Skip to Content

The Critics Criticised - Professor Popper Looks at History pt.2

(Continued from June Issue)

Mr. Popper’s own evaluation of history can hardly claim any scientific pretentious. In the main he largely garbles the anti-Christian Nietzsche’s "power drive theory of history." With Mr. Popper this power drive reveals itself in the history of political power which, he says, "has been elevated into world history." This political power drive theory is explained by Mr. Popper as the impulse to worship or be worshipped. He repeats Schopenhauer that man's besetting sin is making power synonymous with success. This worship of power it seems is due to fear (p. 272) although (same page) he appears to have changed his mind and made the power drive one of instinct which in that case makes him a Bertrand Russell adherent. This, then, is Mr. Popper's theoretical contribution to the understanding of our times. One might add in passing that to grasp the significance of political power or any aspect of social power lies not in assumptions about some neurotic impulse or instinct but in an analysis of the historical conditions and social formations which explain not only the nature of political power but why different societies have thrown up different forms of political organisations. When this is done the power drive theory of history becomes supernumerary.

Mr. Popper has quite mistaken notions as to what constitutes history. For him, technocracy, political power, historical records, etc., are history. In fact they are not history, but the outcome of history. History itself is the story of man—not this man or that man but socially organised man in pursuit of his ends under given and determinate conditions. Since the passing of primitive society the pursuit of these ends has taken place via the agency of social groups whose aims and interests have been conflicting ones. It is by an examination of these social productive relations—the economic factor—that we reveal the rise and fall of institutions, traditions, politics, ideologies and other cultural phenomena and thus allow a theory of historical causation to become possible.

Marxism is an attempt then to show the prime causal factors in the evolution of human society. In spite of Mr Popper's efforts to show that Marxism believes there are mysterious impersonal forces in history which shape man's destiny, it is no more mysterious than other evolutionary concepts which seek to account for development in other fields.

Men make history Marxists contend and what some men have made, other men can understand. In this way history becomes an intelligible process and the past capable of being reconstructed by the same pattern of enquiry which marks other fields of scientific investigation. In the light of this, Mr. Popper's remarks that men have only faked history seems more than a little foolish.

Mr. Popper is unoriginal enough to seek to be original and daring and too often succeeds in being merely dull and pretentious. He plays to the gallery by announcing that all the history which exists, i.e., our history of the great and powerful, is a shallow comedy. He brings in the usual gods whose function it is apparently to mock at human affairs and they indulge in the conventional guffaws at our expense. At other times he converts the comedy into crude melodrama by assuring us that the history which is advertised as the history of mankind is but the history of international crime and mass murder (p. 270).

Mr. Popper's views on history seem to waver between a cloak and dagger conspiracy and another version of the fall of man. Neither of them can validly explain the actual evolution of human society: Why it has pointed in a determinate direction, viz., primitive society, slavery, feudalism, capitalism. And why in that order.

In spite of the nonsense talked about by Mr. Popper, Isaiah Berlin and others, that "historic inevitability" is another name for an automatic impersonal force which supposedly operates in history, Marx's views on history were sharp and clear. Human effort and struggle he held were the means which brought about the historically determined. He never sought to make history a mystery. Indeed he claimed that history had no greater reality than that which could be discovered by the analysis of actual historical events. While unlike Hegel he never believed that history was the outcome of logic and reason, he nevertheless believed that it could be rationally explained.

Marx had then a view point on history. He did not believe it could be explained by abstractions like power drives or impulses. Nor it might be added by spirit, nature or some economic first cause. For Marx history had no purpose which was not the purpose of man. No goals which are not human goals. It is men who will to do things. But what men will is always contramenious with elements in the social situation which are unwilled. Because society is a continuous process, men always find themselves in a set of conditions which is given. It is these conditions which give the scope and set the stamp on particular social aims and goals. When and whether they will be effectively realised will depend upon the objective possibilities within the social situation. It is true for instance that Socialism must be willed by men but it is not until a particular set of social relations namely capitalism, appear, can there arise the objective means for Socialism to be realised. Marx's theory of historic causation explains then why men in different historic phases seek to achieve certain ends and what have been the nature of the circumstances which have allowed them to succeed —or fail. Critics of Marx have seized upon the term "objective" conditions, isolated it from its context and then accused Marx of propounding a prime mover on economic first cause which propel men along some predetermined path. Mr. Popper is an incorrigible exponent of this type of distortion.

It has already been noted that Mr. Popper's conception of history, i.e., the story of power politics, technocracy, historical records, etc., is not history, even though each of them has a history, and even when he presents them as history he converts them into a masquerade of power drives and neurotic impulses. Because Mr. Popper denies there is any valid continuity, any causal connection in social development, he asserts it is only we who live in the present, who can change things not something called history. Almost a century before Marx had said: "Things cannot remain that way, they must become different and we human beings must make them different." Indeed the whole purpose of Marx's teaching was that only by understanding capitalism and acting upon that understanding would we be effective in changing it to something better.

Mr. Popper wants something better. He refers vaguely to the need of justice, democracy, equality, without any real reference to the social context. His own assertion that something called historicism alias Marxism sees men as pawns in some inevitable cosmic evolution which ignores their personal aims and attitudes, renders politics null and void, and allows "the social scientists to say what shall or shall not be done," is a sheer invention on his part. He refers innocuously to the brotherhood of man but he has no serious quarrel with the present set up. He fails to recognise that the removal of class privilege based on productive ownership must be the indispensable and elementary step for achieving that "brotherhood."

(To be continued)