Review: The Open Society and its Enemies, Volume 1, by Karl Popper

While Friedrich Hayek penned The Road to Serfdom in wartime Britain, on the other side of the world another Viennese exile was composing a great anti-totalitarian text.

That work became The Open Society and Its Enemies, by Karl Popper, Hayek’s friend and correspondent. Written during Popper’s tenure at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, it is a classic of liberal thought which analyses the workings of totalitarianism and anticipates the struggle between free-market liberalism and socialist or communist ideology.

Unlike The Road to Serfdom however, Popper’s volume is less concerned with how society might be led into socialism and, ultimately, authoritarianism, and more at the intellectual background of totalitarian thought. In particular, he critiques historicism as an idea and means of studying society. Far better, he argued, to examine ideas on their own merits than explain them entirely by their historical context.

Popper’s arguments take an incredibly broad scope. His central contention holds that humanity is still undergoing a transition from ‘tribal or closed societies’, dominated by dogma, to open societies which ‘set free the critical powers of man’. On the respective sides of this divide he places totalitarianism, which seeks a return to the closed society, and liberalism, which rejects absolute authority, while seeking to preserve and establish traditions in line with freedom and rational critique.

Through his analysis of Plato, the so-called ‘divine philosopher’, Popper demonstrates that totalitarian ideas are nothing new, but as old as civilisation itself. While many admire Plato as a promoter of enlightened values and benevolent rule, Popper argues convincingly that modern scholars have overlooked Plato’s illiberalism, suggesting that a closer analysis of the Athenian philosopher’s The Republic reveals distinctly dictatorial leanings. The Open Society goes further still, tracing the origins of several key ideas in totalitarian thought, particularly communism, back to Plato.

The first such example is Plato’s idea of the ‘perfect state’, an imaginary world where all change is arrested and man lives ‘according to nature’. This idea has influenced Early Modern thinkers like Sir Thomas More, whose Utopia describes such a place, to 20th century writers like HG Wells. For Plato, as for most later proponents, this perfect state was by necessity strictly authoritarian. The wisest must rule over the unenlightened rest, who, to quote another ancient philosopher with whom Popper disagrees, ‘fill their bellies like beasts’.

As Popper explains, Utopian efforts ‘to realise an ideal state, using a blueprint of society as a whole… demand a strong centralised rule of a few, and are therefore likely to lead to dictatorship.”

The second of these key ideas is the doctrine of historicism, which Popper traces even earlier than Plato. This is the notion that history follows deterministic rules which can be used to shape society in a desired way, just as an engineer might employ the laws of physics in their work.

For Plato, examples of the ‘perfect state’ could be found in ancient societies like Sparta and Crete. Yet for later writers like Hegel and Marx, who foresaw history proceeding towards an inevitable climax in a new ‘perfect society’ which would once again allow man to ‘live according to nature’, these ideas were more associated with the future.

Popper does not try to side with one group or the other; more to demonstrate that historicist beliefs are not just mistaken, but severely damaging. As a leading philosopher of the scientific method, he argues that a ‘scientific’ redesign of society should be well outside the remit of the social sciences. Whether advocates call to go ‘back to nature’ or ‘forward to a world of love and beauty’, the outcome will always be the same. ‘Even with the best intentions of making heaven on earth it only succeeds in making it a hell’, he concludes.

Instead, Popper advocates what he calls ‘piecemeal social engineering’ – fighting against ‘the greatest and most urgent evils of society’, rather than pursuing Utopian aims. Such an approach could include specific plans for defined institutions, where errors would be small and correctable. Here, Popper follows Hayek in arguing that such reforms could be practically achievable, unlike the nebulous goals of Utopian social engineers. This approach is broadly similar to his theory of the scientific methodology, which seeks to establish what is not true, rather than what is.

Ultimately, Plato’s attempts to build his perfect republic failed; he was forced to abandon principles of freedom and to defend tyrannies of the exact sort he claimed to despise. Yet Popper’s account of the inevitability of these developments remains highly compelling reading in 2019 – particularly when we consider modern regimes that promise freedom through the rule of the wise, and fail to deliver. 

I would certainly recommend the book and look forward to finishing volume two in the New Year.

Felix Hathaway is a research assistant at the IEA.

1 thought on “Review: The Open Society and its Enemies, Volume 1, by Karl Popper”

  1. Posted 16/02/2022 at 08:56 | Permalink

    As an amateur student of philosophy I must thank you for helping me to better understand the drift of Popper’s ideas in The Open Society.

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