The poverty of marxism

Marx was wrong. This would seem to be the bold summary of Karl Popper’s reading of Marx and it seems as if a non-student of Popper would know anything about him, this is what he would know. This issue is far more complex than this, of course, and the aim of this paper will be to give an account of exactly what in Marx’s thought was wrong. Surely the fall of communism and the persistency of capitalism in the western world have already proven Marx’s predictions fallible. On the other hand, as Popper would himself admit, Marx also was very right in many aspects, prophesying the decline of unrestrained capitalism in the western world and recognizing the formation of class struggle and its future impact on the course of history (Popper 2008;210). The failure of Marx lies deeper than his sociological analysis and is to be found in his view of history, his historical method which by Popper was famously marked by the poverty of Historicism (Popper 2008;210).

The genealogy of historicism
More than two thousand years ago, Plato according to Popper laid the foundation for historicist thought through both his impact on western metaphysics and his belief that ideas, or essences, exist prior to the things in flux (Popper 2008;39). The development of all things hence represented to Plato a movement away from the perfect ideas. This take was also applied to human beings who were seen as means of development from a perfect idea to an abstraction of it, in Plato’s doctrine thereby amongst others putting the collective or state higher than the individual (Popper 2008;41). This can be seen as the first starting point for historicist thought. Applied to scientific enquiry, Popper holds that it was Aristotle, influenced by Plato who created the school of science which thought that scientific research should penetrate to the essence of things in order to explain them (Popper 2007;25). Aristotle’s version of Plato’s essentialism according to Popper holds but a few but mainly unimportant differences, insisting that unlike Plato he did not conceive of Forms of Ideas as existing apart from sensible things. However, in his theory of change, the platonic idea of essences or originals existing prior to sensible things can again be found (Popper 2008;8). According to Aristotle, anything, also any movement of change, is the final cause, or the end towards which the movement aims (Popper 2008;7) Though Aristotle was not particularly interested in the problem of historical trends, his view on change in nature lends itself to historicist interpretations (Popper 2008;9). These first historicist premises Popper summarizes in that only if a person or state develops and only by way of its history can we know something about it essence, that change makes apparent the essences which from the beginning have inhered the in the changing object and that in order to become real, the essence of thing must unfold itself in change (Popper 2008;9-10).
Closer to our own times, Hegel, one of the great geniuses of western thought, inherited the platonic and Aristotelian idea of things developing through an essential blueprint(Popper 2008;30). These Ideas to Hegel are identical with the things in flux, but unlike Plato he did not conceive of this development as a descent but as progress, thereby laying the foundation for modern historicism (Popper 2008;40). To Hegel, history was the development of what he called absolute spirit or world spirit, using the world around it as means of manifestation for its own progress (Popper 2008;51) This progress of the world spirit would according to Hegel lead to the perfection of the world, and, echoing his ancient predecessors, reason, the essence of the world spirit, was to found within its development over time (Popper 2008;52). One should perhaps also note that Hegel, just as Plato, viewed individuals as instruments for the spirit to develop, as tools for the greater bigger (Popper 2008;77). The influence Hegel had on western metaphysics and scientific thought would according to Popper turn oracular philosophy, which by observation of essences through time could predict the next step in these ideas’ development, into oracular social science (Popper 2008;11, 33).

