontana, 1982 (UQ)
The Poverty of Historicism, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961 (PH)
Conjectures and Refutations, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972 (C&R)
Also B Magee, Popper, Fontana, 1983 this appears to be an authorised
publication of the official Sir Karl Popper Fan Club.
b)
Others
In view of the multiplicity of available editions, references to the writings of
Marx and Engels will be simply to title and chapter. Other references will be
given in the text, or, where the authors name is followed by (B), in the
bibliography at the end of the hand-out.

I)
Poppers Standpoint:
In his autobiography Unended Quest Popper explains how he was a Communist
for a few months in 1919, and then, following a violent clash between workers
and police in Vienna, broke sharply with Communism:
By the time I was seventeen I had become an anti-Marxist. I realized the
dogmatic character of the creed, and its incredible intellectual arrogance. It was
a terrible thing to arrogate to oneself a kind of knowledge which made it a duty
to risk the lives of other people for an uncritically accepted dogma, or for a
dream which might turn out not to be realizable. It was particularly bad for an
intellectual, for one who could read and think. It was awfully depressing to have
fallen into such a trap. (UQ 34)
This gut anti-Communism long predates Poppers interest in scientific
methodology; indeed, he tells us it was in part a criticism of Marxism that had
started me, in 1919, on my way to Logik der Forschung. (UQ 113)
Popper now adopted a form of conservatism that went so far as to hold that
members of oppressed groups should not attempt to challenge that oppression
for fear of making things worse. Writing of Austria after the end of World War I,
Popper, himself of Jewish origin, writes:
many Jews, feeling that freedom and full equality had now become a reality,
understandably but not wisely entered politics and journalism. Most of them
meant well; but the influx of Jews into parties of the left contributed to the
downfall of those parties. It seemed quite obvious that, with much latent
popular anti-Semitism about, the best service which a good socialist who
happened to be of Jewish origin could render to his party was not to try to play
a role in it. Strangely enough, few seemed to think of this obvious rule. (UQ
106-7)
Poppers subsequent political alignments are consistent with his early positions.
He tells us thatThe Poverty of Historicism and The Open Society were my war
effort (UQ 115); that is, at a time when Russia was allied with Britain and the
USA against Nazi Germany, he devoted he devoted his time to writing a critique
of Marxism. In 1950 he visited the United States at the very beginning of the
McCarthyite anti-Communist witch-hunts; he notes that in the USA there was a
feeling of freedom, of personal independence, which did not exist in Europe
and which, I thought, was even stronger than in New Zealand, the freest
country I knew. (UQ 128)

II)

Poppers Method

It is a normal requirement of the scientific approach that the scientist should


indicate clearly the proposed area of study. Thus if a zoologist promised us a
treatise on elephants, we should be somewhat surprised if s/he dealt
exclusively with Indian elephants without reference to African elephants; and
even more surprised if s/he included sections on camels and field-mice on the
grounds that they had some features in common with elephants. Yet Poppers
approach to Marxism/historicism has much in common with such a treatment.
Poppers own account of his method gives us a rather surprising formulation:
I have tried hard to make a case in favour of historicism in order to give point
to my subsequent criticism. I have tried to present historicism as a wellconsidered and close-knit philosophy. And I have not hesitated to construct
arguments in its support which have never, to my knowledge, been brought
forward by historicists themselves. I hope that, in this way, I have succeeded in
building up a position really worth attacking. (PP 291)
The implications of this are curious:
i)
Popper must be presumed to be considerably more intelligent
than Hegel, Marx, or any other historicist, since he has discovered arguments
which they failed to produce, even though they devoted their lives to defending
the position;
ii)
that the logic of an intellectual position can be completely
abstracted from the specific texts in which it was formulated and the whole
historical practice which gave rise to it.
Popper claims to be confronting both the historical individual Karl Marx and the
whole intellectual and political movement basing itself on Marx. Yet when we
examine the scope of references to Marx and Marxists in Poppers work we find
a number of omissions and limitations:
i)
Most of his references to Marx and Engels seem to be taken from
E Burns (ed) A Handbook of Marxism (1935), an official Communist Party
manual of the high Stalinist period; (OSE II 318)
ii)
There is virtually no consideration of such early works as
Marxs Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (1844), which laid the

philosophical foundations for Marxs later work, even though these works have
been the subject of considerable controversy since the 1930s;
iii)
There is little mention of Marxs historical writings on the
revolutionary developments in France in 1948-51 and 1871, even though these
show Marx at his best in applying his analysis to a concrete historical process
(cf. also section IV below on Marx and the State);
iv)
Popper seems totally ignorant of the work of Georg Lukcs
including History and Class Consciousness, published in Berlin in 1923
although this work represents the most sophisticated twentieth century attempt
to explore the philosophical and methodological foundations of Marxism;
v)
Nor does Popper give any attention to the work of Leon Trotsky,
who made a pioneering attempt to develop a Marxist analysis of the
degeneration of the Russian revolution, and to show that there was a Marxist
alternative to Stalinism.
(Popper does note that he had difficulty in obtaining all the books he had
wanted in war-time New Zealand (UQ 118); however, since 1946 he has had
access to the rich library resources of the London School of Economics, but
there is no indication that he has been willing to revise his judgments in the
light of more extensive reading.)
Moreover, Popper seems to have very little interest in the concrete history of
Marxist thought or the Marxist movement. He refers, for example, to the
Dialectical Materialism developed by Marx, although Marx never used the
term, which was invented by Plekhanov, and widely propagated in the Stalin
period. (C&R 332) On occasion Popper establishes a distinction between Marx
and the Vulgar Marxists (OSE II 100, C&R 125), but he never defines this
category or locates it historically; while it might be supposed that the Vulgar
Marxists are Stalinists, the identification is never clearly established. As for the
questions of the continuity or non-continuity between Marx, Lenin and Stalin,
Popper never tackles the question, although it is crucial to his thesis of the
pernicious influence of historicist theories. Popper suggests that Marxist and
Bolshevik ideas bear a major part of the responsibility for Stalinist Russia, but
never examines the concrete historical process by which this might have
happened. (He thus saves himself from having to answer awkward questions
such as why Stalin found it necessary to organise the deaths of ten out of
fifteen members of the first Bolshevik Government of 1917). In passing Popper

describes the Russian Revolution of October 1917 as a conspiracy (C&R 125).


But he does not deign to explain how a conspiracy could be carried through by
a Bolshevik Party with nearly 200,000 members. (One of Lenins fiercest
political opponents, the Menshevik Martov, had a rather better understanding
when he wrote Understand, please, what we have before us after all is a
victorious uprising of the proletariat almost the entire proletariat supports
Lenin and expects its social liberation from the uprising letter to Axelrod, 19
November 1917.)
An interesting sidelight on Poppers method is given by Walter Kaufmanns
essay (B) on The Hegel Myth and its Method. Kaufmann, a liberal Hegel
scholar, identifies a number of distortions in Poppers treatment of Hegel in
Volume II of The Open Society and Its Enemies:
i)
He shows the inadequacy of Poppers scholarship; his ignorance
of important critical works, and the fact that most of his quotations come from a
student anthology; Popper ignores important aspects of Hegels work and
perpetuates mistranslations.
ii)
He identifies Poppers use of quilt quotations i.e. amalgamations
of a number of shorter quotations, taken out of context and in many cases from
separate books.
iii)
His discussion of Hegels influence shows that Popper makes
undocumented assertions, and that when he quotes twentieth century writers
he is not demonstrating influence, but rather implying guilt by association.
iv)
He demonstrates that Popper distorts Hegels view of the state,
and shows that Hegel was not a historicist.
We can find many similar examples of conflation, the association of ideas held
by quite different people in such a way as to suggest that they are really the
same. For example:
i)
In a discussion of historical evolution, Popper refers to Henry
Adams, the famous [sic] American historian, seriously hoped to determine the
course of history by fixing the position of two points on its track the one point
located in the thirteenth century, the other in his own lifetime. (PP 438) The
fact that Adams was a crank does not discredit other more serious theories of
history.

ii)
In a discussion of Marx and Goebbels (!) Popper refers to those
who believe they know how to make heaven on earth. (C&R 342) Neither Marx
nor any other serious political theorist has made such a claim (though Marx
would have accepted the quite distinct proposition that we invent heaven
because of our inability to control society on earth.)
III)

Marxism and Science

The concept of science is central to Poppers work and to his rhetoric. As


David Papineau has written:
The popular appeal of Poppers message gets latently reinforced by the way he
delivers it. For a start, there is the covert (if not exactly subtle) suggestion that
Poppers own work is of a piece with the great advances of twentieth century
science, conveyed by name-dropping mention of the occasions when he
discussed this and that with Einstein and other figures of similar status. (Times
Higher Education Supplement, 9.9.83)
It is particularly important to look critically at Poppers contrast between the
scientific Einstein and the unscientific Marx (UQ 38). Einstein in no way
shared Poppers conservative political prejudices; he advocated civil
disobedience against McCarthys anti-Communist crusade, and wrote an article
called Why Socialism for the independent Marxist journal Monthly Review in
1949. While seeking to bask in Einsteins reputation, Popper does not mention
this.
Poppers principal line of attack on Marxism and other forms of historicism is
that they aspire to a scientific status that they cannot justify:
It will be enough if I say here that I mean by historicism 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.
(PP 290)
On top of this, by using the concept of falsifiability, Popper demands a degree
of rigour which often the natural sciences, let alone the historical sciences,
cannot meet. As David Papineau has written:
When a prediction fails, it is always possible, and in general entirely sensible,
to query such bits of interpreting theory, rather than reject such fundamental

principles as the laws of motion. The central assumption of Newtonian physics


were no more falsifiable than those of Marxism or Freudianism or, for that
matter, of astrology or spirit worship. (art cit)
But Popper seems less concerned to establish a viable method for the social
sciences than to score points by imposing a kind of Catch-22. If the Marxists
stick rigidly to their original positions, they are guilty of blind dogmatism (the
mentality of the man with definitely fixed ideas, the committed man, is akin
to that of the madman. PP 364) If, on the other hand, they seek to modify their
positions in the light of experience, then they are guilty of cheating:
Thus one might say that Marxism was once a science, but one which was
refuted by some of the facts which happened to clash with its predictions
However, Marxism is no longer a science; for it broke the methodological rule
that we must accept falsification, and it immunised itself against the most
blatant refutations of its predictions. Ever since then, it can be described only
as non-science as a metaphysical dream, if you like, married to a cruel reality.
(PP 127)
This false alternative leaves no place for the attempt to preserve the broad
outline of a theory, but to modify the details to fit a changing reality. This is the
approach that, for example, characterises the 1872 Preface to the German
Edition of the Communist Manifesto, in which Marx and Engels try to reassess
their text after a quarter of a century:
However much the state of things may have altered during the last twenty-five
years, the general principles laid down in this Manifesto are, on the whole, as
correct today as ever. Here and there some detail might be improved. The
practical application of the principles will depend, as the Manifesto itself states,
everywhere and at all times, on the historical conditions for the time being
existing, and, for that reason, no special stress is laid on the revolutionary
measures proposed at the end of Section II. That passage would, in many
respects, be very differently worded today.
In more general terms it might be suggested that, by insisting on a rigorous
distinction between what is, and is not, science, and by denying legitimacy to
any work that does not meet this standard, Popper is guilty precisely of what he
elsewhere calls essentialism, a belief that there is a single essence of what
constitutes science.

