Prologue to Controversy
‘In March 1938, a little-known Viennese philosopher called Karl Raimund Popper arrived in Christchurch to take up a position at what was then Canterbury University College of the University of New Zealand. By 1945, he had left for England and another appointment at the London School of Economics. In the meantime, he had written a book, The Open Society and its Enemies, which Michael King called “the most influential book ever to come out of New Zealand”.
‘Popper loved New Zealand (“the best-governed country in the world”) and New Zealanders (“decent, friendly, and well disposed”), even if students like philosopher and historian Peter Munz remembered him as an ornery presence. But despite the global impact his ideas have had (not least through the Open Society Foundation of another student, George Soros), Popper is not much of a presence in New Zealand intellectual life. We think this should change and that Popper’s political ideas still have a lot to say to us, particularly right now.
‘First, Popper’s political thought rejected authoritarianism of both the right and the left. A Jewish refugee from Hitler’s Germany, he was equally opposed to Soviet-style communism (which he foresaw would be increasingly influential even as he was writing The Open Society). For Popper, both styles of authoritarianism made a crucial mistake in seeing politics as a one-way street leading to a destination where discussion and compromise would no longer be needed.
‘What was needed, he thought, was a politics of continual and often minor adjustments to the way things were, always in response to what people wanted. This is the second idea we want to highlight: politics as “piecemeal social engineering”. Popper knew that big, wholesale changes looked tempting, but could often lead to major harms. To him, politics was like science: a way of constantly trying out new ideas, then jettisoning the ones that didn’t work.
‘As someone who lived through the German Reichstag’s vote to hand over power to Hitler’s cabinet, Popper was acutely aware democracy had an Achilles heel: it could vote itself out of existence. He called this “the paradox of democracy” and also warned of a “paradox of tolerance”. This second paradox has been widely misunderstood, and has even been used in attempts to stifle free speech. Popper’s point wasn’t that we shouldn’t tolerate ideas that some might consider intolerant; he thought we should be open to all sorts of ideas. What we shouldn’t tolerate are attempts to shut down debate “by the use of … fists or pistols”. These two paradoxes together make up the final idea we want to highlight: that the principles of liberal democracy are tolerant but substantive ones, and ultimately need to be defended if we want to keep on living our lives in political equality and freedom.’
— from James Kierstead & Michael Johnston
‘What Karl Popper can teach modern New Zealanders’
The Spinoff, 19 November 2019
One of the abiding interests of China Heritage is China’s ‘climate of cancellation’, that is the various ways in which ideas, individuals, peoples, histories and possibilities have, over time, been demonised, repressed, censored or eliminated by power holders and their institutions. Such a climate, in all of its varying seasons, has been a feature of the Chinese world since the rise of the Manchu-Qing dynasty in the seventeenth century.
In recent times, China Heritage has introduced readers to the controversy surrounding the work of Xu Zhangrun 許章潤, formerly a professor of law at Tsinghua University in Beijing, and issues related to intellectual independent and academic freedom in the People’s Republic of China. In China Heritage Annual 2020: Viral Alarm we have focussed in particular on the real-world effects of the ‘climate of cancellation’ created by China’s regnant Communist Party. At a future date we will offer an overview of this climate and advance some observations on its history and impact. For the moment, however, we draw the reader’s attention to the hemisphere in which China Heritage is produced.
‘Erewhon & Its Enemies’ is a prologue to a new section in China Heritage titled ‘Trouble in Erewhon’. In it we will, among other things, offer an account of the controversy surrounding the academic work and public advocacy of Anne-Marie Brady, a professor of Political Science at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, where Popper taught from 1938 to 1945 when it was Canterbury University College of the University of New Zealand.
In the early 1860s, a young Samuel Butler worked for some years on Mesopotamia Station, a sheep farm on the Rangitata River west of Christchurch. The opening chapters of his novel Erewhon, which was published anonymously in 1872, and the mythic location they describe, are thought to be based on his experiences in Mesopotamia. Karl Popper referred to Butler’s Erewhon in The Open Society and Its Enemies. He does so again in the lecture below. More recently, Anne-Marie Brady has drawn attention to the link between Butler’s Erewhon, Popper’s ideas about the open society and her own work.
