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Karl Popper? Rationality but no blueprint

The Lesson of This Century
Karl Popper
Routledge, 1996

This collection consists of two interviews with Giancarlo Bosetti in 1991 and 1993, who also supplies Introductions to them, and two earlier talks, given in 1988 and 1989. I assume (though this is not made explicit) that the interviews were conducted as well as published in Italian; the talks must have been originally given in German. Routledge, the publisher, gives information, and a picture, of Popper, but says nothing of Bosetti; if a book can be under-edited, this is it. Interesting as these interviews and articles are, could his publisher not have found more for us?

The title of the book is unexplained, and may not be either Popper’s (this is a posthumous collection; he died in 1994) or Bosetti’s. It may be in the nature of a warning, for Popper reiterates his injunction “Once More Against Historicism” (pp. 40-45), a slippery and subtle concept which as I understand it, goes something like: “Because I know where I am and how I got here, I know where I’m going and how to get there.” This might be all very well as a working idea if confined to the study; unfortunately, with Karl Marx, it got out, to be believed and acted on, even though his prophecies – immiseration of the proletariat and the resulting violent overthrow of capitalism – were falsified in his own lifetime, with many others since. As Popper says: “We can certainly learn from the past, but we can never project it to anticipate the future (p. 41)”. Karl Marx could not foresee the motor-car, and we can’t see the next revolutionary innovation, just as, Popper might have said, nobody foresaw the computer and the Internet. Chapter 1, “Pacifism, War, the Encounter with Communism”, I see as a sort of supplement to his autobiography, Unended Quest. Popper’s involvement with Communism, specifically, with three older friends, began just after World War I and was followed immediately with disillusionment: “I trusted them. But very soon I found that a telegram from Moscow was enough for them to turn them 180 degrees … (p. 15).” Popper did, however, by his own admission, remain a socialist for several years after this but finally, he writes in Unended Quest, quoted here (p. 5), “I recognized this as no more than a beautiful dream; that freedom is more important than equality … and that, if freedom is lost, there will not even be equality among the unfree.” Here, it seems to me, Popper lets his either-or idealism run away with him, for in the real world complete freedom is too big a burden for the individual to handle, let alone want to, and the welfare state represents a trade-off between security and liberty, while the argument about socialism has moved to the pragmatic one of economic efficiency. Despite fears of a slide from democracy to tyranny via socialism (as voiced in Hayek’s Road to Serfdom), the fact that this has never happened suggests that a balance between freedom and equality is possible. Indeed, Popper understands “Absolute freedom is nonsense … [because] … We need a society in which the freedom of each person is compatible with the freedom of other persons (p. 35)”.

Popper does not see in the collapse of Marxism the triumph of some other doctrine. This negative position is, after all, what he has proclaimed in The Open Society and Its Enemies: no blueprint can be made for a perfect society, and any Utopia is a dangerous illusion. Nor does this mean a willingness on his part to stand back and expect market forces to solve the world’s problems. Where he thinks government intervention is necessary, it should intervene. In both series of interviews he is obviously very much exercised on the need, in 1991, for some sort of international action in Bosnia. “What is happening in Bosnia is proof of the failure, the cowardice, the blindness, of us in the West. It shows we do not want to learn what this century should have taught us: that war is prevented by war (p. 49).” This reaction may seem shrill and exaggerated today, especially when Popper combined it with a fear of a nuclear risk. Most of us have forgotten the sequence of events in Bosnia which gave rise to Popper’s exasperation, but the fact remains that intervention (mainly by the US) did take place, with beneficial results. Rwanda, East Timor and Kosovo have had their crises since he died, but it is hard not to believe he would have favoured intervention in each case, and the pattern would also lead one to suppose he would support the US policy in Afghanistan and Iraq.

After this, it may not come as a surprise (in Chapter 7, “Television Corrupts Mankind”) that Popper interested himself in the possibility of censoring television in order to protect children from unsuitable material, particularly scenes of violence. Although some sort of legislation seems to have been attempted in Germany, it is certainly an attempt that has had little success, and even Popper might have despaired if he had foreseen the enormous expansion of visual imagery available from videocassettes and DVDs and the perverted use of computers and the internet for the propagation of paedophilia. Popper’s attitude towards legislation therefore seems less “hands off” than experimental: “let’s try it; see if it works.” After all, he was more sympathetic to the notion that any improvement would be brought about piecemeal and by accretion rather than by some visionary social engineering. Revealingly, he says, “Unfortunately … things do not work without paternalism (p. 9)” so I would like to know, for example, what his views were on affirmative action and the proliferation of human rights. Strong though his opinions in his later years might be, he would still stick to his quotation here (p. 57) from The Open Society and Its Enemies: “the rational approach means being prepared to admit that I may be wrong and you may be right, but that by a common effort we can draw closer to the truth.”

3 comments to Karl Popper? Rationality but no blueprint

  • M. Simon

    Do not confuse Marxists with Karl Marx. Marx himself said he was no Marxist. If he was writing this stuff today it would be called science fiction.

    Marx believed that until capitalism had played itself out it was the best system for human advancement. Brutal as it was. He saw the logic of price competition.

  • “Capitalism” will never “play itself out”. Inevitably, therefore, being a Marxist (and in particular being Karl Marx) involves disagreement about when this imaginary event will occur.

  • Kit Taylor

    Well I suppose corpratism or *bleurgh* “Scandinavian capitalism” could concievably play itself out, what with primative accumulation and all that.

    A fair few nations have ended up with total political governance of human action.