The Open Society and Its Enemies, by Karl R. Popper

"Science," the Greek word for knowledge, when appended to the word "political," creates what seems like an oxymoron. For who could claim to know politics? More complicated than any game, most people who play it become addicts and die without understanding what they were addicted to. The rest of us suffer under their malpractice as our "leaders." A truer case of the blind leading the blind could not be found. Plumb the depths of confusion here.

Re: The Open Society and Its Enemies, by Karl R. Popper

Postby admin » Fri Jan 11, 2019 8:59 pm

Marx's Prophecy

18: The Coming of Socialism


Economic historicism is the method applied by Marx to an analysis of the impending changes in our society.
According to Marx, every particular social system must destroy itself, simply because it must create the forces which produce the next historical period. A sufficiently penetrating analysis of the feudal system, undertaken shortly before the industrial revolution, might have led to the detection of the forces which were about to destroy feudalism, and to the prediction of the most important characteristics of the coming period, capitalism. Similarly, an analysis of the development of capitalism might enable us to detect the forces which work for its destruction, and to predict the most important characteristics of the new historical period which lies ahead of us. For there is surely no reason to believe that capitalism, of all social systems, will last for ever. On the contrary, the material conditions of production, and with them, the ways of human life, have never changed so quickly as they have done under capitalism. By changing its own foundations in this way, capitalism is bound to transform itself, and to produce a new period in the history of mankind.

According to Marx's method, the principles of which have been discussed above, the fundamental or essential-forces which will destroy or transform capitalism must be searched for in the evolution of the material means of production. Once these fundamental forces have been discovered, it is possible to trace their influence upon the social relationships between classes as well as upon the juridical and political systems.

The analysis of the fundamental economic forces and the suicidal historical tendencies of the period which he called 'capitalism' was undertaken by Marx in Capital, the great work of his life. The historical period and the economic system he dealt with was that of western Europe and especially England, from about the middle of the eighteenth century to 1867 (the year of the first publication of Capital). The 'ultimate aim of this work', as Marx explained in his preface [2], was 'to lay bare the economic law of motion of modern society', in order to prophesy its fate. A secondary aim [3] was the refutation of the apologists of capitalism, of the economists who presented the laws of the capitalist mode of production as if they were inexorable laws of nature, declaring with Burke: 'The laws of commerce are the laws of nature, and therefore the laws of God.' Marx contrasted these allegedly inexorable laws with those which he maintained to be the only inexorable laws of society, namely, its laws of development; and he tried to show that what the economists declared to be eternal and immutable laws were in fact merely temporary regularities, doomed to be destroyed together with capitalism itself.

Marx's historical prophecy can be described as a closely knit argument. But Capital elaborates only what I shall call the 'first step' of this argument, the analysis of the fundamental economic forces of capitalism and their influence upon the relations between the classes. The 'second step', which leads to the conclusion that a social revolution is inevitable, and the 'third step', which leads to the prediction of the emergence of a classless, i.e. socialist, society, are only sketched. In this chapter, I shall first explain more clearly what I call the three steps of the Marxist argument, and then discuss the third of these steps in detail. In the two following chapters, I shall discuss the second and the first steps. To reverse the order of the steps in this way turns out to be best for a detailed critical discussion; the advantage lies in the fact that it is then easier to assume without prejudice the truth of the premises of each step in the argument, and to concentrate entirely upon the question whether the conclusion reached in this particular step follows from its premises. Here are the three steps.

In the first step of his argument, Marx analyses the method of capitalist production. He finds that there is a tendency towards an increase in the productivity of work, connected with technical improvements as well as with what he calls the increasing accumulation of the means of production. Starting from here, the argument leads him to the conclusion that in the realm of the social relations between the classes this tendency must lead to the accumulation of more and more wealth in fewer and fewer hands; that is to say, the conclusion is reached that there will be a tendency towards an increase of wealth and misery; of wealth in the ruling class, the bourgeoisie, and of misery in the ruled class, the workers. This first step will be treated in chapter 20 ('Capitalism and its Fate').

