The Open Philosophy and the Open Society:
A Reply to Dr. Karl Popper’s Refutations of Marxism

Maurice Cornforth





Historical materialism, the Marxist theory of man and society, is the application to social problems of the general theory of dialectical materialism. And since dialectical materialism enjoins us to study things in their real changes and interconnections, the conclusions of historical materialism about social affairs, about the laws of social development, and about what we can do now to solve the pressing problems of contemporary society, are reached as a result of doing precisely that.

Having stigmatised the general philosophy of Marxism as “reinforced dogmatism”, Dr. Popper proceeds to explain how this general dogmatic approach produces the particular form of dogmatism which he finds characteristic of Marx’s social theories—the dogmatism of “historicism”. He presumes, reasonably enough, that dogma produces dogma—so that with an absurdly dogmatic philosophy there goes an absurdly dogmatic theory of man and society. Just as dialectical materialism allegedly replaces the scientific study of the different aspects of real processes by a dogma that the process as a whole must go through the dialectical sequence of “thesis-antithesis-synthesis”, so does Marx’s historicism replace the scientific study of social affairs by the dogma that society must necessarily pass through a pre-ordained dialectical progress from primitive communism through class-society to the final communist millennium. But just as Dr. Popper’s interpretation of dialectical materialism as “reinforced dogmatism” and of “the dialectic” as a scheme of “thesis-antithesis-synthesis” is an absurd travesty, so is his interpretation of historical materialism as embodying what he calls “historicist” dogma.

Dr. Popper defines historicism as “an approach to the social sciences which assumes that historical prediction is their principal aim, and . . . that this aim is attainable by discovering the ‘rhythms’ or the ‘patterns’, the ‘laws’ or the ‘trends’ that underlie the evolution of history” (PH. 3). Marx, he assures us, was “a famous historicist” (PH. 8).

Why should one not aim at “historical prediction”? The point is that the historical predictions engaged in by historicists are entirely unlike the more modest predictions normally made by the sciences. For “ordinary predictions in science are conditional. They assert that certain changes (say, of the temperature of water in a kettle) will be accompanied by other changes (say, the boiling of the water).” Historicist predictions, on the other hand, are “unconditional historical prophecies” (CR. 339).

Thus historicism considers it “the task of the social sciences to furnish us with long-term historical prophecies" (1-OS. 3). It ceases to be a science and becomes “a wider philosophical scheme . . . the view that the story of mankind has a plot, and that if we can succeed in unravelling this plot, we shall hold the key to the future”" (CR. 338). “Historicism is out to find the Path in which mankind is destined to walk” (2-OS. 269).

Historicism has its own method for “unravelling the plot” and discovering the destined “Path”. This is the historical method. “The way of obtaining knowledge of social institutions ... is to study its [sic] history” (2-OS. 37). “We can obtain knowledge of social entities . . . only ... by studying social changes” (2-OS. 7). To know what is destined to happen in society one must study the origins and development of society, and so discover the “rhythms, patterns, laws and trends” which are at work and which will infallibly determine the future.

And historicism has also its practical political application. The historicist tries “to understand the laws of historical development. If he succeeds in this, he will, of course, be able to predict future developments. He might then put politics on a solid basis, and give us practical advice by telling us which political actions are likely to succeed or likely to fail” (1-OS. 8). “Sociological study should help reveal the political future, and . . . could thereby become the foremost instrument of far-sighted practical politics” (PH. 42).

Marx, then, as “a famous historicist”, studied social changes with a view to making “unconditional prophecies”. Regardless of the fact that genuine science can make only “conditional predictions”, Marx thought that his “philosophical scheme” could “put politics on a solid basis”. He thought he knew what was fated to happen, and could base politics on preparing for it.

Having thus charged Marx and Marxists with the fallacies of historicism, Dr. Popper proceeds to bring three more charges of theoretical misdemeanour, which he expounds as companion errors which go with historicist dogma. These are “essentialism”, “holism” and “utopianism”.

“Historicism” is tied up with “essentialism”. For the belief in “unconditional historical prophecies”, incompatible with genuine science, is dependent on the belief that the “essences” of things unfold themselves in an inevitable historical development, so that if one can but discover “the essence” one infallibly knows what is going to happen. “It is argued that the task of social science is to understand and explain such sociological entities as the state, economic action, the social group, etc., and that this can be done only by penetrating into their essences” (PH. 30).

