The Open Society and Its Enemies

The Open Society and Its Enemies is a work on political philosophy by the philosopher Karl Popper, in which the author presents a "defence of the open society against its enemies",[1] and offers a critique of theories of teleological historicism, according to which history unfolds inexorably according to universal laws. Popper indicts Plato, Hegel, and Marx as totalitarian for relying on historicism to underpin their political philosophies.

The Open Society and Its Enemies
The Open Society and Its Enemies, first edition, volume one.jpg
Dust jacket of volume I of the first edition with the variant "The Age of Plato" instead of "The Spell of Plato"
AuthorKarl Popper
CountryUnited Kingdom
Publication date
Media typePrint (Hardcover and Paperback)
Pages361 (1995 Routledge ed., vol. 1)
420 (1995 Routledge ed., vol. 2)
755 (1 volume 2013 Princeton ed.)
ISBN978-0-691-15813-6 (1 volume 2013 Princeton ed.)

Written during World War II, The Open Society and Its Enemies was published in 1945 in London by Routledge in two volumes: "The Spell of Plato" and "The High Tide of Prophecy: Hegel, Marx, and the Aftermath". A one-volume edition with a new introduction by Alan Ryan and an essay by E. H. Gombrich was published by Princeton University Press in 2013.[2] The work was listed as one of the Modern Library Board's 100 Best Nonfiction books of the 20th century.[3]


Popper develops a critique of historicism and a defense of the open society and liberal democracy. The subtitle of his first volume, "The Spell of Plato", makes clear Popper's view—namely, that most Plato interpreters through the ages have been seduced by Plato's greatness and inimitable style. In so doing, Popper argues, they have taken Plato's political philosophy as a benign idyll, without taking into account its dangerous tendencies toward totalitarian ideology.

Contrary to major Plato scholars of his day, Popper divorced Plato's ideas from those of Socrates, claiming that the former in his later years expressed none of the humanitarian and democratic tendencies of his teacher. In particular, Popper accuses Plato of betraying Socrates in the Republic, wherein Plato portrays Socrates sympathizing with totalitarianism (see: Socratic problem).

Popper extols Plato's analysis of social change and discontent, naming him as a great sociologist, yet rejects his solutions. Popper reads the emerging humanitarian ideals of Athenian democracy as the birth pangs of his coveted open society. Plato's hatred of democracy led him, says Popper, "to defend lying, political miracles, tabooistic superstition, the suppression of truth, and ultimately, brutal violence." Popper feels that Plato's historicist ideas are driven by a fear of the change that liberal democracies bring about. Also, as an aristocrat and a relative of one-time Athenian dictator Critias, Plato, according to Popper, was sympathetic to the oligarchs of his own day and contemptuous of the common man. Popper also suspects that Plato was the victim of his own vanity, and had wished to become the supreme philosopher king of his vision.

The last chapter of the first volume bears the same title as the book, and conveys Popper's own philosophical explorations on the necessity of direct liberal democracy as the only form of government allowing institutional improvements without violence and bloodshed.

In volume two, "The High Tide of Prophecy: Hegel, Marx, and the Aftermath", Popper criticises Hegel and Marx, tracing their ideas to Aristotle, and arguing that they were at the root of 20th century totalitarianism.

Insofar as Hegel is concerned, Popper favorably cites the views of Hegel's compatriot and personal acquaintance, the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer,

Hegel, installed from above, by the powers that be, as the certified Great Philosopher, was a flat-headed, insipid, nauseating, illiterate charlatan, who reached the pinnacle of audacity in scribbling together and dishing up the craziest mystifying nonsense. This nonsense has been noisily proclaimed as immortal wisdom by mercenary followers and readily accepted as such by all fools, who thus joined into as perfect a chorus of admiration as had ever been heard before. The extensive field of spiritual influence with which Hegel was furnished by those in power has enabled him to achieve the intellectual corruption of a whole generation.

