The Critics Criticised – Professor Popper Looks at History pt.3

(Continued from July issue)

Mr. Popper’s own remedy is that men must change their hearts. He takes little note of the fact that hearts themselves are environmental products. Or to put it another way the beliefs, ideals, theories, for which we seek to gain acceptance are themselves products of social development, i.e. they have a growth and history. Indeed it is only by seeing them as patterns of response in an historical process that they become intelligible. Nor are these responses merely subjective as Mr. Popper seems to think but are brought forth by the needs of men and these needs are part of an objective class conditioned situation.

Ideas, theories, doctrines, are always related to the needs of men in some way or other. Social aims and purposes are for that reason never mere abstractions. Never attempts to realise eternal truth but projections of group needs. That is why the demands for justice, equality, progress, have at bottom been the demands of social groups. It is for that reason “the what is” has ever in practise been directly related to “the what ought to be.” The function of “the what ought to be,” has been to mask the “this worldliness” of social ends, as an aspect of “the other worldliness.”

From this it follows that a ruling social section will always define the good in relation to its own needs. But because we live in a changing world the character and content of its needs undergo historical modification. Sometimes a ruling social group will demand more freedom, more equality. At other times they will proclaim against what they term excesses carried out in the name of these. Sometimes they have called for democracy and toleration, at other times for less democracy and less tolerance. In a world in which they are in social control hut cannot control there can be no eternal truths, no fixed values to serve as precepts for final social judgments.

Again it is not true to say that because we cannot know all the ideas which have ever passed through the heads of men or their emotional experiences we cannot know history in any valid or concrete sense. To say that because we do not know everything on a subject we cannot know anything worthwhile, has no more validity in history than any other subject. The ideas Marxism seeks to investigate are the ideas which have brought about significant changes in the social pattern. Not all ideas do this. The various ideas men form in the world in which they live have a greatly varying weight and importance. Many have a purely personal aspect. Some are the outcome of prejudice and attachment. Other ideas are merely cranky. There are ideas which are held one day and discarded the next. And even if we could trace these ideas down to their finest nuances we should find them irrelevant for purposes of historical investigation, for they do not reflect those social forces which are necessary for any major social change.

The point Marxists are interested in, is what gives momentum and power to those ideas which are crucial for social development. The answer is that it is those ideas which are expressions of group interests which are historically effective, for it is these ideas which have been most instrumental in bringing about social change.

Marxism does not, however, view ideas as powers in themselves, capable of conjuring things into existence by pure mental activity. Men can only think within a socially organised continuum. That is why their theories, aims and ends, are moulded by the particular configuration of the society in which they live. It is then a particular historic phase which sets the questions to which men must find the answers. It is because men enter into certain determinate relations with each other that sets the stamp on their interests and activities, and provides the conditions which make their thinking effective.

Mr. Popper, and he is one of legions, accuses Marxism of social determinism. If Marxism insists that a knowledge of the social forces and those impersonal elements which form part of the social structure of society are essential for forming valid judgments, then we plead guilty. Not to know the relevant facts of a situation is not to know effectively and when there is no effective knowledge, there can be no effective action. Where little or nothing can be proved, everything can be believed. That is why any competent diagnosis, whether it concern our social ills or bodily ills, must be brought under the control of the objective data at our disposal. To recognise that there are determinate limits to a situation is to come to grips with that situation. To chose the alternative, necessary, for the best solution of the problems set, is the first step to freedom. Mr. Popper’s contention that Marxism seeks to nullify political action and makes everything dependent on something called inner reality, is non sense.

Yet (on p. 268) he says that we want to know how our troubles are related to the past, in order to progress towards the solution of what we feel and chose to be our main tasks. Thus it seems that vide Mr. Popper “the what is,” definitely links up with “the what was.” This would suggest that even Mr. Popper believes that the connection between the past and present is influenced by causal factors; that there has been development and continuity in human affairs. In that case our interpretation of this development process must be guided by an objective assessment of the available material and not by a subjective judgment based on our particular feelings and thinking. It is the latter which Mr. Popper generally adopts as his criterion for judging history.

When Mr. Popper says we cannot know the past that is true in the sense that the past as the past is physically dead. Yet it is also true that in another sense the past lives on, in so far that elements of the past are always incorporated in some way into the present and just as aspects of the past exist in a reconstituted form in the present, so features of the present will be reconstituted into the fabric of the future. It is because that which has been most significant in the past is linked with the present in a continuous chain of historic events that the structural evolution of human society becomes possible,. To seek to reconstruct this evolution into an intelligible pattern is| the task of historical investigation. In this way it serves as a present guide to our actions. To suggest that Marxism seeks to make men into marionettes moved by a mysterious force called history is merely a pleasantry of Mr. Popper.

(To be continued)

Leave a Reply