When I was a student, in the eighties of the twentieth century, Karl Popper’s Open Society was considered not quite okay to read – at least when one considered oneself to be on the critical and leftish side of the political arena. As incomprehensible as this now seems to me – well, there were more strange things going on in that stifled age of what is called ‘Cold War’. In those polarized circumstances anyone who was not for Marx, was definitely thought to be against him, and, more, under suspicion of propagating Capitalism and its wrongs.
Popper, who had been a Marxist in his own younger days, left the movement when in a protest rally some individuals were shot dead by the police. It opened his eyes to the moral principle that no ideology justified people dying for it – which made him leave the movement. But worse, he criticized Marx to the core in the book which he considered to be his ‘War effort’ (while living peacefully in New Zealand, which he had reached in time before the Nazi’s could have hunted him in his native Austria for being of jewish decent). His criticism centered on Marx’ idea of history: that one could project into the future a blueprint of a just society, for which then, sacrifices were acceptable.
Of course he was right about this core point in Marx, which was borrowed from Hegel, and we know how it worked out in Communist countries, where the destruction of families, of personal privacy, and of lives were condoned by this idea of rightful sacrifice. Instead one should hold, Popper wrote, that history cannot progress, cannot move towards a (somehow already existing) end: ‘only we, the human individuals can do it; […] by defending and strenghtening those democratic insitutions upon which freedom, and with it progress, depends.’ Democratic institutions, because they garantuee that we can always take new courses when tried ones fail, instead of having to keep steering toward the one ideal society once thought out. And then he wrote those compelling concluding words: ‘Instead of posing as prophets we must become the makers of our fate.’
Another philosophical writer on society (who had fled Germany for similar reasons in that same period, but then to that other haven, the USA) – a writer with similar views on history – was considered to be okay for the left-wing student, since he rather revised Marxist theory from within, instead of rejecting it. I mean Herbert Marcuse, whom I mentioned earlier (in ‘Difficult Freedom’) and to whom I will probably return another time. The interesting fact is that he does not reject absolutist tendencies in theory only, but that he sees them at work also in the so-called ‘free’ world of those days. Because we have separated ideologically politics from technology, says Marcuse, we have lost a real freedom of thought. Thinking that our technological progress is a politically neutral development, we can no longer criticize the economic, ecological and humanitarian injustices that are inescapable when we let it dominate our goals. Food for thought, really, in our present days of ecological and economic (and humanitarian…) crisis!
Marcuse dares to criticize a naive faith in a certain type of democracy (which he calls ‘mass democracy’) – the kind that grants liberties, while at the same time denying freedom. Liberties for some, that is, because they are denied to ‘the exploited and persecuted of other races and colors, the unemployed and the unemployable. They exist outside of the democratic process […].’ This sounds still relevant, watching today’s world – with its masses of poor people living on the verge of subsistence, working in situations which are not officially, but actually situations of slave labour, who lack democratic institutions, or the knowledge, money and power to make use of them; more, our world with it’s large amounts of undocumented migrant workers living in the heart of ‘democratic’ nations without full citizen’s rights. They are named ‘illegal’, and my own government now wants to upgrade this downgrading by declaring illegality a penal offence.
In these conditions it is necessary to make use of any theory which will work for a better world – so forget right or left, love Marcuse’s critical analysis of false freedom, and stress at the same time that we, individuals, are the makers of our shared fate. Love Popper for rejecting so strongly the idea of rightful sacrifice, since it stresses the provisional character of any blueprint and it’s subordination to the worth of every individual life.
Karl Popper lived from 1902-1994, Herbert Marcuse from 1898-1979.
Citations are from Karl Popper The Open Society and its Enemies, Routledge, 2002 [original edition 1945] and Herbert Marcuse One Dimension Man. Studies in the Ideology of advanced industrial society, Routledge Classics, 1991 [original edition 1964].