The following essay was delivered by Karl Popper as an address before the Associated Students, San Francisco State College, on 14 March 1962 and published in ETC: A Review of General Semantics, vol.20, no.1 (May, 1963): 5-22 (subheadings have been added by the editor).
At the time, Popper was Professor of Logic and Scientific Method, University of London and head of the Department of Philosophy, Logic, and Scientific Method, London School of Economics. His published work included The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945), The Poverty of Historicism (1957), The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1959) and Conjectures and Refutations (1963).
— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
26 October 2020
Erewhon and Erewhon Studio
In our work on Xu Zhangrun 許章潤 we translate the name of his study — 無齋 wú zhāi, literally, ‘The Studio That Isn’t’ — as Erewhon Studio. Professor Xu has remarked that in his previously stretched circumstances, when his family lived in cramped quarters, he had no study — 齋 zhāi, ‘studio’, as such places for private creative pursuits are known — or a settled place for his academic research and writing. Thus, when he did finally have a study, he decided to call it 無齋 wú zhāi, literally, ‘The Studio That Isn’t a Studio’, alternatively, No Study, Non-existent Studio, or even Nothingness Studio. That is to say, it was a place for study that was both nowhere and everywhere.
We translate 無齋 wú zhāi as ‘Erewhon Studio’. ‘Erewhon’ is a garbled version of the word ‘Nowhere’, as well as being the title of a novel by Samuel Butler published in 1872. A satire of Victorian social mores, the book was about ‘nowhere in particular’; Butler’s fictional ruminations are thought to have been inspired in part by his time in New Zealand. ‘Erewhon Studio’ thus links Xu Zhangrun’s prose, with its satirical undertow and utopian aspiration, and New Zealand, a distant island nation where China Heritage is produced. Of course, Xu Zhangrun’s feuilletons, produced ‘no-where’, are really about ‘now-here’.
— adapted from the notes to Xu Zhangrun
‘And Teachers, Then? They Just Do Their Thing!’
China Heritage, 10 November 2018
The Erewhonians and the Open Society
Karl R. Popper
It is with some hesitancy that I address an audience of young people about a grave issue of our time such as “The Open Society and Its Enemies.” For I belong to a generation which has not done too well. It is a generation which has lived through two world wars, with the task and the hope of making the world safe for democracy and freedom. But my generation has palpably failed in its task, and has missed twice—both after the first and second World War—very real opportunities of realizing its hopes (so far as these were realizable). And it has ultimately led our world into a thoroughly bad mess.
Why did this happen? The usual explanation—and I want to say at once that I disagree with this explanation—is that man in general is a clever but wicked animal. It is said that our intellectual development has outrun our moral development. We were clever enough to make atom bombs, but not moral enough to agree on their control. Thus it is said that we were clever, perhaps too clever, but also wicked, and that this mixture of cleverness and wickedness explains why we have run into trouble.
I do not believe that this widely-held hypothesis is true.
In fact, I propose to have a look at precisely the opposite hypothesis in order to see whether it does not offer a better explanation. I mean the following hypothesis: We were good, perhaps even a little too good, but also pretty stupid; and it is this mixture of goodness and stupidity which explains why we have run into trouble.
I think that this hypothesis of our goodness and stupidity is much nearer to the truth than the story of our cleverness and wickedness, and that it is a more promising working hypothesis for explaining what has happened.
Take as an example the events which led to the outbreak of the second world war. They are described in Winston Churchill’s great book, The Gathering Storm. Churchill—one of the few who was not stupid—saw and understood what was happening in Germany, and made clear proposals about how to stop Hitler when there was still time to stop him.
But people feared that Churchill was only trying to arouse anti-German feelings and that he might even be a warmonger; and they fell for a slogan which appealed to their goodness and generosity—I mean the slogan that Hitler was right because Germany had been ill-treated after World War I. And although Churchill stated his case admirably, with patience, force, and clarity, and although he proclaimed it from the house tops, nobody would listen to him.
This is an example of that mixture of goodness and stupidity which was largely responsible for World War II, and it illustrates my hypothesis. Of course, this illustration of my hypothesis is a bold over-simplification, as is also my hypothesis itself. Obviously, it would take a very, very long time to tell the story more fully. Please take it for granted that everything else I am going to say in this brief lecture will also be, of necessity, an over-simplification.