“I use the name methodological essentialism,” writes Dr. Popper, with polysyllabic profundity, “to characterise the view . . . that it is the task of pure knowledge or ‘science’ to discover and to describe the true nature of things, i.e. their hidden reality or essence” (1-OS. 31). According to essentialism, “the best, the truly scientific theories, describe the ‘essences’ or the ‘essential natures’ of things—the realities which lie behind the appearances” (CR. 104).

The essence (so Dr. Popper explains the doctrine of “essentialism” and its connection with “historicism”) reveals itself in a certain pattern of development. For “in order to become real or actual, the essence must unfold itself in change” (2-OS. 8). Thus “applying this principle to sociology we are led to the conclusion that the essence or the real character of a social group can reveal itself, and be known, only through its history” (PH. 33). By studying the historical pattern of development of society, therefore, one penetrates to the essence of society—and having grasped the essence one can then understand the necessity of that particular pattern of development, and can infallibly predict its continuation. “Change, by revealing what is hidden in the undeveloped essence, can only make apparent the essence, the potentialities, the seeds, which from the beginning have inhered in the changing object. This doctrine leads to the historicist idea of an historical fate or an inescapable essential destiny”" (2-OS. 7).

Being guilty of historicism, then, Marx and Marxists could not but be also guilty of essentialism. Marxism means that the inescapable destiny of man in society is predetermined by the social essence of man. By studying human history one can discover what this essence is, and so acquire the power of making unconditional prophecies. Error, like crime, has its own crazy logic; and Dr. Popper goes on to explain that, once guilty of historicism and essentialism, Marxism could not but degenerate further into “holism” and “utopianism”. One would almost suppose that Dr. Popper imagines himself digging into the very depths of the essence of Marxism. A fine lot of nonsense he digs up, and no wonder, for he buried it all there himself “The strongest element in the alliance between historicism and utopianism is, undoubtedly, the holistic approach which is common to both,” writes Dr. Popper (PH. 74). “"Historicism is interested in the development, not of aspects of social life, but of ‘society as a whole’.”

We must study “society as a whole”, says the essentialist-historicist, and study particular “aspects of social life” only as their development is determined by that of the whole. The trouble with this injunction, says Dr. Popper, is that “if we wish to study a thing, we are bound to select certain aspects of it. It is not possible for us to observe or to describe a whole piece of the world, or a whole piece of nature; in fact, not even the smallest whole piece may be so described, since all description is necessarily selective” (PH. 77). It is not the development of the whole which determines that of particular aspects, but the development of particular aspects, and their complex interaction, which determines the development of the whole.

Historicism and essentialism, demanding a “holistic approach”, become thereby involved in “utopianism”. For “holists not only plan to study the whole society by an impossible method, they also plan to control and reconstruct our society ‘as a whole’” (PH. 79). And that is utopianism. Thus Marx’s “unconditional historical prophecies” about the development of “society as a whole” became a “utopian blueprint”. “He predicted, and tried actively to further, a development culminating in an ideal Utopia” (PH. 74). “Marx saw the real task of scientific socialism in the annunciation of the impending socialist Millennium” (2-OS. 86).

But unfortunately, utopianism, based on “an impossible method”, can never lead to the realisation of Utopia. “Even with the best intentions of making heaven on earth it only succeeds in making it a hell—that hell which man alone prepares for his fellow-men” (1-OS. 168). Marx’s theoretical misdemeanours have encouraged Communists, Dr. Popper subsequently explains, in their nefarious work of suppressing individuality, instigating violence and tyranny, and perpetuating a “closed society”.

We had best remember now that, with Dr. Popper, we are still in Wonderland, where everything is queer and the meanings of words get twisted. As soon as the charge was read the King of Hearts told the jury “Consider your verdict”. But that was too much, even for the White Rabbit. “Not yet ! Not yet !” the Rabbit hastily interrupted. “There’s a great deal to come before that!” There is indeed a great deal to be said on the topics expounded in Dr. Popper’s charge. But to say it we must leave Wonderland and take a look at how things are in the real world, and cease to discuss general philosophical principles but rather apply them in the concrete analysis of concrete conditions.


According to Marx: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past” (The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Ch. 1).

In other words, men make their own history by their own actions—no “fate” makes it for them. But men in their actions respond to whatever circumstances they find themselves in. They directly encounter circumstances given and transmitted from the past—that is to say, created for them by past generations; change these by their actions; then again respond to the changed circumstances; and so on, for as long as mankind endures.

This may be called “reinforced dogmatism”, but it sounds more like reinforced common sense. What are some of the implications, as regards human action and its possibilities?