In the second step of the argument, the result of the first step is taken for granted. From it, two conclusions are drawn; first, that all classes except a small ruling bourgeoisie and a large exploited working class are bound to disappear, or to become insignificant; secondly, that the increasing tension between these two classes must lead to social revolution. This step will be analysed in chapter 19 ('The Social Revolution').

In the third step of the argument, the conclusions of the second step are taken for granted in their turn; and the final conclusion reached is that, after the victory of the workers over the bourgeoisie, there will be a society consisting of one class only, and, therefore, a classless society, a society without exploitation; that is to say, socialism.


I now proceed to the discussion of the third step, of the final prophecy of the coming of socialism.

The main premises of this step, to be criticized in the next chapter but here to be taken for granted, are these: the development of capitalism has led to the elimination of all classes but two, a small bourgeoisie and a huge proletariat; and the increase of misery has forced the latter to revolt against its exploiters. The conclusions are, first, that the workers must win the struggle, secondly that, by eliminating the bourgeoisie, they must establish a classless society, since only one class remains.

Now I am prepared to grant that the first conclusion follows from the premises (in conjunction with a few premises of minor importance which we need not question). Not only is the number of the bourgeoisie small, but their physical existence, their 'metabolism', depends upon the proletariat. The exploiter, the drone, starves without the exploited; in any case, if he destroys the exploited then he ends his own career as a drone. Thus he cannot win; he can, at the best, put up a prolonged struggle. The worker, on the other hand, does not depend for his material subsistence on his exploiter; once the worker revolts, once he has decided to challenge the existing order, the exploiter has no essential social function any longer. The worker can destroy his class enemy without endangering his own existence. Accordingly, there is only one outcome possible. The bourgeoisie will disappear.

But does the second conclusion follow? Is it true that the workers' victory must lead to a classless society? I do not think so. From the fact that of two classes only one remains, it does not follow that there will be a classless society. Classes are not like individuals, even if we admit that they behave nearly like individuals so long as there are two classes who are joined in battle. The unity or solidarity of a class, according to Marx's own analysis, is part of their class consciousness [4], which in turn is very largely a product of the class struggle. There is no earthly reason why the individuals who form the proletariat should retain their class unity once the pressure of the struggle against the common class enemy has ceased. Any latent conflict of interests is now likely to divide the formerly united proletariat into new classes, and to develop into a new class struggle. (The principles of dialectics would suggest that a new antithesis, a new class antagonism, must soon develop. Yet, of course, dialectics is sufficiently vague and adaptable to explain anything at all, and therefore a classless society also, as a dialectically necessary synthesis of an antithetical development [5].)

The most likely development is, of course, that those actually in power at the moment of victory — those of the revolutionary leaders who have survived the struggle for power and the various purges, together with their staff — will form a New Class: the new ruling class of the new society, a kind of new aristocracy or bureaucracy [6]; and it is most likely that they will attempt to hide this fact. This they can do, most conveniently, by retaining as much as possible of the revolutionary ideology, taking advantage of these sentiments instead of wasting their time in efforts to destroy them (in accordance with Pareto's advice to all rulers). And it seems likely enough that they will be able to make fullest use of the revolutionary ideology if at the same time they exploit the fear of counter-revolutionary developments. In this way, the revolutionary ideology will serve them for apologetic purposes: it will serve them both as a vindication of the use they make of their power, and as a means of stabilizing it; in short, as a new 'opium for the people'.

Something of this kind are the events which, on Marx's own premises, are likely to happen. Yet it is not my task here to make historical prophecies (or to interpret the past history of many revolutions). I merely wish to show that Marx's conclusion, the prophecy of the coming of a classless society, does not follow from the premises. The third step of Marx's argument must be pronounced to be inconclusive.

