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The Viennese Socrates

Karl Popper and the Reconstruction of Progressive Politics


Philip Benesch

The Viennese Socrates: Karl Popper and the Reconstruction of Progressive Politics examines Karl Popper’s attempt to develop a political theory that draws upon Socratic fallibilism and commitment to ethical autonomy while preserving progressive sociological insights and commitment to activism. Philip Benesch argues that Popper’s critique of Marxist theory is largely an endeavor to separate its progressive-activist core from its positivist and uncritical-rationalist entanglements. The author defends Popper against the charges of positivism and scientism leveled by the Frankfurt School, among others. Although he is in no sense an apologist for Popper’s commentary on the classical tradition of philosophy, Benesch contends that Popper’s philosophical contribution is of classical breadth and significance and that it continues and advances «the great conversation» that is the substance of the classical tradition.


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1. Encounter with Marxism 21


Chapter 1 Encounter with Marxism Popper’s principal complaint against Marxism was that it displaced moral reasoning by an allegedly scientific approach to history. It must be emphasized that Popper’s was not a positivist critique. While he questioned the scientificity of the Marxian interpretation of history, he did so in order to demonstrate the incapacity of science—or what pretends to be science—to substitute for ethics. For Popper, ethical principles must retain autonomy from sociological or historical facts. What ought to be cannot be derived from what is (nor from what was or what will be). Conscientious reasoning should not be subordinated to calculations of expediency. In this chapter I examine Popper’s discussion of Marxian historicism and its implications for ethical and political action. In the initial sections of the chapter I situate Popper’s early critique of Marxian theory in the context of his experience with the interwar Austrian Left. In the middle sections I challenge Popper’s claims regarding Marx and Engels’ attitude toward democracy, but suggest that the founders of Marxism held a conception of democratic administration that was underdeveloped and insufficient for the needs of an effective socialist movement. My primary aim in the final three sections of the chapter is to explicate Popper’s argument regarding Marxian historicism, offering commentary mainly in order to strengthen the case he makes. I do, however, offer a critique of Popper’s characterization of Marxism as a species of moral futurism. The consideration of Popper’s engagement with scientific socialism will be continued in...

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