Now if I am right, or only partly right, that the main trouble of my generation was our stupidity, and if you young people want to do better than we have done, you must try to become a little less stupid than we have been. Or in other words, you must try to learn from our mistakes.
I think it is one of the most difficult tasks of each generation to learn from the mistakes of those who went before them. It means, in effect, that you must try to learn something from history. And this is possible only if you succeed in finding out what is relevant for you within the chaos of historical facts and events. Thus each generation must try to understand history, in the sense that it must try to find what is relevant in history for the understanding of the most urgent problems with which it is faced.
It was in this spirit, in an attempt to understand what was happening to our world, that I wrote a book, The Open Society and its Enemies. I had been thinking for many years about the problems which are discussed in this book; yet I only decided to write it twenty-five years ago, in March, on the day on which I received the news that Hitler had invaded Austria, my native country—an event which made the second World War almost inevitable. The first edition of this book was printed in London while the war was still going on, and published at the end of the war, in 1945.
As a motto for my book I used a passage from Samuel Butler’s book Erewhon. It not only expresses in a beautiful way the idea that we are morally good but somewhat stupid, but it also indicates where our main stupidity lies, and that we are easily swayed, by an appeal to our moral feelings, into accepting theories even when common sense might have told us to think twice before accepting them.
The Erewhonians, are a meek and long-suffering people, easily led by the nose, and quick to offer up common sense at the shrine of logic if a philosopher arises among them who carries them away … by convincing them that their existing institutions are not based on the strictest principles of morality.
To avoid misunderstandings I should perhaps say quite clearly that neither Butler nor I wish to belittle morality and moral problems. What I had in mind was the fact that, at least since Mahomet, most of our great wars, and all those wars which may be described as popular wars, were wars over some moral or religious issue. And so were all revolutions, all civil wars, all religious or racial persecutions, and acts of intolerance.
I do not wish to condemn all these resorts to violence. There is all the difference in the world between aggression and defense. I believe, for example, that by the time Mr. Chamberlain declared war on Germany—after Hitler’s long-threatened attack on Poland and bombing of Warsaw—this declaration was necessary and even overdue. Nor do I wish to deny that our religious wars and moral wars were not, as a rule, motivated only by religion or morality. But it cannot be denied that especially since the American and French revolutions, since the Napoleonic wars, and since the Civil War, moral and religious or semi-religious ideas have played a very important role.
In our own time, two such religious or semi-religious ideas have become the major sources of intolerance and of violent conflict: the idea of the nation state, or of Nationalism, and the idea of the proletarian state, or of Communism.
These two ideas, like many of their predecessors, aim at a monolithic or totalitarian society—at a society consisting of a homogenous population, all animated by the same convictions, the same aims, and a complete and willing submission to the absolute authority of the state in which is vested the absolute right to use violence against its own citizens if the welfare of the state makes it necessary or opportune to do so.
The Appeal of the Totalitarian
These totalitarian ideas have a strange appeal, and a strange fascination for many people. The idea of belonging to a tribe, to a closed group which is closely knit; of being part of it, protected by all others and sharing in the protection of all others; and of obeying the leadership of the tribe: all this seems to have a great attraction for some who are unhappy in a free and open society. And where the original tribe has long disappeared—as it has almost everywhere—there the idea of belonging to an ancient tribe is sometimes replaced by the idea of returning to a tribal or semi-tribal closed society. It is the idea of joining, and of being accepted by, the wolf-pack; of being one with the other wolves and sharing in their pride. To follow the leader, to be protected by his unlimited power and authority, and also by a community of action, seems to attract some people who have difficulties in adjusting themselves to a more open society; who may perhaps dream of gaining importance and status in a closed and totalitarian society in which all that is required of a sub-leader is ruthlessness, blind submission, and adulation of the leader.
But the invention of democracy in Greece, and a terrible semi-religious war between Athens and Sparta which lasted for twenty-eight years brought about the idea of a very different society, of a free and open society in which different religious ideas and convictions may flourish side by side, and in which theories about man and the world may compete with one another.
