The Open Society and Its Enemies:
Remembering Its Publication Fifty Years Ago
A Public Lecture at the London School of Economics, 12 June 1995
CENTRE FOR THE PHILOSOPHY OF THE NATURAL AND SOCIAL SCIENCES
Karl Popper's two-volume work The Open Society and its Enemies was published fifty years ago. It stands to reason that this happy event was preceded by a long period of preparation and uncertainty. In fact the publication took two-and-a-half years from the moment that he sent the manuscript from New Zealand to wartime England, and by that time, he and his wife were on the boat taking them to London to start a new life here at the L.S.E.
Though all this is by now very long ago, fortunately I need not rely on my memory of these events, because I was personally much involved, and hence the recipient of any number of letters which I naturally kept. During most of the war such air letters from overseas were miniaturised to save space and weight, and I have no less than ninety-five such aerogramme forms in addition to other communications relating to his job here at the L.S.E.. They make fascinating reading, and all I can try is to give you samples of these surviving documents.
But first still a few words about the background. Popper was seven years my senior, and though I had heard of him in my native Vienna, we only met very fleetingly. It so happened that my father, who was a solicitor, had spent the statutory years of his apprenticeship with Karl's father, who was also a lawyer, and they must have kept in touch, for Karl mentioned in one of his letters how helpful my father had been at the time after Karl's father had died. Then in May 1943, when the BBC had moved to Reading, I got a letter from him dated 16th April, the first of the ninety-five; it turned out later that Karl had had no idea where I lived, and only got my address almost fortuitously, thanks to a common acquaintance. And so begins the saga of the book, intertwined with that of his Readership here for which Hayek
had asked him to apply.
In any case, our friendship only dates from the spring of 1936 when I was a junior research fellow at the Warburg Institute, and he came to this country at the invitation of Susan Stebbing. One of our joint aquaintances must have given hint my address. We both lived in horrible bedsitters in the Paddington area, and we met with increasing frequency. I still remember having been incautious enough to mention that I had read a pamphlet by Rudolf Carnap on the question of other minds, and found it interesting. Karl was visibly distressed. "I am greatly disappointed that you found that interesting", he said, and from then on I remained a little selective in what I told him.
In 1936 I was twenty-seven and Popper thirty-four. My wife and I visited him and his wife Hennie during a stay in Vienna, and we also saw them during the few days they again spent in London in 1937, before sailing to New Zealand, which was then, as Rennie once wrote "halfway to the moon".
After the outbreak of the war in 1939, I joined the Listening Post, or Monitoring Service, of the BBC. I remember writing to Karl, possibly before that date, but I do not think I received an answer.
"Dear Ernst" the letter began: "I have not beard from you for a long time and I was very glad to get your cable. I very much hope that all is well with you and your family. The reason why you have not heard from us is that I have been writing a book. The manuscript is finished; its title is 'A Social Philosophy for Everyman'. (It has about 700 pages i.e. about 280.000 words.) I believe that the book is topical and its publication urgent - if one can say such a thing at a time when only one thing is really important, the winning of the war. The book is a new philosophy of politics and of history, and an
examination of the principles of democratic reconstruction. It also tries to contribute to an understanding of the totalitarian revolt against civilization, and to show that this is as old as our democratic civilization itself." Let me pause here for a moment to allow Popper's own description of his book to sink in: that the totalitarian revolt against civilization is as old as our democratic civilization itself.
I feel that too many readers of the book were either dazzled or irritated by its lengthy polemics and all but missed the central point of the argument. The book offers an explanatory hypothesis for the persistent hostility to the open society. Totalitarian ideologies are interpreted as reactions to what is described as the strain of civilization, or the sense of drift which is associated with the transition from the closed tribal societies of the past to the individualistic civilization that originated in Athens in the fifth century B.C.
You may call it a psychological diagnosis, though Karl might not have accepted this description without qualification. In any case, I must return to his letter: "In view of the immense postal and other difficulties it is absolutely impossible to send the book from here to a publisher and have it sent back if it is rejected; for that would mean anything up to one year's delay in case of one rejection. This is why I need somebody in England who sends the MS to the various publishers..."
