“Part of what it is to be courageous is to see reality accurately and to respond well in the face of it." ~ Jonathan Lear

31 May 2014

False prophecies – and Islamism as political ideology: Part II on Popper and ideology




This is the second part of a four-part essay applying the ideas of Karl Popper to the ideologies that have secured particular social power in our contemporary world. Part I preceding this introduced the context, in which Popper has been widely misappropriated by the right, and neglected by the left - wrongly, because he was liberal, and his sympathies were with the left. This second part of the essay gets into his critique of Hegelian and Marxist ideologies and explores how contemporary political Islamism is largely based on these theories.



‘Historicism’ is the term under which Karl Popper lumped all ideologies of history, from those of Plato and Aristotle through to Hegel and Marx, political communism and Nazism.

For Popper, historicist social theories were those that claimed to understand the progression of history, and thereby reliably predict the future.

What Marx did wrong in his view was not to make predictions that turned out to be wrong, but to claim scientific backing for these wrong predictions. History cannot be reduced to the play of scientific forces, he believed. He followed Kant for the most part in denying that our science and reason can capture ultimate knowledge of a hidden reality, as the theories of Marx and his predecessor Hegel claimed to.

Kant, in his Critique of Pure Reason, asserted under the influence of Hume that speculation or reason, whenever it ventures into a field in which it cannot possibly be checked by experience, is liable to get involved in contradictions or ‘antinomies’ and to produce what he unambiguously described as ‘mere fancies’; ‘nonsense’; ‘illusions’; ‘a sterile dogmatism’; and ‘a superficial pretension to the knowledge of everything’.”


Such was Popper’s view of Hegel, for whom he quotes Schopenhauer’s lacerating words with relish: “a flat-headed, insipid, nauseating, illiterate charlatan, who reached the pinnacle of audacity in scribbling together and dishing up the craziest mystifying nonsense”.

Hegel and Marx both created theoretical systems which claimed to show the driving forces behind history – in Hegel’s case the progression of ideas towards a state of ‘absolute freedom’, and for Marx the progression of material forces, moving history inexorably from feudalism to capitalism and then communism. Both theories completely threw away the scepticism of Kant on claims to ultimate knowledge of reality in an orgy of Enlightenment self-confidence.

Popper quotes one passage of Hegel’s that is particularly damning:

“’We may fairly’, Hegel writes, ‘establish the true principles of morality, or rather of social virtue, in opposition to false morality; for the History of the World occupies a higher ground than that morality which is personal in character – the conscience of individuals, their particular will and mode of action.’”

Here we can see Hegel establishing what he sees as true principles of morality, of social virtue – or social justice you might say – against personal morality and conscience. This is the crux of Popper’s critique, for who has the authority to say what ‘The History of the World’ and ‘the true principles of morality’ are which so trump personal ethics? The answer is simple: Hegel and his followers do. His argument justifies whatever you want it to justify, as long as you are happy to be the authority. In this way, Popper thought Hegel’s thought provided a link between Plato and the modern form of totalitarianism as seen in Nazi Germany and Communist Russia.

Hegelianism and Marxism have both had a huge influence on the political ideologies that are powerful in our world today, with the exception of free market ideology – which ironically formed one of the building blocks of Marxism (“Roughly speaking”, Popper says, “Marx shared the belief of the progressive industrialist, of the ‘bourgeois’ of his time: the belief in the law of progress.”)

As Popper says, “Marx was the last of the great holistic system builders. We should take care to leave it at that, and not to replace his by another Great System.”

There has indeed been no great theoretical system of society and history since Marx. But we have seen many theories appear that have taken elements of Marx’s historical theory, elements of Marxist political theory which followed Marx, and parts of Hegel’s theory, to build shadow theories of their own. These retain Marx and Hegel’s models but replace their basic historical categories with their own categories. In place of the proletariat (the working class) in the Marxist class struggle, these shadow theories have inserted other groupings, like Muslims, women, and people with coloured skin, and politicised these groupings on the same terms as Marxists did with the proletariat.