This idea of the open society strongly influenced the Roman Empire of Augustus. The Augustian peace, a happy period whose memory was never quite obliterated, was characterized by far-reaching religious and philosophical tolerance. During the Middle Ages, the idea of an open society was almost forgotten, but it was rediscovered after the frightful religious wars which followed the Reformation. It was formulated by John Locke, and in this form it inspired the American Revolution.
Thus, I see in the ideas of the open society an attempt to solve the great human problem raised by those religious wars such as the Peloponnesian War, or the Thirty Years’ War, which only ended through mutual exhaustion. The idea was upheld by those who tried to learn from their mistakes and from the mistakes of their forefathers.
But although this idea of an open society may have arisen out of despair, there is more to it. The religious wars and persecutions led in time to the realization that only a faith which is genuinely and sincerely held and freely adopted was of any religious or human value. The attempt to force men into a church did not only prove unavailing, it also was found senseless. It became clear that those who resisted the pressure were the better men, the better believers; they resembled the martyrs, the early witnesses of the faith, while those who gave way to violence, who could be driven into acceptance, were always a little suspect, and at best lukewarm followers. Thus it became clear to all, Protestants and Roman Catholics alike, that the attempt to enforce faith was impossible and self-defeating: that we had to adopt the attitude of not merely tolerating a man’s conviction but of respecting it.
I may say here, perhaps, a word of criticism of a former colleague of mine, Professor Arnold Toynbee. While I see something very positive and most important in the idea of tolerance because it led to the idea of respect for human convictions and thus to the idea of the dignity of all men, Toynbee sees only something negative and low in it!
At its lowest … Non-Violence may express nothing more noble and more constructive than a cynical disillusionment with … violence … previously practiced ad nauseam. … A notorious example of Non-Violence of this unedifying kind is the religious tolerance in the Western World from the seventeenth century … down to our day.
Thus Toynbee and I agree that the ideas of non-violence and religious tolerance can be understood as a reaction to the religious intolerance and violence practiced during the religious wars, especially during the Thirty Years’ War. But we value these ideas very differently. If I were to operate with Toynbee’ s terms, with the terms “low” and “noble,” I should not call these ideas “low” as he does; and I can think of few ideas more “noble” than the idea of respect for other people’s convictions, and of a peaceful society which establishes peace between its citizens through mutual respect.
But there is more to it. Only in an open society, in a society which tolerates many views and many opinions, can we hope to get nearer to the truth. It is therefore no accident that our Western society is the only known society in which science has not only flourished, but has also become the basis of our economic life. Only in an open society is science unfettered. Admittedly, a closed society which is forced to compete with an open society is likely to allow its scientists that degree of freedom which is necessary to avoid stagnation. But though it may extol science for its services to the state, it will always be suspicious of it. For science is no respector of any dogma or authority. Science cannot, in the long run respect the authoritarian and totalitarian dogma on which the closed society is based.
Freedom and Science
I believe that many of us in the West have become unduly alarmed at the progress of science and technology in Russia. First, we should distinguish fundamental research from technology. A new and revolutionary scientific theory such as Einstein’s theory of relativity, or Bohr’s, Heisenberg’s, Schroedinger’s and Dirac’s quantum theory, is unlikely to be developed in a closed society. Even in an open society it takes time before it is accepted. Einstein’s theory and the quantum theory were not accepted in Russia for a long time—not, in fact, before their technological consequences became prominent and made their acceptance necessary for Russia if she did not want to lose the armament race.
Technology is a different matter. Here, more depends upon the amount of money spent on technological research than on really new and revolutionary ideas. And as far as rockets are concerned, the main idea of a space-rocket is as old as the hills, though its technological realization is, of course, rather difficult simply because of the great complexity of the instruments involved. But there are fundamentally no new or revolutionary ideas involved: I saw a film describing the flight of the first moon rocket as long ago as 1912. It was fairly up-to-date. The rocket was a three-stage rocket, and there were four astronauts in it, one of them, of course, a lady.
Incidentally, the famous problem of re-entering the atmosphere was, in principle, solved a hundred years ago by the French novelist, Jules Verne. As anybody can easily check, he suggested in his book, A Journey Round the Moon, that the problem may be solved by firing braking rockets from the space ship. Jules Verne also predicted that the first moonship would miss its target.
