The Open Society and its Enemies

(A condensed recap of my talk at the Albany Public Library on Nov. 19)

Philosopher Karl Popper (1902-94) wrote The Open Society and Its Enemies in 1945. It seems timely now. The old political categories of right versus left, liberal versus conservative, are breaking down. Today’s true divide is over the open society idea. Meaning openness to change, toward ideas and free debate, individuals following their own paths, immigration, globalism, free trade, and so forth.

Popper attacks what he calls “historicism” — the idea that history has laws we can discover. But concepts of future inevitability inhibit efforts to change it. Popper says “the future depends on ourselves, and we do not depend on any historical necessity.”

Also, he contrasts “piecemeal” social engineering against utopianism aiming to remake society entirely. The former pragmatically targets the most urgent problems; deploying reason rather than passion, to achieve its aims democratically. Whereas utopianism pretty much requires coercion. A closed society. And that, says Popper, leads to the Inquisition, the secret police, and a “romanticized gangsterism.”

So who are the enemies of the open society, of Popper’s title? Plato, Hegel, and Marx. Most of book is a critique of these three.

We start with Plato’s “Theory of Forms.” It holds everything in our world is a pale shadow of a corresponding perfect prototype, its Form. The Forms are more real than our “actual” things, which are doomed to decay. Of course this is nonsense.

But for Plato it had big implications. “The state” too had a corresponding Form — a perfect antecedent, which once existed. Plato saw his contemporary states as necessarily less perfect; indeed, degenerated. To arrest that degeneration, by opposing all change, was the essence of his political program.

He gives lip service to a goal of human happiness, but it’s the happiness of the whole society, not of any individuals. He seems to assume his ideal state is a “good” in itself. Having nothing to do with the well-being of ordinary people, who Plato says exist only to serve the state. As do, indeed, even the rulers.

Those rulers would be a class apart, a race apart — with no mixing allowed. This leads Plato to eugenics; he actually invented the idea. The ruling class must preserve its racial purity through carefully supervised breeding.

We associate Plato with the idea of “philosopher kings.” Supervising the eugenics program required trained philosophers — meaning men indoctrinated with Plato’s ideas, giving them the necessary “wisdom.” And also, the mystical “Platonic Number” they’d need.

Yes, he said there is a magic number, which he didn’t reveal. But without rulers privy to it, racial degeneration is inevitable. (Plato was really angling to be made ruler himself.)

Popper casts Plato’s ideal as a quintessential closed society; a tribal, collectivist, caste society. Collectivism is often held up as a virtue, the idea that the community supersedes the individual, and one must transcend selfishness and valorize something higher — the collective. Whereas in an open society people are free to choose social connections as they please.

The transition from the former condition to the latter is a profound and even wrenching social revolution. It was first seen in Plato’s Athens, with the rise of democratic and individualist ideas. Popper says Plato actually diagnosed the resulting social strains quite acutely. Longing for a return to ancestral virtues — Make Athens Great Again. But that ancient faith was gone forever, and against it was rising a new faith — in reason, freedom, and human brotherhood — the faith of an open society.

Plato’s ideas may not have seemed so extreme in 400 BC as now. Our quest for wisdom was just beginning. Yet other ancient thinkers, like Epicurus, Democritus, and Lucretius, were already capable of deeply humanistic ideas. And before Plato, in his own Athens, there was Pericles, who said the state should serve the many, not the few. That reason and humanitarianism should rule.

And there was one other giant upon whose shoulders Plato might well have stood: Socrates. He’s seemingly a major voice in Plato’s written dialogs. But Socrates was the true soul of humility and wisdom, knowing how little he knew; a believer in individualism, and that it’s reason that makes one human. He died for these beliefs. Plato betrayed him.

Plato was Athenian, but saw its perennial enemy Sparta as more like his perfect state. Today, we see one even closer to it — North Korea.

Hegel was a German philosopher of the early 1800s. Popper quotes Schopenhauer, who knew Hegel personally: “The Certified Great Philosopher was a flat-headed, insipid, nauseating, illiterate charlatan who reached the pinnacle of audacity in scribbling together and dishing up the craziest mystifying nonsense.” I wish Schopenhauer had told us what he really thought.