On April 28th, having received my consent, he sent me the manuscript, together with a letter and other material. "I am ashamed that I have not written to you for such a long time...I cannot tell you how much it means to me that you are there and will look after the manuscript. You have no idea how completely hopeless and isolated one often feels in my situation... But I must tell you what happened so far to the book since I finished it in October (1942). 1 bad heard that the paper shortage was less pressing in USA; also, the distance is smaller. For these reasons I sent a copy to the USA branch of Macmillan
(which, I gather, is quite independent of the English Macmillan). At the same time I wrote to the only friend I had in the USA of whose address I was sure, asking him to act on my behalf. Macmillan turned the book down without even having read it. And this is more or less all I know after 6 months! My friend unfortunately seems to have done absolutely nothing although he had very full instructions. Ile did not even bother to write before February 16th, acknowledging the receipt. of the MS which he got in
December! And in this acknowledgment he wrote nothine about what he had done (because he had done nothing and obviously he is not going to do anything); be only congratulates me to (sic) my effort in writing such a big book. I don't blame him much, afters all, it isn't his book, but you will understand what it means to get such a completely empty letter after waiting for six months!"
"The situation is really rather dreadful. I feel that if one has written a book one ought not to be forced to go begging to have it read, and printed."
From later conversations I know, of course, who that unreliable friend was, but I am not going to reveal his name. It turns out not to have been quite true that he did absolutely nothing. Feeling quite helpless with such a work which was far removed from his field, he sent it to a well-known professor of Political Science, at one of the ivy league universities. After a time the manuscript was returned to him, with a note saying that it was impossible to advocate the publication of a book which speaks so disrespectfully of Plato.
In the parcel which I received I found a carefully drafted letter which Karl wanted me to send to publishers, together with the manuscript. There were another formidable three pages with the heading: "What I should like you to do", giving a list of seventeen publishers with their addresses in the order of desirability. There are eighteen points of instructions, some with sub-headings a) b) c), but let me just quote item five: "I enclose two differen title pages: 'A Social Philosophy For Everyman' and 'A Critique of Political Philosophy'... The reason why I have two different titles is that I am not quite satisfied with either. What would you say to 'A Social Philosophy For Our Time'? (Too pretentious?)".
On the 4th of May, Karl wrote another lengthy letter revising the order of publishers. Up to that point we had very little idea of how the Poppers were actually living in New Zealand, but on July,29th Hennie sent us a very lively three-page letter from which I want to quote a few passages: We live in a suburb on the hills with a very beautiful view across Christchurch and the Canterbury plains. " The climate is as nearly perfect as things in this world can be, very long summers with an abundance of sunshine; ...It gets frightfully dry ...and the raising of vegetables is not quite easy. I try hard in the little time I have
and from October till March we eat only "homegrown" vegetables, mainly peas, beans, potatoes, carrots, spinach, silverbeet, lettuce and tomatoes. It is really never quite sufficient, but we have to make the best of it. The rest of the year we live chiefly on a carrot and rice diet, for economy's sake. Karl's salary was never adequate and is now less so than ever ...During term-thee Karl can only work at the week ends, but during the summer holidays he worked literally 24 hours a day. For the last three or four months he was in a state of almost complete exhaustion; he hardly went to bed because
he could not sleep. ..Karl finished just two days before College started again. On both days which remained from our "holiday" we went to the sea and ate as many iceereams as we could (I had planned it long ago that we would celebrate the end with eating as many icecreams as we wanted).
Poor Hennie! - What she does not say in this letter is how hard she had to work on the book and the correspondence, almost day and night. At a much later date (October 24th 1944), she wrote to us: "This isn't a proper letter at all, I'm just rattling it off on the typewriter... of course, "rattling it off" is terribly exaggerated - I'm the worst possible typist, and the more distance I gain from the last nightmare years of typing, the less I can understand how on earth I managed it." Let me add, by way of explanation, that Karl always wrote by hand, in the fluent, lucid script of a former schoolteacher. I could not but smile when I saw an item in Sotheby's catalogue photographed and described as "Popper's
typewriter". I very much doubt that Karl ever touched its keyboard. He left it to Hennie, in what she described as the nightmare years, to type and retype countless versions and revisions. Not that Karl was not utterly devoted to her. He suffered agonies when she was ill. But he was convinced that the importance of his work had always to override his own comfort, that of Hennie, and possibly also my own, as the future was to show.