To sum up this point, it is, I believe, a fact that no new and revolutionary scientific idea has so far come from any totalitarian country. And the somewhat unexpected competition in the field of highly advanced technology may do us some good—although it is very much to be regretted that it is so closely related to the armament race.
But I do not intend to extol the idea of freedom, the idea of the open society, and the idea of tolerance, by referring to the material or even the scientific benefits which it provides. Personally, I believe that a free society will be superior to a closed society in the fields of science and of economic productivity. Yet I must take issue, at this point, with a widely accepted doctrine, voiced time and again in various forms. I mean the doctrine that the decision between the Western and the Eastern economic system will ultimately depend on the economical superiority of one of the two. I believe that a free market economy is more efficient than a planned economy; but I consider it entirely wrong to base the rejection of tyranny on economic arguments. Even if it were true that a centrally planned state economy is superior to that of the free market, I should oppose the planned economy for the simple reason that it increases the power of the state to the point of tyranny. It is not the inefficiency of communism which we are fighting, but its lack of liberty and of humanity. We are not ready to sell our freedom for a pottage of lentils, or for the highest possible productivity, not even if it were possible to purchase it at the price of liberty.
I may mention briefly that the tolerance of an open society cannot be unlimited. Though it will guarantee freedom of opinion to all those who are prepared to reciprocate, it must not include in this guarantee those who seriously propagate intolerance. Here again we can learn from the mistakes of the past: those who feel so deeply bound to the idea of tolerance that they feel obliged to tolerate every opinion, including intolerant opinion, may help to destroy themselves—and tolerance.
There is a touching story of a community in the Indian jungle which disappeared because of its belief in the holiness of life, including that of tigers. Unfortunately the tigers did not reciprocate.
Similarly, the German Republic before 1933—the so-called Weimar Republic—tolerated Hitler; but Hitler did not reciprocate.
This was one of the mistakes from which we have to learn: there can be no obligation upon the tolerant to tolerate the intolerant—those who do not reciprocate. But this does not mean that an open society may not, in times of peace and strength, tolerate its lunatic fringe, that is to say, those who preach intolerance and who, at the same time, accuse the tolerant of hypocrisy, because they are not prepared to tolerate every aggressive form of intolerance.
Social life is a give-and-take; and although a free man may claim the right to move his fist freely in almost all directions, this freedom of moving his fist must have limits in a free society. One of the limits will be, for example, the position of his neighbor’s nose.
A free society will attempt to curb the bully from bullying his neighbor; and it will see in the state the guarantor of the right of everybody to be protected from being bullied or compelled by those who happen to be powerful. But it will also be aware of the fact that all accumulation of power, including the power of the state, is a great danger to freedom. If the power of the state increases too much, then, as Churchill once observed, our civil servants will become our uncivil masters. It is thus an essential task of a free society to keep the power of the state under control.
Society vs. The State
I am now coming to a somewhat difficult point in my lecture and I must ask you here for your special attention. The point I wish to make clear is the distinction between society and the state, and especially between the open society and the democratic state, or the democratic form of government.
When I speak of the open society, I mean a form of social life, and the values which are cherished in that social life, such as freedom, tolerance, justice, the citizen’s free pursuit of knowledge, his right to disseminate knowledge, his free choice of values and beliefs, and his pursuit of happiness. When I speak of the state, on the other hand, I have in mind a set of institutions, such as institutions of government, including those by which it is elected, the courts of justice, the civil service, public health, defense, and so on.
It is clear that the distinction I am here making between society and the state, and between the open society and the democratic state or democracy, is not a very sharp one. Yet the distinction is a very useful one, and of importance for every member of a free society, and citizen of a democratic state. The reason is that freedom, and a free society, may be considered as values in themselves; perhaps not as ultimate values, but still as values. But the democratic state, that is, the institutions of government, of elections, etc., should, I think, be considered as a means to an end. A very important means to a very important end, but still, not as an end in itself.
I wish to propose here the thesis that the idea of a free and open society involves the demand that the state should be acknowledged to exist for the sake of its free citizens and of their free social life—that is, of the free society—and not the other way around. This means that the state’s function is to serve and to protect the free society of its citizens. It is a most important function, but in a free society the state must never be allowed to overstep the limits of this function.