In the fifth section of his chapter on Hegel he deals with Hegel's influence on 20th century fascism, explicitly focusing on its historicist elements rather than its totalitarianism.[4]

The next principal enemy of the open society, according to Popper, is Karl Marx. Popper concedes that, unlike Hegel, Marx deeply cared about the plight of ordinary people and the injustices that prevailed in his own day in capitalist societies. As well, Marx's writings offer keen economic, sociological, and historical insights. However, even where Popper considers Marx's views to have value, Popper considers Marx's historicism to have led him into overstating his case — for instance the importance of class struggle.[5] Popper rejects outright Marx's perceived historicist, anti-rational, and totalitarian outlook.

Publication historyEdit

As Popper wrote in academic obscurity in New Zealand during World War II, several colleagues in philosophy and the social sciences assisted with the book's path to publication. Gombrich was entrusted with the task of finding a publisher, Friedrich Hayek wanted to recruit Popper to the London School of Economics and was enthused by his turn to social philosophy, and Lionel Robbins and Harold Laski reviewed the manuscript. J.N. Findlay suggested the book's title after three others had been discarded. ('A Social Philosophy for Everyman' was the original title of the manuscript; 'Three False Prophets: Plato-Hegel-Marx' and 'A Critique of Political Philosophy' were also considered and rejected.)

The book was not published in Russia until 1992.[6]

In 2019, the book was released in audiobook format for the first time, narrated by Liam Gerrard. The audiobook was produced by arrangement with the University of Klagenfurt/Karl Popper Library, by Tantor Media, a division of Recorded Books

Reception and influenceEdit

Popper's book remains one of the most popular defenses of Western liberal values in the post-World War II era.[7][8] Gilbert Ryle, reviewing Popper's book just two years after its publication[9] and agreeing with him, wrote that Plato "was Socrates' Judas."[10] The Open Society and Its Enemies was praised by the philosophers Bertrand Russell, who called it "a work of first-class importance" and "a vigorous and profound defence of democracy",[11] and Sidney Hook who called it a "subtly argued and passionately written" critique of the "historicist ideas that threaten the love of freedom [and] the existence of an open society". Hook calls Popper's critique of the cardinal beliefs of historicism "undoubtedly sound", noting that historicism "overlooks the presence of genuine alternatives in history, the operation of plural causal processes in the historical pattern, and the role of human ideals in redetermining the future". Nevertheless, Hook argues that Popper "reads Plato too literally when it serves his purposes and is too cocksure about what Plato's 'real' meaning is when the texts are ambiguous", and calls Popper's treatment of Hegel "downright abusive" and "demonstrably false", noting that "there is not a single reference to Hegel in Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf".[12]

Some other philosophers were critical. Walter Kaufmann believed that Popper's work has many virtues, including its attack against totalitarianism, and many suggestive ideas. However, he also found it to have serious flaws, writing that Popper's interpretations of Plato were flawed and that Popper had provided a "comprehensive statement" of older myths about Hegel. Kaufmann commented that despite Popper's hatred of totalitarianism, Popper's method was "unfortunately similar to that of totalitarian 'scholars'".[13]

In his The Open Philosophy and the Open Society: A Reply to Dr. Karl Popper's Refutations of Marxism (1968), the Marxist author Maurice Cornforth defended Marxism against Popper's criticisms. Though disagreeing with Popper, Cornforth nevertheless called him "perhaps the most eminent" critic of Marxism.[14] The philosopher Robert C. Solomon writes that Popper directs an "almost wholly unjustified polemic" against Hegel, one which has helped to give Hegel a reputation as a "moral and political reactionary".[15] The Marxist economist Ernest Mandel identifies The Open Society and Its Enemies as part of a literature, beginning with German social democrat Eduard Bernstein, that criticizes the dialectical method Marx borrowed from Hegel as "useless", "metaphysical", or "mystifying." He faults Popper and the other critics for their "positivist narrowness".[16]