A further Catch-22 seems to operate in relation to the distinction between the


natural and social sciences. On the one hand Popper seems to believe that the
social sciences should aspire to the same rigour as the natural sciences (the
social sciences do not as yet seem to have found their Galileo PP 289). Yet at
the same time Popper argues that the social sciences cannot achieve the same
results as the natural sciences:
The historicist doctrine which teaches that it is the task of the social sciences
to predict historical developments is, I believe, untenable.
My contentions are two.
The first is that the historicist does not, as a matter of fact, derive his historical
prophecies from conditional scientific predictions. The second (from which the
first follows) is that he cannot possibly do so because long-term prophecies can
be derived from scientific conditional predictions only if they apply to systems
which can be described as well-isolated, stationary, and recurrent. These
systems are very rare in nature; and modern society is surely not one of them.
(C&R 339)
Roger Harris (B) has tried to cut through the confusion:
Society is not subject to unvarying causal laws which yield to investigation via
explanatory hypothesis, prediction and test. It is subject instead to history
something Popper understands vaguely in respect of the growth of scientific
knowledge, but, for political reasons, will not allow to extend to his
understanding of human activity in toto. Yet here is a clear contradiction within
Poppers overall doctrine: if a systematic understanding, albeit a non-predictive
understanding, can be gained of the growth of scientific knowledge, through his
theory of scientific method, as Popper claims it can, then this is an instance of
just the sort of non-predictive systematic understanding of human activity
which is supposedly subjected to devastating criticisms in Poppers own work.
Most of these criticisms, in fact, are generated by mistakenly assuming that
Marx, Freud, etc. are seeking predictive theories of a natural science kind, and
then, surprisingly enough, showing that their theories are not falsifiable after
all. But if human activities, like Poppers own chosen field the search for
knowledge are susceptible to understanding without the need for a predictive
theory, then Poppers criticism that Marxs theories are not falsifiable, and his
criticisms that falsifiable theories cannot be constructed, and so systematic

knowledge is not possible, in the field of human activity, are both quite
misplaced.
Marx, in fact, saw a clear distinction between natural and social science: as
Vico says, human history differs from natural history in this, that we have made
the former, but not the latter. (Capital, vol. I, chapter XV, section 1). And as
Roger Harris has pointed out, the assimilation of social science to natural
science is a way of thought in which ones fellow men are seen as existing to
be exploited and manipulated for gain, much as nature is. (art cit)
In fact, Popper misrepresents the whole structure of Marxs thought. As Lenin,
quoting Engels, put it: Our doctrine is not a dogma, but a guide to action.
(Certain features of the historical development of Marxism, 1910) Marxs
fundamental aim is to analyse society as part of the project of transforming it.
In the course of this analysis he may make certain predictions; he may make
them rashly and they may turn out wrong. But the predictions are a secondary
by-product of the analysis, rather than, as Popper seems to believe, the
predictions being the main aim of the operation.
It is, of course, true that Marx and Engels claimed scientific status for their
work. But they did so in the specific context of establishing a distinction
between their work and that of the so-called Utopian Socialists. The Utopians
produced out of their own brains a vision of an ideal society, which was then to
be offered ready-made to the masses. As Marx and Engels saw, this was both
unrealistic and elitist; a scientific socialism must be based on social forces and
social conflicts actually existing in the present:
From that time forward, socialism was no longer an accidental discovery of this
or that ingenious brain, but the necessary outcome of the struggle between two
historically developed classes the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Its task was
no longer to manufacture a system of society as perfect as possible, but to
examine the historic-economic succession of events from which these classes,
and their antagonism had of necessity sprung, and to discover in the economic
conditions thus created the means of ending the conflict
These two great discoveries, the materialistic conception of history and the
revelation of the secret of capitalistic production through surplus value, we owe
to Marx. With these discoveries socialism became a science.
(Engels, Socialism: Utopian and scientific, chapter II)

For Marx truth is not a question of either verification or falsification, it is a


question of practice:
The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not
a question of theory but is a practical question. In practice man must prove the
truth, that is, the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking. The
dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice
is a purely scholastic question,
Social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which mislead theory to
mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the
comprehension of this practice.
(Marx, Theses on Feuerbach, II & VIII)
Hence Popper is quite misguided in his attempt to establish a dichotomy in
Marx between hisactivism and his historicism:
The demand that men should prove themselves in deeds is especially marked
in some of Marxs earlier writings. This attitude, which might be described as
his activism, is most clearly formulated in the last of his theses on Feuerbach:
The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point
however is to change it..
But as we already know, these strong activist tendencies of Marxs are
counteracted by his historicism. Under its influence, he became mainly a
prophet. He decided that, at least under capitalism, we must submit to
inexorable laws and to the fact that all we can do is to shorten and lessen the
birth-pangs of the natural phases of its evolution. There is a wide gulf
between Marxs activism and his historicism, and this gulf is further widened by
his doctrine that we must submit to the purely irrational forces of history. (OSE
II 201-2)
Marxs own formulation of the relation between activism and determinism was
considerably more fortunate:
Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they
do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under
circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. (The
Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, chapter I)
In the light of this, and of Marxs manifold writings on the 1848 revolutions, it is
scarcely possible to take seriously Poppers claim that for Marx Politics is
impotent. It can never alter decisively the economic reality. (PP 327)

Bryan Magee claims on behalf of Popper that


Marxisms fundamental tenet that the development of the means of production
is the sole determinant of historical change is shown to be logically incoherent
by the fact that no such theory can explain how it is that the means of
production do develop instead of remaining the same. (Magee, p. 98)
In fact, Engels dealt with this fundamental tenet before Popper was born:
According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining
element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. More than this
neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if someone twists this into saying
that the economic element is the onlyone, he transforms that proposition into a
meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase.
(Engels, letter to J Bloch, September 1890)
Marx was indeed aware from the beginning that any kind of economic
determinism not only denied human freedom, but led to elitist politics:
The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and
upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of other
circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men that change
circumstances and that the educator himself needs educating. Hence, this
doctrine necessarily arrives at dividing society into two parts, one of which is
superior to society (in Robert Owen, for example). (Theses on Feuerbach, III)
It is true that Marx writes of the laws of society. But those laws are not those of
some inescapable historical destiny, but of the capitalist mode of production
which he is seeking to abolish:
Free competition brings out the inherent laws of capitalist production, in the
shape of external coercive laws having power over every individual capitalist.
(Capital, volume I, chapter X, section 5)
As Herbert Marcuse (B) has argued:
It is also true that Marxian theory contains the notion of inexorable laws of
society although here it is precisely the abolition of these oppressive laws
which is the aim and the rationale of the socialist revolution.

The less a society is rationally organised and directed by the collective efforts
of free men, the more it will appear as an independent whole governed by
inexorable laws.
These laws are, of course, subject to modification by interaction with other
factors. If, in a particular capitalist society at a particular time, political or
economic circumstances mean that the rate of profit does not fall, the law of
the falling rate of profit is no more refuted than would be the law of gravitation
by my dropping a piece of paper off a high building on a windy day.
Popper makes great play of the fact that Marx has been refuted by the fact that
his predictions have turned out false. Undoubtedly Marx made some mistakes,
notably about the timescale of the hoped-for revolution. But this should not
obscure the considerable predictive power of his theory. Take for example the
account of the logic of capitalist development in chapter I of the Communist
Manifesto:
The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world-market given a
cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the
great chagrin of Reactionists, it had drawn from under the feet of industry the
national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have
been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new
industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised
nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw
material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are
consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe.
It is easy to argue that this account is truer today, in the age of the MultiNational Corporation, than it was when it was written.
Far from believing that revolutions could be predicted like eclipses, Marx and
Engels believed that revolution was simply one option facing capitalist society.
The alternative was the destruction of civilisation.
In other words, the reason is that both the productive forces created by the
modern capitalist mode of production and the system of distribution established
by it have come into crying contradiction with that mode of production itself,
and in fact to such a degree that, if the whole of modern society is not to

perish, a revolution in the mode of production and distribution must take place,
a revolution which will put an end to all class distinctions.
[the bourgeoisies] own productive forces have grown beyond its control, and,
as if necessitated by a law of nature, are driving the whole of bourgeois society
towards ruin, or revolution.
(Engels, Anti-Dhring, Part II, chapters I & II)
This alternative was summed up by Rosa Luxemburg (another great Marxist
whom Popper ignores) as either an advance to socialism or a reversion to
barbarism.
It may be argued that the survival of capitalism into the late twentieth century
has shown even this conditional prediction to be false. But consider:
i)
After the 1917 Revolution, the Russian Bolsheviks believed that
the revolution could survive only if spread to the more advanced parts of
Europe; Germany was the key. Between 1918 and 1923, three revolutionary
waves were defeated in Germany; but the price of that defeat was the rise of
Hitler, the extermination camps and the massive slaughter of World War II.
ii)
After World War II the capitalist system went into a prolonged
period of growth. However, this growth was inextricably linked to the nuclear
arms race, a race which leaves the whole world prey to an array of weapons
that could destroy the whole of human civilisation as the result of a technical
accident, if the radar misinterprets a flock of geese . or 99 red balloons.

IV) The Open Society


Poppers political alternative to Marxism is liberalism; indeed much of what he
has to say is far from original. As Roger Harris (B) has argued:
The germ of Poppers work, nonetheless, consists almost entirely of various
platitudes of liberalism: the empiricism of trial and error; the virtues and
rewards of taking risks; free competition in the market-place of ideas; reason as
antithetical to violence; the unimportance of being right (its not what you do,
its the way that you do it); the less we are governed, the better the
government; history is bunk; etc.

Popper tries to establish a close connection between the critical methods of the
sciences and the political freedom of the open society:
For the progress of science depends on free competition of thought, hence on
freedom of thought, and hence, ultimately, on political freedom. (PP 443)
In the abstract this is unexceptionable; a dogmatic authoritarian society is
hostile to scientific enquiry. However, Poppers tendency to identify the open
society with the free world (C&R 371) of the West is open to rather more
doubt. Some points to consider:
i)
The parallelism of the arms race suggests that scientific progress
is not significantly faster or slower in either the open society of the United
States or the unopen society of Russia.
ii)
The Economist (21.1.84) reported on the high degree of cheating
and fraud in US academic and research circles. One cancer research worker
painted black areas on experimental mice to simulate the results he desired;
another scientist faked medical research for 16 years at Notre Dame, Emory
and Harvard Universities before he was exposed. Explanations of this stress the
pressures of the highly competitive scientific milieu.
iii)
One of the reasons why the open USA got embroiled in the
Vietnam war was that in the fifties virtually all the state experts who knew
about the Far East were purged for being soft on Communism; as a result
there was no-one left to explain that the Vietnamese Liberation movement had
a mass popular base and would be very difficult to defeat. (Cf. D
Halberstam,The Best and the Brightest, Pan, 1974)
Popper disregards one of Marxs most fundamental declarations, that the
emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes
themselves (General Rules of the International Working Mens Association).
Hence he is unable to see that Marxs alternative to liberalism is not
authoritarian, centralised or elitist, but far more democratic.
Popper complains that Marxism neglects the problem of institutions:
Marxists nowadays do not think in terms of institutions; they put their faith in
certain personalities, or perhaps in the fact that certain persons were once
proletarians a result of their belief in the overruling importance of classes and

class loyalties. Rationalists, on the contrary, are more inclined to rely on


institutions for controlling men. (C&R 345)
And he recommends governmental forms in which the social institutions
provide means by which the rulers may be dismissed by the ruled. (PP 323)
Yet Popper seems quite unaware that Marx addressed these problems, not in
the abstract, but on the basis of the concrete historical experience of the Paris
Commune of 1871, in his bookThe Civil War in France. (Popper does refer to this
work once (OSE II 342), but in chapter 17 of the Open Society, The Legal and
Social System, which in The Pocket Popper becomes Marxs Theory of the
State, no mention is made of Marxs work on the Paris Commune.)
This is how Marx describes proletarian rule in Paris in the Spring of 1871:
The Commune was formed of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal
suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short
terms. The majority of its members were naturally working men, or
acknowledged representatives of the working class. The Commune was to be a
working, not a parliamentary, body, executive and legislative at the same time.
Instead of continuing to be the agent of the Central Government, the police was
at once stripped of its political attributes, and turned into the responsible and at
all times revocable agent of the Commune. So were the officials of all other
branches of the Administration. From the members of the Commune
downwards, the public service had to be done at workmens wages. The vested
interests and the representation allowances of the high dignitaries of State
disappeared along with the high dignitaries themselves. Public functions ceased
to be the private property of the tools of the Central Government. Not only
municipal administration, but the whole initiative hitherto exercised by the
State was laid into the hands of the Commune.
(The Civil War in France, chapter III)
Note that Marxs insistence that the members of the Commune
were revocable i.e. subject to recall precisely meets Poppers demand for
institutional guarantees against the abuse of power.
The Commune experience was seen as central by Engels:
Of late , the Social-Democratic philistine has once more been filled with
wholesome terror at the words: Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Well and good,

