Saturday, June 14, 2014

On Karl Popper’s Views of Marxism

Karl Popper, best known as a philosopher and professor at the London School of Economics, had just turned 12 years old when his home country of Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, marking the beginning of World War I. At the time, opposed to the mainstream desire for national glory, he hoped only for a quick peace [p.14*]. By age 17, in the months following the war, Popper had acquainted himself with members of the Communist Party in Austria, but soon astutely recognized contradictions within the values that party members claimed. Popper re-evaluated his attitude toward Marxism, and concluded he must leave the Party.

Popper summarizes Marxism as consisting of the following three arguments [p.19]:
1. revolution, not reform
2. conditions will get worse for workers
3. Capitalists cannot be individually blamed

Popper says this third point of Marx’s is usually, in his experience, ignored by Marxists, because it is subsumed by the first point. Political goals take precedence over theoretical distinctions. “Vulgar Marxism” is adopted, because it’s easier to explain and advances the immediate goal of building the party’s numbers.

Popper describes this contradiction as the “Marxist ideological mousetrap.” Those who adopt Marxism will inevitably dumb-down Marx’s theoretical distinctions, in order to make it simpler for others to adopt, thus advancing the immediate goal of revolution. I would counter that a proper organizational structure would have measures in place to avoid the trap.

A key takeaway from Popper’s analysis is that Marxists should avoid demonizing individuals for capitalist business practices. [War criminals are a whole other story--they can be demonized ad infinitum.] But critically demonizing people, such as the Koch brothers, for their economic/political behavior ultimately plays into neoliberal reformism, because it blames the individual instead of blaming the machinery of capitalism.

Popper ultimately sided against communism, because in his words, “[Marx] believed the economy was all-important, and this is certainly a mistake” [p.21]. This is where I would disagree. Popper died in 1994, right before the Internet made obvious the influence of global capitalist markets. I agree with Wolfgang Giegerich’s claim that globalization is simply monotheism applied to the economic sphere: “Profit maximization is the sun around which we humans today have been assigned to revolve. … It is our real God.”

Popper remained interested in the question “Communism, yes or no?” up until the end of his life [p.15], and, had he lived another decade, I find it probable that he would have started to lean more towards “yes.”

*All page references are from the book The Lesson of This Century: Karl Popper Interviewed by Giancarlo Bosetti