The member of a free society and citizen of a free state has certainly a duty of loyalty to the state, because the state is essential for the continuance of the society, and he will serve the state when the need arises. And yet, it is his duty to combine watchfulness and even a certain degree of distrust with his loyalty. It is his duty to watch and see that the state does not overstep the limits of its legitimate functions. The institutions of the state are powerful, and where there is power there is always a danger of its misuse—and a danger to freedom. All power has a tendency to corrupt, and a tendency to entrench itself; and in the last instance it is only the traditions of a free society—which include those of an almost jealous watchfulness of its citizens—which provide those checks to the power of the state on which all freedom depends.
The Worst Form of Government
Everybody is free to use the word “democracy”, of course, as a synonym for “free society” or “open society”, or to speak of the “democratic way of life” in order to describe the way of life of a free citizen in a free society. Yet I think that there is some danger in using this terminology. Terminological questions are never important, to be sure. But in this case the use of the one term, “democracy,” for both a certain form of government and a certain form of society and social values, has led to confusion—roughly speaking, to the confusion of means and ends—and of defending and extolling necessary yet imperfect means as if they were ends. The truth is that all forms of government are imperfect, and even dangerous, and that democracy is no exception. In fact, all that can be said for democracy is that we know of no better form of government to safeguard freedom. Or to quote Winston Churchill again: Democracy is the worst form of government—with the obvious exception, however, of all other known forms of government.
Democracy is a Greek term which, as undoubtedly you all know, means in the English translation “the rule of the people.” This meaning of the word has bedeviled the theory of democracy from Plato to our own time.The Greeks classified government, according to who was holding the power in the state, into monarchy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny. And Plato developed this classification into a theory of government. He believed that the fundamental problem which a theory of government had to answer was: Who should rule? Who ought to be given power in the State? And he solved the problem by saying: “The wise shall lead and rule, and the ignorant shall follow.” Like all his admirers, he believed that very few are wise, perhaps always only one, and that the vast majority was ignorant. Yet surprisingly enough, by giving this solution, he won a tremendous following, consisting, I suppose, of all the wise who knew that everybody else was ignorant.
Later theorists of government, even those who disagreed with Plato’s solution, accepted his formulation of the problem. They too asked “Who should rule?” and they gave various answers, such as “the people” or “the nation” or “the master race.” In the case of the Marxists, the answer was not the capitalists but the manual workers, that is, “the proletariat.”
Many theorists of democracy have also accepted Plato’s problem as correctly formulated and since their answer was that “the people should rule,” they developed a theory of democracy which was a theory of the sovereignty of the people.
I believe that this theory is dangerously mistaken, because I believe that the whole problem of “who should rule” is wrongly put. A sensible theory of the government of a free society should not ask who should rule, but rather, “How can we design our political institutions so that unwise or bad rulers do not obtain too much power, and cannot do too much damage?” This seems to me a more sensible problem. It allows us to take account of historical experience which tells us that rulers are rarely wise, and that there exist no means of selecting the wise. (Even the most ardent believers in I.Q. have not so far dared to develop a W.Q.—a wisdom quotient.)
Democracy, that is to say the popular vote, has turned out to be among all the known institutions the one which is most fitted to solve our problem. But the institution of the majority vote is not a rule of the people. For the fact is that the people do not rule. Neither you nor I rule. The government rules. All the people can do is to vote: they can vote a government in to power and, much more important, they can vote a government—or a party—out of power.
I believe that we can characterize the difference between democracy and tyranny very simply as follows: democracy is the only known form of government which makes it possible to get rid of a bad government without bloodshed. Under all other forms of government the government can either not be got rid of, or it can be gotten rid of only through bloodshed—that is, as Robert Frost once wisely observed, through a revolution which in the end may bring the same kind or a worse kind of government to the top.
This, I believe, is the simple truth about democracy if we mean by this a form of governmental institutions controlled by a majority vote: we can get rid of a bad government. This proves in practice to be a fairly effective way of restraining governments and of making them sensitive to the people’s needs and values.