gentleman, do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the
Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. (Introduction to
2nd edition of The Civil War in France, 1892)
Lenin, likewise, made the Commune experience central to his book The State
and Revolution, written on the eve of the October Revolution. And the Soviets
which flourished in the first years after 1917 took up the principles of
proletarian democracy developed in the Commune. See, for example, the
description by an American journalist John Reed (Hero of the film Reds):
No political body more sensitive and responsive to the popular will was ever
invented. And this was necessary, for in time of revolution, the popular will
changes with great rapidity. For example, during the first week of December,
1917, there were parades and demonstrations in favour of the Constituent
Assembly that is to say, against the Soviet power. One of these parades was
fired on by some irresponsible Red Guards and several people killed. The
reaction to this stupid violence was immediate. Within twelve hours the
complexion of the Petrograd Soviet changed. More than a dozen Bolshevik
deputies were withdrawn, and replaced by Mensheviki. And it was three weeks
before public sentiment subsided before the Mensheviki were one by one
retired and the Bolsheviki sent back.
(article in The Liberator, October 1918)
In the light of this stress on working-class self-organisation and democracy,
Poppers diatribes against the alleged Marxist cult of the benevolent planning
authority (PH 91) are quite simply misdirected. As Engels points out, state
ownership unrelated to working-class power has nothing to do with socialism:
Certainly, if the taking over by the state of the tobacco industry is socialistic,
then Napoleon and Metternich must be numbered among the founders of
socialism. If the Belgian state, for quite ordinary political and financial reasons,
itself constructed its chief railway lines; if Bismarck, not under any economic
compulsion, took over for the state the chief Prussian lines, simply to be the
better able to have them in hand in case of war, to bring up the railway
employees as voting cattle for the government, and especially to create for
himself a new source of income independent of parliamentary votes that was,
in no sense, a socialistic measure, directly or indirectly, consciously or
unconsciously. Otherwise, the Royal Maritime Company, the Royal porcelain
manufacture, and even the regimental tailor of the army would also be

socialistic institutions, or even, as was seriously proposed by a sly dog in


Frederick William IIs reign, the taking over by the state of the brothels.
(Anti-Dhring, part III, chapter II)
Bryan Magee echoes Poppers demand for democratic institutions:
If the open society is to be a reality the most fundamental requirement is that
those in power should be removable, at reasonable intervals and without
violence, and replaceable by others with different policies.
(Magee 78)
Without unduly personalising the argument we may note that in 1979 Magee
was elected to parliament on the Labour Party programme; two years later he
joined a party with a quite different programme, but continued to draw his
salary (somewhat in excess of a workmans wage) without giving his electors
the opportunity to recall him.

V) The Critique of Holism


As Marcuse (B) notes, Popper denounces as holist the view that society must
be seen as a totality; and moreover he sees a close link between this
methodological use of totality and totalitarian politics. The principle Popper
advocates in its place is piecemeal engineering, that is, a gradual process of
social reform. Popper advocates the piecemeal approach at least as
dogmatically as any Marxist advocated revolution, and he fails to consider the
main objections to it.
i)
If, in fact, the world economic and political system is a single
interconnected whole, as could be argued on the basis of a considerable
amount of empirical; evidence, then piecemeal engineering would be both
illusory and dangerous. (For a recent argument of the case, see N Harris, Of
Bread and Guns, Penguin, 1983)
ii)
If a strong enough force has a vested interest in the status quo,
they will not allow their privileges to be whittled away; as RH Tawney put it: You
can peel an onion leaf by leaf, but you cant skin a tiger claw by claw.

iii)
The empirical record of piecemeal engineering is not that good. To
take a recent case. In 1981 a French Socialist government was elected under
the leadership of Franois Mitterrand. It was pledged to introduce reforms
without attacking either the basic pattern of ownership of wealth or Frances
place in the world order. Three years later Mitterrands policies are largely
indistinguishable from Thatchers.
However, we must be grateful to Popper for giving us some examples of
refutable predictions. In a lecture delivered in 1956 called The History of Our
Time Popper listed what he saw as the enduring achievements of the societies
of the free world:
Abject poverty has been practically abolished. Instead of being a mass
phenomenon, the problem has almost become one of detecting the isolated
cases which still persist.
The problem of unemployment and of some other forms of insecurity have
changed completely. We are new faced with new problems brought into being
by the fact that the problem of mass-unemployment has largely been solved.
Fairly continuous progress is being made in dealing with the problems of
sickness and pain.
Religious discrimination has practically disappeared. Racial discrimination has
diminished to an extent surpassing the hopes of the most hopeful. (C&R 370-1)
In accordance with his own principles Popper should surely recognise that his
political beliefs of the 1950s have been refuted. To my knowledge he has not
done so. It may be objected that he is an old man. But we may recall that
Bertrand Russell, who in the late 1940s called for pre-emptive nuclear war
against Russia, was by the 1960s aged well over 80 calling for direct action
against nuclear weapons, and in his nineties he helped to launch the campaign
against the American war in Vietnam. But then Russell represents a quite
different type of intellectual integrity to Popper.

VI) Historicism and History

Popper rejects historicism because of its search for patterns in history. Yet the
version of history Popper presents us with is a highly schematic one, without
any of the richness and complexities of the real historical process. The concrete
problems and real defeats suffered in post-revolutionary Russia evaporate;
everything can be attributed to the historicism of Marx and Lenin. He notes that
when fascism came to power in Germany, the Communists did not put up any
resistance. (OSE II 165) But he does not explain this in terms of the specific
conjuncture, the particular line (the Third Period) imposed by the Communist
International on the German Communist Party. Everything is traced back to the
original sin of historicism. Poppers method, in fact, enables him to avoid doing
the real hard work involved in writing history. And so we may conclude with
Marcuse (B):
Poppers construction is general enough to include practically all theories
which take history seriously, which see in it the fate of mankind: his opposition
to historicism is in the last analysis opposition to history.

BIBLIOGRAPHY
H Marcuse, Karl Popper and the Problem of Historical Laws, in From Luther to
Popper, Verso, 1983.
R Harris, Popper for the People, Radical Philosophy 6, 1973 (review of Magee)
P Anderson, Components of the National Culture, in A Cockburn & R Blackburn
(eds), Student Power, Penguin, 1969.
G Novack, Empiricism and its Evolution, Merit, 1968, chapter X, Materialism
and Empiricism Today.
W Kaufmann, The Owl and the Nightingale, Faber & Faber, 1960, chapter 7, The
Hegel Myth and its Method.
A Callinicos, Is There a Future for Marxism?, Macmillan, 1982, chapter 7, For
and Against Epistemology.
See also debate in this book with contributions from P Binns, A Callinicos, C
Harman, inInternational Socialism nos 17, 19, 21
I Lakatos, A Letter to the director of the London School of Economics (1968), in
I Lakatos,Mathematics, Science and Epistemology, Vol II, Cambridge UP, 1978.
(An example of hostility to student militancy by a man described Magee as
more Popperian than Popper.)
For some presentations of Marx rather more honest than Poppers:

D Riazanov, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Monthly Review, 1973.


D McLellan, Marx, Fontana, 1975.
A Callinicos, The Revolutionary Ideas of Marx, Bookmarks, 1983.

1984
Popper Falsifies Marx
Written as a student hand-out in March 1984 for a first-year course in
the History of Ideas at Middlesex Poly. When Popper died I offered
to turn it into an article for International Socialism, but John Rees
declined the offer.

To begin with, two propositions about the History of Ideas


i)
No historian of ideas is neutral; every historian writes from a
standpoint, and uses thinkers of the past in the interests of the position s/he
seeks to advocate. This does not, however, mean that we cannot find such work
illuminating and valuable even if written from a standpoint very different from
our own.
ii)
The fact of commitment does not absolve the historian of ideas
from certain standards of honesty and intellectual rigour; the most basic of
these is a respect for the texts being studied.
These propositions can be examined in the light of Poppers critique of Marx.
Outside the circles of natural scientists Popper is best known for his critique of
Marx. Isaiah Berlin has described it as the most scrupulous and formidable
criticism of the philosophical and historical doctrines of Marxism by any living

writer (B Magee, Popper, Fontana, 1982, p. 9); and Brian Magee states I must
confess I do not see how any rational man can have read Poppers critique of
Marx and still be a Marxist. (ibid, p. 92) Clearly aspirant historians of ideas
have here the opportunity to watch a master craftsman at work. It will therefore
be interesting to look in some detail at Poppers method and approach.
References
a)
Works of Popper
A Pocket Popper (ed D Miller), Fontana, 1983 (PP)
The Open Society and its Enemies, Vols I & II, Routledge & Kegan Paul,
1962, (OSE)
Unended Quest, Fontana, 1982 (UQ)
The Poverty of Historicism, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961 (PH)
Conjectures and Refutations, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972 (C&R)
Also B Magee, Popper, Fontana, 1983 this appears to be an authorised
publication of the official Sir Karl Popper Fan Club.
b)
Others
In view of the multiplicity of available editions, references to the writings of
Marx and Engels will be simply to title and chapter. Other references will be
given in the text, or, where the authors name is followed by (B), in the
bibliography at the end of the hand-out.
I)
Poppers Standpoint:
In his autobiography Unended Quest Popper explains how he was a Communist
for a few months in 1919, and then, following a violent clash between workers
and police in Vienna, broke sharply with Communism:
By the time I was seventeen I had become an anti-Marxist. I realized the
dogmatic character of the creed, and its incredible intellectual arrogance. It was
a terrible thing to arrogate to oneself a kind of knowledge which made it a duty
to risk the lives of other people for an uncritically accepted dogma, or for a
dream which might turn out not to be realizable. It was particularly bad for an
intellectual, for one who could read and think. It was awfully depressing to have
fallen into such a trap. (UQ 34)
This gut anti-Communism long predates Poppers interest in scientific
methodology; indeed, he tells us it was in part a criticism of Marxism that had
started me, in 1919, on my way to Logik der Forschung. (UQ 113)

Popper now adopted a form of conservatism that went so far as to hold that
members of oppressed groups should not attempt to challenge that oppression
for fear of making things worse. Writing of Austria after the end of World War I,
Popper, himself of Jewish origin, writes:
many Jews, feeling that freedom and full equality had now become a reality,
understandably but not wisely entered politics and journalism. Most of them
meant well; but the influx of Jews into parties of the left contributed to the
downfall of those parties. It seemed quite obvious that, with much latent
popular anti-Semitism about, the best service which a good socialist who
happened to be of Jewish origin could render to his party was not to try to play
a role in it. Strangely enough, few seemed to think of this obvious rule. (UQ
106-7)
Poppers subsequent political alignments are consistent with his early positions.
He tells us thatThe Poverty of Historicism and The Open Society were my war
effort (UQ 115); that is, at a time when Russia was allied with Britain and the
USA against Nazi Germany, he devoted he devoted his time to writing a critique
of Marxism. In 1950 he visited the United States at the very beginning of the
McCarthyite anti-Communist witch-hunts; he notes that in the USA there was a
feeling of freedom, of personal independence, which did not exist in Europe
and which, I thought, was even stronger than in New Zealand, the freest
country I knew. (UQ 128)
II)
Poppers Method
It is a normal requirement of the scientific approach that the scientist should
indicate clearly the proposed area of study. Thus if a zoologist promised us a
treatise on elephants, we should be somewhat surprised if s/he dealt
exclusively with Indian elephants without reference to African elephants; and
even more surprised if s/he included sections on camels and field-mice on the
grounds that they had some features in common with elephants. Yet Poppers
approach to Marxism/historicism has much in common with such a treatment.
Poppers own account of his method gives us a rather surprising formulation:
I have tried hard to make a case in favour of historicism in order to give point
to my subsequent criticism. I have tried to present historicism as a wellconsidered and close-knit philosophy. And I have not hesitated to construct
arguments in its support which have never, to my knowledge, been brought

forward by historicists themselves. I hope that, in this way, I have succeeded in


building up a position really worth attacking. (PP 291)
The implications of this are curious:
i)
Popper must be presumed to be considerably more intelligent
than Hegel, Marx, or any other historicist, since he has discovered arguments
which they failed to produce, even though they devoted their lives to defending
the position;
ii)
that the logic of an intellectual position can be completely
abstracted from the specific texts in which it was formulated and the whole
historical practice which gave rise to it.
Popper claims to be confronting both the historical individual Karl Marx and the
whole intellectual and political movement basing itself on Marx. Yet when we
examine the scope of references to Marx and Marxists in Poppers work we find
a number of omissions and limitations:
i)
Most of his references to Marx and Engels seem to be taken from
E Burns (ed) A Handbook of Marxism (1935), an official Communist Party
manual of the high Stalinist period; (OSE II 318)
ii)
There is virtually no consideration of such early works as
Marxs Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (1844), which laid the
philosophical foundations for Marxs later work, even though these works have
been the subject of considerable controversy since the 1930s;
iii)
There is little mention of Marxs historical writings on the
revolutionary developments in France in 1948-51 and 1871, even though these
show Marx at his best in applying his analysis to a concrete historical process
(cf. also section IV below on Marx and the State);
iv)
Popper seems totally ignorant of the work of Georg Lukcs
including History and Class Consciousness, published in Berlin in 1923
although this work represents the most sophisticated twentieth century attempt
to explore the philosophical and methodological foundations of Marxism;
v)
Nor does Popper give any attention to the work of Leon Trotsky,
who made a pioneering attempt to develop a Marxist analysis of the
degeneration of the Russian revolution, and to show that there was a Marxist
alternative to Stalinism.