It means, in the first place, that while men make their own history, what they can and cannot do at any place and time depends not simply on their own desires and decisions but on the circumstances in which they are placed. It is in this sense that they do not make their history “just as they please”. Obviously, as Marx said, people cannot choose their own circumstances—one does not choose to be born, nor to be born into one set of circumstances rather than another. Choice applies to what to do in whatever circumstances one finds oneself; and the circumstances limit the choice of action. But because of this, circumstances not only limit what men can do, but condition what in practice they want to do; people’s desires, aims and ideals are conditioned by their circumstances; what one effectively wants to do, or would like to see done, takes its start from the circumstances in which the wish is born. It means, too, that men’s ways of thinking—the scope of their ideas, the ways they conceive of themselves and of the world about them—are conditioned by circumstances. And lastly, it is obvious enough that, while men may choose and decide what to do in given circumstances, they cannot choose or decide what effects their actions, once embarked upon, are going to have. Men can act with the intention of bringing about certain effects; whether these effects actually take place, or whether something quite different happens, does not depend on the intention of the action but on the action itself, and the circumstances in which it was performed. It was on no deeper or darker philosophical presuppositions than these that Marx and Engels proceeded to consider how, in actual fact, “men make their own history”.

At the start of their first mature work on this subject, The German Ideology, they remarked that “the first premise of all human history is the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organisation of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature”. Having established that fact, they went on to inquire how the innumerable actions of innumerable human individuals could come to make human history.

The “physical organization” of human individuals is, of course, a consequence of the natural evolution of species; and “their relation to the rest of nature” is a further consequence. The unique physical characteristics of the human species, namely, the upright stance, hands and brain, lead to their unique relation to the rest of nature, namely, obtaining their requirements from nature by means of social production. Human psychology is, then, a further consequence—the product of individuals with this physical organisation living in society.

In order, then, to carry on their relation with the rest of nature—in other words, in order to live, since organisms live only by obtaining their requirements from nature—people devise instruments of production, learn the skills to use them, and enter into social relations of production. They evolve their social mode of production, which consists of employing certain forces of production and instituting definite relations of production in order to deploy the social productive forces and distribute the product.

This is how the past generations create the circumstances with which the next generations have to cope. What they do, by their social activity in the physical environment, is in the first place to equip their successors with certain forces of production and provide them with a physical environment changed and refashioned in various ways by the past application of those forces of production. In the second place, they settle them in definite relations of production within which the forces of production are deployed. Finally, they hand on to them a whole heritage of institutions, customs and ways of life, knowledge, ideas and culture, and leave them to continue a whole set of undecided conflicts and arguments and uncompleted activities. In the study of history the successors look back on how the predecessors managed to make things turn out the way they did—at least, that is how history must be regarded if its study is to prove of any practical advantage, and that is how Marx and Engels evidently regarded it. “All history must be studied afresh, the conditions of existence of the different formations of society must be examined in detail,” wrote Engels to C. Schmidt (August 5, 1890). And he told his correspondent that “our conception of history is above all a guide to study”. The materialist conception of history is a guide to study in the same way that any other scientific conception is a guide to study. Our conception of human physiology, for example, is a guide to study, because it tells us what to look for in order to be able to explain how the phenomena are brought about—in a case of epilepsy, say, to look for the brain lesion responsible for the condition, rather than for the evil spirit. And so with the materialist conception of history. Marx and Engels pointed out that, whatever people do in society, they can only do it on the basis of being mutually involved in a mode of production—for without that, they could not live or do anything at all. As they change their forces of production, and consequently create problems for themselves the solution of which requires changed relations of production, so do people modify in various ways the character of all the rest of their activity.

It is because people live by social production that human societies have a history different in kind from, say, the history of a community of ants. Ants could not, of course, study their own history in any case, since they are not physically equipped for studying. However, outside observers could quite well study the history of a given community of ants, and in it would be recorded not only the common round of hatching out the eggs, and so on, but also such “historical” events as floods and other catastrophes, wars with neighbouring anthills, and great migrations of ants. It is a shortcoming of some human historians that they study the history of men just as though men were nothing but a talkative kind of ants. But it is not only speech and the element of individual consciousness or purposive activity that distinguish men. Human history differs from the history of ants by exhibiting a type of historical development which is peculiarly human; and this is due to the social production by which men live. The mode of production changes. Ants always get their living in the same way; but not so human beings. People acquire new productive forces, and change their relations of production. And this introduces a quite new factor into human history. Human history is the history of how men acquired and used forces of production, and adapted their relations of production to the requirements of developing their forces of production; it is the history of how men did this, and what activities, difficulties, defeats and victories, constructive enterprises and wars, they involved themselves in doing it.

