Karl Popper on Totalitarianism and the Application of Scientific Method to Politics

The Open Society Book Cover

Totalitarianism is defined by the Oxford dictionary as “a system of government that is centralized and dictatorial and requires complete subservience to the state.” Totalitarian governments restrict individual freedoms and rights, prohibit democracy and voting, and maintain strict centralized control over all aspects of public and private life. In a totalitarian government, the collective is prioritized over the individual.

While the horrors associated with the totalitarian movements of the twentieth century are well documented, we can ask, as the British philosopher Karl Popper did, where this idea of complete subservience to the state ultimately comes from. As Popper discovered, the intellectual origin of this idea comes from none other than Plato. 

While Plato didn’t invent totalitarianism (Sparta was already an established totalitarian state [in the most general sense of the term]), he was the first to provide its most thorough and influential intellectual defense, which Popper would outline in Volume 1 of The Open Society and its Enemies. But far from being only a critique of Plato, The Open Society also introduced Popper’s own innovative political philosophy, which is highly relevant today. 

What follows are the key lessons from this first volume of The Open Society, including Plato’s totalitarian ideas and Popper’s alternative vision of incorporating the scientific method into politics.

On questioning ‘great men’

Popper begins Volume 1 of The Open Society as follows:

“If in this book harsh words are spoken about some of the greatest among the intellectual leaders of mankind, my motive is not, I hope, the wish to belittle them. It springs rather from my conviction that, if our civilization is to survive, we must break with the habit of deference to great men. Great men may make great mistakes; and as the book tries to show, some of the greatest leaders of the past supported the perennial attack on freedom and reason.”

Popper was cognizant that people would resist what he was doing: namely, criticizing the philosopher whom many would consider the greatest philosopher of all time. (Plato is the subject of Volume 1; Karl Marx of volume 2). He was therefore careful to make some further qualifications, and one important point.

First, Popper would note that he did not intend to challenge the entirety of Plato’s body of work, only the aspects of his philosophy that led to a totalitarian conception of the state. While Popper admired many aspects of Plato’s thought and works (as I do), this did not mean that Plato did not get some things very wrong. 

And that’s the first key lesson of the book: namely, that no philosopher, no matter how revered, is infallible; even the greatest thinkers in history make mistakes, and to refuse to acknowledge these mistakes simply out of admiration is one aspect of human nature that we would all do well to overcome. 

But the question remains: is Popper’s characterization of Plato fair? Did Plato in fact lay the groundwork for totalitarian ideas? The answer, as Popper painstakingly demonstrated, is unfortunately yes. 

Plato’s totalitarian political philosophy

Popper knew he had his work cut out for him in attacking such a revered figure, but fortunately, he had some key facts on his side, beginning with Plato’s Theory of Forms, the core of Plato’s philosophy and the key to understanding his political philosophy.  

In simple terms, Plato envisioned a realm of Forms or Ideas that transcended time and space. Everyday, sensible objects are merely imperfect representations of the perfect Forms. There is, for example, a perfect Form of a chair, to which all actual chairs “participate” or mimic the Form imperfectly. 

This idea of perfect and transcendent Forms, along with imperfect worldly representations, would extend to Plato’s political philosophy. Plato envisioned an ideal state—revealed only to the rational contemplation of a philosopher—that represented the perfect embodiment of justice. Since the ideal state was only discoverable via trained philosophical contemplation, only philosophers are fit to rule. As Plato said:

“There will be no end to the troubles of states, or of humanity itself, till philosophers become kings in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands.”

The Theory of Forms has further political implications; if all sensible objects in the world are imperfect representations of perfect and transcendent Forms, then all change is to be considered regressive, bringing the object further away from perfection. To Plato, the state is no different; change is equivalent to deterioration from its perfect model or Form. The ideal state, then, according to Plato, is a state that is static and protected from change or instability. Plato’s primary mission was therefore to arrest political change.

Plato’s recipe for totalitarianism

How does Plato plan to arrest political change? By creating a strict caste system that is modeled on the supposed natural superiority of older, tribal forms of political arrangement, such as practiced in Sparta, which Plato openly admired. Remember that as time passes and political arrangements change, this can only result in deterioration from a prior ideal model. Only through the philosophical contemplation of this ideal model can a ruler hope to return to this golden age of politics (the idea of returning to a utopian golden age is thus born with Plato). 

Plato believed that he had discovered this model, as he outlined in the Republic. Plato envisioned his perfectly just society as a class-based society consisting of three classes: guardians (philosophers/leaders), auxiliaries (soldiers), and producers (workers/laborers), with limited to no social mobility and state-supervised breeding (i.e., eugenics). 

Plato advocated, among other things, state-controlled human reproduction, the prevention of the mixing of blood between races and classes, centralized and censored education, and intentionally lying to the population to maintain social control and harmony. 

“God has,” according to Plato, “put gold into those who are capable of ruling, silver into the auxiliaries, and iron and copper into the peasants and the other producing classes.” These are racial characteristics that, according to Plato, should never be mixed. 

