HOT OFF THE PRESS! A Guide to The Open Society and its Enemies
“Our corpses are expected to arrive, by the New Zealand Star, on January 8th or thereabouts. Please receive them kindly.” (Popper to Gombrich, November 1945)
Two very important books appeared at the end of the Second World War, pointing up lessons to be learned from the disastrous social and political tendencies which precipitated the war. Both books were written by Austrians in exile, F A Hayek in England and K R Popper in New Zealand. Both books, The Road to Serfdom and The Open Society and its Enemies (OSE) were widely read and discussed but Serfdom stole a march to achieve a wider popular readership when it appeared in the United States in a Readers Digest condensed version.
Serfdom was not a big book to start with (240 pages) but the OSE runs to almost 800 pages of which more than 200 are footnotes, in smaller print. In fact the size of the manuscript was a major impediment when Popper, Gombrich and Hayek offered it to a number of publishers on both sides of the Atlantic. Several asked for abbreviation but Popper would have none of that. He wrote to Gombrich
“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 …[but]…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 [true enough, Mark Blaug read it over a long weekend that he spent on holiday in Paris], it cannot be too long …The ordinary intelligent man does not like to be regarded as illiterate or as an imbecile. He is ready, and even proud, to buy a thick book.”
However times have changed. For many students nowadays, reference material hardly exists unless it can be accessed on line. Because the book still speaks powerfully to our condition I think it is helpful to provide an on-line summary of the book. I hope that many of those who sample the on-line offering will promptly seek out the book to read the whole story!
Problems of production
Ernst Gombrich, Popper’s friend in England, had the major burden of seeing the book through the press at Routledge. Popper assisted in the process by sending some 95 aerograms with instructions on the finishing touches for the massive manuscript. On one occasion Karl sent off twelve aerograms on a single day. On another occasion he completely rewrote chapter 17. This is sample of the instructions.
“In my typed airgraph of today, I mentioned that, as far as Chapter 12 is concerned, only the Section Number Corrections have first priority. 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 two 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 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.”
When Routledge decided to produce the book in two volumes Gombrich cabled Karl “Routledge want division after Chapter 10”. The local censor called Gombrich to the post office for an interview about the message and fortunately he accepted the explanation that they were not talking about troop movements! I wonder if the censor enjoyed scanning the contents of the 95 aerograms from Popper?
When Popper was applying for various university positions in New Zealand and Australia he wrote to Gombrich:
“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 possibly 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.”
Finally, in a letter dated 16 November 1945.
“Dear Ernst, This time we are really off, I think…The passage will be very rough since we 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 them 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 Hotel (where they might perhaps be brought back to life again), it would be very nice indeed…If you don’t happen to hear of such a room: bury them. To be serious, I am really cheered up by the prospect of seeing you in less than two months.”
In the event, Popper and his wife walked off the boat to meet the Gombrichs, and Ernst had a “hot off the press” copy of OSE in his hand.
Popper’s Party Politics
Many people who read tracts in political philosophy like to have a sense of where the author is located in relation to their own political leanings. If the author is alive, the reader might like to know whether the writer votes Labor or Conservative, Republican or Democrat. Popper became hard to place in later life, although there is no doubt that he was left-leaning in youth and he did not become favourably disposed towards Hayekian market liberalism in later life, even though he was disenchanted with the social democrats. In my view the only thing that held him back from something very close to market liberalism was a lack of understanding of the factors that cause unemployment (essentially, ill-advised interference with the labour market by means of minimum wages for example).
Still, the point is that the mature Popper could not be a partisan for any political faction. When we met in 1972 he asked whether I wanted to be actively involved in politics, to which I replied, ‘Yes, but I can’t decide which party”. He said ‘Yes, I understand, but it is no longer an issue for me’.
Just to be clear where I am coming from, I describe myself as "classical, market or non-socialist liberal" with a touch of cultural (and ecological) conservatism. I don't think it makes sense to demand a single guiding principle and so I nominate three:
peace, freedom and prosperity. The good thing about these aims is that the same policies tend to promote all three, with a minimum of trade-offs.
So what are the policies?
The following three would appear to be a minimum set, others can be added to taste:
1. Free trade, that is, the freedom for people to engage in the voluntary exchange of legal goods and services, even if they happen to be in different countries.
2. The Rule of Law, equality before the law, due process etc.
3. A moral framework, including elements like honesty and compassion.
And three guiding principles for public policy:
The Readings to follow
VOLUME I: PLATO
Overview, the main themes and the architecture of the two volumes.
Chapter 2. Heraclitus, all is flux and change.
Chapter 3: Plato’s theory of forms or ideas and the problem of essentialism.
Chapter 4: Change and rest. Plato’s design for the perfect state.
Chapter 5: Nature and convention. Coming to grips with manmade rules and conventions without lapsing into relativism.
Chapter 6: Totalitarian justice versus the protective state and the language of political proposals.
Chapter 7 and 8: Leadership and the philosopher king. The paradoxes of sovereignty, a defensible theory of democracy.
Chapter 9: The utopian impulse for revolutionary reform. When the resort to violence is legitimate.
Chapter 10: The open society, the strain of civilisation and the fear of freedom.
VOLUME II: ARISTOTLE AND MARX