Dr. Popper explains that the historicist “sees the individual as a pawn, as a somewhat insignificant instrument in the general development of mankind” (1-OS. 7-8). But the materialist conception of history, as a way of studying and understanding human history, does not mean, as Marx and Engels themselves made abundantly clear, that history is made in any other way than by the activities of human individuals. It does not mean that what individuals may think and do counts for nothing, that they are all mere “pawns”, and that what alone counts is the inexorable development of “the different formations of society”. For to talk about the “social formation” is simply to talk about how individuals, having socially acquired certain productive forces, involved themselves in certain production relations. What it does mean is that, to see how the circumstances of the new generation were transmitted to them by the old, we have to see how the forces of production were developed and how the relations of production were managed; and that to see what the generation can or cannot do in such circumstances, and how their practical outlook is consequently generated, we have to see what can or cannot be done by way of preserving or changing both the relations of production and the forces of production deployed within them.

The Marxist materialist conception of history is, then, the scientific conception of how the old people bring into being the circumstances which the young people are born into and have to cope with. Like other scientific conceptions in other spheres, it is of great practical value. In the first place, it assists us in making an accurate assessment of just what our circumstances are, and dispelling illusions about them. In the second place, by the historical study of how social circumstances are brought about we can reach conclusions as to what sort of things can and cannot be done to cope with them.


After what has been said about "historicism", it is perhaps unnecessary to add much more in relation to Dr. Popper’s further allegations about “essentialism”, “holism” and “utopianism”.

According to Dr. Popper, Marxist science claims to discover and describe the “hidden reality or essence” which “must unfold itself in change”. Well, Marxist science certainly does claim to discover and describe processes going on amongst men in society, relations into which men enter with nature and with one another, which men cannot avoid entering into and conducting, and which do, inevitably, whether men are aware of it or not, determine the character of the social changes they make and condition their conscious activities. In this respect, however, the discoveries of Marxist science about men are no different in kind from the discoveries of any other empirical science about anything else.

Chemists, for instance, observing chemical phenomena, and wishing to explain them, try to discover processes and relations which determine and condition the phenomena. They try to discover “what is really happening” when those phenomena happen. In this sense chemistry (like all other branches of natural science) certainly claims to discover “the hidden reality” or, as Dr. Popper has also expressed it, “the realities which lie behind the appearances”. But no one accuses chemists of “essentialism”.

Marx said that men always enter into relations of production in order to deploy their forces of production, that this has involved them in class struggles, and that “history is the history of class struggles”. This is how men carry on. Indeed, it is how men inevitably or necessarily or “essentially”" carry on, in view (as Marx and Engels said) of “the physical organisation of the individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature”. This fact was “hidden”, and it required some research to uncover it. It was a scientific discovery, like other scientific discoveries. It was no more a product of “methodological essentialism” than any other scientific discovery. It was no more a discovery of “the hidden essence”" than any physical, chemical or biological discovery discovers “essences”. Marx was not concerned with “essences” but with real relations of human individuals, which, as he and Engels said in The German Ideology, “can be verified in a purely empirical way”.

Finally, we come to “holism” and “utopianism”. According to Dr. Popper, “holism is interested in the development, not of aspects of social life, but of ‘society as a whole’”, and considers that one can only properly understand particular “aspects” by seeing how they are determined by “the whole”. And “utopianism” is bound up with “"holism”, because “the Utopian” does not aim at changing particular “aspects” but “the whole”.

Marx was certainly “interested in the development of society as a whole”. He was interested “in the development of society as a whole” in the same way as a biologist, for instance, is interested in the development of the organism as a whole. That does not make either the Marxist or the biologist into a “holist”. Neither is interested in the “the whole” to the exclusion of ‘the aspects”, for each knows perfectly well that “the whole” is the product of the complex interactions of the parts.

The biologist understands the organism as a complex of interrelated living cells, and similarly the Marxist understands society as a complex of interrelated living individuals. The living parts live in interrelation. Of course, it is their mode of interrelation which determines the overall character and behaviour of the whole, of the organism or of the society. And at the same time, the ways in which the parts are interrelated, and interact and function, as parts of the whole, determines the specific character and properties of each part. A cell which is a cell of some organism is a bone cell or a nerve cell or a muscle cell, and so not the same as a cell that lives all on its own; just as an individual person gets his individuality from his being born into, educated in and functioning in a society, and would not have this individuality outside society. An organism is not formed by fully-fashioned individual cells, each complete independently of the organism, coming together to form an organism ; nor is a society formed by fully-fashioned individuals, each a complete human person independently of social life, coming together to form a society. Further, just as the organism grows and changes by a process of all the cells functioning and relating themselves to one another to obtain the means of life from the environment, so does society grown and change by a process of all the individuals functioning and relating themselves to one another to obtain the means of life.