It seems to me of the greatest importance for a free society that democracy is seen as what it is, and that it is not idealized. And it seems to me of great importance to realize that democracy will as a rule work fairly well in a society which values freedom and tolerance, but not if grafted upon a society which does not understand these values. Democracy, that is, the majority vote, may help to preserve freedom, but it clearly can never create freedom where the majority does not care for freedom.
We must also learn to understand that democracy as such cannot confer any benefits upon its citizens, and that it should not be expected to do so. Nor is democracy responsible for any failings of the government. It is only a framework which allows the citizen of the democratic state some influence over the government. It is not democracy but ourselves, the democratic citizens, which we must blame if anything goes wrong. Democracy and the democratic state are only imperfect instruments which can be used by free citizens to further their social ends.
The democratic citizen must learn not to expect too much from the state, and from the government. He has no reason to believe that those who govern him will be, as a rule, wiser or better than other men. They will be men and therefore fallible. In short, the citizen of a democracy must learn two simple things: that all men are fallible, and that we cannot make heaven on earth—especially not by political means.
The Divine Idea on Earth
Let me now turn for a moment to the totalitarian, to the monolithic, to the closed society, to Hitler’s Germany, say, or to Mussolini’s Italy, or to Stalin’s Russia. There you get a different picture. The state is accepted and worshipped as if it were “the Divine Idea as it exists on earth” (I am quoting Hegel). The citizen exists and is being used for the benefit of the state; and the benefit of the state and its power serves as a justification for every act of violence. Any criticism is treated as sacrilege as well as treason. The leader is worshipped as a demi-god. He is almighty or very nearly so, and all power flows from his will. And this power flows to his henchmen, who have to prove their worth by flattery, submission, and by being more ruthless than even the demi-god himself in the persecution of the lukewarm, of the suspect, and of the scapegoats.
It is difficult for anybody brought up in a free society to realize what this means in practice. So I shall give you a few illustrations.
In school, children are made to report on their parents—with the result, in some cases, that the parents disappear. I know a young former Hungarian communist who educated his wife in Marxism, and only too well. She became a better Marxist than he was, and reported some of his heretical remarks. The result was imprisonment and solitary confinement until 1956. Then he escaped to Austria. In 1949 a Polish student, a girl who had lived through the Russian and German occupations and through an uprising which was ruthlessly suppressed, and who had escaped to England, told me, “It is wonderful here. But I still feel hands grasping my wrists whenever I hear the sound of a car stopping behind me. Three times this has meant for me that uniformed or plainclothesmen came up, dragged me into the car, and took me to the police station to be questioned and imprisoned.”
When I told this story to an American student he asked, “But why did they imprison her? What had she done?” She had done nothing. The secret police are there not so much to discover plots against the government but to prevent people from plotting. It is this task, which is the preventive intimidation of the whole population—the extraction of confessions, and of denunciations, thereby making people distrust one another. Nobody can be sure that he won’t be arrested, questioned, tortured, deported, imprisoned. This is the method of preventive terror. A few may escape, but if they do, they can be sure that their families and friends will be used as hostages.
A friend of mine who escaped from Russia and now lives in New Zealand told me how it is when people disappear. A communist novelist of high standing in the party was suddenly criticized by Pravda. (There are, of course only party organs.) After this, nobody dared to visit him any longer or to talk to him. A month or two later he disappeared. After some further months, my friend met the novelist’s wife. She was haggard, wearing shabby clothes, without a coat, with a haunted look on her face. He asked her if he could do anything for her. She shrank back and said, “Nothing, nothing! Go away. Don’t talk to me. You cannot help me.” Another old friend of mine who escaped from Austria when it was occupied by Germany under Hitler said to me once, “In England, you are happy people. If there is a knock on your door, early in the morning, you think it is the milkman who wants to know whether it’s a pint or a quart today. But for us a knock on the door in the early morning meant the Gestapo—the secret police.”
I shall not go on telling about the realities of a life under terror—a terror against which nobody can do anything, against which individual resistance is impossible, and any attempt at organized resistance is also out of the question, since nobody dares trust anyone else.
Instead I shall try to show that even all this is not so much the result of wickedness as of blockheadedness and stupidity.
