Utopian aspirations from Plato to Marx, Mao and Pol Pot

Chapter 9 of The Open Society and Its Enemies Perfectionism and Utopianism. Don’t miss the bonus link at the end!

Everything has got to be smashed to start with. Our whole damned civilization has got to go, before we can bring any decency into the world.’ —‘Mourlan’, in Du Gard’s Les Thibaults.

‘All citizens above the age of ten must be expelled from the city and deported somewhere into the country; and the children who are now free from the influence of the manners and habits of their parents must be taken over.’ – Plato.

This chapter runs to only 12 pages and it contains some of the most important arguments in the whole book because countless millions of lives have been ruined by the application of the principles of revolutionary social and political reform. It is helpful to read this chapter with the image of Pol Pot’s Cambodia and Mao’s China in mind.

Inherent in Plato’s programme there is a certain approach towards politics which, I believe, is most dangerous…The Platonic approach I have in mind can be described as Utopian engineering, as opposed to another kind of social engineering which I consider as the only rational one, and which may be described by the name of piecemeal engineering.

The piecemeal reformer will seek to address the most urgent evils of society instead of aiming to achieve the greatest ultimate good, and this may look like a verbal quibble but Popper argued that in fact it is the difference between a reasonable method of improving the lot of man, and a method which may easily lead to an intolerable increase in human suffering. Recall that Popper was not fully aware of the extent of the Soviet disaster when he wrote this chapter, and Cambodia and Mao’s experiments in China were still some decades away.

There is no scope for tolerance between different Utopian religions so the Utopian must either convert or destroy his Utopianist competitors. On top of that it may be necessary to do more than merely destroying the opposition but also to stamp out the very memory of it. It was probably George Orwell who pointed out that for the totalitarians, control of the past is essential to the control of the future and so history has to be re-written, even to the extent of airbrushing out important figures from group photographs when they fall from favour with some later regime.On top of that, criticism of failures on the way to the goal has to be suppressed, otherwise doubt may be cast on the very goals themselves, the people may cease to have confidence in the leadership.

The rational alternative to all of this is piecemeal change and reform. People who adopt this method may or may not have a complete blueprint of society in mind, and they may be open-minded about the the prospects for achieving an ideal state of happiness and perfection on earth.

In favour of his method, the piecemeal engineer can claim that a systematic fight against suffering and injustice and war is more likely to be supported by the approval and agreement of a great number of people than the fight for the establishment of some ideal. The existence of social evils, that is to say, of social conditions under which many men are suffering, can be comparatively well established. Those who suffer can judge for themselves, and the others can hardly deny that they would not like to change places. It is infinitely more difficult to reason about an ideal society.

While piecemeal reform fits democracy, Utopian reform virtually demands a dictatorship, and a harsh and uncompromising one to boot. This is because a benevolent dictator will have great difficulty finding out from his sycophantic courtiers whether the effects of his policies agree with his good intentions.

Another difficulty of Utopian engineering is related to the problem of the dictator’s successor. The scope of such a Utopian undertaking makes it improbable that it will realize its ends during the lifetime of one social engineer, or group of engineers. And if the successors do not pursue the same ideal, then all the sufferings of the people for the sake of the ideal may have been in vain.

The piecemeal reformer is not restricted to petty, trivial or small scale experiments, such as reforms of a single village. The reformer will mostly be concerned with social institutions which extend throughout the whole of society, like the legal system. In fact in the aftermath of the Fall of the Wall when the Russians were struggling to come to grips with a situation where the rule of law had been absent for several generations, Popper proposed that the French or German legal codes might be taken on board more or less in toto to plug the gap. The point was that plenty of people from France or Germany could advise on the operation and the modification of the system.

Piecemeal social experiments can be carried out under realistic conditions, in the midst of society, in spite of being on a ‘small scale’, that is to say, without revolutionizing the whole of society. In fact, we are making such experiments all the time. The introduction of a new kind of life-insurance, of a new kind of taxation, of a new penal reform, are all social experiments which have their repercussions through the whole of society without remodelling society as a whole.