Marx’s investigation of society led him, however, to conclude that a society is nevertheless in important respects not much like a biological organism. The individuals who make up society are human organisms, so naturally the relations they enter into as human organisms obtaining their means of life by social production are of an entirely different kind from those the cells of a living organism enter into as cells of that organism. His views about society were arrived at by investigating the relations individuals enter into in forming a society, and not deduced from some abstract comparison of societies with organisms.

His analysis of the social process, that is, of the relations individuals enter into in order to obtain the means of life, and of the consequences of their entering into those relations, led him to the conclusion that, to “change society”, the key thing to do is to change the relations of production in adaptation to productive forces. He concluded that then, when that is done, “with the change of the economic foundation the whole immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed”. And this conclusion, a consequence of the analysis, is verified by the facts of history—a verification which thus verifies the analysis of which it is the consequence.

In what way is this conclusion from a normal type of scientific analysis either "holist" or “utopian”? Marx did not say that one must first change “the whole”, and that only by that means could one change “the aspects”. Of course, it is as absurd or utopian to seek to change “the whole” without studying and doing something about “the aspects” as it is to seek to “understand the development of the whole” without studying the aspects in their complex interrelationship. What Marx did do, and what Marx did say, was precisely what normal scientific method requires us to do and say. He studied the various aspects of society to find out how the whole is constituted and develops; and out of this study he discovered what are the key relations determining overall development, and said that, to change society, one must concentrate on finding how to change those key relations.

On the other hand, it is not very difficult to see that the opposition which Dr. Popper has inferred, between Marx’s alleged “holism” on the one hand, and the alleged “anti-holism” of science, is an absurdity. Societies have in fact in common with living organisms the feature that in each there occur certain kinds of “life process” (for example, the circulation of the blood in animals, and the processes of economic exchange in commodity-producing societies), the disruption of which is followed by die death or disintegration of the whole. It is essential in any sort of scientific account of processes of this description that the given process should be studied “as a whole”—to find out, that is to say, how the parts interact in order to produce the whole process, and why, if the whole disintegrates, the parts can no longer exist as before, being no longer parts of the whole. This entails, in particular, investigating the mechanisms of “feed-back” by which what happens in one part produces effects which react back on other parts, so as to keep the whole intact. Clearly, such feed-back processes are characteristic of the organism or of the society “as a whole”, and cannot be studied except in the context of studying how “the whole” is maintained and develops. When Marx studied capitalist society, examining at one level the processes of the circulation of capital, and at another level those of the class struggle, he was studying how the “life process” of society goes on under capitalism, was discovering the disruptions it undergoes, and accordingly working out proposals as to what should be done and what changes should be made in order to enable social production and consumption to continue without these sorts of disruptions.

So when we examine Marx’s methods, ideas and conclusions, we find that all Dr. Popper’s clamorous allegations about “historicism”, “essentialism”, “holism’ and “utopianism’, which have so greatly impressed so many people whose prejudices made them want to be impressed, are sheer misrepresentation and mythology. In telling us what Marxism means, Dr. Popper produces only a very stupid travesty of Marxism. This, he asserts, amounts to a “devastating criticism” and destroys all the scientific pretentions of Marxism once for all.

Certainly, the Marx whom Dr. Popper puts up to prosecute for ideological errors in Wonderland shows very little understanding of the concepts or methods of the sciences. But as we have seen, and as we shall see again and again in what follows, the real Marx is perfectly conversant with the methods of science and with various scientific truths which Dr. Popper proclaims with the intention of confounding him; and the real Marx drew scientific conclusions which Dr. Popper, for all his parade of a truly scientific outlook, only misrepresents and evades. It is in these misrepresentations and evasions contained in Dr. Popper’s refutations of Marxism that misunderstandings about the character of scientific method and of scientific conclusions are to be found. As for Marx, he approached the investigation of social phenomena, and the proposal of social remedies, in a thoroughly scientific manner.

SOURCE: Cornforth, Maurice. The Open Philosophy and the Open Society: A Reply to Dr. Karl Popper’s Refutations of Marxism (New York: International Publishers, 1968), Part 2, Chapter 1: Historicism and Historical Prediction; sections 1: The Dogmatism of Historicism (pp. 129-133); 2: Men Make Their Own History (133-137); 6: Science and Utopia (159-163).

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