Part 1 –
In part one, we find Karl Popper dealing with a couple of premises, upon which his critique is founded. For one, he’s looking at the 20th century, where totalitarianism has clearly take hold. He’s about a decade too early to really fully examine post-Stalinist Soviet Union and a few too early for Maoism, and it’s important to frame this book as not being politically aligned with the right or the left in this regard. One way to interpret this rise is as a rejection of democracy (which it is) but also as a possible next stage in society. The 20th century saw different versions of this argument, as forms of government as the next phase of societal growth. If you’re a fascist or a communist, this is appealing because it provides a historical argument for your revolution. If you’re a democrat, it’s less great. But within this kind of historicism are some broad assumptions about society in general, and European and US society in particular. And of course we find new versions of this today still, also articulated in the 1990s by Francis Fukuyama as the “end of civilization”. Popper rejects this teleology look at society as limited and fallacious. And he blames Plato specifically for it. In looking then at The Republic, he interrogates the idea of the “philosopher king” as a necessary part of a rational society. This is still an issue these days, because there is a belief among various political ideologies that a dictator would be rational and just, so long as it’s the dictator of the person speaking. Popper takes issue with a few elements of Plato (and not subsequently Socrates) about the use of ideal forms to then extrapolate to ideal societies. In his argument this leads to a self-serving argument for the rise of dictatorship, which he argues is what Plato is not only arguing for, but specifically arguing for himself as dictator. This would involve the total recreation of all societal institutions into ideal forms. This total recreation of society is what he would call the closed society, in that once created or “perfected” is not changeable. The open society then is one that can always be changed, however slowly and imperfectly, through democratic action. This is what he believes is necessary for fair and just conventions and ultimately institutions to flourish. He admits and sees the issue that there’s no guarantee that this is how democracies would vote, and it provides the danger of democracies voted out democracy.
Part II: Hegel and Marx
Good news everybody! If you hate Hegel, so does Karl Popper and he has no qualms about telling you. He’s much more mixed about Marx. Anyway, not only does he think that Hegel basically stole everything he said, that he did this as a well to excuse and justify aggressive Prussian-state propaganda, and worse! It’s badly written.
He quickly moves onto the Marx, he read Hegel extensively, and has a much more complicated reading of Marx. This comes from the fact that Marx wrote a lot, and some of it falls into Popper’s purview of analyzing the closed society and historicism, and some that doesn’t. He also finds a lot of it very complex and interesting, but doesn’t and can’t give space to analyzing it here. For example, he spends a lot of time thinking about how Marx discussed cycles of employment and unemployment that has not yet been given enough space, but also can’t spend too much time on it here. His biggest issue with Marx comes with the historicism of economics, that believing that economic development leads from one form to the next in a kind of teleological way. He knows that this is not actually what Marx writes about, but about how adherents of Marx often claim. He doesn’t hold Marx accountable for this, but does hold Marxism accountable.
His biggest issue remains the utopian nature of Marxism, that it attempts (again through adherents) to revolutionize, rather than fix. Popper believes in institutions and democracy. Where those can fail, they need to be reformed, but not erased or burned down. So where Marx critiques society and calls for change, he’s down, but where this leads to total revolutions, he avers.