(Popper does note that he had difficulty in obtaining all the books he had
wanted in war-time New Zealand (UQ 118); however, since 1946 he has had
access to the rich library resources of the London School of Economics, but
there is no indication that he has been willing to revise his judgments in the
light of more extensive reading.)
Moreover, Popper seems to have very little interest in the concrete history of
Marxist thought or the Marxist movement. He refers, for example, to the
Dialectical Materialism developed by Marx, although Marx never used the
term, which was invented by Plekhanov, and widely propagated in the Stalin
period. (C&R 332) On occasion Popper establishes a distinction between Marx
and the Vulgar Marxists (OSE II 100, C&R 125), but he never defines this
category or locates it historically; while it might be supposed that the Vulgar
Marxists are Stalinists, the identification is never clearly established. As for the
questions of the continuity or non-continuity between Marx, Lenin and Stalin,
Popper never tackles the question, although it is crucial to his thesis of the
pernicious influence of historicist theories. Popper suggests that Marxist and
Bolshevik ideas bear a major part of the responsibility for Stalinist Russia, but
never examines the concrete historical process by which this might have
happened. (He thus saves himself from having to answer awkward questions
such as why Stalin found it necessary to organise the deaths of ten out of
fifteen members of the first Bolshevik Government of 1917). In passing Popper
describes the Russian Revolution of October 1917 as a conspiracy (C&R 125).
But he does not deign to explain how a conspiracy could be carried through by
a Bolshevik Party with nearly 200,000 members. (One of Lenins fiercest
political opponents, the Menshevik Martov, had a rather better understanding
when he wrote Understand, please, what we have before us after all is a
victorious uprising of the proletariat almost the entire proletariat supports
Lenin and expects its social liberation from the uprising letter to Axelrod, 19
November 1917.)
An interesting sidelight on Poppers method is given by Walter Kaufmanns
essay (B) on The Hegel Myth and its Method. Kaufmann, a liberal Hegel
scholar, identifies a number of distortions in Poppers treatment of Hegel in
Volume II of The Open Society and Its Enemies:
i)
He shows the inadequacy of Poppers scholarship; his ignorance
of important critical works, and the fact that most of his quotations come from a

student anthology; Popper ignores important aspects of Hegels work and


perpetuates mistranslations.
ii)
He identifies Poppers use of quilt quotations i.e. amalgamations
of a number of shorter quotations, taken out of context and in many cases from
separate books.
iii)
His discussion of Hegels influence shows that Popper makes
undocumented assertions, and that when he quotes twentieth century writers
he is not demonstrating influence, but rather implying guilt by association.
iv)
He demonstrates that Popper distorts Hegels view of the state,
and shows that Hegel was not a historicist.
We can find many similar examples of conflation, the association of ideas held
by quite different people in such a way as to suggest that they are really the
same. For example:
i)
In a discussion of historical evolution, Popper refers to Henry
Adams, the famous [sic] American historian, seriously hoped to determine the
course of history by fixing the position of two points on its track the one point
located in the thirteenth century, the other in his own lifetime. (PP 438) The
fact that Adams was a crank does not discredit other more serious theories of
history.
ii)
In a discussion of Marx and Goebbels (!) Popper refers to those
who believe they know how to make heaven on earth. (C&R 342) Neither Marx
nor any other serious political theorist has made such a claim (though Marx
would have accepted the quite distinct proposition that we invent heaven
because of our inability to control society on earth.)
III)

Marxism and Science

The concept of science is central to Poppers work and to his rhetoric. As


David Papineau has written:
The popular appeal of Poppers message gets latently reinforced by the way he
delivers it. For a start, there is the covert (if not exactly subtle) suggestion that
Poppers own work is of a piece with the great advances of twentieth century
science, conveyed by name-dropping mention of the occasions when he

discussed this and that with Einstein and other figures of similar status. (Times
Higher Education Supplement, 9.9.83)
It is particularly important to look critically at Poppers contrast between the
scientific Einstein and the unscientific Marx (UQ 38). Einstein in no way
shared Poppers conservative political prejudices; he advocated civil
disobedience against McCarthys anti-Communist crusade, and wrote an article
called Why Socialism for the independent Marxist journal Monthly Review in
1949. While seeking to bask in Einsteins reputation, Popper does not mention
this.
Poppers principal line of attack on Marxism and other forms of historicism is
that they aspire to a scientific status that they cannot justify:
It will be enough if I say here that I mean by historicism 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.
(PP 290)
On top of this, by using the concept of falsifiability, Popper demands a degree
of rigour which often the natural sciences, let alone the historical sciences,
cannot meet. As David Papineau has written:
When a prediction fails, it is always possible, and in general entirely sensible,
to query such bits of interpreting theory, rather than reject such fundamental
principles as the laws of motion. The central assumption of Newtonian physics
were no more falsifiable than those of Marxism or Freudianism or, for that
matter, of astrology or spirit worship. (art cit)
But Popper seems less concerned to establish a viable method for the social
sciences than to score points by imposing a kind of Catch-22. If the Marxists
stick rigidly to their original positions, they are guilty of blind dogmatism (the
mentality of the man with definitely fixed ideas, the committed man, is akin
to that of the madman. PP 364) If, on the other hand, they seek to modify their
positions in the light of experience, then they are guilty of cheating:
Thus one might say that Marxism was once a science, but one which was
refuted by some of the facts which happened to clash with its predictions
However, Marxism is no longer a science; for it broke the methodological rule

that we must accept falsification, and it immunised itself against the most
blatant refutations of its predictions. Ever since then, it can be described only
as non-science as a metaphysical dream, if you like, married to a cruel reality.
(PP 127)
This false alternative leaves no place for the attempt to preserve the broad
outline of a theory, but to modify the details to fit a changing reality. This is the
approach that, for example, characterises the 1872 Preface to the German
Edition of the Communist Manifesto, in which Marx and Engels try to reassess
their text after a quarter of a century:
However much the state of things may have altered during the last twenty-five
years, the general principles laid down in this Manifesto are, on the whole, as
correct today as ever. Here and there some detail might be improved. The
practical application of the principles will depend, as the Manifesto itself states,
everywhere and at all times, on the historical conditions for the time being
existing, and, for that reason, no special stress is laid on the revolutionary
measures proposed at the end of Section II. That passage would, in many
respects, be very differently worded today.
In more general terms it might be suggested that, by insisting on a rigorous
distinction between what is, and is not, science, and by denying legitimacy to
any work that does not meet this standard, Popper is guilty precisely of what he
elsewhere calls essentialism, a belief that there is a single essence of what
constitutes science.
A further Catch-22 seems to operate in relation to the distinction between the
natural and social sciences. On the one hand Popper seems to believe that the
social sciences should aspire to the same rigour as the natural sciences (the
social sciences do not as yet seem to have found their Galileo PP 289). Yet at
the same time Popper argues that the social sciences cannot achieve the same
results as the natural sciences:
The historicist doctrine which teaches that it is the task of the social sciences
to predict historical developments is, I believe, untenable.
My contentions are two.
The first is that the historicist does not, as a matter of fact, derive his historical
prophecies from conditional scientific predictions. The second (from which the

first follows) is that he cannot possibly do so because long-term prophecies can


be derived from scientific conditional predictions only if they apply to systems
which can be described as well-isolated, stationary, and recurrent. These
systems are very rare in nature; and modern society is surely not one of them.
(C&R 339)
Roger Harris (B) has tried to cut through the confusion:
Society is not subject to unvarying causal laws which yield to investigation via
explanatory hypothesis, prediction and test. It is subject instead to history
something Popper understands vaguely in respect of the growth of scientific
knowledge, but, for political reasons, will not allow to extend to his
understanding of human activity in toto. Yet here is a clear contradiction within
Poppers overall doctrine: if a systematic understanding, albeit a non-predictive
understanding, can be gained of the growth of scientific knowledge, through his
theory of scientific method, as Popper claims it can, then this is an instance of
just the sort of non-predictive systematic understanding of human activity
which is supposedly subjected to devastating criticisms in Poppers own work.
Most of these criticisms, in fact, are generated by mistakenly assuming that
Marx, Freud, etc. are seeking predictive theories of a natural science kind, and
then, surprisingly enough, showing that their theories are not falsifiable after
all. But if human activities, like Poppers own chosen field the search for
knowledge are susceptible to understanding without the need for a predictive
theory, then Poppers criticism that Marxs theories are not falsifiable, and his
criticisms that falsifiable theories cannot be constructed, and so systematic
knowledge is not possible, in the field of human activity, are both quite
misplaced.
Marx, in fact, saw a clear distinction between natural and social science: as
Vico says, human history differs from natural history in this, that we have made
the former, but not the latter. (Capital, vol. I, chapter XV, section 1). And as
Roger Harris has pointed out, the assimilation of social science to natural
science is a way of thought in which ones fellow men are seen as existing to
be exploited and manipulated for gain, much as nature is. (art cit)
In fact, Popper misrepresents the whole structure of Marxs thought. As Lenin,
quoting Engels, put it: Our doctrine is not a dogma, but a guide to action.
(Certain features of the historical development of Marxism, 1910) Marxs
fundamental aim is to analyse society as part of the project of transforming it.
In the course of this analysis he may make certain predictions; he may make

them rashly and they may turn out wrong. But the predictions are a secondary
by-product of the analysis, rather than, as Popper seems to believe, the
predictions being the main aim of the operation.
It is, of course, true that Marx and Engels claimed scientific status for their
work. But they did so in the specific context of establishing a distinction
between their work and that of the so-called Utopian Socialists. The Utopians
produced out of their own brains a vision of an ideal society, which was then to
be offered ready-made to the masses. As Marx and Engels saw, this was both
unrealistic and elitist; a scientific socialism must be based on social forces and
social conflicts actually existing in the present:
From that time forward, socialism was no longer an accidental discovery of this
or that ingenious brain, but the necessary outcome of the struggle between two
historically developed classes the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Its task was
no longer to manufacture a system of society as perfect as possible, but to
examine the historic-economic succession of events from which these classes,
and their antagonism had of necessity sprung, and to discover in the economic
conditions thus created the means of ending the conflict
These two great discoveries, the materialistic conception of history and the
revelation of the secret of capitalistic production through surplus value, we owe
to Marx. With these discoveries socialism became a science.
(Engels, Socialism: Utopian and scientific, chapter II)
For Marx truth is not a question of either verification or falsification, it is a
question of practice:
The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not
a question of theory but is a practical question. In practice man must prove the
truth, that is, the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking. The
dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice
is a purely scholastic question,
Social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which mislead theory to
mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the
comprehension of this practice.
(Marx, Theses on Feuerbach, II & VIII)
Hence Popper is quite misguided in his attempt to establish a dichotomy in
Marx between hisactivism and his historicism:

The demand that men should prove themselves in deeds is especially marked
in some of Marxs earlier writings. This attitude, which might be described as
his activism, is most clearly formulated in the last of his theses on Feuerbach:
The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point
however is to change it..
But as we already know, these strong activist tendencies of Marxs are
counteracted by his historicism. Under its influence, he became mainly a
prophet. He decided that, at least under capitalism, we must submit to
inexorable laws and to the fact that all we can do is to shorten and lessen the
birth-pangs of the natural phases of its evolution. There is a wide gulf
between Marxs activism and his historicism, and this gulf is further widened by
his doctrine that we must submit to the purely irrational forces of history. (OSE
II 201-2)
Marxs own formulation of the relation between activism and determinism was
considerably more fortunate:
Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they
do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under
circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. (The
Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, chapter I)
In the light of this, and of Marxs manifold writings on the 1848 revolutions, it is
scarcely possible to take seriously Poppers claim that for Marx Politics is
impotent. It can never alter decisively the economic reality. (PP 327)
Bryan Magee claims on behalf of Popper that
Marxisms fundamental tenet that the development of the means of production
is the sole determinant of historical change is shown to be logically incoherent
by the fact that no such theory can explain how it is that the means of
production do develop instead of remaining the same. (Magee, p. 98)
In fact, Engels dealt with this fundamental tenet before Popper was born:
According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining
element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. More than this
neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if someone twists this into saying
that the economic element is the onlyone, he transforms that proposition into a
meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase.

