One of the common features of Karl Popper’s philosophy of science and his political philosophy is the role that he assigned to conventions, protocols, and “rules of the game”. We need to become alert to the rules that are in play (written and unwritten) and we need to contemplate improvements in the spirit of piecemeal reform, not the “constructivist rationalism” of progressive and coercive utopians of the left. Wittgenstein also became interested in games and “forms of life” but he did not apply his ideas with a critical, problem-solving approach to philosophical and social issues. Consequently his work became a dead end for an army of followers and imitators.
For the function of rules in science, see Ian Jarvie’s book The Republic of Science (2001).
Rules on the use of violence to protect democracy
The following notes come from Chapter 19 in The Open Society, “The Social Revolution” where Popper addressed the Marxist prophecy of a possibly violent revolution and the way that this had a disastrous outcome in the way that it influenced the participation of Marxists in practical politics. He insisted that he was not in all cases and under all circumstances against a violent revolution. He followed some medieval and Renaissance Christian thinkers who taught that tyrannicide could be justified (also just wars). In a situation where there is no other way to get rid of a tyrant then a violent revolution to achieve regime change (the current term) may be justified. But he went on to write that any such revolution should have as its only aim the establishment of a democracy. And by democracy he did not mean something as vague as ‘the rule of the people’ or ‘the rule of the majority’, but a set of institutions (such as general elections, to enable the people to dismiss their government) which permit public control of the rulers.
People who are not outright pacifists have to be prepared to condone certain kinds of violent behaviour by themselves or by their representatives (the police and the army). The vital questions are: under what circumstances and what kind of violence is permitted? One kind of violence that he condoned in principle is that required to remove a tyranny if no other means are available. That is a dangerous move if it is not quickly effective because the prolonged use of violence will undermine the civil order of the country and possibility of resolving difference by reason and compromise. That is likely to deliver not freedom but the rule of the strong man.
He was prepared to condone only one further use of violence in political quarrels, and that is for the defence of democracy, the democratic constitution and peaceful democratic procedures.
“These remarks indicate that a successful democratic policy demands from the defenders the observance of certain rules.”
(1) Democracy cannot be fully characterized as the rule of the majority, although the institution of general elections is most important. For a majority might rule in a tyrannical way. (The majority of those who are less than 6 ft. high may decide that the minority of those over 6 ft. shall pay all taxes.) In a democracy, the powers of the rulers must be limited; and the criterion of a democracy is this: In a democracy, the rulers—that is to say, the government—can be dismissed by the ruled without bloodshed. Thus if the men in power do not safeguard those institutions which secure to the minority the possibility of working for a peaceful change, then their rule is a tyranny.
(2) We need only distinguish between two forms of government, viz. such as possess institutions of this kind, and all others; i.e. democracies and tyrannies.
(3) A consistent democratic constitution should exclude only one type of change in the legal system, namely a change which would endanger its democratic character.
(4) In a democracy, the full protection of minorities should not extend to those who violate the law, and especially not to those who incite others to the violent overthrow of the democracy.
(5) A policy of framing institutions to safeguard democracy must always proceed on the assumption that there may be antidemocratic tendencies latent among the ruled as well as among the rulers.
(6) If democracy is destroyed, all rights are destroyed. Even if certain economic advantages enjoyed by the ruled should persist, they would persist only on sufferance.
(7) Democracy provides an in valuable battle-ground for any reasonable reform, since it permits reform without violence. But if the preservation of democracy is not made the first consideration in any particular battle fought out on this battle-ground, then the latent anti-democratic tendencies which are always present may bring about a breakdown of democracy.
The Marxists too often made the workers suspicious of democracy, following Engels “In reality the state is nothing more than a machine for the oppression of one class by another, and this holds for a democratic republic no less than for a monarchy.” The result was to teach the people to consider the state not as theirs, but as belonging to the rulers, and to claim that the only one way to improve things is the complete conquest of power by the socialist revolution, and the dictatorship of the proletatiat (winner take all).
And so the Marxists never even tried to work out how to control power, and think about traditions and conventions and other rules and regulations of the social and political game to protect people from the abuse of power in all its various forms.