Meanwhile, on August 19th I received a long letter dealing with some critical remarks which he had encouraged me to make on reading the book, for instance: "I fully agree with your remark that the humanitarian democratic creed of the West is historically and emotionally based on Christianity. But this fact has no hearing on my theory, as far as can see. Or has it?". I must have expostulated to him that he ridiculed Hegel, but did not say a word about Schopenhauer, and he replied: "Although Schopenhauer was a reactionary, egoistically concerned only with the safety of his investments (he openly acknowleges this), his absolute intellectual integrity is beyond doubt. To be sure, his
"Will" is not better than Hegel's "Spirit". But what Schopenhauer says, and how be says it, sufficiently proves that he was an honest thinker; he did all lie could to make himself understood. Hegel did not intend to be understood; he wanted to impress, to dazzle his readers. Scbopenhauer always wrote sense, and sometimes excellent sense; his Critique of Kant's philosophy is one of the most lucid and worthwhile philosophical writings ever published in the German language. A reactionary may be perfectly honest. But Hegel was dishonest;"
I must not give the impression, however, that this correspondance frequently turned on philosophical issues. Perhaps there was only one other occasion, when I sent him Arthur Waley's Three Ways of Thought in Ancient China, because I had been struck by certain similarities between his analysis of the Greek situation and that described by Waley. Popper responded by writing that he "bad always been much attracted by the Chinese, but always felt diffident concerning the possibility of a proper interpretation, considering how much Plato, for example, has been misinterpreted in spite of the fact that his thought and language has inunediately influenced our own." This remained his attitude. It was never easy to interest him in the ideas of other civilisations because he felt he lacked their context.
And now for the other theme of this symphony. On the 9th December 1943 he wrote: "A few days ago I got a truly overpowering airgraph from Hayek, whose indefatigable kindness to me promises no less than to change the whole course of my life." Hayek had been asked to find out whether Karl would accept a Readership at the L.S.E.. Since the post had, to be advertised, Hayek advised Karl "to instruct your friend who is acting for you over here, to apply in your name when such an advertisement is published, and to supply him for that purpose with all the usual information...". "- Now my poor dear
"friend who is acting for me over there", Karl continued, " you see that I have, indeed, no choice: I must trouble you again, much as I should like to spare you. " Four days later Karl wrote: " We are of course terribly excited, and shaken up in consequence of Hayek's airgraph concerning the L.S.E. readership. I do not think that I shall get it, owing to the fact that I have so few publications; but if I don't get it, we shall be, of course, disappointed, much as Nye try to fortify ourselves against such a development.
I was so nicely working along with a new paper on probability, and now: "My peace is gone, my heart is heavy." Don't think that I am ungrateful. Nobody can feel more strongly than I feel about Hayek. Ile must have worked for me like anything. And the moral effect of this on me is, of course, tremendous."
In consequence I received more instructions from Karl, his CV, a list of references, and texts and testimonials he had previously had. I also received, then or a little later, two and a half folio pages with comments on the notes of the book. Karl realised, of course, that the notes seemed excessively long and complex, and I had also made certain suggestions. Needless to say he tried to prove that the arrangement he had chosen was the only possible one: "I have most carefully constructed the text in such a way that it is absolutely self-contained for a reader who simply belongs to the educated public, and who has no scientific axe to grind. There is nothing in the text that is hard to understand without the notes. I have spent immense labour on this point." His comments, in fact, revealed, if that is the word, the importance Karl attached to his book: "I am ...definitely against cuts. I believe that the book is of sufficient value to be sometimes a trifle less brief than it might be possible to make it. I do not know any work of which one could not say the same, often in a much higher degree. The book is written with unusual care; I know hardly anybody who is so scrupulous and consciencious in all details as I am; with the effect that, as everybody admits at once, the book achieves a rare degree of lucidity and simplicity;
and this in a book which is, as you will admit, thronged with thoughts on every single page. I entirely reject the contention that there is the slightest intrinsic reason for cuts. The extrinsic reason that the book is a very long book, I admit. But since ordinary intelligent people have read through the text in one week-end, it cannot be too long. And regarding the prospect of selling a long book: the ordinary intelligent man does not like to be treated as illiterate or as an imbecile. He is ready, and even proud, to buy a thick book ...I know there is no page in (he book which is not full with worthwhile thoughts.
This cannot be said of so very many books."
He was surely right. And now the period began when he kept sending me revisions and changes to be made to his manuscript. He was still very uncertain about the best title, and asked, on the 22nd: "What do you think of "The Open Society and its Enemies" or of "A Social Philosophy for our Time". which latter title is of course, very pretentious."
The winter and spring of 1943 and '44 I had to report to him many disappointments, and a number of publishers who had rejected the book. I believe that is a story that can be told of many important books, but here I can document it. However, in February 1944, I got a letter from Herbert Read, then a director of Routledges, reporting that Hayek had sent him Karl's manuscript. "I am enormously impressed by it, but before presenting a case to my colleagues,I should be glad if you would kindly give me a little more information about the author." This I did, and Herbert Read acknowledged it gratefully.
