False prophecies – and Islamism as political ideology: Part II on Popper and ideology

This is the second part of a four-part essay applying the ideas of Karl Popper to the ideologies that have secured particular social power in our contemporary world. Part I preceding this introduced the context, in which Popper has been widely misappropriated by the right, and neglected by the left - wrongly, because he was liberal, and his sympathies were with the left. This second part of the essay gets into his critique of Hegelian and Marxist ideologies and explores how contemporary political Islamism is largely based on these theories.

‘Historicism’ is the term under which Karl Popper lumped all ideologies of history, from those of Plato and Aristotle through to Hegel and Marx, political communism and Nazism.

For Popper, historicist social theories were those that claimed to understand the progression of history, and thereby reliably predict the future.

What Marx did wrong in his view was not to make predictions that turned out to be wrong, but to claim scientific backing for these wrong predictions. History cannot be reduced to the play of scientific forces, he believed. He followed Kant for the most part in denying that our science and reason can capture ultimate knowledge of a hidden reality, as the theories of Marx and his predecessor Hegel claimed to.

Kant, in his Critique of Pure Reason, asserted under the influence of Hume that speculation or reason, whenever it ventures into a field in which it cannot possibly be checked by experience, is liable to get involved in contradictions or ‘antinomies’ and to produce what he unambiguously described as ‘mere fancies’; ‘nonsense’; ‘illusions’; ‘a sterile dogmatism’; and ‘a superficial pretension to the knowledge of everything’.”

Such was Popper’s view of Hegel, for whom he quotes Schopenhauer’s lacerating words with relish: “a flat-headed, insipid, nauseating, illiterate charlatan, who reached the pinnacle of audacity in scribbling together and dishing up the craziest mystifying nonsense”.

Hegel and Marx both created theoretical systems which claimed to show the driving forces behind history – in Hegel’s case the progression of ideas towards a state of ‘absolute freedom’, and for Marx the progression of material forces, moving history inexorably from feudalism to capitalism and then communism. Both theories completely threw away the scepticism of Kant on claims to ultimate knowledge of reality in an orgy of Enlightenment self-confidence.

Popper quotes one passage of Hegel’s that is particularly damning:

“’We may fairly’, Hegel writes, ‘establish the true principles of morality, or rather of social virtue, in opposition to false morality; for the History of the World occupies a higher ground than that morality which is personal in character – the conscience of individuals, their particular will and mode of action.’”

Here we can see Hegel establishing what he sees as true principles of morality, of social virtue – or social justice you might say – against personal morality and conscience. This is the crux of Popper’s critique, for who has the authority to say what ‘The History of the World’ and ‘the true principles of morality’ are which so trump personal ethics? The answer is simple: Hegel and his followers do. His argument justifies whatever you want it to justify, as long as you are happy to be the authority. In this way, Popper thought Hegel’s thought provided a link between Plato and the modern form of totalitarianism as seen in Nazi Germany and Communist Russia.

Hegelianism and Marxism have both had a huge influence on the political ideologies that are powerful in our world today, with the exception of free market ideology – which ironically formed one of the building blocks of Marxism (“Roughly speaking”, Popper says, “Marx shared the belief of the progressive industrialist, of the ‘bourgeois’ of his time: the belief in the law of progress.”)

As Popper says, “Marx was the last of the great holistic system builders. We should take care to leave it at that, and not to replace his by another Great System.”

There has indeed been no great theoretical system of society and history since Marx. But we have seen many theories appear that have taken elements of Marx’s historical theory, elements of Marxist political theory which followed Marx, and parts of Hegel’s theory, to build shadow theories of their own. These retain Marx and Hegel’s models but replace their basic historical categories with their own categories. In place of the proletariat (the working class) in the Marxist class struggle, these shadow theories have inserted other groupings, like Muslims, women, and people with coloured skin, and politicised these groupings on the same terms as Marxists did with the proletariat.

Indeed it was often Marxists or ex-Marxists who were doing this, sometimes in search of an alternative revolutionary vanguard to replace the mostly uninterested working classes of Western democratic societies. This partly explains how movements of identity politics have attached themselves so successfully to left-wing politics in recent times.

Islamism as a modern political ideology

Islamism offers a particularly good example of this process in action. From theoretical foundations to propaganda and political organisation, Hegelian and Marxist thought has had a profound influence on Islamist movements.

In his memoir ‘The Islamist’, the former Hizb-ut-Tahrir activist Ed Husain illustrates these many links.