Indeed it was often Marxists or ex-Marxists who were doing this, sometimes in search of an alternative revolutionary vanguard to replace the mostly uninterested working classes of Western democratic societies. This partly explains how movements of identity politics have attached themselves so successfully to left-wing politics in recent times.

Islamism as a modern political ideology

Islamism offers a particularly good example of this process in action. From theoretical foundations to propaganda and political organisation, Hegelian and Marxist thought has had a profound influence on Islamist movements.

In his memoir ‘The Islamist’, the former Hizb-ut-Tahrir activist Ed Husain illustrates these many links.

As John Gray writes: “Ed Husain begins one of the chapters of The Islamist with a quotation from Syed Qutb, the chief intellectual founder of Islamism, outlining the purpose of Qutb's most influential book: 'I have written Milestones for this vanguard of Islamists which I consider to be a waiting reality about to be realised.' Qutb's use of the concept of the vanguard reveals one of the paradoxes of political Islam: a movement that is avowedly anti-secular, anti-modern and anti-Western, it has been profoundly shaped by modern Western secular ideologies. The idea of a revolutionary elite dedicated to leading the deluded masses to a perfect society is a borrowing from Lenin and the Jacobins rather than anything derived from Islamic theology.

The vanguard is a Marxist-Leninist concept. As Husain reveals in his book, the western influences on Islamist thought are much deeper though, not just on Qutb but on others including Taqi Nabhani and Maulana Mawdudi, the founders of Islamist movements Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HT) and Jamat-e-Islaami respectively.

Husain says:

Hegel has been criticized for laying the conceptual framework for a totalitarian state, but that was not a cause for rejection in Nabhani’s view. Hegel’s writings, particularly phrases such as ‘The state is the march of God through the world’, only emboldened Nabhani.”

The Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci was also influential for Nabhani, Husain says:

Where Hegel outlined the importance of thought in the progress of a nation, Gramsci explained how these thoughts were to be inculcated in the masses, or ummah as Nabhani preferred to call them. It was not sufficient to propagate new ideas, but old ideas had to be ‘destroyed’ and supplanted by new ones. And that is exactly what I was taught in my halaqah [study circle], and what I tried to execute on the streets of London. Nabhani shrewdly linked Gramsci’s concepts to the life of the Prophet Mohammed, and in Muslim ears this found greater acceptance.

As Husain makes clear, the Islamists’ hegemonic strategy worked well among Muslims in Britain and elsewhere. He says that in the 1990s when he was active, nearly every Muslim representative body, mosque, and publishing house in Britain was under Islamist control. What is more, he adds, “The ideology, however disparate, that led to the successful suicide bombings of 7 July 2005 and many similar though thwarted attempts since then is still alive and firmly rooted among Britain’s young Muslims.”

Maajid Nawaz, who was a former colleague of Husain’s in Hizb-ut-Tahrir and founded the counter-extremist organisation Quilliam with him, adds further detail. He says: “almost every facet of our ideology relied on modern European political philosophy”. Nawaz relates being taught Marxism and the concept of dialectical materialism in his Hizb halaqah. He also describes how the Hizb leader Omar Bakri Mohammed’s most outstanding lieutenant, Farid Kasim, was a former socialist who converted back to Islam and used his former socialist tactics to recruit the student population to the Hizb.

Nawaz says of his indoctrination, “The information and stories chosen were never lies or untruth, but seldom were they the whole truth. The element that supported the story was mentioned: the part that complicated the issue was ignored”.

In politics, it is natural not to invoke evidence that might undermine our case. But in looking at ideologies like this, we should perhaps be looking to separate political aims from theoretical claims. Rather than just looking to block people because we do not like their politics, we should take more seriously how they justify these politics. When people make bold theoretical claims to understand society as a whole, invoking things like Islamophobia, class struggle, misogyny and state interference as universal and systemic – that is where their arguments lie exposed and open to sustained criticism.