Further thoughts on Radicalism with Cambodia and China in mind. The most dangerous spect of Utopianism from Plato to the present day is its attempt to deal with society as a whole, leaving no stone unturned. To go to the root of the social evil, to completely eradication the offending social system. Plato wrote:

They will take as their canvas a city and the characters of men, and they will, first of all, make their canvas clean—by no means an easy matter. But this is just the point, you know, where they will differ from all others. They will not start work on a city nor on an individual (nor will they draw up laws) unless they are given a clean canvas, or have cleaned it themselves.

All citizens above the age of ten must be expelled from the city and deported somewhere into the country; and the children who are now free from the influence of the manners and habits of their parents must be taken over. They must be educated in the ways [of true philosophy], and according to the laws, which we have described.’ This is what canvas-cleaning means. He must eradicate the existing institutions and traditions. He must purify, purge, expel, banish, and kill. (‘Liquidate’ is the terrible modern term for it.) Plato’s statement is indeed a true description of the uncompromising attitude of all forms of out-and-out radicalism—of the aestheticist’s refusal to compromise.

Mao followed that instruction when ten annual cohorts of high school graduates were sent to villages for life to be re-educated among the peasants, the factory workers and the soldiers. Fortunately after he died some sanity came back into the system and young people including my travelling companion went back to Beijing and picked up the threads of education and professional careers.

Bonus. A piece on the legacy of Marx by Richard Ebeling, a leading classical liberal and Austrian economist.

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11 Responses to Utopian aspirations from Plato to Marx, Mao and Pol Pot

  1. RobK

    Thanks Rafe,
    Since Marx, I think some have been trying for a work-around to bloody revolution and the march to centralised control and planning is precarious. The UN, globalisation, technocracy, are all laden with risk to the individual, freedom, prosperity, healthy competition and self determination.

  2. Egor

    We are all socialists now. It’s just a matter of degree. There is no way back.

  3. John Constantine

    Year Zero.

    Their Australian left is unswerving in its devotion to year zero through decolonisation.

    Their turnbullites are dedicated to benign neglect decolonisation through the cumulative signing of an unending chain of capitulation conventions, all debtfunded.

    Their shorten looting cartel is just going to creep out onto where the suffering and doomed Australian old economy is hooked up on the barbed wire of the battlefield, slit it’s throat and steal it’s boots.

    After pulling it’s gold teeth out with pliers.

    Comrades.

  4. Elizabeth (Lizzie) Beare

    The Greens certainly aspire to all that is bad in this, under the guise of ‘the good’, religiously in the name of the planet. The worrying thing is that they have control of our schools, along with other Marxists, and the historical failures of Communism are no longer taught. To compound the problem, Marxism is presented as a ‘pure’ ideal that has never been applied properly, and it is dissociated from Communism.

    Dangerous times.

  5. mareeS

    So, since the Greeks, it has been the elite seeking to subjugate the demos. Fortunately, the demos has other ideas.

  6. egg_

    So, since the Greeks, it has been the elite seeking to subjugate the demos. Fortunately, the demos has other ideas.

    Green urban bugmen’s social conscience ends at paying a virtue signalling carbon tax, apparently; conservatives acting more with a social conscience in general.

    Dubya lives in an eco-friendly ranch house whilst Gore’s mansion chews through a pleb’s annual energy in a month.

  7. JB of Sydney/Shanghai

    Xi Jinping knows a bit about hard times at first hand, more than can be said about the Australian theorists who only talk about “the workers”, and generally spout bullshit.

    https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/08/world/asia/xi-jinping-china-propaganda-village.html

  8. mareeS

    egg, that was a giant non-sequitor.

  9. J.H.

    “They will take as their canvas a city and the characters of men, and they will, first of all, make their canvas clean—by no means an easy matter. “…..Plato.

    This must be an inexact translation. I wasn’t aware that painting of oils upon canvas existed during Plato’s time.

  10. J.H.

    ….. Not that I disagree with the post…. I just find the painting analogy that is attributed to Plato, as curious.

  11. JohnA

    The most dangerous (a)spect of Utopianism from Plato to the present day is its attempt to deal with society as a whole, leaving no stone unturned. To go to the root of the social evil, to completely eradicat(e) the offending social system.

    The very definition of totalitarianism.

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