the Rathouse
Series of Very Abbreviated Versions of Classical Philosophical Works for Very Busy People.
Chapter 19:    The Social Revolution
part 2
This continues Popper’s critique of the ambivalent attitude towards violence that is fostered by both the radical and moderate wings of the Marxist movement. These correspond roughly with the communist and social democrat parties as they existed in Europe at the time. Sometimes the issue is pushed aside, as though the Marxist in his capacity as a scientist is just concerned with predictions and not moral positions.

Radicals and moderates

"The radical wing insists that, according to Marx, all class rule is necessarily a dictatorship, i.e. a tyranny. A real democracy can therefore be attained only by the establishment of a classless society, by overthrowing, if necessary violently, the capitalist dictatorship. The moderate wing does not agree with this view, but insists that democracy can to some extent be realized even under capitalism, and that it is therefore possible to conduct the social revolution by peaceful and gradual reforms. But even this moderate wing insists that such a peaceful development is uncertain; it points out that it is the bourgeoisie which is likely to resort to force, if faced with the prospect of being defeated by the workers on the democratic battlefield; and it contends that in this case the workers would be justified in retaliating, and in establishing their rule by violent means. Both wings claim to represent the true Marxism of Marx, and in a way, both are right. [due to the ambiguity in his formulations and changes in his position over his lifetime]"

The radical position is more consistent with the apocalyptic tone of the prophecies and from the radical or hardline point of view, capitalism has to be eliminated by violence if it is to be eliminated at all. In contrast the moderate position appears to accept the possibility of non-violent expropriation of the capitalists by capturing the democratic process, a prospect that was realistic in England by the time Marx died.

"The prophetic argument is untenable, and irreparable, in all its interpretations, whether radical or moderate. But for a full understanding of this situation, it is not enough to refute the modified prophecy; it is also necessary to examine the ambiguous attitude towards the problem of violence which we can observe in both the radical and the moderate Marxist parties. This attitude has, I assert, a considerable influence upon the question whether or not the ‘battle of democracy’ will be won; for wherever the moderate Marxist wing has won a general election, or come close to it, one of the reasons seems to have been that they attracted large sections of the middle class. This was due to their humanitarianism, to their stand for freedom and against oppression. But the systematic ambiguity of their attitude towards violence not only tends to neutralize this attraction, but it also directly furthers the interest of the anti-democrats, the anti-humanitarians, the fascists."

Two ambiguities: violence and the conquest of power

In this section and the next Popper described how the Marxists tended to undermine democracy their ambiguity towards violence and the conquest of power. Peace and freedom loving Marxists have not been helped by the more apocalyptic and bloodthirsty passages of Marx, nor by the irrational worship of violence by the revolutionaries in the adversary culture.

The essentialist theory of the state is also a major problem – the theory that the state is essentially a class tyranny. This makes it very hard for reasonable Marxists to adopt the language of political proposals (and the dualism of facts and standards) to work towards a functioning democracy, a protective state, the rule of law and the traditional form of equalitarian justice.

Popper was especially critical of the tactical doctrine promulgated by Engels along these lines:
'We Marxists much prefer a peaceful and democratic development towards socialism, if we can have it. But as political realists we foresee the probability that the bourgeoisie will not quietly stand by when we are within reach of attaining the majority. They will rather attempt to destroy democracy. In this case, we must not flinch, but fight back, and conquer political power. And since this development is a probable one, we must prepare the workers for it; otherwise we should betray our cause.'

As Engels wrote :

"For the moment .. legality .. is working so well in our favour that we should be mad to abandon it as long as it lasts. It remains to be seen whether it will not be the bourgeoisie .. which will abandon it first in order to crush us with violence. Take the first shot, gentlemen of the bourgeoisie! Never doubt it, they will be the first to fire. One fine day the .. bourgeoisie will grow tired of .. watching the rapidly increasing strength of socialism, and will have recourse to illegality and violence.’ What will happen then is left systematically ambiguous. And this ambiguity is used as a threat; for in later passages, Engels addresses the ‘gentlemen of the bourgeoisie’ in the following way: ‘If .. you break the constitution .. then the Social Democratic Party is free to act, or to refrain from acting, against you—whatever it likes best. What it is going to do, however, it will hardly give away to you to-day!"