Religions like Islam and Christianity are by nature ideological because they make claims about the nature of ultimate reality – namely, God. However Islamists and other religious ideologues politicise religion too, and also politicise their followers as a grouping, thereby creating a form of identity politics that depends as much on group solidarity as on the religion itself.

[End of Part II]

Part III to follow will explore the rise of ideological feminism, with a particular focus on Laurie Penny’s writings and the strong feminist movement within the Labour Party – using Popper’s critique to expose their accounts of systemic, structural oppression, and pointing out some better ways.

30 May 2014

Karl Popper and the fight against nonsense ideology. Part I



This is the first part of a four-part essay applying the powerful critiques of Karl Popper to contemporary ideologies which have gained significant social power – focusing in particular on Islamism and ideological forms of feminism (those forms which have become dominant in left-wing politics).

This first part engages with the way Popper has been mistakenly appropriated by the free market right, and makes the case that he should be adopted by the liberal-left, not least because he was liberal and of the left.

The future depends on ourselves, and we do not depend on any historical necessity. There are, however, influential social philosophies which hold the opposite view.”
~ Karl Popper

If guilt comes with association then on the left you do not get much guiltier than receiving Margaret Thatcher’s seal of approval.

This is the fate of Karl Popper; perhaps the best critic of authoritarian and totalitarian ideologies there has been, yet somehow associated with one of the most prominent ideologues of recent times as one of her own.

This is a great shame, for Popper’s appropriation by Mrs Thatcher and some followers – many of whom show little sign of having read him – acts as a natural deterrent to Popper’s natural constituency on the left, for his sympathies were with the left - at least until the end of his life. Even during his stunning dismantling of Marxist ideology in The Open Society and its Enemies, Popper had fulsome praise for Karl Marx and echoed Marx’s contempt for the apologists of capitalist exploitation in Victorian Britain.

The ignorance or shunning of Popper on the left is even more of a shame because the critique of ideology he presents has great relevance for current times. The era of authoritarian and totalitarian government in Western societies may seem to be over, but the authoritarian mindset remains very much with us. From market fundamentalism to Islamism, ethnic nationalism, and ideological versions of feminism, we are confronted on all sides by the same authoritarian arguments that Popper tore apart so well, but in different guises and with different names.

Popper offers strong, straightforward and effective arguments to undermine the thinking behind these doctrines. Indeed his critique of fascism and Marxism transfers almost seamlessly to many contemporary ideologies because they are directly influenced by the same theories. For the left, Popper also offers a path cleared of the nonsense and evasions that pervade current leftist discourse and prevent it from engaging effectively with ordinary people.

But first we should address the myth that Popper was a Thatcherite – since he is widely referred to by right-wing writers and biographers as one of Mrs Thatcher’s favourite philosophers.

In her memoirs, Thatcher presents a crude self-serving caricature of Popper’s views that serves her ideological argument rather better than it does justice to him. Her latest biographer Charles Moore goes as far as to bracket Popper as a ‘Conservative’ (with a capital ‘C’) and a free marketeer, which is doubly, startlingly, wrong.

Hugo Young in his biography of Thatcher described Popper (before his death) as “perhaps the greatest living conservative thinker”, showing the extent to which he has been misunderstood and misrepresented on the wider left as well as on the right. The Financial Times columnist Samuel Brittan got a bit closer in reflecting on Thatcher’s death, describing Popper as a “classical liberal”.

Moore, Young and Brittan all miss the point that Popper was primarily a philosopher of science, who was most interested in scientific questions. His socio-political writings were powerful largely because they employed his thoughts on science to criticise theories of people and society which claimed scientific backing – like Marxism and the nationalist and racist ideologies that culminated in Nazism.

