The Poverty of Popper

Bryan Magee’s biography of Karl Popper, the philosopher of science, described him as “the most formidable living critic of Marxism”. He died last year but his reputation lingers on. He was born in Vienna and after the First World War became friendly with a group of philosophers known as the Vienna Circle. This school founded Logical Positivism, based on the principle that all meaningful statements must be verifiable, but Popper disagreed and went on to formulate his own demarcation between science and non-science. He argued that the test of a scientific theory is not whether it can be verified, since no amount of observations can confirm it, but that it is open to being falsified by experience; a theory is scientific if it fits the facts and is capable of being proved wrong. In The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945) Popper claimed that Marxism is not a scientific theory since it cannot be falsified, or else when it was falsified its supporters shifted their ground to protect their theory.

Popper was a Cold War warrior. His attack on Marxism was based in the experience of the Communist Party, here and in Russia. Popper concluded that the totalitarian nature of the Communist Party in action in Russia showed that Marx’s theories were totalitarian, rather than the more plausible conclusion that the Communist Party’s claim to be Marxist is false. The Socialist Party has not shifted its ground and we invite inspection of our record to see the validity of Marxism. For instance, the Socialist Party claimed after the Second World War that the post-war boom couldn’t be sustained, that Keynesian economics wouldn’t prevent a slump and that capitalism would seek a way out of a slump by attacking the working class. At the time such a prediction could be seen as being very risky (risk was something Popper thought very important to science) but has been more than borne out by experience.

The other leg of Popper’s criticism of Marxism stood on a mis-quotation in his book The Poverty of Historicism (1957). Popper attacked the notion that there are laws of human development, and that these laws enable us to predict the future course of human history, and he quoted from Marx’s Capital, where the aim is “to lay bare the economic law of motion of human society”. Marx, however, actually wrote that his aim was to lay bare the economic laws of motion of “modern society” – capitalism. The economic law of capitalism, Marx’s law of value, is in fact quite specific to capitalism and it enables the Socialist Party to make the kind of predictions indicated above. Marx’s theory of social development, the materialist conception of history, is a method for interpreting history with a view to taking informed political action  by the working class. It does not claim to predict the future course of human history: it is a guide to the present.

Whatever may have been his merits as a philosopher of science, it is clear that his grasp of Marxism was extremely poor, though par for the course in academic circles. May his criticisms of Marxism rest in peace.


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