Unlike Volume 1, with its focus on Plato, I’m a bit less familiar with the material here – largely Hegel and Marx – so it can be a bit hard to know how to take Popper when he goes off on one. As ever, he’s a very convincing writer but often drifts into his own take on things. Hegel, he doesn’t like at all – taking a view from Schopenhauer for much of it. Popper dismisses him as a charlatan and a fraud deliberately prophesying whatever his employer Prussia wanted. We get a bit on Aristotle too (he doesn’t much like him either).
The book improves as the author starts to tackle Marx – he doesn’t necessarily agree with him but he seems to respect the talent with which he deals with the material and the dire social situation that spurred him to do his writing. He picks out some of the flaws in Marx’s work rather skilfully – the inability to factor in that democracy and compromise could dilute capitalism and improve life for the workers.
Where Marx like the others seemed to get caught in the predictions of his model, Popper finds a core of rationalism. At other points though, Popper deals with issues that seem somewhat tangential or nitpicking – Marx as anti-psychologism in sociology, his views on materialism. It’s clear that the criticisms often aren’t of Marxism as such as it became, but of the actual philosophy of Marx and this means that they occasionally feel like a contribution to an argument that no one else cares about.
Towards the end of the book Popper gets back to his familiar topic of historicism, rationalism and reason: constantly pushing for a middle ground and for the role of liberal democracy in improving a world without a plan or destiny. It’s an enjoyable, if very uneven read.
This was definitely a book to have read after Donald Kagan’s work on the Peloponnesian War. Popper attacks the ‘historicism’ and totalitarian elements within Plato’s work. This involves a certain amount of biographical speculation about the Greek philosopher and his teacher Socrates. We know that there was a struggle between the populist democrats and the exclusive aristocrats in Athens (as in many other Greek cities), and that Plato had an aristocratic background and many aristocratic connections. For Popper, Plato over the course of his career changed from the democratic, compassionate views that he had learned from Socrates back to the aristocratic authoritarianism he was brought up in, and brought in some lessons from Sparta with it.
For Popper the philosopher king that Plato proposes in the Republic is a method to arrest change and promote stability at any cost, to establish and keep a hierarchical system that Plato sees himself at the top of. In seeing history as a constant process of decline from an earlier, better, tribal society, he tries to reconstruct that society and reverse the course of history. I’m still to read part two, but as Popper presents it this does seem to mirror the historical theories of Marxism and Nazism (history as a process of racial decline).
It’s not even handed – it’s not meant to be. Popper wrote this during the war, when he was in little mood for compromise. If you are willing to go with some of his assumptions about Plato’s motivations, this is a compelling book. But despite any regrets he may have had on tone, the core idea of the book is interesting. The same ideas and criticism have come up elsewhere in my recent reading but not quite with the same focus and force (Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism; Black Mass by John Gray targeting modern neo-liberals). Karl Popper is a very good writer, you just have to beware of being swept along by his polemic and missing some of the holes in it.