Popper's critique of Marxism kinda sucks

A discussion of Karl Popper's critique of Marxism in The Open Society and its Enemies, and The Poverty of Historicism.


In a letter to Weydemeyer dated March 5 1852 Karl Marx wrote 'Long before me, bourgeois historians had described the historical development of the class struggle and bourgeois economists the economic anatomy of the classes. What I did that was new was to prove: 1) that the existence of classes is only bound up with particular, historical phases in the development of production; 2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat; 3) that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.'

Given Popper's reputation for having buried Marxism, it is disappointing to read the books and find that most of his arguments are targeted against helpful rhetorical flourishes that Marx tended to write in prefaces. If I were writing a learned book which examines the empirical evidence that a train is coming, I might add a preface which says 'GET OFF THE LINE!'. But Popper would say, '"Get off the line!" is not a scientific statement', and be run over by the oncoming train. To take the metaphor too far, I could add that Marx's train has been regrettably delayed due to the wrong kind of history on the track, but there are no iron rails of history, and the proletarian train driver has a notoriously subjective sense of direction.

In The Open Society and its Enemies, Popper wrote 'What I wish to show is that Marx's "materialist interpretation of history", valuable as it may be, must not be taken too seriously; that we must regard it as nothing more than a most valuable suggestion to us to consider things in relation to their economic background'.1

Marxism should have no problem with that. As reality proceeds through time, we are able to revise our theory in the light of new discoveries. Conversely humanity changes the material world according to the theoretical knowledge available.

Marx's and Engels's statement that 'The history of all hitherto existing society is a history of class struggle' receives Popper's admiration.2 Here Popper only warns against its misinterpretation by 'vulgar Marxists' in the context of World War I.

But according to Popper the economic research of Marx is subservient to his historical prophecy.3 This enables Popper to class Marx alongside Hegel, or even Hitler, as a historicist.

The trouble is that whereas Marx uses dialectical means to understand the world's contradictions. Popper refuses to do this and, in What is Dialectic? states 'A statement consisting of the conjunction of two contradictory statements must always be rejected as false on purely logical grounds'.4 And elsewhere he writes 'all criticism consists largely in the elimination of contradictions wherever we find them'.5

In The Poverty of Historicism, Popper sets out to prove that historicism is a poor method. But Popper's particular historicism has to be built up before he can knock it down. His claim in the introduction to The Poverty of Historicism is that this will avoid verbal quibbles and build up a position 'really worth attacking'.6

His main problem with historicism is that the future remains unforeseeable irrespective of the data we may gather from the past. He then puts forward three arguments: generalization, experiment, and novelty. In the first he states that historicists will allow that in sociology we cannot rely on similar conditions giving rise to similar results. His second point is that social experiments can never successfully be isolated from outside factors and, having been once attempted, can never be repeated in precisely the same conditions. The novelty argument is just an elaboration on this. An experiment is only valid if it is entirely new to the subject. With the phrase 'Oedipus Effect' he puts the case that a prediction will tend to alter the expectations of participants in a social experiment.7

He poses a dichotomy between holistic knowledge and quantitative mathematical method and places his imaginary historicist on the side of holism.8 Another false dichotomy is given between 'essentialism and nominalism'. Forced to choose between 'what a thing does' and 'what a thing is', Popper's historicist picks the former, mainly because Platonic idealism is among the traits of historicism - although it would be anathema to dialectical materialism.9

An essay may be nominally entitled 'What is Whitehall?' or be essentially entitled 'What does Whitehall do?', but it will tend to be the same essay. Whitehall is defined by what it does. And what it does defines what it is. Marx's materialism stresses the dialectic between form and essence, but this is too contradictory for Popper.

Popper asks why revolutions are not as predictable as solar eclipses - as if Marxism were as mechanistic as Newton's materialism. Astronomy is introduced here because it is clearly a science in which there is virtually no scope for experiment.10 Popper then points out that social dynamics is very different. He accepts that typhoons may be predicted, but although meteorology and astronomy have to be excepted, he distinguishes between technological predictions and what he calls historical prophecy.11

At this point he is able to say that prophecy based on historical observations is unreliable because 'History shows that the social reality is quite different'.12 This is paradoxical because he relies on the evidence of history to show that we cannot rely on the evidence of history.

