Karl Popper?s <i>The Poverty of Historicism</i>

In memory of the countless men and women
of all creeds or nations or races
who fell victims to the fascist and communist belief in
Inexorable Laws of Historical Destiny.

?Dedication of Karl Popper?s The Poverty of Historicism

Many of our readers are no doubt familiar with the Austrian critiques of the socialist economy. These were strong critiques which were sadly ignored when they were first published, but which have received new attention and vindication with the failure of worldwide communism to achieve any of its goals of a classless society or a worker?s paradise. These critiques focused on the economic impossibility of a command economy to succeed in providing the necessities of life to its people. These critiques, which seemed to many to be without merit, ended up being right on the money. There was another critique of the Marxist and fascist way of thinking, one which has not received as much attention in recent years, but one which powerfully countered a different aspect of ?scientific? socialism, and which, incidentally, also came from Austria. This was Karl Popper?s denial of the ability of fascists and communists to predict the future development of history. In retrospect it seems obvious to us that one cannot predict the future, but this is in part due to the success of Popperian ideas.

Popper?s works are very interconnected, and were constantly revised and added to, so that many footnotes in one book may refer the reader to a postscript in another, but his critique can be found mainly concentrated in The Poverty of Historicism. The ideas were first conceived in the winter of 1919-20; the outline was completed by 1935, and it was first published in three parts in Economica (1944-45), and in book form in 1957. At the time of the work?s writing, the belief in historical prophecy was still strong, though it would soon suffer defeat in the mainstream intellectual world.

Popper?s definition of ?historicism? will be useful.

?I mean by ?historicism? an approach to the social sciences which assumes that historical prediction is their principal aim, and which assumes that this aim is attainable by discovering the ?rhythms? or the ?patterns?, the ?laws? or the ?trends? that underlie the evolution of history.

Again, very few people in the mainstream intellectual world now believe that the future can be predicted as a deterministic outcome of the past?but it must be stressed that this was not always so. To this day the Maoist Internationalist Movement still adheres to ?the scientific method of dialectical materialism.?

Popper begins by describing the two variants of historicism: anti-naturalist and pro-naturalistic. We will discuss them in this order, and then their critiques. The critique of the pro-naturalistic doctrines is not, I think, as forceful as the preceding section, and requires a greater knowledge of Popper?s philosophy of science, which is beyond the scope of the current discussion. We will cover it only briefly. We will use the present tense to discuss the beliefs of historicists, though the ideas have been soundly refuted and there is very little or no modern historicism to speak of.

Anti-naturalism
Historicists believe that the methods of physics are largely inapplicable to the social sciences because of a fundamental difference in subject: the laws of nature are always true, but the laws of society differ across periods and places. There might be a regularity of occurrence of some social phenomena, but these are not immutable. Everything depends on the historical situation in which it is found (which, the Marxist declares, is determined by the mode of production). For a historicist, to say that phenomena which always occur must necessarily always occur is usually the apologetic argument against interference with it?it?s this way, and there?s nothing we can do about it.

(As an aside, the unwillingness to accept the impossibility of change was a large part of the early Marxist movement?s appeal. It asserted to the frustrated worker that it was only the greed and maneuvering of capitalists and imperialists that prevented him from being wealthy and happy, not any kind of scarcity of natural resources or lack of technology needed to transform resources into material wealth.)

Not only are there no laws constantly applicable to human society, but the method of experiment is also not applicable, because it relies on testing one variable while holding everything else constant, which is not possible. And even if sociological experiments are possible, everything is different in the next historical period anyway. Further, society is not the same after the experiment?it has knowledge of the experiment. Though the good historicist sociologist should make predictions, his subject is necessarily more complex than an artificially isolated physical variable, and his making the predictions could influence their outcome, so his predictions cannot be exact and detailed. Moreover, to understand an institution or group, one must have a thorough account of its history, in addition to knowledge of the societal conditions in which it exists. These cannot be explained quantitatively, only qualitatively, i.e. while physical sciences are nominalistic, social sciences must be essentialistic.

Pro-naturalism
?Although historicism is fundamentally anti-naturalistic, it is by no means opposed to the idea that there is a common element in the methods of the physical and social sciences.? This common element is that they each attempt to be both theoretical and empirical, i.e. to explain and predict events which are observable.

An inspiring scientific accomplishment for historicists is the Newtonian theory?s ability to forecast the motion of planets successfully, even in the very distant future, given only their present positions. If it?s possible for the physical sciences to make long-term forecasts, even though social science is fundamentally different (detailed above), surely it?s possible for the sociologist to predict, in a vague way, important social phenomena. ?Thus the historicist visualizes sociology as a theoretical and empirical discipline whose empirical basis is formed by a chronicle of the facts of history alone, and whose aim is to make forecasts, preferably large-scale forecasts.? The theory on which these predictions are based is what the historicist learns when he untangles all the complex forces of history.

If this seems to lead to the formation of historical laws, the historicist already believes that there are no universally valid human laws, so ?the only universally valid laws of society must be the laws which link up the successive periods. They must be laws of historical development which determine the transition of one period to another.?

While I noted above that early Marxists inspired the masses partly due to their contention that the state of affairs currently existing is not how it always has to be, the scope of our reforming actions should be limited. There are laws about how society will develop, in this case the laws laid down by Marx about the successive economic systems culminating in the worker?s paradise. The only meaningful actions we can take, then, are those which speed up the transition, which ?shorten and lessen the birth-pangs? as Marx said.