In his intellectual autobiography, Unended Quest, Popper describes how he was himself a Marxist in his late teens – until he witnessed the brutal suppression of a demonstration in Vienna that had been whipped up by communists. This made him question an ideology that saw the killing of innocent people as a necessary sacrifice for a greater good to come.

In his most famous work, The Open Society and Its Enemies, Popper constantly professes his admiration for Karl Marx, calling him one of the great liberators of mankind and Das Kapital “a truly imperishable document of human suffering”.

He adds that Marx’s interpretation of the Victorian era appears to fit only too well:

a period of the most shameless and cruel exploitation. And this shameless exploitation was cynically defended by hypocritical apologists who appealed to the principle of human freedom, to the right of man to determine his own fate, and to enter into any contract he considers favourable to his interests.”

He was wary about the dangers of state power, but unequivocal about the perils of free markets:

the principle of non-intervention, of an unrestrained economic system, has to be given up; if we wish freedom to be safeguarded, then we must demand that the policy of unlimited economic freedom be replaced by the planned economic intervention of the state. We must demand that unrestrained capitalism give way to an economic interventionism. And this is precisely what has happened.”

It goes without saying that this is not the philosophy of a Conservative, a Thatcherite, or a free marketeer. Popper’s critique of Marx and Marxism was rather based on their claims to scientific prediction, or ‘prophecy’.

As he says in The Open Society:

In spite of his merits, Marx was, I believe, a false prophet. He was a prophet of the course of history, and his prophecies did not come true; but this is not my main accusation. It is much more important that he misled scores of intelligent people into believing that historical prophecy is the scientific way of approaching social problems. Marx is responsible for the devastating influence of the historicist method of thought within the ranks of those who wish to advance the cause of the open society.”


[End of Part I]


Part II, now up, explores the ‘false prophecies’ of Marx and Hegel and how their theories sacrificed the importance of individual ethical behaviour at the altar of progress. Following articles look at how Islamism and dominant forms of feminism are grounded in these theories, and how they share many attributes with the ideologies that caused so much antagonism and destruction in the 20th Century.

26 May 2014

UKIP’s European surge – lessons for the left



UKIP’s political ‘earthquake’ has happened.

In these latest elections for the European Parliament, this party of no MPs in Parliament, no councils under its control and a seemingly substantial body of weird and not-so-wonderful candidates has secured the largest percentage of the vote and the largest number of MEPs of all the political parties in Britain. 

This is despite a hugely-impressive campaign of sneering contempt from liberal opinion in Britain and latterly the mass media too – the Murdoch papers in particular. To paraphrase (and reduce) one of Bob Dylan's most cutting lyrics, something has been happening here, but some of us have little or no idea what it is, and others want to shut it down.

There is a lot that could be said, so I’m just going to concentrate on what may be a bit different from what others have been saying.

First up is the matter of what we might call ‘existential’ representation.

Look at Doncaster for example, a place represented in Parliament by Ed Miliband and fellow shadow cabinet members Caroline Flint and Rosie Winterton, yet that has just voted for UKIP above Labour in the Europeans.

Compare the European result with local elections which took place in Doncaster on the same day and you see a difference. UKIP did quite well, but when it came to voting for real people to take real jobs, to actually being represented in an administrative function (and in a town that has had serious problems with local administration), the voters just about stuck with Labour. The result in Rotherham, another traditional Labour stronghold where UKIP took 10 out of 21 local seats on offer, shows this isn’t inevitable, but it’s undoubtedly a factor.

In contrast, the European elections are effectively a free vote. The European Parliament has virtually no power and hardly any attention gets paid to it, so we can vote without fear of our choices biting us on the bum in the form of bad decisions from those we elect. This makes it more of an existential choice, of voting for a message and a positioning rather than a potential Prime Minister or a political manifesto that might get implemented in power. UKIP’s simple message about leaving the EU and cutting immigration did the job, enough to win the most votes nationwide, albeit only 27% on a 34% turnout.