Because the future must bring changes which are unforeseen, it is clear to Popper that all social engineering is unscientific and here he includes economics. Popper says it is not the business of science to encourage an activity, although it may discourage an activity. Surely the difference between encouraging one action and discouraging its opposite is simply a matter of viewpoint. Nevertheless this sophistry allows Popper to take exception with the activism of Marx who stated that 'The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways: the point, however, is to change it.'13

Another 'all or nothing' argument brings forward the specious paradox that on the one hand, the historicists want us to submit to history, but on the other, to change it. This difficulty only arises because of Popper's definition of what is science and what is historicism. He objects to science having a moral dimension, and yet approves of Kant's idea that 'It is wisdom that has the merit of selecting, from among the innumerable problems which present themselves, those whose selection is important to mankind.'14 What is this selection if not a moral agenda?

The term 'social technology' is coined in order to be divided into piecemeal and holistic technology. Although Popper favors the piecemeal over the holistic, it can be seen to be yet another false dichotomy given the impossibility of a revolutionary force achieving a truly holistic vision from 'year zero' and the implausibility of a piecemeal reformer having no vision of the holistic implications of his tinkering. Popper's imaginary historicist favors total holism and stands convicted of Utopianism.

His discussion of social engineering in _The Poverty of Historicism_ may be an accurate assessment of Stalin's Soviet Union where an attempt at holistic centralization was stymied by an inability to centralize all the necessary knowledge. Popper quotes Neils Bohr but you don't have to be a rocket scientist to recognize that the loss of personal freedom in the Soviet Union served to destroy knowledge. The Poverty of Historicism was first published in 1957 following the year that Soviet repression in Hungary had prompted thousands of Marxists to resign from the CPGB. There were also plenty of Trotskyists who would claim Stalin was no Marxist. But Popper can blame Marx's ideas although Marx's future, like anybody's, was unforeseeable.

According to the preface, The Poverty of Historicism shows that historicism is a poor method but does not refute it. Popper then gives, in five steps, his refutation - which is simply that the future course of human history cannot be predicted. Popper's historicism, however, is not Marx's method.

In The Open Society and its Enemies he goes to town on another of Marx's phrases as if it were the embodiment of Marx's method. In a preface to 'A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy' Marx had written 'It is not the consciousness of man that determines his existence rather, it is his social existence that determines his consciousness'.15 In the context of the rest of Marx's work this epigram can be seen to be a little one sided. Man's consciousness also, to some extent, determines his existence. Marx can be seen to have emphasised one side of the equation in opposition to idealism. Popper however goes bull-headed into the human nature debate citing Mill, Hegel, and Rousseau in what he claims to be a development of Marx's view in a debate against Mill.

When he looks at Marx's theory of the state, Popper infers that politics is therefore impotent. But of course bourgeois politics are not revolutionary so of course they are impotent as far as goes the emancipation of the working class, because its interests are antagonistic to those of the ruling class. Popper, however chooses to find a paradox in the way Marxist movements have stimulated an interest in politics.16

Here again, Popper's apparently academic arguments say nothing further than his own dislike for revolution. He doesn't see the need, given that the circumstances of the working class would appear to have improved so much since Marx's time.17 But Popper was writing in a time when trade unionism in Britain and America was a force to be reckoned with, and the ruling classes of those countries were competing with the USSR to deliver their own approximation of a fair and just society.

The then prevailing consensus of liberalism in the west permits Popper idealistically to call for a state which will enforce social institutions 'for the protection of the weak from the economically strong'.18 Interventionism would seem to have done away with the need for Marxism. It seems to Popper that the state can be run on rational lines and make laws to limit exploitation, but he sees such reforms in isolation from the level of organized working class power in his society during the post war boom. As Marx would have it 'The struggle between class and class is a political struggle.'

But Popper writes as if liberal democracy could guarantee justice in 'the free world' and as if it were the necessary antidote to totalitarianism of 'the communist world'. If Popper's life had been two years longer, he would have heard the current debate about the possible abolition of Britain's employment laws for small businesses. Popper accuses Marx of idealism here19 but it is Popper that is being Utopian.