More than this I do not maintain. I do not think, more particularly, that it is possible to prophesy that socialism will not come, or to say that the premises of the argument make the introduction of socialism very unlikely. It is, for instance, possible that the prolonged struggle and the enthusiasm of victory may contribute to a feeling of solidarity strong enough to continue until laws preventing exploitation and the misuse of power are established. (The establishment of institutions for the democratic control of the rulers is the only guarantee for the elimination of exploitation.) The chances of founding such a society will depend, in my opinion, very largely upon the devotion of the workers to the ideas of socialism and freedom, as opposed to the immediate interests of their class. These are matters which cannot be easily foreseen; all that can certainly be said is that class struggle as such does not always produce lasting solidarity among the oppressed. There are examples of such solidarity and great devotion to the common cause; but there are also examples of groups of workers who pursue their particular group interest even where it is in open conflict with the interest of the other workers, and with the idea of the solidarity of the oppressed. Exploitation need not disappear with the bourgeoisie, since it is quite possible that groups of workers may obtain privileges which amount to an exploitation of less fortunate groups [7].

We see that a whole host of possible historical developments may follow upon a victorious proletarian revolution. There are certainly too many possibilities for the application of the method of historical prophecy. And in particular it must be emphasized that it would be most unscientific to close our eyes to some possibilities because we do not like them. Wishful thinking is apparently a thing that cannot be avoided. But it should not be mistaken for scientific thinking. And we should also recognize that the allegedly scientific prophecy provides, for a great number of people, a form of escape. It provides an escape from our present responsibilities into a future paradise; and it provides the fitting complement of this paradise by overstressing the helplessness of the individual in face of what it describes as the overwhelming and demoniacal economic forces of the present moment.  


If we now look a little more closely at these forces, and at our own present economic system, then we can see that our theoretical criticism is borne out by experience. But we must be on our guard against misinterpreting experience in the light of the Marxist prejudice that 'socialism' or 'communism' is the only alternative and the only possible successor to 'capitalism'. Neither Marx nor anybody else has ever shown that socialism, in the sense of a classless society, of 'an association in which the free development of each is the warrant for the free development of all' [8], is the only possible alternative to the ruthless exploitation of that economic system which he first described a century ago (in 1845), and to which he gave the name 'capitalism' [9]. And indeed, if anybody were attempting to prove that socialism is the only possible successor to Marx's unrestrained 'capitalism', then we could simply refute him by pointing to historical facts. For laissez-faire has disappeared from the face of the earth, but it has not been replaced by a socialist or communist system as Marx understood it. Only in the Russian sixth of the earth do we find an economic system where, in accordance with Marx's prophecy, the means of production are owned by the state, whose political might however shows, in opposition to Marx's prophecy, no inclination to wither away. But all over the earth, organized political power has begun to perform far-reaching economic functions. Unrestrained capitalism has given way to a new historical period, to our own period of political interventionism, of the economic interference of the state. Interventionism has assumed various forms. There is the Russian variety; there is the fascist form of totalitarianism; and there is the democratic interventionism of England, of the United States, and of the 'Smaller Democracies', led by Sweden [10], where the technology of democratic intervention has reached its highest level so far. The development which led to this intervention started in Marx's own day, with British factory legislation. It made its first decisive advances with the introduction of the 48-hour week, and later with the introduction of unemployment insurance and other forms of social insurance. How utterly absurd it is to identify the economic system of the modern democracies with the system Marx called 'capitalism' can be seen at a glance, by comparing it with his 10-point programme for the communist revolution.

If we omit the rather insignificant points of this programme (for instance, '4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels'), then we can say that in the democracies most of these points have been put into practice, either completely, or to a considerable degree; and with them, many more important steps, which Marx had never thought of, have been made in the direction of social security. I mention only the following points in his programme: 2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax. (Carried out.) 3. Abolition of all right of inheritance. (Largely realized by heavy death duties. Whether more would be desirable is at least doubtful.) 6. Central control by the state of the means of communication and transport. (For military reasons this was carried out in Central Europe before the war of 1914, without very beneficial results. It has also been achieved by most of the Smaller Democracies.) 7. Increase in the number and size of factories and instruments of production owned by the state . . . (Realized in the Smaller Democracies; whether this is always very beneficial is at least doubtful.) 10. Free education for all children in public (i.e. state) schools. Abolition of children's factory labour in its present form ... (The first demand is fulfilled in the Smaller Democracies, and to some extent practically everywhere; the second has been exceeded.)