The historicist method
Historicist tendencies can be found in many sciences and according to Popper a flaw within physical sciences for instance is to be found in its belief in and methodological need of generalization. The possibility of generalization rests, according to historicism, on a general uniformity of nature which assumes that similar things will happen given similar circumstances (Popper 2007;5). If X is the case, then Y will follow. A problem arises when applied to social sciences and especially sociology since similar circumstances only arise within a single historical period (Popper 2007;5). A method which would ignore this limitation would according to historicism, have to assume that the regularities in question are everlasting, creating a sociological theory which denies that society changes or develops (Popper 2007;5, 6). Views upon history and its implications aren’t anything new. Conservativce thought for instance can be viewed as often relying on natural change, for both good or worse (Heywood 2004; 345). Conservatives however disagree on what exactly it is that history can teach (Gaus, Kukathas 2004; 19, 131). Rationalistically inclined conservatives view history as pointing towards fundamental considerations, a dimension which may reveal the true nature or essence of political, social or human life. Deriving from this position is also the belief that phenomenon such as social disorder may be related to a lack of coherency with certain eternal orders which can be observed through time (Gaus, Kukathas 2004; 132). On the other hand, skeptical conservatives doubt that human beings are capable of understanding the lessons which may be learned through history and point towards an evident human fallibility (Gaus, Kukathas 2004; 132). Another historical view relevant to the liberal tradition would be that human beings are the creators of history and that there is no such thing as historical determinism or traces, only trends which are reproduced by human action (Gaus, Kukathas 2004; 19). Historicists seem to create their own and maybe varying positions within these questions, either viewing history as deterministic or pointing towards the undetermined change as observable facts which in turn to seem to show that trends can predict future outcomes, and, paradoxically, thereby become deterministic. This tendency is shown in the historicist belief that social uniformities differ from those of the natural sciences, changing from one period to another with human activity at the core if this change (Popper 2007;6). From this view, every single event in social life can be said to be new. It may be classified with certain events in certain aspects, but it will always be unique in a very definite way. If history not is a straight line which itself produces observable traces which can be used for prediction, it is in turn relative human agency which through their actions create historical determination. It is conceivable that, by analyzing social life, we may be able to discover, and to understand, how and why any particular event came about, that what we may clearly understand as its causes and effects (Popper 2007;10). The aim then has to be to understand these cause and effects. But can we? According to Popper, this is a task fallible to the complexity of social life, which must leave us at the point of making good guesses, but never knowing anything for sure. Social life is a natural phenomenon that itself presupposes the mental life of individuals, which in turn presupposes biology, which again presupposes chemistry and physics. The fact that sociology comes last in this hierarchy of sciences presents us with the tremendous complexity of the factors involved in constructing social life (Popper 2007;10). This leaves us with an obvious problem. Whilst historicism stresses the importance of prediction as one of the tasks of science it at the same time argues that social prediction is difficult due to the complexity of social structures and due to the complexity arising from the interconnection between predictions and predicted events (Popper 2007;11). How do we get from X to Y? As a solution for prediction, historicism offers, as its name implies, history as the social science’s main mediator, claiming that we must study the history groups if we wish to understand society as it is now and if we wish to understand and foresee future developments (Popper 2007;16). This however is a fallacy within historicist view of history per se, since, according to Popper society’s state must be independent of its historical system and is only determined by its present constellation (Popper 2007;17). What this implies is that society is not a still standing object but something more organic which, even if it changes, always is determined by the interaction of several instances anew. Interestingly, historicism does not lack insight into this problem of change. On the contrary, historicism is known to stress the importance of change, arguing that every change in society implies a change which must be identifiable in order to speak of change at all (Popper 2007;27).
Turning back to the argument of complexity and the Now being determined by its actuality only, Popper argues that one fallacy of this interpretation is that the extent of possible changes cannot be limited a priori (Popper 2007;28). Though social change may be predicted by the social sciences, no such prediction can be exact and there will always be a margin of uncertainty as to its details and timing (Popper 2007;33).

Sociology and historicism
Historicist view sociology as a discipline whose basis is formed by a chronicle of the facts of history and whose aim is to make large-scare forecasts (Popper 2007;35). The problem for historicism and sociology lies in its observational basis which can be given only in the form of a chronicle of events of political or social happenings, what one customarily calls history (Popper 2007;34). Deriving from this point, sociology must be based on social dynamics, the theory that social movement is determined by social, meaning historical, forces (Popper 2007;35). In this regard, sociology is not only backwards looking, but looks forward into the future (Popper 2007;40). The historicist and sociological critique of Popper, as we recall, holds that this sort of prediction is bound to lead into fallacy at some point, since there are no laws which determine the succession of a dynamic series of events (Popper 2007;109). Turning back to the observation of complexity within social and human life, one also risks overlooking conditions which scientifically (at a given point) are not observable (Popper 2007;119). Leaning on nothing but phenomena which have been observable over time, sociology would also easily overlook the situational logic in historical events (Popper 2007;137). In short, quoting Popper: The poverty of historicism, we might say, is a poverty of imagination. The historicist continuously upbraids those who cannot imagine a change in their little worlds; yet it seems that the historicist is himself deficient in imagination, for he cannot imagine a change in the conditions of change (Popper 2007;120).

