the Rathouse
Series of Very Abbreviated Versions of Classical Philosophical Works for Very Busy People.
Chapter 19:    The Social Revolution
part 1

This chapter contains six sections, and a lot of arguments are packed into 15 pages. I will not attempt to treat the whole chapter in a single post.

Section I treats the second step of Marx’s prophetic argument, specifically the prediction that the class war will end in a battle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat (the last classes standing, as it were).

Section II explores the question, whether the Marxist revolution has to be violent.

Section III compares the radical and moderate Marxist attitudes to revolutionary violence.

Section IV explores the ambiguity of Marxist attitudes towards violence and also political power and the legitimacy of opposition parties.

Section V outlines the various ways that Marxist rhetoric has undermined democracy and Section VI describes how that has tragically played out in practice in recent times, opening the way for fascism.

"The second step of Marx’s prophetic argument has as its most relevant premise the assumption that capitalism must lead to an increase of wealth and misery; of wealth in the numerically declining bourgeoisie, and of misery in the numerically increasing working class."

So what are the conclusions that are supposed to follow from that premise? First the prophecy that only two classes will be left in competition at the end of that process, and second, that the outcome of the conflict will be a proletarian social revolution. It is argued that Marx’s arguments did not take account of other possible outcomes of the class war.

The bourgeoisie vs the proletariat

Marx wrote ‘Each capitalist lays many of his fellows low’, and so ‘the lower strata of the middle class’, the small tradespeople, shopkeepers, and retired tradesmen generally, the handicraftsmen and the peasants, all these sink gradually into the proletariat; partly because their small capital, insufficient as it is for the scale on which modern industry is conducted is overwhelmed in the competition with the bigger capitalists partly because their specialized skill is rendered worthless by new means of production. Thus the proletariat is recruited from all classes of the population.’

Popper thought that there was some truth in that account, especially so far as handicrafts are concerned but it neglects the rise of new occupations. He also argued that there was no guarantee that the rural proles and others who might be displaced in the course of new developments, would actually align their interests with the urban factory workers. For the purpose of the argument at this stage, Popper conceded the assumption of increasing misery of the masses but he argued that even this would not guarantee the solidarity of the oppressed.

"Thus, as opposed to Marx’s prophecy which insists that there must develop a neat division between two classes, we find that on his own assumptions, the following class structure may possibly develop: (1) bourgeoisie, (2) big landed proprietors, (3) other landowners, (4) rural workers, (5) new middle class, (6) industrial workers, (7) rabble proletariat. (Any other combination of these classes may, of course, develop too.) And we find, furthermore, that such a development may possibly undermine the unity of (6). We can say, therefore, that the first conclusion of the second step in Marx’s argument does not follow."

The social revolution

Popper considered that this prophecy of a possibly violent revolution is the most harmful element in Marxism from the point of view of practical politics and the corruption of debate by romantic revolutionaries in the adversary culture.

"When asked whether the term ‘social revolution’ implied a violent civil war between the two classes, Marx answered that this was not necessarily implied, adding, however, that the prospects of avoiding civil war were, unfortunately, not very bright. And he might have added further that, from the point of view of historical prophecy, the question appears to be perhaps not quite irrelevant, but at any rate of secondary importance. Social life is violent, Marxism insists, and the class war claims its victims every day. What really matters is the result, socialism. To achieve this result is the essential characteristic of the ‘social revolution’."

It is apparent from some of Marx’s rhetoric that he was quite unconcerned about the prospect of mayhem, bloodshed and murder, just as long as it was the bourgeoisie who lost at the end of the day. In fact he may have enjoyed the prospect, making him a forerunner of the romantic revolutionaries down to the present time who make heroes of psychopathic thugs like Che.

Popper raised some political and moral issues related to the prophecy of revolution and the probable need for this to be violent.

"The characterization of the social revolution here proposed undoubtedly makes of it a violent uprising; for the question whether or not violence is actually used is less significant than the intention; and we have assumed a firm resolution not to shrink from violence should it be necessary for achieving the aims of the movement. [and] if a man is determined to use violence in order to achieve his aims, then we may say that to all intents and purposes he adopts a violent attitude, whether or not violence is actually used in a particular case."

Rules on the use of violence by people of good will

"Now I wish to make it quite clear that it is this prophecy of a possibly violent revolution which I consider, from the point of view of practical politics, by far the most harmful element in Marxism; and I think it will be better if I briefly explain the reason for my opinion before I proceed with my analysis.I am not in all cases and under all circumstances against a violent revolution."

He followed some medieval and Renaissance Christian thinkers who taught that tyrannicide could be justified (also just wars). In a situation where there is no other way to get rid of a tyrant then a violent revolution to achieve regime change (the current term) may be justified. But he went on to write that any such revolution should have as its only aim the establishment of a democracy. And by democracy he did not mean something as vague as ‘the rule of the people’ or ‘the rule of the majority’, but a set of institutions (such as general elections, to enable the people to dismiss their government) which permit public control of the rulers.

People who are not outright pacifists have to be prepared to condone certain kinds of violent behaviour by themselves or by their representatives (army and police). The vital questions are of course under what circumstances and what kind of violence is permitted? Later in this  chapter he offered some rules for the regulation and control of violence to be used by the democracies, that is by peace-loving people of good will.

One kind of violence that he condoned in principle is that required to remove a tyranny if no other  means are available. That is a dangerous move if it is not quickly effective because the prolonged use of violence will undemine the dispassionate rule of reason, and possibly deliver not freedom but the rule of the strong man. "A violent revolution which tries to attempt more than the destruction of tyranny is at least as likely to bring about another tyranny as it is likely to achieve its real aims."

"There is only one further use of violence in political quarrels which I should consider justified. I mean the resistance, once democracy has been attained, to any attack (whether from within or without the state) against the democratic constitution and the use of democratic methods. Any such attack, especially if it comes from the government in power, or if it is tolerated by it, should be resisted by all loyal citizens, even to the use of violence. In fact, the working of democracy rests largely upon the understanding that a government which attempts to misuse its powers and to establish itself as a tyranny (or which tolerates the establishment of a tyranny by anybody else) outlaws itself, and that the citizens have not only a right but also a duty to consider the action of such a government as a crime, and its members as a dangerous gang of criminals. But I hold that such violent resistance to attempts to overthrow democracy should be unambiguously defensive. No shadow of doubt must be left that the only aim of the resistance is to save democracy. A threat of making use of the situation for the establishment of a counter-tyranny is just as criminal as the original attempt to introduce a tyranny; the use of such a threat, even if made with the candid intention of saving democracy by deterring its enemies, would therefore be a very bad method of defending democracy; indeed, such a threat would confuse the ranks of its defenders in an hour of peril, and would therefore be likely to help the enemy.

"These remarks indicate that a successful democratic policy demands from the defenders the observance of certain rules. A few such rules will be listed later in this chapter; here I only wish to make it clear why I consider the Marxist attitude towards violence one of the most important points to be dealt with in any analysis of Marx."

Chapter 18 The Coming of Socialism       Chapter 19 The Social Revolution (2)

Start of The Shorter OSE

The Open Society and its Enemies
Karl Popper