In The Open Society and Its Enemies, Popper developed a critique of historicism and a defense of the open society, liberal democracy. The book is in two volumes; volume one is subtitled “The Spell of Plato“, and volume two, “The High Tide of Prophecy: Hegel, Marx, and the Aftermath”.
The subtitle of the first volume is also its 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, rather than as it should be seen: a horrific totalitarian nightmare of deceit, violence, master-race rhetoric and eugenics.
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 he 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——that he 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 is 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, Popper moves on to criticise Hegel and Marx, tracing back their ideas to Aristotle, and arguing that the two were at the root of 20th century totalitarianism.
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.”
According to philosopher Leo Strauss, Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies had mistaken the city-in-speech described in Plato’s Republic for a blueprint for regime reform. Strauss quotes Cicero, “The Republic does not bring to light the best possible regime but rather the nature of political things – the nature of the city.” Strauss argued that the city-in-speech was unnatural, precisely because “it is rendered possible by the abstraction from eros.” The city-in-speech abstracted from eros, or bodily needs, and therefore could never guide politics in the manner Popper claimed.
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.”
Walter Kaufmann‘s The Hegel Myth and Its Method argues that Popper’s section on Hegel is a simplified and misleading representation of Hegel. He claims that Popper’s views are based on an incomplete reading of Hegel, suggesting that “Popper has relied largely on Scribner’s Hegel Selections, a little anthology for students that contains not a single complete work.” Kaufmann also views Popper as betraying the scientific method he proposes so passionately and instead is “intent on psychologizing the men he attacks.” In fact, Kaufmann accuses Popper of using the same distorting methods of which totalitarians are also guilty.