The Marxist tradition
Just like Plato and Hegel, Popper, though respecting Marx for his insights and achievements, gives Marx the name of a false prophet for inheriting the historicist view and the madness of believing in being able to thereby predict the future (Popper 2008;91). Marxism to Popper’s analysis is a purely historical theory which aims at predicting the future course of economic and political developments, in early Marxism especially of revolutions (Popper 2008;91). To Popper it was amongst others the stress on scientific prediction of his time which led Marx to believe that his science could be able to predict the future, since the future is predetermined (Popper 2008;93). This belief in scientific fortune-telling is according to Popper not founded on determinism alone and shares it’s foundation with the confusion between scientific prediction and large scale historical prophecy which foretells the main tendencies of the future development of society (Popper 2008;94).
With Hegel Marx believes that freedom is the aim of historical development but he recognizes that, in contrast, human life acts within premises given by its physical realm (Popper 2008;114). This also marks a new focus upon nurture instead of nature, a shift from biological to sociological explanations for understanding society since problems would not rooted in nature as such but are in themselves results of a society (Heywood 2004; 19). Though, the question prevails if not historicism could, in turn, replace the role of nature.
What Hegel called world spirit Marx hence turned into what he saw as the fundament of human life which can be historically observed, the all-pervading economic motives in the life of men. Hence the essence of Marxism is the doctrine that economic motives and especially it’s social realm of class interest are the driving forces of history. This is the doctrine to which the name historical materialism refers (Popper 2008;110). Paradoxically as it seems, this thought does not seem to be too far away from liberal theory which stressed the man as economical and utility maximizing, for instance linking liberalism to social contract theories (Heywood 2004; 24).
To Marx, phenomena such as war, unemployment, class struggle were should not first and foremost be conceived as the result of conspiracy, big business etc, but as consequences of actions by agents caught in a system determined b the historicity of economics and production, echoing Hegel’s view on individuals as merely puppets to the world spirit puppet master (Popper 2008;111). An implication deriving from this point of view is further that individuals can not be totally responsible for the life they lead since they are subjects to a historical order (Heywood 2004; 33).
Economic historicism hence is the method applied by to analyze changes in society. According to Marx, every particular social system must destroy itself, simply because it must create the forces which produce the next historical period. (Popper 2008;149) With history once again acting as the puppet master, to Marx it is not the consciousness of man that determines his existence, but  rather it is his social existence, which is determined by material historicism, that determines his consciousness (Popper 2008;98). What can be viewed, and Popper does so, as a sociological analysis, material historicism creates a kingdom of necessity from which society and it’s development can be explained (Popper 2008;116). As Popper notes, Marx was not altogether wrong in his conclusions. The capitalist development leading to more and more poor and the formation of social classes did, as Marx foresaw, change the economic and social real which he lived in. Where Marx went wrong was his belief in revolution which he historically predicted would be the solution of  the situation he was addressing. Instead capitalism was restricted (Popper 2008;151, 162, 182). Marx failure, hence, lay in the poverty of historicism, his essential lack of understanding of the fact that even if we observe what appears to be historical tendencies or trends we cannot know whether it will have the same appearance tomorrow (Popper 2008;210).

Concluding remarks
What this journey through historicist thought and history has showed us is that history in itself has no meaning (Popper 2008;298). Popper himself holds that history must be distinguished from historicism since the latter neither reveals historical understanding nor historical sense (Popper 2008;64). We may, by being critical to historical analysis, be able to grasp tendencies and trends, but these must always leave us wondering instead of knowing.
If we think that history progresses, or that we are bound to progress, then we commit the same mistake as those who believe that history has a meaning that can be discovered in it and need not be given to it. For to progress is to move towards some kind of end, towards an end which exists for us as human beings. “History” cannot do that; only we, the human individuals, can do it[…] Instead of posing as prophets we must become the makers of our fate […] (Popper 2008;309).


Gaus, Gerald F, Kukathas, Chandra (ed.) – Handbook of political theory – Sage 2004 Heywood, Andrew – Political Theory: An introduction, 3ed. – Palgrave 2004
Popper, Karl – The open society and it’s enemies Vol. II – Routledge, 2008
Popper, Karl – The poverty of historicism – Routledge, 2007


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