(Engels, letter to J Bloch, September 1890)


Marx was indeed aware from the beginning that any kind of economic
determinism not only denied human freedom, but led to elitist politics:
The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and
upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of other
circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men that change
circumstances and that the educator himself needs educating. Hence, this
doctrine necessarily arrives at dividing society into two parts, one of which is
superior to society (in Robert Owen, for example). (Theses on Feuerbach, III)
It is true that Marx writes of the laws of society. But those laws are not those of
some inescapable historical destiny, but of the capitalist mode of production
which he is seeking to abolish:
Free competition brings out the inherent laws of capitalist production, in the
shape of external coercive laws having power over every individual capitalist.
(Capital, volume I, chapter X, section 5)
As Herbert Marcuse (B) has argued:
It is also true that Marxian theory contains the notion of inexorable laws of
society although here it is precisely the abolition of these oppressive laws
which is the aim and the rationale of the socialist revolution.
The less a society is rationally organised and directed by the collective efforts
of free men, the more it will appear as an independent whole governed by
inexorable laws.
These laws are, of course, subject to modification by interaction with other
factors. If, in a particular capitalist society at a particular time, political or
economic circumstances mean that the rate of profit does not fall, the law of
the falling rate of profit is no more refuted than would be the law of gravitation
by my dropping a piece of paper off a high building on a windy day.
Popper makes great play of the fact that Marx has been refuted by the fact that
his predictions have turned out false. Undoubtedly Marx made some mistakes,
notably about the timescale of the hoped-for revolution. But this should not
obscure the considerable predictive power of his theory. Take for example the

account of the logic of capitalist development in chapter I of the Communist


Manifesto:
The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world-market given a
cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the
great chagrin of Reactionists, it had drawn from under the feet of industry the
national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have
been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new
industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised
nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw
material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are
consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe.
It is easy to argue that this account is truer today, in the age of the MultiNational Corporation, than it was when it was written.
Far from believing that revolutions could be predicted like eclipses, Marx and
Engels believed that revolution was simply one option facing capitalist society.
The alternative was the destruction of civilisation.
In other words, the reason is that both the productive forces created by the
modern capitalist mode of production and the system of distribution established
by it have come into crying contradiction with that mode of production itself,
and in fact to such a degree that, if the whole of modern society is not to
perish, a revolution in the mode of production and distribution must take place,
a revolution which will put an end to all class distinctions.
[the bourgeoisies] own productive forces have grown beyond its control, and,
as if necessitated by a law of nature, are driving the whole of bourgeois society
towards ruin, or revolution.
(Engels, Anti-Dhring, Part II, chapters I & II)
This alternative was summed up by Rosa Luxemburg (another great Marxist
whom Popper ignores) as either an advance to socialism or a reversion to
barbarism.
It may be argued that the survival of capitalism into the late twentieth century
has shown even this conditional prediction to be false. But consider:

i)
After the 1917 Revolution, the Russian Bolsheviks believed that
the revolution could survive only if spread to the more advanced parts of
Europe; Germany was the key. Between 1918 and 1923, three revolutionary
waves were defeated in Germany; but the price of that defeat was the rise of
Hitler, the extermination camps and the massive slaughter of World War II.
ii)
After World War II the capitalist system went into a prolonged
period of growth. However, this growth was inextricably linked to the nuclear
arms race, a race which leaves the whole world prey to an array of weapons
that could destroy the whole of human civilisation as the result of a technical
accident, if the radar misinterprets a flock of geese . or 99 red balloons.

IV) The Open Society


Poppers political alternative to Marxism is liberalism; indeed much of what he
has to say is far from original. As Roger Harris (B) has argued:
The germ of Poppers work, nonetheless, consists almost entirely of various
platitudes of liberalism: the empiricism of trial and error; the virtues and
rewards of taking risks; free competition in the market-place of ideas; reason as
antithetical to violence; the unimportance of being right (its not what you do,
its the way that you do it); the less we are governed, the better the
government; history is bunk; etc.
Popper tries to establish a close connection between the critical methods of the
sciences and the political freedom of the open society:
For the progress of science depends on free competition of thought, hence on
freedom of thought, and hence, ultimately, on political freedom. (PP 443)
In the abstract this is unexceptionable; a dogmatic authoritarian society is
hostile to scientific enquiry. However, Poppers tendency to identify the open
society with the free world (C&R 371) of the West is open to rather more
doubt. Some points to consider:
i)
The parallelism of the arms race suggests that scientific progress
is not significantly faster or slower in either the open society of the United
States or the unopen society of Russia.

ii)
The Economist (21.1.84) reported on the high degree of cheating
and fraud in US academic and research circles. One cancer research worker
painted black areas on experimental mice to simulate the results he desired;
another scientist faked medical research for 16 years at Notre Dame, Emory
and Harvard Universities before he was exposed. Explanations of this stress the
pressures of the highly competitive scientific milieu.
iii)
One of the reasons why the open USA got embroiled in the
Vietnam war was that in the fifties virtually all the state experts who knew
about the Far East were purged for being soft on Communism; as a result
there was no-one left to explain that the Vietnamese Liberation movement had
a mass popular base and would be very difficult to defeat. (Cf. D
Halberstam,The Best and the Brightest, Pan, 1974)
Popper disregards one of Marxs most fundamental declarations, that the
emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes
themselves (General Rules of the International Working Mens Association).
Hence he is unable to see that Marxs alternative to liberalism is not
authoritarian, centralised or elitist, but far more democratic.
Popper complains that Marxism neglects the problem of institutions:
Marxists nowadays do not think in terms of institutions; they put their faith in
certain personalities, or perhaps in the fact that certain persons were once
proletarians a result of their belief in the overruling importance of classes and
class loyalties. Rationalists, on the contrary, are more inclined to rely on
institutions for controlling men. (C&R 345)
And he recommends governmental forms in which the social institutions
provide means by which the rulers may be dismissed by the ruled. (PP 323)
Yet Popper seems quite unaware that Marx addressed these problems, not in
the abstract, but on the basis of the concrete historical experience of the Paris
Commune of 1871, in his bookThe Civil War in France. (Popper does refer to this
work once (OSE II 342), but in chapter 17 of the Open Society, The Legal and
Social System, which in The Pocket Popper becomes Marxs Theory of the
State, no mention is made of Marxs work on the Paris Commune.)
This is how Marx describes proletarian rule in Paris in the Spring of 1871:

The Commune was formed of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal


suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short
terms. The majority of its members were naturally working men, or
acknowledged representatives of the working class. The Commune was to be a
working, not a parliamentary, body, executive and legislative at the same time.
Instead of continuing to be the agent of the Central Government, the police was
at once stripped of its political attributes, and turned into the responsible and at
all times revocable agent of the Commune. So were the officials of all other
branches of the Administration. From the members of the Commune
downwards, the public service had to be done at workmens wages. The vested
interests and the representation allowances of the high dignitaries of State
disappeared along with the high dignitaries themselves. Public functions ceased
to be the private property of the tools of the Central Government. Not only
municipal administration, but the whole initiative hitherto exercised by the
State was laid into the hands of the Commune.
(The Civil War in France, chapter III)
Note that Marxs insistence that the members of the Commune
were revocable i.e. subject to recall precisely meets Poppers demand for
institutional guarantees against the abuse of power.
The Commune experience was seen as central by Engels:
Of late , the Social-Democratic philistine has once more been filled with
wholesome terror at the words: Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Well and good,
gentleman, do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the
Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. (Introduction to
2nd edition of The Civil War in France, 1892)
Lenin, likewise, made the Commune experience central to his book The State
and Revolution, written on the eve of the October Revolution. And the Soviets
which flourished in the first years after 1917 took up the principles of
proletarian democracy developed in the Commune. See, for example, the
description by an American journalist John Reed (Hero of the film Reds):
No political body more sensitive and responsive to the popular will was ever
invented. And this was necessary, for in time of revolution, the popular will
changes with great rapidity. For example, during the first week of December,
1917, there were parades and demonstrations in favour of the Constituent
Assembly that is to say, against the Soviet power. One of these parades was
fired on by some irresponsible Red Guards and several people killed. The

reaction to this stupid violence was immediate. Within twelve hours the
complexion of the Petrograd Soviet changed. More than a dozen Bolshevik
deputies were withdrawn, and replaced by Mensheviki. And it was three weeks
before public sentiment subsided before the Mensheviki were one by one
retired and the Bolsheviki sent back.
(article in The Liberator, October 1918)
In the light of this stress on working-class self-organisation and democracy,
Poppers diatribes against the alleged Marxist cult of the benevolent planning
authority (PH 91) are quite simply misdirected. As Engels points out, state
ownership unrelated to working-class power has nothing to do with socialism:
Certainly, if the taking over by the state of the tobacco industry is socialistic,
then Napoleon and Metternich must be numbered among the founders of
socialism. If the Belgian state, for quite ordinary political and financial reasons,
itself constructed its chief railway lines; if Bismarck, not under any economic
compulsion, took over for the state the chief Prussian lines, simply to be the
better able to have them in hand in case of war, to bring up the railway
employees as voting cattle for the government, and especially to create for
himself a new source of income independent of parliamentary votes that was,
in no sense, a socialistic measure, directly or indirectly, consciously or
unconsciously. Otherwise, the Royal Maritime Company, the Royal porcelain
manufacture, and even the regimental tailor of the army would also be
socialistic institutions, or even, as was seriously proposed by a sly dog in
Frederick William IIs reign, the taking over by the state of the brothels.
(Anti-Dhring, part III, chapter II)
Bryan Magee echoes Poppers demand for democratic institutions:
If the open society is to be a reality the most fundamental requirement is that
those in power should be removable, at reasonable intervals and without
violence, and replaceable by others with different policies.
(Magee 78)
Without unduly personalising the argument we may note that in 1979 Magee
was elected to parliament on the Labour Party programme; two years later he
joined a party with a quite different programme, but continued to draw his

salary (somewhat in excess of a workmans wage) without giving his electors


the opportunity to recall him.