Tragically, the Engels doctrine and the ambiguities of violence and of power-conquest make the working of democracy impossible if they are adopted by a major political party. Popper argued that democracy can work only if the main parties adhere to a view along these lines:

(1) Democracy cannot be fully characterized as the rule of the majority, although the institution of general elections is most important. For a majority might rule in a tyrannical way. (The majority of those who are less than 6 ft. high may decide that the minority of those over 6 ft. shall pay all taxes.) In a democracy, the powers of the rulers must be limited; and the criterion of a democracy is this: In a democracy, the rulers—that is to say, the government—can be dismissed by the ruled without bloodshed. Thus if the men in power do not safeguard those institutions which secure to the minority the possibility of working for a peaceful change, then their rule is a tyranny.

(2) We need only distinguish between two forms of government, viz. such as possess institutions of this kind, and all others; i.e. democracies and tyrannies.

(3) A consistent democratic constitution should exclude only one type of change in the legal system, namely a change which would endanger its democratic character.

(4) In a democracy, the full protection of minorities should not extend to those who violate the law, and especially not to those who incite others to the violent overthrow of the democracy.

(5) A policy of framing institutions to safeguard democracy must always proceed on the assumption that there may be antidemocratic tendencies latent among the ruled as well as among the rulers.

(6) If democracy is destroyed, all rights are destroyed. Even if certain economic advantages enjoyed by the ruled should persist, they would persist only on sufferance.

(7) Democracy provides an invaluable battle-ground for any reasonable reform, since it permits reform without violence. But if the preservation of democracy is not made the first consideration in any particular battle fought out on this battle-ground, then the latent anti-democratic tendencies which are always present may bring about a breakdown of democracy.

It was Popper’s view that the Marxists too often pursued a course of making the workers suspicious of democracy. He quoted Engels “In reality the state is nothing more than a machine for the oppression of one class by another, and this holds for a democratic republic no less than for a monarchy.”

This view results in the policy of blaming democracy for problems and evils as though democracy is supposed to be a magic cure-all that automatically prevents bad things from happening (and so evils are blamed on democracy) instead of recognizing that  democracy is just a ramework for regime change and people have to fix things up either by direct (legal) action or by revising the legal and social system by piecemeal reform.

It also tends to result in the policy of teaching the people to consider the state not as theirs, but as belonging to the rulers, and to claim that the only one way to improve things is the complete conquest of power (winner take all).

"But this neglects the one really important thing about democracy, that it checks and balances power.
Such a policy amounts to doing the work of the enemies of the open society; it provides them with an unwitting fifth column. And against the Manifesto which says ambiguously: ‘The first step in the revolution of the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of the ruling class—to win the battle of democracy’, I assert that if this is accepted as the first step, then the battle of democracy will be lost."

The remainder of the chapter sketched some of the ways that the Marxists doctrines played out in practical politics, culminating in the rise and triumph of fascism. While the social democrats lacked the will to resist effectively, the communists managed to convince themselves that there was no need to resist (ultimately) because fascism represented the last gasp of capitalism and it should be allowed to run its course.

"They even hoped that a totalitarian dictatorship in Central Europe would speed up matters. After all, since the revolution was bound to come, fascism could only be one of the means of bringing it about; and this was more particularly so since the revolution was clearly long overdue. Russia had already had it in spite of its backward economic conditions. Only the vain hopes created by democracy were holding it back in the more advanced countries. Thus the destruction of democracy through the fascists could only promote the revolution by achieving the ultimate disillusionment of the workers in regard to democratic methods. With this, the radical wing of Marxism felt that it had discovered the ‘essence’ and the ‘true historical role’ of fascism. Fascism was, essentially, the last stand of the bourgeoisie. Accordingly, the Communists did not fight when the fascists seized power. (Nobody expected the Social Democrats to fight.) For the Communists were sure that the proletarian revolution was overdue and that the fascist interlude, necessary for its speeding up, could not last longer than a few months. Thus no action was required from the Communists. They were harmless. There was never a ‘communist danger’ to the fascist conquest of power. As Einstein once emphasized, of all organized groups of the community, it was only the Church, or rather a section of the Church, which seriously offered resistance."

Chapter 19 The Social Revolution (1) Chapter 20 Capitalism and its Fate

Start of Shorter OSE

The Open Society and its Enemies
Karl Popper