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Chapter 19: The History of our Time, an Optimists View
This was the Sixth Eleanor Rathbone Memorial Lecture, delivered at the University of Bristol in 1956. Eleanor Rathbone was a British MP and a stalwart campaigner on issues including female circumcision in Africa, child marriage in India and forced marriage in Palestine.

At the time of the lecture Popper considered that the optimist's view had considerable rarity value because "the wailings of the pessimists have become somewhat monotonous". This was the height of the Cold War and many people considered that it was only a matter of time before one side or the other precipitated a disastrous military confrontation.

As he usually did in his lectures, Popper laid down a challenge to received opinion. In this case he nominated the view that was something of a cliche of the times, expressed by Bertrand Russell among many others, that our intellectual development has outrun our moral development.

"We have become very clever, according to Russell, indeed too clever. We can make lots of wonderful gadgets, including television, high speed rockets, and an atom bomb... But we have not been able to achieve that moral and political growth and maturity which alone could safely direct and control the uses to which we put our tremendous intellectual powers... To put this view in a nutshell: we are clever, perhaps too clever, but we are also wicked... As against this, I shall maintain precisely the opposite. My first thesis is this. We are good, perhaps a little too good, but we are also a little stupid; and it is this mixture of goodness and stupidity which lies at the root of our troubles."

"The main troubles of our times are not due to our moral wickedness, but, on the contrary, to our often misguided moral enthusiasm: to our anxiety to better the world we live in. Our wars are fundamentally religious wars; they are wars between competing theories of how to establish a better world. And our moral enthusiasm is often misguided, because we fail to realise that our moral principles, which are sure to be over-simple, are often difficult to apply to the complex human and political situations to which we feel bound to apply them."

To demonstrate the way that an appeal to morality can be misused, he instanced the case of the then Bishop of Bradford who published a pamphlet in 1942 attacking a society which was so evil that it could be considered the work of the devil, so that a minister of the church was fully justified in working for its destruction. The social system under attack was that of the western democracies and the pamphlet was written to support Stalin's regime in the Soviet Union.

Popper considered that, by 1956, there was no need for further criticism of the communist system and he proceeded to criticise the nationalist faith which he regarded as equally absurd, when expressed as the doctrine of national self-determination.

The principle amounts to the demand that each state should be a nation-state: that it should be confined within a natural border, and that this border should coincide with the location of an ethnic group; so that it should be the ethnic group, the nation, which should determine and protect the natural limits of the state.

He noted that apart from the possible example of Iceland there are virtually no nation states of that kind and the attempt to realise that state of affairs has caused endless conflict and strife when ethnic minorities demanded that they be allowed to break away or join an adjacent state where they would be the majority. For example Czechoslovakia was formed under the principle of national self-determination but as soon as it was formed the Slovaks demanded (in the name of the same principle) to be free, and finally it was destroyed by the German minority, in the name of the same principle. The latest example of this principle is the demand for a Palestinian nation state which is used as a rationale for waging war on Israel.

"There are ethnic minorities everywhere. The proper aim cannot be to "liberate" all of them, rather it must be to protect all of them. The oppression of national groups is a great evil; but national self-determination is not a feasible remedy... Few creeds have created more hatred, cruelty, and senseless suffering than the belief in the righteousness of the nationality principle; and yet it is still widely believed that this principle will help to alleviate the misery of national oppression. My optimism is a little shaken when I look at the near-unanimity with which this principle is still accepted -- even by those whose political interests are clearly opposed to it."

"My second thesis is this: In spite of our great and serious troubles, and in spite of the fact that ours is surely not the best possible society, I assert that our free world is by far the best society which has come into existence during the course of human history."

That view was based on the claim that we have practically (not entirely) overcome a list of great social evils, ranging from poverty through penal cruelty and racial discrimination to war. His third thesis concerns war and it states that since the time of the Boer War, none of the democratic governments of the free world have been in a position to wage a war of aggression, or at least they could not wage an aggressive war with the public united behind them.

He instanced the unwillingness of Great Britain to confront the Kaiser prior to WW1 and Hitler prior to WW2. The Suez adventure tested the hypothesis and the dismal outcome (for Britain and France) confirmed it. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq also test the hypothesis, although it is apparent that extraordinary circumstances were required to prompt the military action and the significant body of internal resistance supports Popper's thesis that the nation would not be united behind an aggressive war.

His fourth thesis was related to the war of ideas, and it was prompted by some remarks made by the Russian premier, Mr Kruschev when he visited India and made a speech indicting British colonialism. Popper suggested that someone should have defended Britain, along the lines that there was nothing the matter with the world that Soviet colonialism was going to fix. But still absurd ideas about Britain were circulated, often enough originating from British sources. The fourth thesis is that the power of ideas, and especially religious and moral ideas, is at least as important as that of physical resources. He considered that this view of the power of ideas was shared by the early liberal and rationalist movements but they also believed that the truth was manifest, so that rival ideas did not need to join battle to sort out good from bad.

The fifth thesis of this talk is that truth is hard to come by. This contradicts the over-optimistic idea that the truth is manifest, an idea that he subjected to criticism in other essays in the collection, especially the Introduction.

The chapter ends with some comments on the need to take up the ideas of fallibilism and critical rationalism to avoid the extremes of relativism and fanaticism that result from defective theories of knowledge and rationality.

Postscript. With the benefit of five decades of hindsigh it is apparent that Popper was wildly over-optimistic. Who would have predicted that, with the disasters of Stalinism about to be admitted by the Soviet leadership, within a few years radical youth in the west would make brutal thugs like Che and Mao into cult figures?
That the "liberation" of the Third World from western colonisation, and the delivery of untold billions of aid would result in the worst famines and genocides that Africa has ever seen?
That left liberalism would become a religion with all the attendant intolerance and prejudice, and be widely promoted in the universities of the western world?
That a civilisation with leading figures like Shakespeare, Milton, Beethoven, Mozart, would produce generations that would assign cult status to the purveyors of narcissistic and irrational stuff like the Beats, and worse.
That Popper's ideas would be marginalised in the academic community by a series of fads and fashions - logical empiricism, language analysis, POMO? What next?

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Conjectures and Refutations
Karl Popper