A number of points in Marx's programme— (for instance: '1. Abolition of all property in land') have not been realized in the democratic countries. This is why Marxists rightly claim that these countries have not established 'socialism'. But if they infer from this that these countries are still 'capitalist' in Marx's sense, then they only demonstrate the dogmatic character of their presupposition that there is no further alternative. This shows how it is possible to be blinded by the glare of a preconceived system. Not only is Marxism a bad guide to the future, but it also renders its followers incapable of seeing what is happening before their own eyes, in their own historical period, and sometimes even with their own co-operation.


But it could be asked whether this criticism speaks in any way against the method of large-scale historical prophecy as such. Could we not, in principle, so strengthen the premises of the prophetic argument as to obtain a valid conclusion? Of course we could do this. It is always possible to obtain any conclusion we like if only we make our premises sufficiently strong. But the situation is such that, for nearly every large- scale historical prophecy, we would have to make such assumptions concerning moral and other factors of the kind called by Marx 'ideological' as are beyond our ability to reduce to economic factors. But Marx would have been the first to admit that this would be a highly unscientific proceeding. His whole method of prophecy depends on the assumption that ideological influences need not be treated as independent and unpredictable elements, but that they are reducible to, and dependent on, observable economic conditions, and therefore predictable.

It is sometimes admitted even by certain unorthodox Marxists that the coming of socialism is not merely a matter of historical development; Marx's statement that 'we can shorten and lessen the birth-pangs' of the coming of socialism is sufficiently vague to be interpreted as stating that a mistaken policy might delay the advent of socialism even for centuries, as compared with the proper policy which would shorten the time of the development to a minimum. This interpretation makes it possible even for Marxists to admit that it will depend largely upon ourselves whether or not the outcome of a revolution will be a socialist society; that is to say, it will depend upon our aims, upon our devotion and sincerity, and upon our intelligence, in other words, upon moral or 'ideological' factors. Marx's prophecy, they may add, is a great source of moral encouragement, and it is therefore likely to further the development of socialism. What Marx really tries to show is that there are only two possibilities: that a terrible world should continue forever, or that a better world should eventually emerge; and it is hardly worth our while to contemplate the first alternative seriously. Therefore Marx's prophecy is fully justified. For the more clearly men realize that they can achieve the second alternative, the more surely will they make a decisive leap from capitalism to socialism; but a more definite prophecy cannot be made.

This is an argument which admits the influence of irreducible moral and ideological factors upon the course of history, and with it, the inapplicability of the Marxist method. Concerning that part of the argument which tries to defend Marxism, we must repeat that nobody has ever shown that there are only two possibilities, 'capitalism' and 'socialism'. With the view that we should not waste our time in contemplating the eternal continuation of a very unsatisfactory world, I quite agree. But the alternative need not be to contemplate the prophesied advent of a better world, or to assist its birth by propaganda and other irrational means, perhaps even by violence. It can be, for instance, the development of a technology for the immediate improvement of the world we live in, the development of a method for piecemeal engineering, for democratic intervention [12]. Marxists would of course contend that this kind of intervention is impossible since history cannot be made according to rational plans for improving the world. But this theory has very strange consequences. For if things cannot be improved by the use of reason, then it would be indeed an historical or political miracle if the irrational powers of history by themselves were to produce a better and more rational world [13].

Thus we are thrown back to the position that moral and other ideological factors which do not fall within the scope of scientific prophecy exert a far-reaching influence upon the course of history. One of these unpredictable factors is just the influence of social technology and of political intervention in economic matters. The social technologist and the piecemeal engineer may plan the construction of new institutions, or the transformation of old ones; they may even plan the ways and means of bringing these changes about; but 'history' does not become more predictable by their doing so. For they do not plan for the whole of society, nor can they know whether their plans will be carried out; in fact, they will hardly ever be carried out without great modification, partly because our experience grows during construction, partly because we must compromise [14]. Thus Marx was quite right when he insisted that 'history' cannot be planned on paper. But institutions can be planned; and they are being planned. Only by planning [15], step by step, for institutions to safeguard freedom, especially freedom from exploitation, can we hope to achieve a better world.