V) The Critique of Holism


As Marcuse (B) notes, Popper denounces as holist the view that society must
be seen as a totality; and moreover he sees a close link between this
methodological use of totality and totalitarian politics. The principle Popper
advocates in its place is piecemeal engineering, that is, a gradual process of
social reform. Popper advocates the piecemeal approach at least as
dogmatically as any Marxist advocated revolution, and he fails to consider the
main objections to it.
i)
If, in fact, the world economic and political system is a single
interconnected whole, as could be argued on the basis of a considerable
amount of empirical; evidence, then piecemeal engineering would be both
illusory and dangerous. (For a recent argument of the case, see N Harris, Of
Bread and Guns, Penguin, 1983)
ii)
If a strong enough force has a vested interest in the status quo,
they will not allow their privileges to be whittled away; as RH Tawney put it: You
can peel an onion leaf by leaf, but you cant skin a tiger claw by claw.
iii)
The empirical record of piecemeal engineering is not that good. To
take a recent case. In 1981 a French Socialist government was elected under
the leadership of Franois Mitterrand. It was pledged to introduce reforms
without attacking either the basic pattern of ownership of wealth or Frances
place in the world order. Three years later Mitterrands policies are largely
indistinguishable from Thatchers.
However, we must be grateful to Popper for giving us some examples of
refutable predictions. In a lecture delivered in 1956 called The History of Our
Time Popper listed what he saw as the enduring achievements of the societies
of the free world:
Abject poverty has been practically abolished. Instead of being a mass
phenomenon, the problem has almost become one of detecting the isolated
cases which still persist.

The problem of unemployment and of some other forms of insecurity have


changed completely. We are new faced with new problems brought into being
by the fact that the problem of mass-unemployment has largely been solved.
Fairly continuous progress is being made in dealing with the problems of
sickness and pain.
Religious discrimination has practically disappeared. Racial discrimination has
diminished to an extent surpassing the hopes of the most hopeful. (C&R 370-1)
In accordance with his own principles Popper should surely recognise that his
political beliefs of the 1950s have been refuted. To my knowledge he has not
done so. It may be objected that he is an old man. But we may recall that
Bertrand Russell, who in the late 1940s called for pre-emptive nuclear war
against Russia, was by the 1960s aged well over 80 calling for direct action
against nuclear weapons, and in his nineties he helped to launch the campaign
against the American war in Vietnam. But then Russell represents a quite
different type of intellectual integrity to Popper.

VI) Historicism and History


Popper rejects historicism because of its search for patterns in history. Yet the
version of history Popper presents us with is a highly schematic one, without
any of the richness and complexities of the real historical process. The concrete
problems and real defeats suffered in post-revolutionary Russia evaporate;
everything can be attributed to the historicism of Marx and Lenin. He notes that
when fascism came to power in Germany, the Communists did not put up any
resistance. (OSE II 165) But he does not explain this in terms of the specific
conjuncture, the particular line (the Third Period) imposed by the Communist
International on the German Communist Party. Everything is traced back to the
original sin of historicism. Poppers method, in fact, enables him to avoid doing
the real hard work involved in writing history. And so we may conclude with
Marcuse (B):
Poppers construction is general enough to include practically all theories
which take history seriously, which see in it the fate of mankind: his opposition
to historicism is in the last analysis opposition to history.

BIBLIOGRAPHY
H Marcuse, Karl Popper and the Problem of Historical Laws, in From Luther to
Popper, Verso, 1983.
R Harris, Popper for the People, Radical Philosophy 6, 1973 (review of Magee)
P Anderson, Components of the National Culture, in A Cockburn & R Blackburn
(eds), Student Power, Penguin, 1969.
G Novack, Empiricism and its Evolution, Merit, 1968, chapter X, Materialism
and Empiricism Today.
W Kaufmann, The Owl and the Nightingale, Faber & Faber, 1960, chapter 7, The
Hegel Myth and its Method.
A Callinicos, Is There a Future for Marxism?, Macmillan, 1982, chapter 7, For
and Against Epistemology.
See also debate in this book with contributions from P Binns, A Callinicos, C
Harman, inInternational Socialism nos 17, 19, 21
I Lakatos, A Letter to the director of the London School of Economics (1968), in
I Lakatos,Mathematics, Science and Epistemology, Vol II, Cambridge UP, 1978.
(An example of hostility to student militancy by a man described Magee as
more Popperian than Popper.)
For some presentations of Marx rather more honest than Poppers:
D Riazanov, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Monthly Review, 1973.
D McLellan, Marx, Fontana, 1975.
A Callinicos, The Revolutionary Ideas of Marx, Bookmarks, 1983.

The Poverty of Popper


Bryan Magee's biography of Karl Popper, the philosopher of science, described him as "the most formidable
living critic of Marxism". He died last year but his reputation lingers on. He was born in Vienna and after the
First World War became friendly with a group of philosophers known as the Vienna Circle. This school
founded Logical Positivism, based on the principle that all meaningful statements must be verifiable, but
Popper disagreed and went on to formulate his own demarcation between science and non-science. He
argued that the test of a scientific theory is not whether it can be verified, since no amount of observations can
confirm it, but that it is open to being falsified by experience; a theory is scientific if it fits the facts and is
capable of being proved wrong. In The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945) Popper claimed that Marxism is
not a scientific theory since it cannot be falsified, or else when it was falsified its supporters shifted their
ground to protect their theory.

Popper was a Cold War warrior. His attack on Marxism was based in the experience of the Communist Party,
here and in Russia. Popper concluded that the totalitarian nature of the Communist Party in action in Russia
showed that Marx's theories were totalitarian, rather than the more plausible conclusion that the Communist
Party's claim to be Marxist is false. The Socialist Party has not shifted its ground and we invite inspection of
our record to see the validity of Marxism. For instance, the Socialist Party claimed after the Second World
War that the post-war boom couldn't be sustained, that Keynesian economics wouldn't prevent a slump and
that capitalism would seek a way out of a slump by attacking the working class. At the time such a prediction
could be seen as being very risky (risk was something Popper thought very important to science) but has been
more than borne out by experience.
The other leg of Popper's criticism of Marxism stood on a mis-quotation in his book The Poverty of
Historicism (1957). Popper attacked the notion that there are laws of human development, and that these
laws enable us to predict the future course of human history, and he quoted from Marx's Capital, where the
aim is "to lay bare the economic law of motion of human society". Marx, however, actually wrote that his aim
was to lay bare the economic laws of motion of "modern society" - capitalism. The economic law of capitalism,
Marx's law of value, is in fact quite specific to capitalism and it enables the Socialist Party to make the kind of
predictions indicated above. Marx's theory of social development, the materialist conception of history, is a
method for interpreting history with a view to taking informed political action by the working class. It does
not claim to predict the future course of human history: it is a guide to the present.
Whatever may have been his merits as a philosopher of science, it is clear that his grasp of Marxism was
extremely poor, though par for the course in academic circles. May his criticisms of Marxism rest in peace.
Lew

A Capitalist Criticises Capitalism

Adam Buick |
George Soros |
market economy |
Karl Popper |
Globalisation
"The global capitalist system . . . is coming apart at the seams". So declared
arch-speculator George Soros before a US congressional enquiry on 19
September last year. He has since expanded on this in a book entitled The
Crisis of Global Capitalism. What has he in mind?
By "global capitalist system" Soros doesn't mean what we would understand by
the term, i.e. capitalism as a world-wide system of production for profit, but the
more restricted sense of present world financial arrangements which allow the
more or less free movement of capital throughout the world:
"The global economy is characterized not only by free trade in goods and
services but even more by the free movement of capital. Interest rates,
exchange rates, and stock prices in various countries are intimately
interrelated, and global financial markets exert tremendous influence on
economic conditions. Given the decisive role that international financial capital
plays in the fortunes of individual countries, it is not inappropriate to speak of a
global capitalist system" (Introduction).
It is these arrangementsthis single world financial marketthat he is saying is
in danger of disintegrating; which of course would not at all be the same thing

as the collapse of capitalism that has sometimes been mistakenly predicted by


some writers in the Marxist tradition.
Unstable system
Soros, following, consciously or not, a distinction made by one school of antiimperialist thinkers in the 1970s and 80s, divides the "global capitalist system"
into a centre (US, Western Europe, Japan) and a periphery (Asia, Latin America,
Russia, East Europe, Africa). Under this system capital flows from the centre to
the periphery and back, supposedly to the mutual benefit of both. He sees the
danger of disintegration coming from countries on the periphery taking steps to
stop the free flow of capital in a bid to avoid the negative effects of the
system's instability on their economies and populations:
"To put it bluntly, the choice confronting us is whether we will regulate global
financial markets internationally or leave it to each individual state to protect
its own interests as best it can. The latter course will surely lead to the
breakdown of the gigantic circulatory system, which goes under the name of
global capitalism" (p. 176).
So what Soros means by the "breakdown" or "disintegration" of global
capitalism is not the collapse of the world-wide system of production for profit
based on the exploitation of wage labour, but only states coming to adopt
measures that impede the free movement of finance capital.
Soros does not believe this to be an inevitable process. As the quote above
makes clear, he thinks it can be stopped if appropriate measures are taken at
international level; global institutions must be created to lay down some basic
ground rules for the operation of global capitalism.
For Soros is no free marketeer. In fact part of his book is a devastating attack on
those he calls the "market fundamentalists", the followers of Von Mises, Von
Hayek and others, who advocate that market forces be given complete free rein
and who came into intellectual prominence in the time of Reagan and Thatcher.
Soros levels two charges at them. First, that they think that markets have an inbuilt tendency towards creating a stable situation through supply and demand
being in balance, while this is not the case. Second, that they preach that the
market is the best way to regulate all human activities.
Writing from his own experience, admittedly not of the real economy but only of
financial markets, Soros challenges the equilibrium theory:
"Market fundamentalists have a fundamentally flawed conception of how
financial markets operate. They believe that financial markets tend towards
equilibrium . . . Financial markets are characterized by booms and busts and it
is quite amazing that economic theory continues to rely on the concept of
equilibrium, which denies the possibility of these phenomena, in face of the
evidence. The potential for disequilibrium is inherent in the financial system; it
is not just the result of external shocks"(Introduction).

The external shocks which the market fundamentalists invoke are usually, of
course, government interventions of one sort or another. According to them, if
governments just stood aside and let the magic of the market operate, there
would be no slumps just continuous, smooth growth. But there is no evidence
for this. Throughout the 19th century British governments pursued a policy of
laissez-faire yet slumps still occurred on a regular basis.
The fact is that the market system does have a built-in tendency towards
creating booms and busts rather than stability and smooth growth. As Marx
pointed out, this applies to the real world of market-oriented production and not
just to financial markets. Soros is even prepared to give Marx some credit here:
" . . .the capitalist system by itself shows no tendency toward equilibrium. The
owners of capital seek to maximise their profits. Left to their own devices, they
would continue to accumulate capital until the situation became unbalanced.
Marx and Engels gave a very good analysis of the capitalist system 150 years
ago, better in some ways, I must say, than the equilibrium theory of classical
economics"(Introduction).
He claims, however, that thanks to "countervailing political interventions in
democratic countries" Marx's "dire predictions did not come true". This is based
on a misunderstanding of Marx's view. The "dire predictions" that Soros
mentions were not, as he seems to assume, that the unregulated profit-seeking
of capitalists would lead to the collapse of the capitalist system but simply that
their competitive struggle for profits meant that steady, smooth growth was
impossible and that growth proceeded by means of booms and slumps.
Capitalism has not collapsed because it was never going to, not because of
government intervention Marx didn't foresee. And government intervention has
not been able to eliminate the boom/slump cycle which Marx saw was an
unavoidable feature of capitalism.
Creeping marketisation
Soros sees himself as continuing the political philosophy of Karl Popper. As
expounded in books such asThe Open Society and Its Enemies Popper argued
against the idea of trying to establish a "perfect" society in favour of accepting
an "open" society as one subject to permanent improvement by piecemeal
social engineering, by which he understood capitalism with a political structure
involving elected institutions, the rule of law and pluralism, i.e. more or less
what the West has had for years.
For Popper the main enemies of his "open society" were the totalitarian
ideologies of fascism and "Marxism" (which, for him, was not just Marx's own
views but those mixed up with Lenin's and Stalin's). Soros adds a third which he
says has come into prominence since the collapse of "communism":
uncontrolled capitalism. Hence the subtitle of his book "Open Society
Endangered", though he had already expressed this view in a famous article
"The Capitalist Threat" that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthlyin February
1997 and which was widely reproduced.

