The Open Society and Its Enemies

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The Open Society and Its Enemies
The Open Society and Its Enemies (volume one).jpg
The Open Society and Its Enemies, Volume One
Author Karl Popper
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Subject Philosophy
Published 1945 (Routledge)
Media type Print
Pages 361 (1995 Routledge ed., vol. 1)
420 (1995 Routledge ed., vol. 2)
755 (1 volume 2013 Princeton ed.)
ISBN 0-415-29063-5
978-0-691-15813-6 (1 volume 2013 Princeton ed.)

The Open Society and Its Enemies is a work on political philosophy by Karl Popper, a critique of theories of teleological historicism in which history unfolds inexorably according to universal laws. Popper criticizes and indicts as totalitarian Plato, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Karl Marx for relying on historicism to underpin their political philosophies. Written during World War II, The Open Society and Its Enemies was first printed in London by Routledge in 1945. Originally published 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.[1] The work was on the Modern Library Board's 100 Best Nonfiction books of the 20th century.[2] Popper has been criticized for his interpretations of Plato, Hegel, and Marx.


Many figures in philosophy and the social sciences were involved in its path to publication, as Popper was writing in academic obscurity in New Zealand for the duration of World War II. Among them were Gombrich (entrusted with the main task of finding a publisher), Friedrich Hayek (who wanted to get Popper to the London School of Economics and thus was enthused by Popper's turn to social philosophy), Lionel Robbins, Harold Laski (both of whom reviewed the manuscript), and J.N. Findlay. Findlay suggested the book's title, after three previous ones 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 published in Russia only in 1992.[3]


Popper develops a critique of historicism and a defense of the open society, liberal democracy. The subtitle of his first volume, "The Spell of Plato", makes clear Popper's central premise — namely, that most Plato interpreters through the ages have been seduced by his greatness. In so doing, Popper argues, they have taken his 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, he 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. This is dependent on Popper's reading of the emerging humanitarian ideals of Athenian democracy as the birth pangs of his coveted "open society". In his view, Plato's historicist ideas are driven by a fear of the change that comes with such a liberal worldview. Popper also suggests that Plato was the victim of his own vanity, and had designs 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 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 back their ideas to Aristotle, and arguing that the two were at the root of 20th century totalitarianism.

Scholarly reception[edit]

Bertrand Russell called The Open Society and its Enemies "a vigorous and profound defence of democracy."[4] Philosopher Sidney Hook praised The Open Society and its Enemies as 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". Moreover, Hook calls Popper's treatment of Hegel "downright abusive" and "demonstrably false", noting that "there is not a single reference to Hegel in Hitler's Mein Kampf".[5]

Walter Kaufmann believed that The Open Society and Its Enemies has many virtues, including its attack against totalitarianism, and many suggestive ideas. However, Kaufmann also found the work 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'".[6]

The Marxist philosopher Maurice Cornforth defended Marxism against Popper's criticisms in his work The Open Philosophy and the Open Society: A Reply to Dr. Karl Popper's Refutations of Marxism. Though disagreeing with Popper's views, Cornforth nevertheless called Popper "perhaps the most eminent" critic of Marxism.[7]

Reviewing the book's legacy at the end the 20th century, Rajeev Bhargava claims that Popper "notoriously misreads Hegel and Marx", arguing also that the formulation Popper deployed to defend liberal political values is "motivated by partisan ideological considerations grounded curiously in the most abstract metaphysical premises".[8]


The Open Society Foundations, created by investor George Soros, are inspired in name and purpose by Popper's book.[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 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. 
  2. ^ Modern Library, 1999. 100 Best Nonfiction
  3. ^ Поппер Карл Раймунд Открытое общество и его враги. Том 1 Чары Платона. Том 2 Время лжепророков: Гегель, Маркс и другие оракулы. Москва 1992.
  4. ^
  5. ^ Hook, Sidney. New York Times. "From Plato to Hegel to Marx" July 22, 1951.
  6. ^ Kaufmann, Walter (1996). Stewart, Jon, ed. The Hegel Myths and Legends. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press. pp. 82–83. ISBN 0-8101-1301-5. 
  7. ^ Cornforth, Maurice (1968). The Open Philosophy and the Open Society: A Reply to Dr. Karl Popper's Refutations of Marxism. New York: International Publishers. 
  8. ^ Rajeev Bhargava. "Karl Popper: Reason without Revolution". Economic and Political Weekly, December 31, 1994.
  9. ^ Christian De Cock and Steffen Böhm, "Liberalist Fantasies: Žižek and the Impossibility of the Open Society", Organization 14(6), 2007, accessed 26 October 2012 via SagePub, DOI: 10.1177/1350508407082264.

External links[edit]