The political theorist Rajeev Bhargava argues that Popper "notoriously misreads Hegel and Marx", and that the formulation Popper deployed to defend liberal political values is "motivated by partisan ideological considerations grounded curiously in the most abstract metaphysical premises".[17] In Jon Stewart's anthology The Hegel Myths and Legends (1996), The Open Society and Its Enemies is listed as a work that has propagated "myths" about Hegel.[18] Stephen Houlgate writes that while Popper's accusation that Hegel sought to deceive others by use of dialectic is famous, it is also ignorant, as is Popper's charge that Hegel's account of sound and heat in the Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences is "gibberish" although he does not elaborate further what specifically Hegel meant.[19]

The Open Society Foundations, created by investor George Soros, were inspired in name and purpose by Popper's book.[20]

The philosopher Joseph Agassi credits Popper with showing that historicism is a factor common to both fascism and Bolshevism.[21]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Haworth, Alan (2002). "The Open Society Revisited". Philosophy Now.
  2. ^ Popper, Karl; Ryan, Alan; Gombrich, E. H. (2013). The Open Society and Its Enemies. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-15813-6.
  3. ^ Modern Library, 1999. 100 Best Nonfiction
  4. ^ Popper, K.R. The Open Society and its Enemies. p. 65.
  5. ^ Popper, K.R. The Open Society and its Enemies. p. 126.
  6. ^ Поппер Карл Раймунд Открытое общество и его враги. Том 1 Чары Платона. Том 2 Время лжепророков: Гегель, Маркс и другие оракулы. Москва 1992.
  7. ^ McCrum, Robert (2016-09-26). "The 100 best nonfiction books: No 35 – The Open Society and Its Enemies by Karl Popper (1945)". the Guardian. Retrieved 2018-06-27.
  8. ^ "The Open Society and Its Enemies". Princeton University Press. Retrieved 2018-06-27.
  9. ^ Ryle, G. (1 April 1947). "Popper, K.R. - The Open Society and its Enemies". Mind. 56 (222): 167–172. doi:10.1093/mind/LVI.222.167. JSTOR 2250518.
  10. ^ Ryle, G. (1947). p. 169. See also: Burke, T.E. (1983). The Philosophy of Popper. Manchester: Manchester University Press. p. 141. ISBN 0-71900911-1.
  11. ^ "The Open Society & its Enemies". Abingdon-on-Thames: Routledge. Retrieved March 19, 2018.
  12. ^ Hook, Sidney. New York Times. "From Plato to Hegel to Marx" July 22, 1951.
  13. ^ Kaufmann, Walter (1996). Stewart, Jon (ed.). The Hegel Myths and Legends. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press. pp. 82–83. ISBN 0-81011301-5.
  14. ^ Cornforth, Maurice (1968). The Open Philosophy and the Open Society: A Reply to Dr. Karl Popper's Refutations of Marxism. New York: International Publishers. p. 5.
  15. ^ Solomon, Robert C. (1995). In the Spirit of Hegel: A Study of G. W. F. Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 480. ISBN 0-19-503650-6.
  16. ^ Mandel, Ernest; Marx, Karl (1990). Capital Volume 1. London: Penguin. p. 22. ISBN 0-14044568-4.
  17. ^ Rajeev Bhargava. "Karl Popper: Reason without Revolution". Economic and Political Weekly, December 31, 1994.
  18. ^ Stewart, Jon, ed. (1996). The Hegel Myths and Legends. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press. p. 383. ISBN 0-8101-1301-5.
  19. ^ Houlgate, Stephen; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich (1998). The Hegel Reader. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers. pp. 2, 253, 256. ISBN 0-63120347-8.
  20. ^ Christian De Cock, Steffen Böhm (November 1, 2007). "Liberalist Fantasies: Žižek and the Impossibility of the Open Society". Organization. SAGE Publications. 14 (6): 815–836. doi:10.1177/1350508407082264. S2CID 15695686.{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
  21. ^ Agassi, Joseph. "Karl Raimund Popper (1902-1994)" (PDF). Retrieved 2017-10-03.

External linksEdit