In regard to his infamous noble lie, Plato tells us “it is the business of the rulers of the city, if it is anybody’s, to tell lies, deceiving both its enemies and its own citizens for the benefit of the city; and no one else must touch this privilege…if the ruler catches anyone else in a lie…then he will punish him for introducing a practice which injures and endangers the city.”

It’s quite clear that Plato is out to eradicate all forms of individualism, as he explicitly admits:

“In the highest form of the state there is common property of wives, of children, and of all chattels. And everything possible has been done to eradicate from our life everywhere and in every way all that is private and individual.”

Plato’s idea of justice (in sharp contrast to the humanitarian and egalitarian ideas of Pericles, Democritus, and others) was explicitly stated to be any action that benefited the state collectively, not the individual members. In fact, the Republic is entirely concerned with the education and character of the rulers with virtually no consideration given to the concerns of the ruled. As Popper wrote:

“Because of his radical collectivism, Plato is not even interested in those problems which men usually call the problems of justice, that is to say, in the impartial weighing of the contesting claims of individuals.”

As Plato would explicitly state, “I legislate with a view to what is best for the whole state.”

Popper’s application of the scientific method to politics 

Plato initiated a line of thinking that stretches to the present day. Several of us continue to envision the task of politics to be the establishment of static political arrangements that are representations of an ideal model from some prior golden age. 

The consequence of this orientation to politics is the prioritization of the following question: Who should rule? For Plato, and for totalitarianism in general, the most important question one can ask is in regard to which leader has the capability to restore the state to some prior form of perfection. 

The contrary view, proposed by Popper, is to replace the question Who should rule? with the better question How can we so organize political institutions that bad or incompetent rulers can be prevented from doing too much damage?

This shift of emphasis is grounded in the historical fact that most leaders throughout history have exhibited below-average intelligence and morality, indicating that humanity is generally quite bad at selecting capable and worthwhile leaders. While we should hope for the best in our political leaders, we should also prepare for the worst.

There is a parallel here with science. No single scientist or group of scientists had or ever will have a monopoly on knowledge. Scientific knowledge progresses—not because of any single individual—but because of its method and institutions (such as peer review) that weed out the pseudoscience and bogus experiments that would otherwise pollute and dominate the field. In science, we hope for the best (legitimate findings), but we prepare for the worst (bogus findings exposed through peer review).

Democratic institutions serve a similar function in politics. As with science, no single individual or group has a monopoly on political knowledge or moral preference, and institutions and procedures (voting) are set in place for the purposes of weeding out bad leaders. 

It’s well worth remembering that the nature of politics is conflicting priorities, and the resolution of conflict may either be peaceful (through democratic means) or else violent. This is why a focus on institutions, and the establishment of effective systems of accountability, is far more important than selecting any particular leader, particularly if that leader is determined to weaken those very democratic institutions. 

Democracy, in this sense, is a perpetual fight against tyranny. As Popper wrote: 

“He who accepts the principle of democracy in this sense is therefore not bound to look upon the results of a democratic vote as an authoritative expression of what is right. Although he will accept a decision of the majority, for the sake of making the democratic institutions work, he will feel free to combat it by democratic means, and to work for its revision. And should he live to see the day when the majority vote destroys the democratic institutions, then this sad experience will tell him only that there does not exist a foolproof method of avoiding tyranny. But it need not weaken his decision to fight tyranny, nor will it expose his theory as inconsistent.”

Piecemeal social engineering

The final piece to Popper’s political philosophy is the method by which to implement and evaluate public policy. In contrast to what he calls “utopian social engineering,” which seeks—through force, if necessary—the implementation of policies in pursuit of the “ideal society,” piecemeal social engineering seeks only to remedy immediately perceivable injustices and harm. As Popper wrote:

“The politician who adopts this method [piecemeal social engineering] may or may not have a blueprint of society before his mind, he may or may not hope that mankind will one day realize an ideal state, and achieve happiness and perfection on earth. But he will be aware that perfection, if at all attainable, is far distant, and that every generation of men, and therefore also the living, have a claim; perhaps not so much a claim to be made happy, for there are no institutional means of making a man happy, but a claim not to be made unhappy, where it can be avoided. They have a claim to be given all possible help, if they suffer. The piecemeal engineer will, accordingly, adopt the method of searching for, and fighting against, the greatest and most urgent evils of society, rather than searching for, and fighting for, its greatest ultimate good.”

The piecemeal social engineer will, like the scientist, run experiments and measure outcomes with an eye toward the reduction of unnecessary suffering, harm, and injustice, without concern for the eventual attainment of perfection (solving problems only introduces new ones). Because things do not always turn out as we imagine—and often generate unintended consequences—it is always necessary to test and revise our ideas. This doesn’t prohibit bold or progressive policy, it only suggests that we should maintain some humility with regard to our ability to prophesy the future. As Popper wrote:

“In fact, [a scientific orientation to politics] might lead to the happy situation where politicians begin to look out for their own mistakes instead of trying to explain them away and to prove that they have always been right. This—and not Utopian planning or historical prophecy—would mean the introduction of scientific method into politics, since the whole secret of scientific method is a readiness to learn from mistakes.”

Further reading

Leave a Reply