Existential aspects have generally been ignored and taken for granted by Labour and other lefty folk, but they provide the glue that keep people on your side even when they haven’t been paying much attention to politics – what you might call ‘tribal’ affiliation. The fact that former Labour voters are switching because they feel UKIP is closest to them in how they feel is a big danger signal for Labour, the latest sign of how we are losing voters we used to rely on.

But other results from across Europe show that this is not a purely British phenomenon. In France, President François Hollande’s socialists won just 14% of the votes cast, compared to 25% for the winning Front National (FN), normally said to be of the ‘far right’, even though its policies are decidedly leftist in many ways. Like UKIP, the FN is not as straightforwardly anti-immigrant and racist as dominant liberal-left opinion would like us to believe, though UKIP has declined to enter a partnership on the basis that it is.

Right across Europe, the pro-European centre left is failing to convince, whether in government or opposition. That appellation ‘pro-European’ perhaps offers a pointer here, for we widely mistake being ‘pro-Europe’ with being pro-EU (one of the serious problems I had with Labour’s MEP candidate selections). Europe is a geographic area, while the EU is an institution, a gigantic, bloated leviathan of bureaucracy that according to UKIP gobbles up £55 million of British taxpayers’ money every day. They are completely different things, and while disliking the institution will annoy quite a few Europeans, these election results show how it is not quite as straightforward as that. Certainly this shouldn't be our only consideration as we consider our future in or out of the EU.

Euroscepticism is on the march all over the Continent, and this has been drawing howls of disappointment and derision, and absurd warnings about how we are about to descend into a pit of fascism.

I see it more as national democracy reasserting itself against the unaccountable leviathan of the EU, a project for ‘ever closer union’ that has gone too far and lost a sense of its reason for being - as indeed so many of our institutions have over time.

On the British left, we’ve unfortunately hardly thought about this for the past thirty years or so, remaining largely supine and adopting a stance of moral superiority towards the crazy-looking, crazy-talking ‘Eurosceptic’ loons from the farther reaches of the Conservative Party and latterly UKIP. Thankfully, now, we have intelligent, independent voices like Gisela Stuart and Kate Hoey putting their heads over the parapet, but they are very much in a minority - and from the leading voices we have largely silence.

Euroscepticism – scepticism, rather than outright opposition and outrage – towards the EU seems to me to be just basic common sense.

UKIP’s simple platform also offers us some simple correctives. Britons and other Europeans of all races are concerned about immigration, and they want their politicians to articulate that. Also, as Farage and UKIP have pointed out, in the EU we have relatively little control over our borders, even though we are not part of the Schengen free movement arrangement which France’s FN wants to get out of.

I am actually thankful that UKIP has come along and pressed these issues against the ferocious attacks it has been experiencing, albeit many of them justified for some of the dreadful people it has been attracting in as members and candidates. Within the EU as it is, national government and democracy seems only really possible at the margins. If you cannot control who comes to your country and lives on your land, you have lost control of your destiny.

The danger of Labour still failing to properly grasp this truth is very real. It is telling that someone like Tessa Jowell (one of the most sensible, likeable and competent of Labour’s ‘grandees’, albeit I am no fan of that word) boasted after the local elections that "These results show London to be an open, tolerant and diverse city.”

Multicultural London largely resisted the UKIP surge, and Labour did well here (something I participated in). But Jowell is clearly contrasting London’s voting with the rest of the country’s, and demeaning the latter. If you are living outside London and read Jowell’s words, the feeling of alienation from the capital and its politics may well be accentuated. The existential distance between you and Labour will grow. This is precisely the sort of feeling that Farage, UKIP and the voters who have gone to them have been feeding on – the distance between ‘ordinary’ people and a self-satisfied elite in a city that has become in many ways markedly different to most of the rest of Britain.

We blame the voters at our peril.