Soros sees the danger coming from the penetration of market values into all
aspects of life, leading to social disintegration. "Monetary values", he writes,
"have usurped the role of intrinsic values and markets have come to dominate
areas of society where they do not properly belong" (p. 206). He is in fact quite
forceful in his criticism of this aspect of global capitalism:
"The functions that cannot and should not be governed purely by market forces
include many of the most important things in human life, ranging from moral
values to family relationships to aesthetic and intellectual achievements. Yet
market fundamentalism is constantly attempting to extend its sway into these
regions, in a form of ideological imperialism. According to market
fundamentalism, all social activities and human interactions should be looked
at as transactional, contract-based relationships and valued in terms of a single
common denominator, money. Activities should be regulated, as far as possible,
by nothing more intrusive than the invisible hand of profit-maximising
competition. The incursions of market ideology into fields far outside business
and economics are having destructive and demoralizing social
effects" (Introduction).
"A transactional society undermines social values and loosens moral
constraints. Social values express a concern for others. They imply that the
individual belongs to a community, be it a family, a tribe, a nation, or
humankind, whose interests must take precedence over the individual's selfinterests. But a transactional market economy is anything but a community.
Everybody must look out for his or her own interests and moral scruples can
become an encumbrance in a dog-eat-dog world. In a purely transactional
society, people who are not weighed down by any considerations for others can
move around more easily and are likely to come out ahead" (p.75).
Soros does not realise just how fundamental a criticism of capitalism this is.
Although he rightly says that "a purely transactional society", in which the only
links between people would be monetary, "could never exist", the market
fundamentalists are equally right to insist that the logic of capitalism is to work
towards thisthey are just crazy in thinking that this nightmare situation is the
ideal form of society.
Soros's mistake is to think that you can have capitalism and somehow keep its
money-commodity relations from spreading everywhere. The history of
capitalism is the history of the continuous spread of such transactional
relationshipsi.e., the marketinto more and more fields of human activity. It
is a process that cannot be stopped within capitalism as growing marketisation
is just as much a feature of capitalism as capital accumulation; indeed the two
go together.
Soros, however, is a supporter of capitalism:
"I want to make it clear that I do not want to abolish capitalism. In spite of its
shortcomings, it is better than the alternatives. Instead, I want to prevent the
global capitalist system from destroying itself"(Introduction).

We doubt whether he has given serious consideration to the alternative of a


global society based on the common ownership of the world's resources and
production directly to satisfy human needs. Not that we would really expect him
to. Some of his fellow-capitalists already think he has gone too far in his
criticism of their system.
ADAM BUICK

The Critics Criticised - Professor Popper Looks at History pt.1

E.W. |

Karl Popper

Many critics see Marxism as a theory of iron determinism which regards men as
puppets pulled by the strings of historical necessity. Mr. R. K. Popper in The
Open Society and its Enemies, believes that too. One could say why bother
about such palpable errors? The pity of it is not that Mr. Popper has written it
but many who read him might come to believe it.
Mr. Popper holds that Marxist historicism is fatalism. He also holds that it helps
to generate beliefs that men are mere instruments of impersonal forces. Such
views, he thinks, tend towards men coming to accept a collective tyranny called
by him, "the closed society" as against the "open society" where democracy
and toleration prevail.
Mr. Popper is a Christian toreador who seizes the Marxist bull by the historic
horns by declaring there can be no concrete history of mankind. "Such a
concrete history would have to be the history of all men; of all human hope,
struggle and suffering" (p. 270). We are also told "it would have to be the life of
the unknown individual man . . . this is the real content of human experience
down the ages" (p. 272). Thus does Mr. Popper consign history to the unknown
and unknowable. There are, he tells us, separate histories, viz., the histories of
politics, technocracy, art, economics, poetry, etc. Such histories, he thinks,
should be studied and interpreted from our own standpoint. We can, for
example, interpret the history of political power in the light of "our struggle for
the open society." While history vide Mr. Popper "has no meaning, in this way
we can give meaning to it."
Just as one did not know where to have Dame Quickley, one does not know
where to have Mr. Popper. Thus we are told (page 268) "The merits of
interpretation must rest on its ability to elucidate historical facts." Yet he
informs us (p. 265), that "the facts of history have been collected in accordance
with a preconceived point of view." In that case they are not historical facts but
highly dubious material incapable of providing any-valid knowledge of historic
causation. Indeed, Mr. Popper contends historical reasoning is circular, because,
starting as it does from preconceived theories it can only in turn reduce
preconceived theories.

But if, according to Mr. Popper, concrete history does not exist, then only what
he terms the various histories can provide historical sources. But these sources
he assures us are tainted sources. Any interpretation based on them must be
suspectincluding the interpretations of Mr. Popper.
Yet we are told (p. 266) that some interpretations have more merit than others.
That is some are at any rate more in accordance with the accepted records. But
if these records do not constitute genuine knowledge one wonders what real
significance can be attached to the word "merit." Curiously enough in the same
paragraph we are told "that if only one authority which gives information on
certain events that fit in with his own specific interpretation, can be radically
interpreted in a different way, then this deviation may take on something of the
semblance of a scientific hypothesis." On the one hand we are told that the
merit of an historical interpretation lies in its accord with the records and on the
other hand an interpretation can only achieve some semblance to a scientific
hypothesis by radically departing from it. But Mr. Popper's statement that an
historical interpretation can achieve some semblance to a scientific hypothesis
is inconsistent with his contention that there can be no factual evidence and
hence no valid historical knowledge. For it is obvious that unless such
knowledge is available an hypothesis having any semblance of being scientific,
becomes impossible.
Mr. Popper also tells us that although there is no such thing as universal history
there are, nevertheless, universal laws of the separate histories. They are, he
says, trivial and provide no selective and unifying principle. He gives as an
example of what he means by a universal law of history by telling us that if two
equally well armed and well led forces meet, then the one with a tremendous
superiority in man power will win. This merely tells us that a good big 'un will
always beat a good little 'un. While this may have some relevance in pugilistic
circles what relevance it has to the character and content of history and the
nature of historical investigation only Mr. Popper knows, but alas he refuses to
tell us.
Mr. Popper repeats the stock objection to history by making invidious
comparisons between it and what he calls the generalising sciences (such as
physics, biology, sociology, etc.) This objection, however, tells most heavily
against Mr. Popper, because if physics is taken as a model, invidious
comparisons can be drawn between it and large parts of biology. While if we
compare physics with the ad hoc assumptions and vast amount of unrelated
detail which goes to make up the alleged science of sociology, then the
comparison between physics and sociology becomes positively odious. While an
evaluation of psychology on such terms would forever exclude it from any
pretensions to be called scientific. Indeed, on the logic of Mr. Popper's
"comparison," many subjects regarded as scientific would have to yield their
claims in this respect.
It is true that historical investigation in common with many other fields of
scientific knowledge cannot employ "the controlled experiment" of physics. It is
not true to say that it cannot acquire valid knowledge. To paraphrase Marx, "In

physics and chemistry the microscope and the reagent are used, in historical
investigation the force of abstraction must replace both." The force of
abstraction is itself an integral part of scientific procedure. So far then as the
possibility of obtaining valid knowledge is concerned it holds good for all fields
of systematic inquiry. Thus history differs from physics in the same way that
biology or geology differ from physics that is in subject matter and not because
physics has a logic and procedure of a different order.
That there is no intrinsic barrier in the nature of things to prevent their scientific
investigation is hardly questionable. If, of course, history was able to apply the
same procedures and tests as physics then it would not be history. Mr. Popper
apparently is not prepared because history is not physics to grant it any
scientific validity.
Marxism does not hold that there is some impersonal prime mover called
historic inevitability. It simply asserts that the complex phenomena we term
history are capable of being coherently organised in a manner which gives
knowledge and understanding to the affairs of men and the ability to predict
within limits the broad trend of human development.
(To be continued)

The Critics Criticised - Professor Popper Looks at History pt.2


E.W. |
Karl Popper
(Continued from June Issue)
Mr. Poppers own evaluation of history can hardly claim any scientific
pretentious. In the main he largely garbles the anti-Christian Nietzsches "power
drive theory of history." With Mr. Popper this power drive reveals itself in the
history of political power which, he says, "has been elevated into world history."
This political power drive theory is explained by Mr. Popper as the impulse to
worship or be worshipped. He repeats Schopenhauer that man's besetting sin is
making power synonymous with success. This worship of power it seems is due
to fear (p. 272) although (same page) he appears to have changed his mind
and made the power drive one of instinct which in that case makes him a
Bertrand Russell adherent. This, then, is Mr. Popper's theoretical contribution to
the understanding of our times. One might add in passing that to grasp the
significance of political power or any aspect of social power lies not in
assumptions about some neurotic impulse or instinct but in an analysis of the
historical conditions and social formations which explain not only the nature of
political power but why different societies have thrown up different forms of
political organisations. When this is done the power drive theory of history
becomes supernumerary.
Mr. Popper has quite mistaken notions as to what constitutes history. For him,
technocracy, political power, historical records, etc., are history. In fact they are

not history, but the outcome of history. History itself is the story of mannot
this man or that man but socially organised man in pursuit of his ends under
given and determinate conditions. Since the passing of primitive society the
pursuit of these ends has taken place via the agency of social groups whose
aims and interests have been conflicting ones. It is by an examination of these
social productive relationsthe economic factorthat we reveal the rise and
fall of institutions, traditions, politics, ideologies and other cultural phenomena
and thus allow a theory of historical causation to become possible.
Marxism is an attempt then to show the prime causal factors in the evolution of
human society. In spite of Mr Popper's efforts to show that Marxism believes
there are mysterious impersonal forces in history which shape man's destiny, it
is no more mysterious than other evolutionary concepts which seek to account
for development in other fields.
Men make history Marxists contend and what some men have made, other men
can understand. In this way history becomes an intelligible process and the past
capable of being reconstructed by the same pattern of enquiry which marks
other fields of scientific investigation. In the light of this, Mr. Popper's remarks
that men have only faked history seems more than a little foolish.
Mr. Popper is unoriginal enough to seek to be original and daring and too often
succeeds in being merely dull and pretentious. He plays to the gallery by
announcing that all the history which exists, i.e., our history of the great and
powerful, is a shallow comedy. He brings in the usual gods whose function it is
apparently to mock at human affairs and they indulge in the conventional
guffaws at our expense. At other times he converts the comedy into crude
melodrama by assuring us that the history which is advertised as the history of
mankind is but the history of international crime and mass murder (p. 270).
Mr. Popper's views on history seem to waver between a cloak and dagger
conspiracy and another version of the fall of man. Neither of them can validly
explain the actual evolution of human society: Why it has pointed in a
determinate direction, viz., primitive society, slavery, feudalism, capitalism. And
why in that order.
In spite of the nonsense talked about by Mr. Popper, Isaiah Berlin and others,
that "historic inevitability" is another name for an automatic impersonal force
which supposedly operates in history, Marx's views on history were sharp and
clear. Human effort and struggle he held were the means which brought about
the historically determined. He never sought to make history a mystery. Indeed
he claimed that history had no greater reality than that which could be
discovered by the analysis of actual historical events. While unlike Hegel he
never believed that history was the outcome of logic and reason, he
nevertheless believed that it could be rationally explained.
Marx had then a view point on history. He did not believe it could be explained
by abstractions like power drives or impulses. Nor it might be added by spirit,
nature or some economic first cause. For Marx history had no purpose which

