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

Maurice Cornforth


3. The Rationalist Belief in Reason

But effective action towards the open society is only possible, so Dr. Popper repeatedly informs us, on the basis of reason or reasonableness. In other words, it has to be decided on as the outcome of argument and criticism, of looking for and sifting evidence, of reckoning up consequences and testing opinions by experience.

Reasonableness, he continues, brings people together. For it enables them to test their premises, draw valid conclusions and concert their efforts. Where they disagree it enables them to argue it out, and to reach agreement by assisting each other in discovering mistakes. But this is exactly what Marxists, with their doctrines of class war, refuse to do. They refuse to try to reach agreement with “the class enemy”. Hence they decline reasonable discussion about differences, resent criticism, ignore evidence which conflicts with what they have decided must be true, are reckless of consequences, and believe blindly. And this is sheer irrationalism.

Dr. Popper, like many others, finds himself in a contradiction when he reasons about reason and the need for reasonableness. On the one hand he is all for reasonableness and says how unreasonable Marxists are in proposing to do away with capitalism. But on the other hand, he declines to reason about what changes in conditions must be brought about before counsels of reasonableness can prevail. He is caught in the same dilemma as advocates of reasonableness have always been. On the one hand, affairs will never go well until reasonableness prevails over the clamour of competing interests. On the other hand reasonableness cannot prevail unless people are reasonable, which competing interests prevent. The difficulty was brought out long ago by David Hume (that very reasonable philosopher) in his studies “of human nature”. Men, he said, are moved by interest and passion, no by reason. And so at the same time as he recommended what he concluded to be a reasonable attitude in life, he concluded from this same reasoning that the majority of men would never adopt it. In the same way Dr. Popper exhorts us to be reasonable. But from the way things go there is no prospect in sight of building a rational society.

However, the feebleness of the encouragement offered by Dr. Popper’s rationalism is compensated by the vigour of his denunciation of the irrationalism of Marxists. Rationalism, he tells us, “is an attitude of readiness to listen to critical arguments and to learn from experience” (2-OS. 225). But Marxism discourages the whole attitude of listening and learning. According to “Marx’s historical philosophy” the course of social development can be decided only by “the chosen class, the instrument of the creation of a classless society, and at the same time, the class destined to inherit the earth”. This, says Dr. Popper, is on a par with “the historical philosophy of racialism or fascism” according to which “the chosen race” is “the instrument of destiny” (1-OS. 9-10). Marx, he concedes, was in spirit and intention “a rationalist , . . But his doctrine that our opinions are determined by class interests hastened the decline of this belief, . . . Marx’s doctrine tended to undermine the rationalist belief in reason. Thus threatened both from the right and from the left, a rationalist attitude to social and economic questions could hardly resist when historicist prophecy and oracular irrationalism made a frontal attack on it” (2-OS. 224).

So, it seems, Marxists join with racialists and fascists “to undermine the rationalist belief in reason”. And they do this by their “doctrine that our opinions are determined by class interests”.

If this “doctrine” is supposed to imply (as Dr. Popper seems to think) that class interests and class interests alone determine all the opinions of every individual, then obviously the doctrine is false, and as obviously it would “tend to undermine the rationalist belief in reason”. But Marx never propounded any such doctrine. Indeed, he never propounded any “doctrine” whatever about this matter. He investigated in concrete cases the influence of class interests in processes of opinion-formation, and on the basis of these investigations he concluded that in class-divided societies class interest is a constant determining factor in opinion-formation. His whole approach to the question was scientific.

The way in which class interest determines opinion is to be traced, not in the first place in individual processes of opinion-formation, but rather in the aggregate of opinion-forming and opinion-expressing interactions of individuals in a society divided into classes. There is (as Marx discovered, but he is not alone in remarking on it) a very close connection, always observable in the aggregate though often not  n the case of single individuals, between economic or class interest and mental interest. The ambiguity in the word "interest" is significant here. Class interests have the effect of making people interested in certain themes, certain problems, about which it becomes important, from the point of view of class interest, that opinions should be formed. Simultaneously they have the effect of creating what may be termed blind-spots in opinion-formation: certain ranges of experience are ignored, certain questions are simply not asked, and this kind of opinion-censorship is sustained by the indignation (or in certain instances it may be the indifference) with which any opinions tending to trespass on blind-spots are received. Again, class interests lead to unquestioned assumptions being made both in factual judgments and in value judgments. In general, whatever class is dominant, or specially active in furtherance of its interests, its interests will receive reflection in major directions of interest and of opinion-formation in society at the time.

