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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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3. Threat from the Right 73


Chapter 3 Threat from the Right In the latter half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, the European liberal tradition, and the structure of social institutions to which it lent support, was challenged by opponents on both the Left and the Right. While Popper recognized that many Left-progressives were friends of the open society, he viewed the conservative-authoritarian Right and its theoreticians as hostile to the humanitarian project—as enemies of the open society. The threat from the Right made the reconstruction of progressive politics more urgent. A Left that was freed from entanglement with historicist and positivist misconceptions would be more effective in combating the Rightist danger. At the same time, the sources and the toxicity of Right-authoritarian ideas must be identified, while ideological cross- contamination—such as the allure of selective ethno-nationalism and the delusions of organicist-holistic social theory—must be resisted. Popper misidentified ‘Platonizing Hegelianism’ as the intellectual foundation for modern totalitarianism, and erred when he claimed that Hegelianism and Platonism aimed at an “arrested society.” Yet it must be observed that Popper’s initial understanding of Plato and Hegel was mediated by the scholarly traditions of Catholic Central Europe; in that context classical philosophy had been all too regularly interpreted as endorsing political and intellectual centralization. Popper abhorred the willing enlistment of interwar Austrian classical scholars in the cause of the authoritarian Right. In particular, he may have recalled the program of Catholic conservatism influenced (inter alia) by Othmar Spann and its...

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