“Part of what it is to be courageous is to see reality accurately and to respond well in the face of it." ~ Jonathan Lear

30 May 2014

Karl Popper and the fight against nonsense ideology. Part I

This is the first part of a four-part essay applying the powerful critiques of Karl Popper to contemporary ideologies which have gained significant social power – focusing in particular on Islamism and ideological forms of feminism (those forms which have become dominant in left-wing politics).

This first part engages with the way Popper has been mistakenly appropriated by the free market right, and makes the case that he should be adopted by the liberal-left, not least because he was liberal and of the left.

The future depends on ourselves, and we do not depend on any historical necessity. There are, however, influential social philosophies which hold the opposite view.”
~ Karl Popper

If guilt comes with association then on the left you do not get much guiltier than receiving Margaret Thatcher’s seal of approval.

This is the fate of Karl Popper; perhaps the best critic of authoritarian and totalitarian ideologies there has been, yet somehow associated with one of the most prominent ideologues of recent times as one of her own.

This is a great shame, for Popper’s appropriation by Mrs Thatcher and some followers – many of whom show little sign of having read him – acts as a natural deterrent to Popper’s natural constituency on the left, for his sympathies were with the left - at least until the end of his life. Even during his stunning dismantling of Marxist ideology in The Open Society and its Enemies, Popper had fulsome praise for Karl Marx and echoed Marx’s contempt for the apologists of capitalist exploitation in Victorian Britain.

The ignorance or shunning of Popper on the left is even more of a shame because the critique of ideology he presents has great relevance for current times. The era of authoritarian and totalitarian government in Western societies may seem to be over, but the authoritarian mindset remains very much with us. From market fundamentalism to Islamism, ethnic nationalism, and ideological versions of feminism, we are confronted on all sides by the same authoritarian arguments that Popper tore apart so well, but in different guises and with different names.

Popper offers strong, straightforward and effective arguments to undermine the thinking behind these doctrines. Indeed his critique of fascism and Marxism transfers almost seamlessly to many contemporary ideologies because they are directly influenced by the same theories. For the left, Popper also offers a path cleared of the nonsense and evasions that pervade current leftist discourse and prevent it from engaging effectively with ordinary people.

But first we should address the myth that Popper was a Thatcherite – since he is widely referred to by right-wing writers and biographers as one of Mrs Thatcher’s favourite philosophers.

In her memoirs, Thatcher presents a crude self-serving caricature of Popper’s views that serves her ideological argument rather better than it does justice to him. Her latest biographer Charles Moore goes as far as to bracket Popper as a ‘Conservative’ (with a capital ‘C’) and a free marketeer, which is doubly, startlingly, wrong.

Hugo Young in his biography of Thatcher described Popper (before his death) as “perhaps the greatest living conservative thinker”, showing the extent to which he has been misunderstood and misrepresented on the wider left as well as on the right. The Financial Times columnist Samuel Brittan got a bit closer in reflecting on Thatcher’s death, describing Popper as a “classical liberal”.

Moore, Young and Brittan all miss the point that Popper was primarily a philosopher of science, who was most interested in scientific questions. His socio-political writings were powerful largely because they employed his thoughts on science to criticise theories of people and society which claimed scientific backing – like Marxism and the nationalist and racist ideologies that culminated in Nazism.

In his intellectual autobiography, Unended Quest, Popper describes how he was himself a Marxist in his late teens – until he witnessed the brutal suppression of a demonstration in Vienna that had been whipped up by communists. This made him question an ideology that saw the killing of innocent people as a necessary sacrifice for a greater good to come.

In his most famous work, The Open Society and Its Enemies, Popper constantly professes his admiration for Karl Marx, calling him one of the great liberators of mankind and Das Kapital “a truly imperishable document of human suffering”.

He adds that Marx’s interpretation of the Victorian era appears to fit only too well:

a period of the most shameless and cruel exploitation. And this shameless exploitation was cynically defended by hypocritical apologists who appealed to the principle of human freedom, to the right of man to determine his own fate, and to enter into any contract he considers favourable to his interests.”

He was wary about the dangers of state power, but unequivocal about the perils of free markets:

the principle of non-intervention, of an unrestrained economic system, has to be given up; if we wish freedom to be safeguarded, then we must demand that the policy of unlimited economic freedom be replaced by the planned economic intervention of the state. We must demand that unrestrained capitalism give way to an economic interventionism. And this is precisely what has happened.”

It goes without saying that this is not the philosophy of a Conservative, a Thatcherite, or a free marketeer. Popper’s critique of Marx and Marxism was rather based on their claims to scientific prediction, or ‘prophecy’.

As he says in The Open Society:

In spite of his merits, Marx was, I believe, a false prophet. He was a prophet of the course of history, and his prophecies did not come true; but this is not my main accusation. It is much more important that he misled scores of intelligent people into believing that historical prophecy is the scientific way of approaching social problems. Marx is responsible for the devastating influence of the historicist method of thought within the ranks of those who wish to advance the cause of the open society.”

[End of Part I]

Part II, now up, explores the ‘false prophecies’ of Marx and Hegel and how their theories sacrificed the importance of individual ethical behaviour at the altar of progress. Following articles look at how Islamism and dominant forms of feminism are grounded in these theories, and how they share many attributes with the ideologies that caused so much antagonism and destruction in the 20th Century.

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