Popper's piecemeal positivist analysis misses the holistic picture. When he enumerates Marx's 10-point plan20 he cannot have imagined that 'a heavy progressive or graduated income tax' would be reformed. He assumed that inheritance of capital would be ended by death duties since repealed. Centralized communication and transport were taken for granted prior to the privatization of British Telecom, the railways, and the bus services. He doubted that an increase in the number of factories would be a good idea, but subsequent decades saw the closure of British industries a bad idea. The provision of free education for all is under ever more serious threat in 1990's Britain, and the employment of child labour is on the increase especially in South America and Asia. Where Popper claims Marx to be a bad guide to the future21 he shows himself to be worse, and with a much shorter shelf life.

It may be true that the future holds more options than simply more capitalism or some kind of socialism. It depends how you define your terms. The rise of Islam occasionally looks as if it threatens a new kind of feudalism. But it is Marx who said that 'history cannot be planned on paper'22 and the task remains for science to interpret new data and revise the theory appropriately. Popper was simply serving the short term interest of his class by portraying Marx as a historicist.

When Popper gloats over Marx's 'wrong' assumption that capitalism would lead to an increase of wealth and misery23 he was again speaking too soon - like a fly on the Mona Lisa he seems too close to his own era to see the full picture. There is ample empirical evidence to show the tendency of revolutionized production to cast workers into unemployment. Such evidence is falsifiable in the positivist sense, and it is demonstrably unfalsified sufficient to satisfy a positivist. Even bourgeois economists such as Hutton can see the social problems that have arisen from over accumulation of wealth by certain sections of the capital class in recent decades.24

Whether or not capitalism is succeeded by socialism must to some extent depend on whether the working class will find the consciousness to bring it about. Waiting for an capitalism to come to an end is quite rightly parodied by Popper's anecdote of the doctor - 'if the patient did not die, then it was not yet the "fatal malady"'. But it is surely more ridiculous, and less scientific, to propose that capitalism can live forever.25

Popper speaks for his class and his generation when he opposes violent revolution. He sees no reason why a compromise is not possible between capital and labor and he therefore sees Marx's 'prophecy' is untenable.26 From here it is easy for him to complain that a Marxist revolution would do away with liberal democracy. He can point to some disagreements between comrades in the United States and then invoke the Oedipus Effect to blame Marxism for the apparent self proving hypothesis that armed insurrection is inevitable.27

In a seven point manifesto for liberal democracy, Popper imagines that legislative reform has a future independent of any social force to drive it.28 The flip-side of this idealism is his phobic hatred of socialism which is colored by his knowledge of the Soviet Union as if a socialist revolution in an advanced capitalist country could take such a backward form. This again demonstrates the problems of taking a piecemeal view of the world while making certain assumptions about the future on the basis of the past a sin he would happily ascribe to so-called historicist Marxists.

A similar oversimplification allows Popper to blame German communists for the phenomenon of Hitler's Nazi Party. He quotes Einstein's praise for a section of the German church29 while elsewhere remaining at odds with Einstein's famous proposition that everything is connected to everything else.

In regard to 'the tendency towards centralization of capital in fewer and fewer hands', Popper admits, 'Undoubtedly, there is a tendency in that direction, and we may grant that under an unrestrained capitalist system there are few counteracting forces. Not much can be said against this part of Marx's analysis as a description of an unrestrained capitalism. But considered as a prophecy, it is less tenable. For we now know that there are many means by which legislation can intervene.' Here again Popper reveals that all he has to offer the working class in place of Marxism is a naive faith in continuing reforms without any consistently interested social force having the will to deliver them.

When Popper gets around to looking at the labor theory of value, he makes the common error of assuming that value equals price whereas commodities generally change hands for a sum greater or less than their value.30 Of course workers who are paid less than their value have difficulty reproducing their labor. Popper would have it that labor's value is subsistence level whereas the reproduction of skilled labor in a developed capitalist country demands tickets to the cup final and new trainers for the kids. How else could the employer expect any continuity in his labor force?