was not the purpose of man. No goals which are not human goals. It is men who
will to do things. But what men will is always contramenious with elements in
the social situation which are unwilled. Because society is a continuous process,
men always find themselves in a set of conditions which is given. It is these
conditions which give the scope and set the stamp on particular social aims and
goals. When and whether they will be effectively realised will depend upon the
objective possibilities within the social situation. It is true for instance that
Socialism must be willed by men but it is not until a particular set of social
relations namely capitalism, appear, can there arise the objective means for
Socialism to be realised. Marx's theory of historic causation explains then why
men in different historic phases seek to achieve certain ends and what have
been the nature of the circumstances which have allowed them to succeed or
fail. Critics of Marx have seized upon the term "objective" conditions, isolated it
from its context and then accused Marx of propounding a prime mover on
economic first cause which propel men along some predetermined path. Mr.
Popper is an incorrigible exponent of this type of distortion.
It has already been noted that Mr. Popper's conception of history, i.e., the story
of power politics, technocracy, historical records, etc., is not history, even
though each of them has a history, and even when he presents them as history
he converts them into a masquerade of power drives and neurotic impulses.
Because Mr. Popper denies there is any valid continuity, any causal connection
in social development, he asserts it is only we who live in the present, who can
change things not something called history. Almost a century before Marx had
said: "Things cannot remain that way, they must become different and we
human beings must make them different." Indeed the whole purpose of Marx's
teaching was that only by understanding capitalism and acting upon that
understanding would we be effective in changing it to something better.
Mr. Popper wants something better. He refers vaguely to the need of justice,
democracy, equality, without any real reference to the social context. His own
assertion that something called historicism alias Marxism sees men as pawns in
some inevitable cosmic evolution which ignores their personal aims and
attitudes, renders politics null and void, and allows "the social scientists to say
what shall or shall not be done," is a sheer invention on his part. He refers
innocuously to the brotherhood of man but he has no serious quarrel with the
present set up. He fails to recognise that the removal of class privilege based
on productive ownership must be the indispensable and elementary step for
achieving that "brotherhood."
The Critics Criticised - Professor Popper Looks at History pt.3
E.W. |
Karl Popper
(Continued from July issue)
Mr. Poppers own remedy is that men must change their hearts. He takes little
note of the fact that hearts themselves are environmental products. Or to put it
another way the beliefs, ideals, theories, for which we seek to gain acceptance
are themselves products of social development, i.e. they have a growth and

history. Indeed it is only by seeing them as patterns of response in an historical


process that they become intelligible. Nor are these responses merely
subjective as Mr. Popper seems to think but are brought forth by the needs of
men and these needs are part of an objective class conditioned situation.
Ideas, theories, doctrines, are always related to the needs of men in some way
or other. Social aims and purposes are for that reason never mere abstractions.
Never attempts to realise eternal truth but projections of group needs. That is
why the demands for justice, equality, progress, have at bottom been the
demands of social groups. It is for that reason "the what is" has ever in practise
been directly related to "the what ought to be." The function of "the what ought
to be," has been to mask the "this worldliness" of social ends, as an aspect of
"the other worldliness."
From this it follows that a ruling social section will always define the good in
relation to its own needs. But because we live in a changing world the character
and content of its needs undergo historical modification. Sometimes a ruling
social group will demand more freedom, more equality. At other times they will
proclaim against what they term excesses carried out in the name of these.
Sometimes they have called for democracy and toleration, at other times for
less democracy and less tolerance. In a world in which they are in social control
hut cannot control there can be no eternal truths, no fixed values to serve as
precepts for final social judgments.
Again it is not true to say that because we cannot know all the ideas which
have ever passed through the heads of men or their emotional experiences we
cannot know history in any valid or concrete sense. To say that because we do
not know everything on a subject we cannot know anything worthwhile, has no
more validity in history than any other subject. The ideas Marxism seeks to
investigate are the ideas which have brought about significant changes in the
social pattern. Not all ideas do this. The various ideas men form in the world in
which they live have a greatly varying weight and importance. Many have a
purely personal aspect. Some are the outcome of prejudice and attachment.
Other ideas are merely cranky. There are ideas which are held one day and
discarded the next. And even if we could trace these ideas down to their finest
nuances we should find them irrelevant for purposes of historical investigation,
for they do not reflect those social forces which are necessary for any major
social change.
The point Marxists are interested in, is what gives momentum and power to
those ideas which are crucial for social development. The answer is that it is
those ideas which are expressions of group interests which are historically
effective, for it is these ideas which have been most instrumental in bringing
about social change.
Marxism does not, however, view ideas as powers in themselves, capable of
conjuring things into existence by pure mental activity. Men can only think
within a socially organised continuum. That is why their theories, aims and
ends, are moulded by the particular configuration of the society in which they

live. It is then a particular historic phase which sets the questions to which men
must find the answers. It is because men enter into certain determinate
relations with each other that sets the stamp on their interests and activities,
and provides the conditions which make their thinking effective.
Mr. Popper, and he is one of legions, accuses Marxism of social determinism. If
Marxism insists that a knowledge of the social forces and those impersonal
elements which form part of the social structure of society are essential for
forming valid judgments, then we plead guilty. Not to know the relevant facts of
a situation is not to know effectively and when there is no effective knowledge,
there can be no effective action. Where little or nothing can be proved,
everything can be believed. That is why any competent diagnosis, whether it
concern our social ills or bodily ills, must be brought under the control of the
objective data at our disposal. To recognise that there are determinate limits to
a situation is to come to grips with that situation. To chose the alternative,
necessary, for the best solution of the problems set, is the first step to freedom.
Mr. Popper's contention that Marxism seeks to nullify political action and makes
everything dependent on something called inner reality, is non sense.
Yet (on p. 268) he says that we want to know how our troubles are related to
the past, in order to progress towards the solution of what we feel and chose to
be our main tasks. Thus it seems that vide Mr. Popper "the what is," definitely
links up with "the what was." This would suggest that even Mr. Popper believes
that the connection between the past and present is influenced by causal
factors; that there has been development and continuity in human affairs. In
that case our interpretation of this development process must be guided by an
objective assessment of the available material and not by a subjective
judgment based on our particular feelings and thinking. It is the latter which Mr.
Popper generally adopts as his criterion for judging history.
When Mr. Popper says we cannot know the past that is true in the sense that
the past as the past is physically dead. Yet it is also true that in another sense
the past lives on, in so far that elements of the past are always incorporated in
some way into the present and just as aspects of the past exist in a
reconstituted form in the present, so features of the present will be
reconstituted into the fabric of the future. It is because that which has been
most significant in the past is linked with the present in a continuous chain of
historic events that the structural evolution of human society becomes
possible,. To seek to reconstruct this evolution into an intelligible pattern is| the
task of historical investigation. In this way it serves as a present guide to our
actions. To suggest that Marxism seeks to make men into marionettes moved
by a mysterious force called history is merely a pleasantry of Mr. Popper.
(To be continued)
The Critics Criticised - Professor Popper Looks at History pt.4
E.W. |
Karl Popper
(Continued from August issue)

Mr. Popper is what may be styled a militant Christian. His social doctrine is the
familiar secularised interpretation of the New Testament. We must cast out false
idolslust for power; seek humility, do things for their own sake, be guided by
our conscience, etc., and all this in a world where profit is the ruling motive,
power politics a normal social mechanism, and where the vast majority are
excluded from control and genuine participation in the wealth producing
agencies. The social ethics of Mr. Popper are the age long belief of all social
reformists: the belief that humanity will triumph over lust for profit, and power,
while leaving the basis of the present system intact. Mr. Popper, like so many
other social reformers, seems to regret the fact that under capitalism,
Capitalists continue to behave like Capitalists and not as ardent humanitarians
and social philanthropists.
Again selfishness or unselfishness are not attributes intrinsically good or bad as
the abstract morality of Christ, Kant, and perhaps Mr. Popper, maintains. They
can only be given real content in the social environment in which they arise and
the purpose and ends which give effect to these attributes. Thus a section of
the community, fighting to resist encroachments on its standards of living, may
impose hardships on others, to call upon them to cease their struggles would be
to ask them to sacrifice their own human interests. Mr. Popper talks about
morality but fails to see that the watershed of any genuinely human morality
must be the concrete needs of men. The Marxists maintain that only the
abolition of social privilege based on ownership can best serve the concrete
needs of the vast majority and hence constitute the truly human morality.
Mr. Popper, while he soft peddles on the present system, finds it easy to take
the organ stops out when dealing with the past. For him power politics loom
most large in the story of men. It is the story of the powerful and wicked against
the weak and virtuous. How it came about we are never really informed or why
it took the social forms it did. As such it does not explain the past, it merely
explains it away.
While Marx never ceased to roundly condemn the cruelties and stupidities of
the past and present, he never attributed social evils to be basically the
outcome of wickedness on one hand or the ineptitude of virtue on the other.
Instead of passing empty categorical judgment on those who have gone before,
Marx insisted that mens actions should be studied in the light of the social
situation which initiated and gave meaning to them. Marx held that all systems
based on a class structures tended to perpetuate a set of beliefs, theories, and
social rationalisations in keeping with the needs of the ruling section, and
because the privileged minority are by virtue of their social position, connected
with the agencies which disseminate social ideologies they are not only able to
exert a major emphasis on those ideas favourable to their interests but to set
the tone of the extant cultural pattern which produces the social pressures
which make for uniformity of outlook among all members of a given society.
What is known as the general outlook will prevail until it is challenged
effectively by counter beliefs set up in the interests of a new social group. It is
from the warp and the woof of the generally accepted ideas that social ideals
and doctrines are formed. That is why although the pages of history tell of

man's inhumanity to man and reek with blood of the innocent, there has never
been a lack of social doctrines to justify men's deeds.
Marx calls this incongruence between the ideals which men set up and the real
nature of the social relations on whose behalf these ideals function" false
consciousness." This is not due to some grave moral defect in human nature, or
to a lack of logical consistency in their theories and beliefs but to a set of social
beliefs which, under the guise of acting on behalf of what is known as the
general interests," are projections of certain group wills and interests and thus
act as polarising and refractory agents on the social vision of men. It is because
of this process of social deception that men become victims of their own
ideologies. And abstractions like justice, freedom, the rights of man, etc., not
only become battle cries but take on the character of real things. While men
then have been guilty of all manner of cruelties in the name of ideologies they
have to a great extent been innocent of the real sources from which they
sprang. No amount of cruelty or slaughter, Marx thought, would correct this
deception, nor, we might add, moralising platitudes. Only when men grasp the
real content of the relations between themselves and nature can a socialised
humanity emerge. The verdict of Marx on history reveals a more profound and
more tolerant attitude than the crude denunciations of Mr. Popper.
Marx was also opposed to judging human beings by some absolute scale of
ethical values. He believed that men must be appraised by the standards of
their time. No doubt members of the Capitalist class would be horrified at the
idea of keeping slaves. Yet are we to believe that the slave owners of the 18th
and 19th centuries were wicked men? They certainly did not think so. Judged in
accordance with their own lights they were not exempt from humane feeling
and consideration. They did not, however, oppose slavery or demand its
abolition, no more than the employing class demand the abolition of capitalism
based on wage slavery. Socialists demand the abolition of capitalism not
because Capitalists as such are inhuman or lack consideration, but because the
form and content of their humanity and ethical values are circumscribed by the
type of social organisation of which they are the social representatives. Our
claim is that ethical values do not function independently of the social context
in which they are expressed and which Mr. Popper should have sought to prove
but he never did. Only when class division has ceased to count in human affairs
will the meanness, hatred, cruelty and antagonism which are so much features
of contemporary culture disappear and the values and motives of Capitalist
society be replaced by more humane values and more humane motives.
Mr. Popper follows the traditions of the Fabians, Bertrand Russell, G. D. H. Cole,
and others, in seeing the value of Marxism as a moral appeal. Marx, however,
sharply disassociated himself from the utopians. As Marx pointed out "the
utopians have a bent to interpret surplus value in moral terms and then appeal
to society for correction of its glaring injustices." For Marx, morality had to rest
upon a theory of objective conditions to ensure its success.
Some of Mr. Popper's inadequate ideas of Marxism can be seen from his
assertion that Marx held that the rate of profit must fall (p. 184), when Marx

held no such view. Another idea he puts forward, that Marx also held that the
fall in the rate of profit was an automatic process for the increasing misery of
the workers (p.p. 183-185). What Marx said was that the tendency of the rate of
profit to fall was an incentive for Capitalists to attempt to increase productivity.
He never said that all increases in productivity go to the Capitalist in the shape
of profits. Some go to workers in higher wages but he maintained never
proportionately to the productive power of labour. Again we are told that Marx
held that wages oscillate round starvation level (p. 173). Marx again did not say
it but emphatically denied it. How Marx vide Mr. Popper came to believe that
workers' conditions would continue to worsen from starvation levels, he Mr.
Popper does not explain. Finally he repeats the hoary myth that Marx held that
capitalism would crash (p. 179).
If we seem -to have spent much time on Mr. Popper it is not in deference to his
criticism on Marxism, but because he has in his book summarised most of the
criticism of Marx in the last 50 years. The views on Marxism and history held by
Mr. Popper can themselves be summarised as mostly Poppercock.
(Concluded)