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the Complete Review
the complete review - philosophy / political science

The Open Society and its Enemies

Karl Popper

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To purchase The Open Society and its Enemies

Title: The Open Society and its Enemies
Author: Karl Popper
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: (1945)
Length: 726 pages
Availability: The Open Society and its Enemies - US
The Open Society and its Enemies - UK
The Open Society and its Enemies - Canada
The Open Society and its Enemies - India
La société ouverte et ses ennemis: tome 1 and tome 2 - France
Die offene Gesellschaft und ihre Feinde: Bd 1 and Bd 2 - Deutschland
La società aperta e i suoi nemici - Italia
La sociedad abierta y sus enemigos - España
  • First published 1945, followed by several revised editions
  • The one-volume Routledge (UK) edition includes a new preface by Václav Havel and a personal recollection by E.H.Gombrich

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Our Assessment:

A- : well-argued, accessible, ambitious

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Am. Econ. Rev. . 3/1951 G.H.Hildebrand
Christian Science Monitor . 29/1/1951 Leila Flower
FAZ . 20/10/2003 Thomas Stölzel
The Nation . 17/2/1951 Joseph Craft
The NY Times Book Rev. . 22/7/1951 Sidney Hook
TLS . 24/8/1946 .
Yale Review . Spring/1951 Hans Kohn

  From the Reviews:
  • "Die Offene Gesellschaft und ihre Feinde Poppers wurde ein Klassiker schon zu Lebzeiten des Verfassers: Das Buch gilt als eine der prägnantesten Abrechungen mit dem Totalitarismus und den politischen Utopien und damit als letztes Wort der Demokratie. (...) (E)s zeichnete einen schneidend deutlichen Gegenentwurf zur Suggestionskraft politischer Heilslehren." - Thomas Stölzel, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "(L)earned, subtly argued, and passionately written (.....) It is not often that a book so truculent in tone manages despite its length to be both suggestive and interesting. (...) Not so persuasive are the author's criticisms of the many views often associated with historicism." - Sidney Hook, The New York Times Book Review

  • "In its strength and its weakness, its sincerity and its dogmaticism, its searching criticism and its intellectual arrogance, it is typical or, at any rate, symptomatic of the age." - Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Open Society and its Enemies is a major 20th century text, a book that often feels familiar even to many who have not read it. Seen as a call for the 'open society' and for democratic institutions, it was considered particularly relevant in the Cold War-era. With the collapse of the Soviet Union Popper's world view seems to have emerged as triumphant, but the book is still well worth revisiting: the struggles between the interests of the state and those of the individual -- and a pull towards the 'closed society' -- continue even in advanced democratic states, while historicism (vigorously denounced by Popper) continues to find widespread support.
       The Open Society and its Enemies is presented largely as a critical book. Popper does emphasise what he believes we should aspire to (first and foremost: a democratic foundation to any form of government), but the argument is largely framed within a disproof of popular systems.
       The book is divided into two parts. The first, 'The Spell of Plato', is a devastating and very sharp critique of Plato's philosophy and ideology. The second, 'The High Tide of Prophecy', takes on Marx -- though Popper softens his criticism by excusing much of what Marx wrote based on the context and the times; the real target of this section, the man whose work Popper holds to have been far more damaging, is Hegel.
       Popper embarks on his work with a very clear idea of what is desirable: it is time for the 'open society', the one which: "sets free the critical powers of man" and "in which individuals are confronted with personal decisions" (a big step forward (so Popper) from the tribal or 'closed society'). But keeping society open in this way is no easy task; totalitarianism often lurks nearby, some arguing even that it is inevitable. Popper will have none of that: democracy is the best solution, and it can triumph (though it helps if one is aware of the constant threats against it).
       A major part of his argument is also against historicism, the idea that, like scientific laws, there are laws of history (which we can figure out) with predictive value, allowing us to look and -- more importantly -- plan ahead. Popper argues: it hasn't worked, and it won't work -- and it leads down a blind and dangerous alley.
       In his section on 'The Spell of Plato' Popper does everything to break it. He holds Plato's ideas on governance to be outrageous and foolish. From Plato's racialist arguments -- defending infanticide, because: 'The race of the guardians must be kept pure' -- on Popper believes that:

Plato's political program, far from being morally superior to totalitarianism, is fundamentally identical with it.
       (And it's Plato's historicism that is at the root of this programme, of course.)
       "Never was a man more earnest in his hostility towards the individual", Popper argues -- and Popper argues that such hostility is a very bad thing. He argues that Plato is consistently misinterpreted, his views idealized in a way that makes them appear not quite so bad. Popper will have none of it: Plato was very, very bad, and he aims to prove it.
       The proof is, for the most part, a success: it's hard to argue with much of what Popper presents. Plato's words, and their basis, help make Popper's case - and a damning one it is:
     We see here that Plato recognizes only one ultimate standard, the interest of the state. Everything that furthers it is good and virtuous and just; everything that threatens it is bad and wicked and unjust. Actions that serve it are moral; actions that endanger it, immoral. In other words, Plato's moral code is strictly utilitarian; it is a code of collectivist or political utilitarianism. The criterion of morality is the interest of the state. Morality is nothing but political hygiene.
       Central, of course, to his argument is also the judgement that this is not good, and Popper makes a convincing case for putting the individual, as it were, before the state. In particular, he argues the democratic system is the only acceptable one -- noting the possibility of failures within it, but also insisting that it is the only system able to readily correct failures:
Democracy (...) provides the institutional framework for the reform of political institutions. It makes possible the reform of institutions without using violence, and thereby the use of reason in the designing of new institutions and the adjusting of old ones. [...] It is quite wrong to blame democracy for the political shortcomings of a democratic state. We should rather blame ourselves, that is to say the citizens of the democratic state. In a nondemocratic state, the only way to achieve reasonable reforms is by the violent overthrow of the government, and the introduction of a democratic framework.
       Popper has little patience for the utopian state and the philosopher king: these pie-ine-sky ideas have far less going for them and are less likely to be successful over any long term than their supporters (beginning with Plato) claim.
       Hegel, "the source of all contemporary historicism", fares even worse than Plato, and Popper is very annoyed by his success and influence. (Popper has a sharp pen, too, and his digs at the those he has little respect for -- Oswald Spengler ! -- are good fun, too.) Of Marx, however, he is more forgiving:
Such were the conditions of the working class even in 1863, when Marx was writing Capital; his burning protest against these crimes, which were then tolerated, and sometimes even defended, not only by professional economists but even by churchmen, will secure him forever a place among the liberators of mankind.
       And Popper does, emphatically, point out that there are dangers from unfettered capitalism, noting that legislation can and should be used to avoid it becoming dominant and determinative:
(P)olitical power is the key to economic protection. Political power and its control is everything. Economic power must not be permitted to dominate political power; if necessary, it must be fought and brought under control by political power.
       The failures of Marxism-in-(Soviet)-practice were only beginning to become clear when the first edition of The Open Society and its Enemies came out, but they were obvious enough to Popper that they did not need to be more closely addressed. The real dangers he sees are in a belief in historicism, and a willingness to put state above individual interests. Among his closing words is a valuable rallying cry:
     Instead of posing as prophets we must become makers of our fate. We must learn to do things as well as we can, and to look out for our mistakes.
       In a world where religious fundamentalism again manages to move the masses (and leads far too many to do the outrageous), and powerful democratic states like the United States move, under the jr. Bush administration, to limit the rights and voices of individuals, while arguing that they benevolently (yet untransparently) are working towards the greater good, The Open Society and its Enemies remains an essential work. An it's also an engaging and accessible read.
       Highly recommended.

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The Open Society and its Enemies: Reviews: Karl Popper: Open Society: Books about Karl Popper under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • Paul Feyerabend on the later Popper in his autobiography Killing Time
  • Feyerabend and Imre Lakatos make frequent mention of the old master while arguing For and Against Method
  • See Index of Philosophy books at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Karl Popper (1902-1994) was one of the leading philosophers of the 20th century.

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