The Critics Criticised – Professor Popper Looks at History pt.4

(Continued from August issue)

Mr. Popper is what may be styled a militant Christian. His social doctrine is the familiar secularised interpretation of the New Testament. We must cast out false idols—lust for power; seek humility, do things for their own sake, be guided by our conscience, etc., and all this in a world where profit is the ruling motive, power politics a normal social mechanism, and where the vast majority are excluded from control and genuine participation in the wealth producing agencies. The social ethics of Mr. Popper are the age long belief of all social reformists: the belief that humanity will triumph over lust for profit, and power, while leaving the basis of the present system intact. Mr. Popper, like so many other social reformers, seems to regret the fact that under capitalism, Capitalists continue to behave like Capitalists and not as ardent humanitarians and social philanthropists.

Again selfishness or unselfishness are not attributes intrinsically good or bad as the abstract morality of Christ, Kant, and perhaps Mr. Popper, maintains. They can only be given real content in the social environment in which they arise and the purpose and ends which give effect to these attributes. Thus a section of the community, fighting to resist encroachments on its standards of living, may impose hardships on others, to call upon them to cease their struggles would be to ask them to sacrifice their own human interests. Mr. Popper talks about morality but fails to see that the watershed of any genuinely human morality must be the concrete needs of men. The Marxists maintain that only the abolition of social privilege based on ownership can best serve the concrete needs of the vast majority and hence constitute the truly human morality.

Mr. Popper, while he soft peddles on the present system, finds it easy to take the organ stops out when dealing with the past. For him power politics loom most large in the story of men. It is the story of the powerful and wicked against the weak and virtuous. How it came about we are never really informed or why it took the social forms it did. As such it does not explain the past, it merely explains it away.

While Marx never ceased to roundly condemn the cruelties and stupidities of the past and present, he never attributed social evils to be basically the outcome of wickedness on one hand or the ineptitude of virtue on the other. Instead of passing empty categorical judgment on those who have gone before, Marx insisted that men’s actions should be studied in the light of the social situation which initiated and gave meaning to them. Marx held that all systems based on a class structures tended to perpetuate a set of beliefs, theories, and social rationalisations in keeping with the needs of the ruling section, and because the privileged minority are by virtue of their social position, connected with the agencies which disseminate social ideologies they are not only able to exert a major emphasis on those ideas favourable to their interests but to set the tone of the extant cultural pattern which produces the social pressures which make for uniformity of outlook among all members of a given society. What is known as the general outlook will prevail until it is challenged effectively by counter beliefs set up in the interests of a new social group. It is from the warp and the woof of the generally accepted ideas that social ideals and doctrines are formed. That is why although the pages of history tell of man’s inhumanity to man and reek with blood of the innocent, there has never been a lack of social doctrines to justify men’s deeds.

Marx calls this incongruence between the ideals which men set up and the real nature of the social relations on whose behalf these ideals function—” false consciousness.” This is not due to some grave moral defect in human nature, or to a lack of logical consistency in their theories and beliefs but to a set of social beliefs which, under the guise of acting on behalf of what is known as the general interests,” are projections of certain group wills and interests and thus act as polarising and refractory agents on the social vision of men. It is because of this process of social deception that men become victims of their own ideologies. And abstractions like justice, freedom, the rights of man, etc., not only become battle cries but take on the character of real things. While men then have been guilty of all manner of cruelties in the name of ideologies they have to a great extent been innocent of the real sources from which they sprang. No amount of cruelty or slaughter, Marx thought, would correct this deception, nor, we might add, moralising platitudes. Only when men grasp the real content of the relations between themselves and nature can a socialised humanity emerge. The verdict of Marx on history reveals a more profound and more tolerant attitude than the crude denunciations of Mr. Popper.

Marx was also opposed to judging human beings by some absolute scale of ethical values. He believed that men must be appraised by the standards of their time. No doubt members of the Capitalist class would be horrified at the idea of keeping slaves. Yet are we to believe that the slave owners of the 18th and 19th centuries were wicked men? They certainly did not think so. Judged in accordance with their own lights they were not exempt from humane feeling and consideration. They did not, however, oppose slavery or demand its abolition, no more than the employing class demand the abolition of capitalism based on wage slavery. Socialists demand the abolition of capitalism not because Capitalists as such are inhuman or lack consideration, but because the form and content of their humanity and ethical values are circumscribed by the type of social organisation of which they are the social representatives. Our claim is that ethical values do not function independently of the social context in which they are expressed and which Mr. Popper should have sought to prove but he never did. Only when class division has ceased to count in human affairs will the meanness, hatred, cruelty and antagonism which are so much features of contemporary culture disappear and the values and motives of Capitalist society be replaced by more humane values and more humane motives.

Mr. Popper follows the traditions of the Fabians, Bertrand Russell, G. D. H. Cole, and others, in seeing the value of Marxism as a moral appeal. Marx, however, sharply disassociated himself from the utopians. As Marx pointed out “the utopians have a bent to interpret surplus value in moral terms and then appeal to society for correction of its glaring injustices.” For Marx, morality had to rest upon a theory of objective conditions to ensure its success.

Some of Mr. Popper’s inadequate ideas of Marxism can be seen from his assertion that Marx held that the rate of profit must fall (p. 184), when Marx held no such view. Another idea he puts forward, that Marx also held that the fall in the rate of profit was an automatic process for the increasing misery of the workers (p.p. 183-185). What Marx said was that the tendency of the rate of profit to fall was an incentive for Capitalists to attempt to increase productivity. He never said that all increases in productivity go to the Capitalist in the shape of profits. Some go to workers in higher wages but he maintained never proportionately to the productive power of labour. Again we are told that Marx held that wages oscillate round starvation level (p. 173). Marx again did not say it but emphatically denied it. How Marx vide Mr. Popper came to believe that workers’ conditions would continue to worsen from starvation levels, he Mr. Popper does not explain. Finally he repeats the hoary myth that Marx held that capitalism would crash (p. 179).

If we seem -to have spent much time on Mr. Popper it is not in deference to his criticism on Marxism, but because he has in his book summarised most of the criticism of Marx in the last 50 years. The views on Marxism and history held by Mr. Popper can themselves be summarised as mostly Poppercock.


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