Karl received the contract from Routledge in April 1944, but he instantly began to worry about the U.S. copyright. And now. he began to rewrite the book, and I was charged with applying these corrections to the manuscript. It is true that I had his approval to engage somebody to help, an approval which was very necessary, because, after all, I had to do my own work. For instance, on April 30th, he announced that he was sending "by the same mail eleven other airgraphs containing the corrections .They look more than they are", writes Karl, but to me they seemed quite sufficient. He expressed the hope that nobody would touch his text, confirming what I have also experienced: "I have only too often found
that corrections made matters worse. To be sure, any suggestion for a correction proves that something is not quite in order; but only too often the remedy turns out to be worse than the original mistake."
On September 4th he announced in addition that he had completely rewritten chapter seventeen, which duly arrived. I hope I may quote a fuller sample of the type of letters which arrived so frequently:
"In my typed airgraph of today, I mentioned that, as far as Ch.12 is concerned, gall the Section Number Corrections have first riority. I now wish to amend this: there is also a false quotation which is important to replace. It is the quotation on MS p.281, from "Hence" in line 5 to the end of paragraph in line 7. - I suggest to correct these lines in accordance with my "Corr. to Ch. 12", Airgraph 4. This however would imply that the passage on p. 281 is replaced by one that is about 2 lines longer. If this creates difficulties, then I suggest to replace the "Hence..." passage by the following of about equal length: ++ States may enter into agreements, but they are superior to agreements' (i.e., they may break them ).++ In this case, it would suffice to amend the corresponding Note 72 simply by replacing, in line 3 of this note, "336" by ++330++. If, however, there was room enough for using my original correction to p.281, the "336" should be replaced by ++330++ and 333++. - Of course, if the full corrections of Airgraphs 1 to 11(?) can be used, then Note 72 should be corrected in accordance with Airgraph 9." No wonder he wrote: "it will be a colossal job for everybody concerned. It was a colossal job here
and I was (and am) very ill while doing it. The doctor has strictly forbidden any work, and I am, of course, now absolutely down again."
Around that time there occurred an episode which is not recorded in the correspondence, and for which I shall have to rely on my memory. It happened when Routledges decided to publish the book in two volumes, an idea which, of course, much agitated Karl; all the more as,it was mooted that paper shortage might necessitate publishing the second volume after a time interval. It was during these discussions that I sent a cable to Karl from our village post office:,"Routledges want division after Chapter 10". A few hours later I was summoned to the post office and asked to explain what it all meant. The word "division" had alerted a censor who thought, of course, of army divisions. Luckily I was believed.
Another complication was that Karl received a number of offers from other universities in New Zealand and Australia, and naturally did not want to give up the chance of London, but needed badly to get a decision. In October he reports on "two important articles... "Private and Public Values" the other "The Refutation of Determinism". A third one, under the title "The Logic of Freedom" is probably too long for being tackled during the vacations. When these three articles are finished, I intend to give up political philosophy, and to return to practical methodology, especially of the natural sciences, Last year I finished some papers on mathematical logic which I did not try to publish so far because of their
length. If possible, I should like to cut them now. This is my working programme. Apart from that, I want to do some music. We have not been able to afford a piano here; I had a beautiful Boesendorfer in Vienna, and I could not bring myself to buying a very bad piano; besides, even the wont ones cost more than we could afford. So I bought a harmonium for £3-10-0; I repaired it, and it is not so bad, but I am getting hungry for a piano. I have had very little time for playing".
Meanwhile he was even more impatient to receive a binding promise of a publication date from Routledges. All this was mixed up with the worries about the various offers of a post. In one of his letters he wrote:
"You kindly advise me to prefer Otago to Perth, in spite of the Cangeroos (sic). But I think you don't really know enough of Australia by far: the nicest animal there (and perhaps the loveliest animal that exists) is the Koala bear. Cangeroos may be nice, but the opportunity of seeing a Koala bear is worth putting up with anything, and it is without reservation my strongest motive in wishing to go to Australia;"
In April '45 another cloud appeared on the horizon. I had to write to him that Hayek was going to the United States for a period, and Karl wrote, characteristically, "As you say yourself, the whole affair is pretty awful; and so is the fact that 18 days after you sent your letter, the registrar of London University has not yet answered you". He was eager to leave Canterbury, for though he had many admirers and friends among his colleagues, the head of his department had all but persecuted him. It was reported to Karl that he had once said: " We know that he is too good for this place. This we cannot help; and nobody will hold him if he goes elsewhere." " The main fact", Karl explained, in a letter of the ninth
April, "is the presence of somebody who works hard endangers certain accepted standards. I mean standards of relaxation (all chairs are easy chairs). These difficulties have,tueh increased by the writing of a book, and still more, of course, by the delay in its publication. - I am terribly sorry to hear that you feel so exhausted. But I can well ,understand it. I long to hear you speak of your experiences, and of what you have learned during these years. (Will it ever be? I am nearly 43 now, and if I don't manage to see you before I am 45, 1 may never have the opportunity: I don't think that anybody
would import to England a lecturer over the age of 45..)".