As John Gray writes: “Ed Husain begins one of the chapters of The Islamist with a quotation from Syed Qutb, the chief intellectual founder of Islamism, outlining the purpose of Qutb's most influential book: 'I have written Milestones for this vanguard of Islamists which I consider to be a waiting reality about to be realised.' Qutb's use of the concept of the vanguard reveals one of the paradoxes of political Islam: a movement that is avowedly anti-secular, anti-modern and anti-Western, it has been profoundly shaped by modern Western secular ideologies. The idea of a revolutionary elite dedicated to leading the deluded masses to a perfect society is a borrowing from Lenin and the Jacobins rather than anything derived from Islamic theology.

The vanguard is a Marxist-Leninist concept. As Husain reveals in his book, the western influences on Islamist thought are much deeper though, not just on Qutb but on others including Taqi Nabhani and Maulana Mawdudi, the founders of Islamist movements Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HT) and Jamat-e-Islaami respectively.

Husain says:

Hegel has been criticized for laying the conceptual framework for a totalitarian state, but that was not a cause for rejection in Nabhani’s view. Hegel’s writings, particularly phrases such as ‘The state is the march of God through the world’, only emboldened Nabhani.”

The Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci was also influential for Nabhani, Husain says:

Where Hegel outlined the importance of thought in the progress of a nation, Gramsci explained how these thoughts were to be inculcated in the masses, or ummah as Nabhani preferred to call them. It was not sufficient to propagate new ideas, but old ideas had to be ‘destroyed’ and supplanted by new ones. And that is exactly what I was taught in my halaqah [study circle], and what I tried to execute on the streets of London. Nabhani shrewdly linked Gramsci’s concepts to the life of the Prophet Mohammed, and in Muslim ears this found greater acceptance.

As Husain makes clear, the Islamists’ hegemonic strategy worked well among Muslims in Britain and elsewhere. He says that in the 1990s when he was active, nearly every Muslim representative body, mosque, and publishing house in Britain was under Islamist control. What is more, he adds, “The ideology, however disparate, that led to the successful suicide bombings of 7 July 2005 and many similar though thwarted attempts since then is still alive and firmly rooted among Britain’s young Muslims.”

Maajid Nawaz, who was a former colleague of Husain’s in Hizb-ut-Tahrir and founded the counter-extremist organisation Quilliam with him, adds further detail. He says: “almost every facet of our ideology relied on modern European political philosophy”. Nawaz relates being taught Marxism and the concept of dialectical materialism in his Hizb halaqah. He also describes how the Hizb leader Omar Bakri Mohammed’s most outstanding lieutenant, Farid Kasim, was a former socialist who converted back to Islam and used his former socialist tactics to recruit the student population to the Hizb.

Nawaz says of his indoctrination, “The information and stories chosen were never lies or untruth, but seldom were they the whole truth. The element that supported the story was mentioned: the part that complicated the issue was ignored”.

In politics, it is natural not to invoke evidence that might undermine our case. But in looking at ideologies like this, we should perhaps be looking to separate political aims from theoretical claims. Rather than just looking to block people because we do not like their politics, we should take more seriously how they justify these politics. When people make bold theoretical claims to understand society as a whole, invoking things like Islamophobia, class struggle, misogyny and state interference as universal and systemic – that is where their arguments lie exposed and open to sustained criticism.

Religions like Islam and Christianity are by nature ideological because they make claims about the nature of ultimate reality – namely, God. However Islamists and other religious ideologues politicise religion too, and also politicise their followers as a grouping, thereby creating a form of identity politics that depends as much on group solidarity as on the religion itself.

[End of Part II]

Part III to follow will explore the rise of ideological feminism, with a particular focus on Laurie Penny’s writings and the strong feminist movement within the Labour Party – using Popper’s critique to expose their accounts of systemic, structural oppression, and pointing out some better ways.


  1. Hi Ben, I've only just encountered your blog as a result of your recent article in the Spectator, but have been thoroughly enjoying reading through past posts - which have managed to grab me in a way that is rare enough that I tend not to question the political provenance too closely when it happens! Despite coming at a lot of these issues from the other side of the fence, your considered approach, not to mention the fact you don't revert to howling with derision at opposing views, has certainly been appreciated.

    I wasn't remotely aware of the connection between Islamism and Marxism - but it looks like I'm going to have to brush up on it. You'll have to be careful with the crowd of conspiracy theorists for whom Gramsci conjures every bit as effectively as the Protocols of Zion once did (and still does in some quarters, I suppose). They'll have a field day with this.

    But they shouldn't - because, if anything, it meshes with a fairly consistent narrative in history that religion is at its worst not so much when it is practised by true believers, but when believers are led by those who believe only in the advancement of their own power and who, sometimes literally, only really believe in themselves.


Post a Comment

All comments, however critical, will be accepted as long as they are not personal and/or abusive.

Popular posts from this blog

Schopenhauer on Hegel: "A flat-headed, insipid, nauseating, illiterate charlatan."

Karl Popper and the fight against nonsense ideology. Part I

Blue Labour should be about more than politics