Supply and demand may suffice to explain prices, but surplus value remains the source of profit, even if it suits Popper and other pragmatists to claim that value is a metaphysical concept. If the supply of labor outstrips local demand there is simply a 'surplus population'.31 Is he leaving social engineering to Adam Smith's invisible hand? Popper does not appear embarrassed to be caught looking down the wrong end of the telescope as if society must serve production rather than the other way round.

Shorter working hours and improved standards of living are regarded by Popper as permanent gains, whereas the empirical evidence shows that they only last until new technology permits the de-skilling of jobs, or the export of capital enables the employer to recruit workers in developing countries where labor reproduction costs are lower. In his ivory tower, Popper can claim value to be a vestige of a Platonic essence.32

Left with a doctrine of surplus population and the law of supply and demand it is easy for Popper to claim that Marx's prophesy of greater misery is proven false is refuted by the facts. He retains his notion of an impartial state, presumes a continued recognition of collective bargaining, and prophesies (from historical data?) that trade unions will continue to prevent the existence of a reserve army of labor from forcing wages down. 'And this means that the assumptions on which Marx's analysis is based must disappear.'33

Popper has no problem with accepting that capitalism goes through cycles of boom and bust. 'But I wish to assert most emphatically that the belief that it is impossible to abolish unemployment by piecemeal measures is on the same plane of dogmatism as the numerous physical proofs (offered by men who lived even later than Marx) that the problems of aviation would always remain insoluble.'34 This is a remarkable assertion, and given the trend of the last four decades we might suppose that if state intervention were ever going to come to the aid, it should have kicked in before UK unemployment reached 3 million. Popper insists that Marx's theories were only true at a time of unrestrained capitalism but, in a global recession, a state that intervenes with Swedish-style counter cycle policy has problems retaining investment, let alone keeping up its commitment to the provision of unemployment insurance. It was the Popperian Chancellor, Dennis Healey, who had to explain himself to the IMF, without measures for full employment even being on the agenda.

Despite his pretension for intellectual rigor, Popper's economics is rooted in the clouds. Given the tendency for the rate of profit to fall, he admits that 'Those capitalists who speculate on the assumption of a constant or rising rate of profit may get into trouble; and things such as these may indeed contribute to the trade cycle, accentuating the depression. But this has little to do with the sweeping consequences which Marx prophesied.' This hardly resembles a scientific appreciation of the behavior of international capital.35 It is little more than wishful thinking.


Marx has been dead for 113 years: Popper for nearly two [as of 1997]. Marx had an idiosyncratic definition of history that remains influential today. Popper and a circle of Popperian positivists shared a view of science that is already obscure.

In a mere half century Popper's confident refutation already has a threadbare parochial look. His post-war optimism appears to lack a material base. His faith in intervention is as quaint as a Bakelite wireless. Despite the fall of the USSR, and despite the organized working class being in an appalling condition, anybody persuaded away from Marxism by Popper, was never really a Marxist in the first place.

1 K. R. Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies Vol. II (London: Routledge, 1974) 110.
2 Popper, The Open 117
3 Popper, The Open 83
4 K. R. Popper, What is Dialectic (London: Routledge, 1972) 316.
5 Popper, The Open 39
6 K. R. Popper, The Poverty of Historicism (London: Routledge, 1976) 3
7 Popper, The Poverty 13
8 Popper, The Poverty 26
9 Popper, The Poverty 33
10 Popper, The Poverty 38
11 Popper, The Poverty 43
12 Popper, The Poverty 47
13 K. Marx Theses on Feuerbach (Moscow: Progress, 1975)
14 Popper, The Poverty 56
15 Popper, The Open 89
16 Popper, The Open 119
17 Popper, The Open 122
18 Popper, The Open 125
19 Popper, The Open 134
20 Popper, The Open 141
21 Popper, The Open 141
22 Popper, The Open 143
23 Popper, The Open 146
24 Will Hutton, The State We're In (London: Jonathan Cape, 1995) 169.
25 Popper, The Open 150
26 Popper, The Open 156
27 Popper, The Open 160
28 Popper, The Open 161
29 Popper, The Open 165
30 Popper, The Open 172
31 Popper, The Open 176
32 Popper, The Open 177
33 Popper, The Open 179
34 Popper, The Open 182
35 Popper, The Open 185