This leads, often but not necessarily, from a purely descriptive (positive) position to an ethical (normative) position: right action is that which accelerates the transition.

Criticism of anti-naturalistic historicism
It is in this section that Popper discusses his now-famous suggestion of ?piecemeal social engineering.? The term might frighten some readers, but in this context it does not necessarily imply what you think. Rather than aim at a full-scale metamorphosis of society, the best progress we can hope to make is in small steps, a little at a time. As John Stuart Mill wrote,

?There are two kinds of sociological inquiry. In the first kind, the question proposed is, ... for example, what would be the effect of ? introducing universal suffrage, in the present condition of society? ... But there is also a second inquiry ... In this ... the question is, not what will be the effect of a given cause in a certain state of society, but what are the causes which produce ... State of Society generally??

Isolated details are not, as we have seen, within the scope of the historicist?s inquiry. Historicism?s holism, its concern not for scattered details but for the whole picture, leads to its rejection of small-scale social experiments in favor of holistic utopian engineering. However, insofar as historicism attempts to be ?scientific,? its effort is self-defeating, as ?[i]t is not possible for us to observe or to describe a whole piece of the world, or a whole piece of nature; in fact, not even the smallest whole piece may be so described, since all description is necessarily selective.? (For instance, imagine writing a book which completely covers all aspects of a certain historical development. This is impossible. Now try writing a book which completely covers all aspects of all historical developments.)

A truly holistic, utopian social experiment would not yield for us knowledge useful in the future, because having failed to control some variables while testing others (we tested them all at the same time) we would not know what caused which outcomes. It would only be an experiment in that the outcome would be uncertain.

In the real world scientific knowledge is advanced ?by the adoption of a critical attitude, and the realization that not only trial but also error is necessary.? Moreover it is necessary not only to expect but also to seek out mistakes. This, as you well know, is not the approach taken by politicians, especially not the kind willing to attempt large-scale experiments on their societies. Accordingly, ?there is every likelihood that free discussion about the holistic plan and its consequences will not be tolerated.? As the plan will cause inconveniences in all quarters, the holist, in ignoring and suppressing the many small complaints will also inevitably suppress reasonable criticism??and without these facts scientific criticism is impossible.? The scientific credentials of the whole process are denied, and power must inevitably be centralized: the government must become totalitarian if it was not so already.

Showing the influence of his friend Friedrich Hayek, Popper writes,

The holistic planner overlooks the fact that it is easy to centralize power but impossible to centralize all that knowledge which is distributed over many individual minds, and whose centralization would be necessary for the wise wielding of centralized power. But this fact has far-reaching consequences. Unable to ascertain what is in the minds of so many individuals, he must try to simplify his problems by eliminating individual differences: he must try to control and stereotype interests and beliefs by education and propaganda.

Criticism of pro-naturalistic historicism
Our discussion here will be limited to two points, the first being what Popper calls ?the central mistake of historicism.?

Its ?laws of development? turn out to be absolute trends; trends which, like laws, do no depend on initial conditions, and which carry us irresistibly in a certain direction into the future. They are the basis of unconditional prophecies, as opposed to conditional scientific predictions.

The historicist treats historical trends as laws, not trying to determine conditions which would change or stop the trend. ?The poverty of historicism, we might say, is a poverty of imagination.?

Our second point is related to the first. Depending on what interests us, there are many ways that we can interpret history: Marx?s struggle of one class against another; Ralph Raico?s rise of liberty against the state; Platonic ideas vs. Aristotelian; etc. Almost all will yield something for the historian. The historicist, rather than acknowledging this fact, instead presents his position as a doctrine or theory, and since it usually yields some fruit, sees that his theory has been confirmed. Again, ?a poverty of imagination."

In his article "Indeterminism in Classical Physics and in Quantum Physics," Popper returned to this subject, this time offering an argument which can be summarized in five statements, which he gave in the preface of The Poverty of Historicism.

1. The course of human history is strongly influenced by the growth of human knowledge. (The truth of this premise must be admitted even by those who see in our ideas, including our scientific ideas, merely the by-products of material developments of some kind or other.
2. We cannot predict, by rational or scientific methods, the future growth of our scientific knowledge. ...
3. We cannot, therefore, predict the future course of human history.
4. This means that we must reject the possibility of a theoretical history; that is to say, of a historical social science that would correspond to theoretical physics. There can be no scientific theory of historical development serving as a basis for historical prediction.
5. The fundamental aim of historicist methods ... is therefore misconceived; and historicism collapses.


The power of historicism is evident. Fascists and communists in the early part of the twentieth century were firmly convinced of their inevitable victories. This belief, felt with religious devotion, emboldened them and discouraged their enemies. Eric Hoffer in The True Believer wrote that what made the Jews lose heart against Hitler despite only a few years later showing great determination in Palestine was that the Nazis successfully conveyed their belief to the rest of Europe that they were a force incapable of being resisted. On a broader scale, communists worldwide, secure in the knowledge that their victory was only a matter of time, so impressed the rest of the world that their ideas trickled into the mainstream, suffering a fatal setback only recently with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

This May Day, let us remember the countless men and women of all creeds or nations or races who fell victims to the fascist and communist belief in Inexorable Laws of Historical Destiny.

Let us realize that the triumph of carnage and tyranny is not inevitable.

Let us remind the world, if it should forget.

Back to May Day: A Day of Remembrance

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