The Wages of Blockheadedness
The founders of communism were not wicked men, but men inspired by the highest ideals, and so are some of their followers even today. They were revolutionaries, to be sure; but they believed that they were faced by a tyrannical dictatorship and that nothing but a revolution could bring freedom. But they held a number of mistaken theories, and they stuck to these theories even when they were refuted by experience. Thus their fundamental mistake was not a moral mistake, but an intellectual mistake; or in other words, not wickedness but blockheadedness and stupidity.
The most important of these mistakes was Marx’s theory that all forms of government amount to the same—that all governments are dictatorships. The only moral and political problem left in this field would therefore be “Who should tyrannize or dictate whom?”
Marx believed that there were only two possibilities: that the capitalists tyrannize or dictate, and the manual workers be dictated to, or that the workers dictate. He decided in favor of the underdog. This was a noble decision, especially as he was not a worker himself. Since Marx believed that all those who were not manual workers—that is all the capitalists—were mere drones, he predicted that once their tyranny was overthrown, they would disappear. In this way a one-class society of workers would be established, which would mean a classless society.
The aim of this theory, its intention, was not immoral. What was wrong was that it was factually mistaken. The whole black-and-white picture of a society consisting, essentially, of two warring classes, an almost devilish capitalist class and an almost angelic proletariat, has very little to do with reality. And the belief that there was a capitalist dictatorship which had to be replaced by a proletarian dictatorship was fatally wrong. But it led Lenin to establish a dictatorship. And since this dictatorship was based upon a false theory, it had to suppress opposition and free discussion, and thus it led to a rule of terror; a rule where the most ruthless are likely to get to the top.
It is a sad story, and it illustrates the wisdom of an old saying which was originally not meant to apply to politics and to governments, but to individual men—the saying that the way to hell is paved with good intentions. As examples of these good intentions I quote one of the early admirers of Lenin, J. F. Hecker, who in a moving dedication in his book Moscow Dialogues speaks of “a social order where the strife of class and race shall be no more, and where truth, goodness, and beauty shall be the share of all.” Who would not like to have heaven on earth? And yet, it must be one of the principles of rational politics that we cannot make heaven on earth. The development of communism illustrates the danger of the attempt. It has often been tried, but it always led to the establishment of something much more like hell. Those who are inspired by this heavenly vision of an angelic society are bound to be disappointed, and when disappointed, they try to blame their failure on scapegoats, human devils who maliciously prevent the coming millennium, and who have to be exterminated. This history of many religious persecutions and of some revolutions which, like the French revolution, drifted into a rule of terror, the terror of Robespierre.
Thus we should see in communism one of the grave mistakes we are liable to make, and from which we should learn. It is, like the terror of Robespierre, a fatal result of over-optimism to which we also owe many good results. For communism may be looked upon as merely a false step men made in what is perhaps the greatest of all moral and spiritual revolutions of history. It is a false step, but a false step within that great movement of liberation which started with the Renaissance and led through the vicissitudes of the Reformation and the religious and revolutionary wars to the free societies in which many of us are privileged to live.
Communism has re-introduced slavery, terror, torture; and this we must not condone and cannot forgive. Yet we must not forget that all this happened because the founders of communism believed in a theory which promised freedom—freedom for all mankind. We must not forget in this bitter conflict that even this worst evil of our time was born out of the desire to help others.
The Open Society
But let us now turn back to the open society.
As you will have noticed, I think that we ought to look soberly and critically at our political institutions. I also think that it is very necessary to look soberly and critically at our society. There is much to be criticized. There is much room for improvement.
I also think that we should not only criticize our society but we should look to see how it compares with others. And here I wish to make a strong statement. I believe that if we searched through all the history of mankind, we would not find a better society than ours—the free societies of the Free World. We have abolished slavery, we are fighting against poverty all over the world. We are richer, to be sure, than all previous societies, but it is not because of this that I call our free society the best that has ever been. I believe, rather, that our free societies are morally better than any of their predecessors. Never before, I believe, have so many people shown so much readiness to help others, and so much courage. Never before have so many been so anxious to do what is right, and to accept responsibilities. This, at least, may give us some confidence in ourselves and hope for the future.
- ETC: A Review of General Semantics, vol.20, no.1 (May, 1963): 5-22. Subheadings have been added by the editor.