Though I know the time is getting on, I really must quote for you the whole story of how Karl received the news of his appointment, as he told in his letter of the 12th June 1945:
"During the whole of April I was ill again. I am now always getting such terrible colds - starting with a very sore throat, and developing in all directions. I was very weak. My doctor insisted that I should go to the mountains during the May vacations and we went both to the Hermitage, at the foot of Mt Cook (the highest mountain here). I was first pretty miserable there, but after two days I had a marvellous recovery; we went up to a hut (the Ball Hut - see pictures in "Mt. Cook and the GLaciers") where we were very happy. On the bus journey back from the Hermitage, on May 21st, in the first village
(called Fairlie), the Postmistress came with a cable to the bus. It was addressed to "Karl Popper c/o Bus from Hermitage to Fairlie" and said "Congratulations on London appointment and thanks for excellent article enquiring about permits Frederick Hayek". It was from Cambridge, May 16th. This was the first we heard about it. I bad given up the idea of going to London - though subconsciously I still believed in it. - We were both somewhat frightened, mainly in view of my rather bad health, and especially the silly way in which my corpse reacts to bad weather. I am sick of being sick, you will think
me a terrible hypochonder (sic). So do I, but my doctor (a very nice and kind person and an excellent doctor) says that it is unfortunately all true. Anyway, it cannot be helped." , and Hennie added: "I am frightfully scared by the prospect of going to London: I hate meeting new people, and tea parties. I can only hope that tea is so rare and precious that parties have gone out of fashion!".
The new worry arose that Hayek had offered to write a preface to the book. "I need not tell you that I could not accept this under any circumstances (1) because I am too proud to accept such an offer (even if it came from President Truman or John Dewey or Shirley Temple), (2) because it would brand the book and myself.". Our correspondance had by then switched to the prospect of their arrival in England, and they kindly enquired how much they should take with them to war-time England, and what presents they might possibly bring. We suggested that it would be lovely if they could bring a cricket bat for our son, and Karl "enlisted the help of the very nice son of a friend of ours and now be knows all about cricket and bats." Not that the complaints stopped.
On August 25th he wrote:
"Our departure problems are appalling and (but don't tell that to Routledges!) we probably won't be in England before the beginning of December: we have still no permits to enter Great Britain and I begin to fear that we won't get any. I am, of course, in continuous contact about this with Hayek who says that London University administration has completely broken down" .
So let me only quote the last letter of the sequence in full. It came from Auckland, and was dated November 16th:
"Dear Ernst, This time we are really off, I think, We have been allotted berths - in two different four -berths cabins, though - on the M.V. "New Zealand Star", sailing from Auckland between Nov. 28th and December 5th (according to the strike situation). It is a frighter (sic), Blue Star Line, carrying normally 12 passengers, and at present (in the same cabins) 30. We are not terribly pleased to pay £320 for the pleasure of spending 5 or 6 very rough weeks in the company of strangers. I ani particularly convcerned about the fact that I cannot endure the smell of cigarets (sic) at sea without getting sick - still, I shall have to get used to it. The passage will be very rough since Nye sail via Cape Horn - perhaps the roughest spot in all the Seven Seas. Our corpses are expected to arrive, by the New Zealand Star, on January 8th or thereabouts. Please receive theca kindly. If there is important news it can, I suppose, be wirelessed to the ship. I shall let you know more precisely when they arrive, and if you could find them a room in a Boarding house or Ilotel (where they might perhaps be brought to life again), it would be very nice indeed. But I know this is practically impossible: so don't waste your time, if you don't happen to bear about such a room: burry (sic) them. To be serious, I am really cheered up by the prospect of seeing you in less than two months - a very short time (at my age). Yours ever, K."
When they arrived we met them at the docks, and I was happy to be able to bring him the first copy of The Open Society and its Enemies, which he he eagerly scrutinised on the train and bus to our little semi-detached house in Brent. Who of us would have dared to hope on that clay that despite his fragile health the new life he had just started would extend over nearly half a century, let alone predict how immensely we would all be enriched during these years by his ever active mind?