In order to show the practical political significance of Marx's historicist theory, I intend to illustrate each of the three chapters dealing with the three steps of his prophetic argument by a few remarks on the effects of his historical prophecy upon recent European history. For these effects have been far-reaching, because of the influence exercised, in Central and Eastern Europe, by the two great Marxist parties, the Communists and the Social Democrats.

Both these parties were entirely unprepared for such a task as the transformation of society. The Russian Communists, who found themselves first within reach of power, went ahead, entirely unaware of the grave problems and the immensity of sacrifice as well as of suffering which lay ahead. The Social Democrats of Central Europe, whose chance came a little later, shrank for many years from the responsibilities which the Communists had so readily taken upon themselves. They doubted, probably rightly, whether any people but that of Russia, which had been most savagely oppressed by Tsarism, would have stood up to the sufferings and sacrifices demanded from them by revolution, civil war, and a long period of at first often unsuccessful experiments. Moreover, during the critical years from 1918 to 1926, the outcome of the Russian experiment appeared to them most uncertain. And, indeed, there was surely no basis for judging its prospects. One can say that the split between the Central European Communists and Social Democrats was one between those Marxists who had a kind of irrational faith in the final success of the Russian experiment, and those who were, more reasonably, sceptical of it. When I say 'irrational' and 'more reasonably', I judge them by their own standard, by Marxism; for according to Marxism, the proletarian revolution should have been the final outcome of industrialization, and not vice versa [16]; and it should have come first in the highly industrialized countries, and only much later in Russia [17].

This remark is not, however, intended as a defence of the Social Democratic leaders [18] whose policy was fully determined by the Marxist prophecy, by their implicit belief that socialism must come. But this belief was often combined, in the leaders, with a hopeless scepticism concerning their own immediate functions and tasks, and what lay immediately ahead [19]. They had learned from Marxism to organize the workers, and to inspire them with a truly wonderful faith in their task, the liberation of mankind [20]. But they were unable to prepare for the realization of their promises. They had learned their textbooks well, they knew all about 'scientific socialism', and they knew that the preparation of recipes for the future was unscientific Utopianism. Had not Marx himself ridiculed a follower of Comte who had criticized him in the Revue Positiviste for his neglect of practical programmes? 'The Revue Positiviste accuses me', Marx had said [21] scornfully, 'of a metaphysical treatment of economics, and further — you would hardly guess it — of confining myself to a merely critical analysis of actual facts, instead of prescribing recipes (Comtist ones, perhaps?) for the kitchen in which the future is cooked.' Thus the Marxist leaders knew better than to waste their time on such matters as technology. 'Workers of all countries, unite!' — that exhausted their practical programme. When the workers of their countries were united, when there was an opportunity of assuming the responsibility of government and laying the foundations for a better world, when their hour had struck, they left the workers high and dry. The leaders did not know what to do. They waited for the promised suicide of capitalism. After the inevitable capitalist collapse, when things had gone thoroughly wrong, when everything was in dissolution and the risk of discredit and disgrace to themselves considerably diminished, then they hoped to become the saviours of mankind. (And, indeed, we should keep in mind the fact that the success of the Communists in Russia was undoubtedly made possible, in part, by the terrible things that had happened before their rise to power.) But when the great depression, which they first welcomed as the promised collapse, was running its course, they began to realize that the workers were growing tired of being fed and put off with interpretations of history [22]; that it was not enough to tell them that according to the infallible scientific socialism of Marx fascism was definitely the last stand of capitalism before its impending collapse. The suffering masses needed more than that. Slowly the leaders began to realize the terrible consequences of a policy of waiting and hoping for the great political miracle. But it was too late. Their opportunity was gone.

These remarks are very sketchy. But they give some indication of the practical consequences of Marx's prophecy of the coming of socialism.
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