These and many other effects of class interest on aggregate opinion-formation cannot but have a very pronounced influence on the opinions formed by all individuals in society. The starting point for all individual interest (that is to say, mental interest) and opinion is the aggregate of interest and opinion which the individual finds current in society, towards which he has to orient himself. So his interests will take their direction from class interests (but not necessarily exclusively those of the class into which he himself is born), and his opinions will tend to be for or against class-determined opinions, and so inescapably bear a class as well as an individual character. When individuals of exceptional mental ability and originality elaborate opinions, they tend to serve the interests of one or another class. When they question received opinions, their very questioning tends to aid one class interest or another. Or if the individual’s opinions break right away from any class interest (in both senses of “interest”), then he becomes an isolated eccentric in his society, and he and his opinions suffer accordingly. And this is to say nothing of the upbringing and education which individuals receive, which cannot but play a determining part in their opinions, and in which all manner of class-determined interests, blind spots and assumptions are put into their heads.

Such being roughly the facts, it follows that Dr. Popper assumes without reason that no opinions determined by class interest can at the same time be reasonable. For there is no reason why class interest should always and necessarily preclude “an attitude of readiness to listen to critical arguments and to learn from experience”. On the contrary, on many topics class interest may demand the formation of reasonable opinions—namely, on those topics in which the class interest is better served by truth than by illusions.

So far from Marx’s scientific conclusions about the way class interests determine opinions undermining “the rationalist belief in reason”, they provide the clue to understanding at long last the practical means by which an attitude of reasonableness can be made to prevail. To promote “a rationalist attitude to social and economic questions” does not demand pitting “reason”, as some kind of ideal force free from such mundane influences as class interest, against the irrationality of class interest. It does not demand that a few rationalists who have managed to overcome in their thinking every influence of circumstances should somehow manage to get the ear of the swinish multitude and teach them too to think disinterestedly. These are the contradictions of “rationalism” which have caused so many in the past and present to conclude that reasonableness is an ideal incapable of realisation. No, to work for reasonableness to prevail is to work for the victory of that class interest which is served by reasonableness.

Recently the French Marxist, Louis Althusser, has presented us with a definition of “ideology” which distinguishes it sharply (as class-determined opinion) from science. “There is no question here of giving a profound definition of ideology,” he writes. “It suffices to say very schematically that an ideology is a system (possessing its own logical consistency) of representations (images, myths, ideas or concepts as the case may be) endowed with an existence and an historical role within a given society . . . ideology as a system of representations is distinguished from science in that with it the practical-social function outweighs the theoretical function (or the function of yielding knowledge)” (Pour Marx, Paris 1966, 238)

Here is a case of a Marxist engaging in that very habit of setting up abstract antitheses against which the Marxist dialectic is directed (so Althusser is right to call it “very schematic”). Of course, if one contrasts, say, the “system of representations” of the constitution of the material world which was current in medieval society with the conceptions of nature current today, one can contrast the former as “feudal ideology” with the latter as science. However, the reason why scientific conceptions of nature ousted feudal ideology was that the development of capitalism demanded and encouraged a scientific approach to the knowledge of nature. Industry could not use images or myths, and it could not develop without scientific ideas or concepts. So far as nature is concerned, the “representations endowed with an existence and an historical role” within bourgeois society are scientific. This has been forwarded by the interest (in both senses of the word) of the capitalist class. It is not due to the “practical-social function” having ceased to outweigh the “theoretical function”, or to demands for winning knowledge having contrived to outweigh the demands of practice. It is due to circumstances in which the practical-social function could only be served by genuine scientific inquiry. So in this department bourgeois ideology is scientific—and reasonable. It is a great mistake to set up science in abstract antithesis to ideology. Under definite circumstances ideology can only be developed to satisfy its practical social function by the adoption of the methods of science. And if that were not so, it would be a kind of miracle that the methods of science, and the attitude of reasonableness in the formation of opinions, should ever begin, let alone come out on top.

