The Critics Criticised – Professor Popper Looks at History pt.1

Many critics see Marxism as a theory of iron determinism which regards men as puppets pulled by the strings of historical necessity. Mr. R. K. Popper in The Open Society and its Enemies, believes that too. One could say why bother about such palpable errors? The pity of it is not that Mr. Popper has written it but many who read him might come to believe it.

Mr. Popper holds that Marxist historicism is fatalism. He also holds that it helps to generate beliefs that men are mere instruments of impersonal forces. Such views, he thinks, tend towards men coming to accept a collective tyranny called by him, “the closed society” as against the “open society” where democracy and toleration prevail.

Mr. Popper is a Christian toreador who seizes the Marxist bull by the historic horns by declaring there can be no concrete history of mankind. “Such a concrete history would have to be the history of all men; of all human hope, struggle and suffering” (p. 270). We are also told “it would have to be the life of the unknown individual man . . . this is the real content of human experience down the ages” (p. 272). Thus does Mr. Popper consign history to the unknown and unknowable. There are, he tells us, separate histories, viz., the histories of politics, technocracy, art, economics, poetry, etc. Such histories, he thinks, should be studied and interpreted from our own standpoint. We can, for example, interpret the history of political power in the light of “our struggle for the open society.” While history vide Mr. Popper “has no meaning, in this way we can give meaning to it.”

Just as one did not know where to have Dame Quickley, one does not know where to have Mr. Popper. Thus we are told (page 268) “The merits of interpretation must rest on its ability to elucidate historical facts.” Yet he informs us (p. 265), that “the facts of history have been collected in accordance with a preconceived point of view.” In that case they are not historical facts but highly dubious material incapable of providing any-valid knowledge of historic causation. Indeed, Mr. Popper contends historical reasoning is circular, because, starting as it does from preconceived theories it can only in turn reduce preconceived theories.

But if, according to Mr. Popper, concrete history does not exist, then only what he terms the various histories can provide historical sources. But these sources he assures us are tainted sources. Any interpretation based on them must be suspect—including the interpretations of Mr. Popper.

Yet we are told (p. 266) that some interpretations have more merit than others. That is some are at any rate more in accordance with the accepted records. But if these records do not constitute genuine knowledge one wonders what real significance can be attached to the word “merit.” Curiously enough in the same paragraph we are told “that if only one authority which gives information on certain events that fit in with his own specific interpretation, can be radically interpreted in a different way, then this deviation may take on something of the semblance of a scientific hypothesis.” On the one hand we are told that the merit of an historical interpretation lies in its accord with the records and on the other hand an interpretation can only achieve some semblance to a scientific hypothesis by radically departing from it. But Mr. Popper’s statement that an historical interpretation can achieve some semblance to a scientific hypothesis is inconsistent with his contention that there can be no factual evidence and hence no valid historical knowledge. For it is obvious that unless such knowledge is available an hypothesis having any semblance of being scientific, becomes impossible.

Mr. Popper also tells us that although there is no such thing as universal history there are, nevertheless, universal laws of the separate histories. They are, he says, trivial and provide no selective and unifying principle. He gives as an example of what he means by a universal law of history by telling us that if two equally well armed and well led forces meet, then the one with a tremendous superiority in man power will win. This merely tells us that a good big ‘un will always beat a good little ‘un. While this may have some relevance in pugilistic circles what relevance it has to the character and content of history and the nature of historical investigation only Mr. Popper knows, but alas he refuses to tell us.

Mr. Popper repeats the stock objection to history by making invidious comparisons between it and what he calls the generalising sciences (such as physics, biology, sociology, etc.) This objection, however, tells most heavily against Mr. Popper, because if physics is taken as a model, invidious comparisons can be drawn between it and large parts of biology. While if we compare physics with the ad hoc assumptions and vast amount of unrelated detail which goes to make up the alleged science of sociology, then the comparison between physics and sociology becomes positively odious. While an evaluation of psychology on such terms would forever exclude it from any pretensions to be called scientific. Indeed, on the logic of Mr. Popper’s “comparison,” many subjects regarded as scientific would have to yield their claims in this respect.

It is true that historical investigation in common with many other fields of scientific knowledge cannot employ “the controlled experiment” of physics. It is not true to say that it cannot acquire valid knowledge. To paraphrase Marx, “In physics and chemistry the microscope and the reagent are used, in historical investigation the force of abstraction must replace both.” The force of abstraction is itself an integral part of scientific procedure. So far then as the possibility of obtaining valid knowledge is concerned it holds good for all fields of systematic inquiry. Thus history differs from physics in the same way that biology or geology differ from physics that is in subject matter and not because physics has a logic and procedure of a different order.

That there is no intrinsic barrier in the nature of things to prevent their scientific investigation is hardly questionable. If, of course, history was able to apply the same procedures and tests as physics then it would not be history. Mr. Popper apparently is not prepared because history is not physics to grant it any scientific validity.

Marxism does not hold that there is some impersonal prime mover called historic inevitability. It simply asserts that the complex phenomena we term history are capable of being coherently organised in a manner which gives knowledge and understanding to the affairs of men and the ability to predict within limits the broad trend of human development.

(To be continued)

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