But for all the gibberish, Hegel did have something to say. Whereas Plato saw civilization’s trajectory as degeneration, Hegel saw progress toward an ideal. But not in a straight line. This is the concept of the “dialectic,” with every thesis having its antithesis, and out of their conflict comes a synthesis, a kind of unity of opposites. Then the process can repeat on a higher level. “The history of the world is none other than the progress of the consciousness of freedom.” But alas, what Hegel meant by “freedom” is nothing we’d recognize. The essence of Hegel was the romanticized worship of the state, the nation, and its historical destiny.

Thus did Hegel propel the rise of German nationalism, appealing to tribal instincts, again putting the collective over the individual. Hegel conceived the nation as united by a spirit that acts historically, with the state as its incarnation, asserting its supremacy through war, which he also idolized. The state is exempt from any moral consideration; only historical success matters. And of course you have the Great Man as leader, the one who expresses the will of his time, embodying the idea of a heroic life, contrasted against shallow mediocrity.

All this Popper deems a surrender of reason and humanity. And German thought is riddled with such tripe, from Fichte to Nietzsche. With, of course, a straight line to Hitler.

Then we come to Marx. (I wonder if history would have been different if he’d had a longer name. “Marxism” is punchy. Would “Schickelgruberism” have such appeal?)

But Marx was not a Marxist, in today’s sense; nor a communist. Instead he was mainly the ultimate historicist, promoting the idea of history as a science, with the working class overthrowing capitalism being predictably destined.

But Popper says that unlike Plato and Hegel, Marx really applied careful reason in his analysis. He also had a genuine humanitarian impulse, troubled by the lousy conditions suffered by working people in industrialized economies. In Marx’s social analysis, economic class interest and class struggle was central. But Popper casts him as an enemy of the open society insofar as Marx sanctioned social change not through democracy but violence. A kind of revolution without moral legitimacy.

And Marx and his followers had no handle on the greatest problem of politics: how to control power. Marxists saw state power as a threat only in the hands of the bourgeoisie or capitalists. How wrong that was. Only democracy, says Popper, can hope to protect human values from the state. And he was writing at a time when Soviet Communism’s horrors were still largely unrevealed.

Marx predicted capitalism’s downfall because competition would force intensifying worker exploitation, their worsening misery making revolution inevitable. He never foresaw a totally different story: how proletarians would make the state work for them, by democratic means, achieving a host of reforms regulating and improving working conditions, while also gaining a substantial share of the rising wealth created by vastly increasing productivity. All this led not to greater misery but mass affluence on a scale Marx never imagined. Invalidating his historicist approach.

Popper says “history” is not really even a thing. Human existence is too complex. What people usually mean by “history” concerns just one aspect, political power; which Popper calls an idolatrous worship of power (recalling Hegel). And he’s particularly scathing toward Christians who see “the hand of god” in this so-called history.

He also discusses rationalism versus irrationalism. Of course nobody explicitly advocates irrationalism. But that’s what it actually is when people attack what they call a “soulless” faith in rationalism that supposedly leads to all sorts of excesses, even the Holocaust. Postmodernism, that flourished after Popper, denied there’s any such thing as truth. But while truth may not be absolute, we use our reason to get ever closer to it. The Holocaust did not result from over-reliance on reason, but from the kind of Hegelian irrationalist romanticism Popper denounces.

Popper’s final conclusion is that history has no meaning. And while the fact of progress is written large in human annals, no law of history propels such progress. Nor can history tell us what to do. Rather, it’s all a matter of what we choose to do. And that is how, if history has no meaning, we can give it meaning — by our choices, working for right principles — rule of reason, justice, freedom, equality — humanism — the open society.

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One Response to “The Open Society and its Enemies”

  1. Axel Kornfuehrer Says:

    Thank you, Frank, for another thought-provoking essay. You mention that Karl Marx did not (could not?) envisioning that his goals for the working class could be achieved by democratic ways. Were you aware that at the end of his life Friedrich Engels (Marx’s partner) stated that given the advances in representative government in Germany by the mid-1890s, the workers’ revolution could be achieved by parliamentary means and that a revolution was no longer necessary. That, while Germany was still a semi-authoritarian state at that time.

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