So far as class interests are concerned in the circumstances of the present day, it is quite clear that the class interests of the capitalist class, and the sorts of ideologies which its social dominance promotes, do not preclude “an attitude of readiness to listen to critical arguments and to learn from experience” in many matters. In these matters they favour reasonableness and scientific thinking, as a result of which these good things have made some progress in capitalist societies. This applies particularly in the development of science and technology; and it also applies, though with rather definite limitations, in what Dr. Popper calls “social engineering” and, in more theoretical matters, in the discussion of a number of problems of philosophy, morals, aesthetics, and so forth. But when it comes, theoretically to basic questions about human relations and the development of society, and practically, to the management of social production, the conduct of class struggle, the control of state power and the framing of political policies—there the attitude of reasonableness, the readiness to follow through and act on the conclusions of scientific inquiry, the readiness to listen to critical arguments and to learn from experience ceases. What takes over is irrational prejudice, preconceived opinion, refusal of critical questioning, sophistry, blindness, recklessness of consequences, refusal to face facts and unreasoning indignation against anyone who draws attention to them.

In all these vital matters it is the working-class interest, and that alone, which demands reasonableness and the aid of science. Not to preserve the exploitation of man by man, but to fight to end it, and to arrive at policies to guide the movement to do this effectively, demands nothing in ideology except what can be concluded from a scientific view of the human situation tempered and developed by critical argument and the tests of experience.

Hence if today the voice of reason has a better prospect of amplification and of making itself heard than “the voice of one crying in the wilderness” as of old, this is because it is not, as rationalists have imagined, the accuser against every interest but, on the contrary, the true voice of the interest of the working men. Whether recognised by them or not, the working classes are interested in the cultivation of reasonableness m all ideas, in all dealings, in all practical policies. Anything else injures them. And so reasonableness has the prospect of growth out of the soil of class interest. And intellectuals who are concerned to arrive at a rational outlook find a common language with workers, but can find it with no other class.

Rationalists have posed the question: how can reasonableness be made to prevail in human affairs? To answer it they must themselves cultivate a rational and scientific approach to social questions. And for that they must stop trying to refute Marxism, and join with Marxism in opposition to the ideas of the exploiting classes. Then the answer appears. It is in the struggle of working people against exploitation that reasonableness can find support, and out of it reasonableness can in the end prevail. This is where it grows, so help it grow there. And oppose everything that throttles it, whether from outside the movement or from inside.

It follows that reasonableness is not (as Dr. Popper and many others appear to suggest) the same thing as universal tolerance, nor as nonviolence, nor as the reconciliation of all interests. It is not the counsel  of reason that where incompatible interests exist a way should always be sought to reconcile them all. On the contrarv, where they conflict one must always in practice be subordinate to another (as those who in capitalist countries counsel reconciliation counsel the subordination of the working-class to the capitalist interest), and what is reasonable is to subordinate the interest which opposes human progress to that which promotes it. It is not the counsel of reason to tolerate the blocking of progress by organised vested interests, nor to refuse to use physical force to overcome physical force.

Our century has been called “the century of the common man”. This is because of the growth of democratic institutions and democratic organisation. The “common man” has no interest in exploiting his fellows, and still less in fighting with them over economic issues, territorial claims or ideological differences. If contrary to all reason exploitation and enmity continue, this is not because of the inherent unreasonableness of the common man but because of the interested irrationality of administrators, legislators, leaders and rulers. Our trouble is not in the irrationality of the common man but in the institutions which set men at loggerheads and place over us the rulers we have still got. The reasonable ideology we must have in order to end these conditions is one which subjects them to rational criticism so as to show how institutions must be changed by us, and rulers and policies brought under control. Its principles are those of science and reason, its development comes through critical questioning and learning from experience, it unites people in rational opposition to the clamours and incitements of divisive ideologies, it relies on the totality of scientific ways of thinking and promulgates not “doctrines” but a well-tested method of practical thinking.

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 3, Chapter 6, section 3: The Rationalist Belief in Reason, pp. 383-389 (conclusion of book).

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