The Odd Conservativism of Karl Popper

Although Karl Popper was very critical of the totalitarian regimes of Hitler and Stalin, he was also a very strong defender of the imperialistic liberal democracies. Sometimes one’s views are revealed by one’s silence; rather than by one’s explicit statements. In Popper’s case, there are a few pointers as to where he stood.

Although Popper is in agreement with Marx over the 19th century conditions suffered by workers under capitalism. But he is totally silent on the conditions suffered by people by the European colonization of the world. And he expressed the belief that it was British humanitarian attitudes that led to Britain granting independence to India. To show that I am not exaggerating, here is a quote from his article “The History of Our Time: An Optimist’s View” (1956) [reprinted in his Conjectures and Refutations (1963)]:

“When Mr Krushchev on his Indian tour indicated British colonialism, he was no doubt convinced of the truth of all he said. I do not know whether he was aware that his accusation were derived, via Lenin, largely from British sources. Had he known it, he would probably have taken it as an additional reason for believing in what he was saying . But he would have been mistaken; for this kind of self-accusation is a peculiarly British virtue as well as a peculiarly British vice. The truth is that the idea of India’s freedom was born in great Britain; as was the general idea of political freedom in modern times. And those Britishers who provided Lenin and Mr Krushchev with their moral ammunition were closely connected, or even identical, with those Britishers who gave India the idea of freedom.”

Since Popper wrote this in 1956, surely he must have known of the Jallianwals Bagh massacre in Amritsar, India in 1919. It was this and not abstract defense of freedom which caused Indians to rebel and Britain to concede.

Popper was against nationalism and the Wilsonian declaration for the right of self-determination.

“But the nationalist faith is equally absurd. I am not alluding here to Hitler’s racial myth. What I have in mind is, rather, an alleged natural right of man — the alleged right of a nation to self-determination. That even a great humanitarian and liberal like Masaryk could uphold this absurdity as one of the natural rights is a sobering thought. It suffices to shake one’s faith in the wisdom of philosopher kings, and it should be contemplated by all who think that we are clever but wicked rather than good but stupid. For the utter absurdity of the principle of national self-determination must be plain to anybody who devotes a moment’s effort to criticizing it. The principle amount to the demand that each state should be a nation-state: that it should be confined within a natural border, and that this border should coincide with the location of an ethnic group; so that it should be the ethnic group, the ‘nations’, which should determine and protect the natural limits of the state.” [same source]

When someone resorts to calling something “absurd” without an argument, critical rationalism has gone by the wayside.

See also: Centralization of power is not beneficial to ordinary people; it is bullshit.

Recently I came across a Ph.D. dissertation which squarely faces this issue: Craig Willkie, Open Nationalism: Reconciling Popper’s Open Society and the Nation State, University of Edinburgh, 2009.

See also: Andrew Vincent, “Popper and Nationalism,” in Karl Popper —A Centenary Assessment, Jarvie, Milford & Miller (eds), Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006.

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