the Rathouse
Series of Very Abbreviated Versions of Classical Philosophical Works for Very Busy People.
Chapter 13:    Sociological Determinism

In order to press on with the core of volume 2 on Marx I will leave the additional work on essentialism that was planned and also bypass the long chapter 12 on Hegel. Recalling the architecture of the book:

Marx’s Method
Chapter 13. Sociological Determinism.
Chapter 14. The Autonomy of Sociology.
Chapter 15. Economic Historicism.
Chapter 16. The Classes.
Chapter 17. The Legal and Social System.

Marx’s Prophecy
Chapter 18. The Coming of Socialism.
Chapter 19. The Social Revolution.
Chapter 20. Capitalism and its Fate.
Chapter 21. An Evaluation.

Marx’s Ethics
Chapter 22. The Moral Theory of Historicism.

The Aftermath
Chapter 23. The Sociology of Knowledge.
Chapter 24. Oracular Philosophy and the Revolt against Reason.

Chapter 25. Has History any Meaning?

In the 1950 preface Popper wrote:

"Marx has too often been attacked on personal and moral grounds, so that here the need is, rather, for a severe rational criticism of his theories combined with a sympathetic understanding of their astonishing moral and intellectual appeal. Rightly or wrongly, I felt that my criticism was devastating, and that I could therefore afford to search for Marx’s real contributions, and to give his motives the benefit of the doubt."

It appears that Popper was most probably wrong in his assessment of Marx’s humanitarian intentions, and more significantly, he may have been over-generous in his assessment of Marx’s role as a pioneer of social thought. In any case, my treatment of volume 2 will be more critical of Popper’s interpretations than was the case with the Plato volume.

Chapter 13: Marx’s Sociological Determinism has only eight pages, starting with a somewhat melodramatic blast at the enemies of the open society who penetrated the humanitarian under cover of various “trojan horses” such as Plato’s idea of (totalitarian) justice, the Christian authoritarianism of the middle ages, and Rousseau’s theory of the general will.

"It is tempting to dwell upon the similarities between Marxism, the Hegelian left wing, and its fascist counterpart. Yet it would be utterly unfair to overlook the difference between them. Although their intellectual origin is nearly identical, there can be no doubt of the humanitarian impulse of Marxism. Moreover, in contrast to the Hegelians of the right wing, Marx made an honest attempt to apply rational methods to the most urgent problems of social life. The value of this attempt is unimpaired by the fact that it was, as I shall try to show, largely unsuccessful."

"One cannot do justice to Marx without recognizing his sincerity. His open-mindedness, his sense of facts, his distrust of verbiage, and especially of moralizing verbiage, made him one of the world’s most influential fighters against hypocrisy and pharisaism. He had a burning desire to help the oppressed, and was fully conscious of the need for proving himself in deeds, and not only in words. His main talents being theoretical, he devoted immense labour to forging what he believed to be scientific weapons for the fight to improve the lot of the vast majority of men. His sincerity in his search for truth and his intellectual honesty distinguish him, I believe, from many of his followers."

Surprisingly, Popper allowed that statement to stand in revised editions of OSE even after he read Schwarzchild’s book on Marx and stated that the evidence was shattering. Popper went on...

"Marx’s interest in social science and social philosophy was fundamentally a practical interest. He saw in knowledge a means of promoting the progress of man. Why, then, attack Marx? In spite of his merits, Marx was, I believe, a false prophet. He was a prophet of the course of history, and his prophecies did not come true; but this is not my main accusation. It is much more important that he misled scores of intelligent people into believing that historical prophecy is the scientific way of approaching social problems. Marx is responsible for the devastating influence of the historicist method of thought within the ranks of those who wish to advance the cause of the open society...The vast economic researches of Marx did not even touch the problems of a constructive economic policy, for example, economic planning.”

In other words Marx had no valid theory, so what does that make of his vast economic researches? The vast researches largely consisted of reading secondary sources.

One of the responses to criticism is to retreat to the position that Marxism is primarily a method of analysis rather than a doctrine, so that even if this or that part of his thinking is refuted, like predictions of revolution, the method remains intact. Popper was prepared to accept that Marxism is fundamentally, a method, and he was prepared to examine the method and see how helpful it really is.

"The position is, simply, that whoever wishes to judge Marxism has to probe it and to criticize it as a method, that is to say, he must measure it by methodological standards. He must ask whether it is a fruitful method or a poor one, i.e. whether or not it is capable of furthering the task of science. The standards by which we must judge the Marxist method are thus of a practical nature. By describing Marxism as purest historicism, I have indicated that I hold the Marxist method to be very poor indeed."

Popper examined some similarities and differences between Marx and J S Mill, such as their dissatisfaction with laissez faire liberalism (actually Mill was much more accepting of laissez faire than is usually realised because his critical comment is almost invariably quoted out of context so that his fundamentally positive view of laissez faire is hidden).  The major difference concerns the basic explanation for social processes. Mill wanted to find the "prime movers" in psychology, human nature and the "laws of the mind". Marx looked elsewhere.

"Mill, we can now say, believed in psychologism. But Marx challenged it. ‘Legal relationships’, he asserted, ‘and the various political structures cannot .. be explained by .. what has been called the general “progressiveness of the human mind”.’ To have questioned psychologism is perhaps the greatest achievement of Marx as a sociologist. By doing so he opened the way to the more penetrating conception of a specific realm of sociological laws, and of a sociology which was at least partly autonomous."

"In the following chapters, I shall explain some points of Marx’s method, and I shall try always to emphasize especially such of his views as I believe to be of lasting merit. Thus I shall deal next with Marx’s attack on psychologism, i.e. with his arguments in favour of an autonomous social science, irreducible to psychology."

Chapter 11 (2) Aristotle's essentialismChapter 14 The Autonomy of Sociology

Start of the OSE commentary

The Open Society and its Enemies
Karl Popper