Richard Marshall interviews Jeremy Sheamur in 3:AM Magazine:
3:AM: The Open Society and The Poverty of Historicism were both written at a time when the cold war orientated much thinking in the social sciences. Do you think Popper saw himself as a Cold War intellectual and so was he deliberately writing to oppose Marxist intellectuals of the left at the time? Or was he driven just by the ideas, following them wherever they led him?
JS: I would disagree with this as a reading of Popper. His Open Society and Poverty of Historicism were written in New Zealand during the Second World War, and were critical reflections on his experience of inter-war politics in Vienna, and the lessons that he thought should be learned from that, for what took place after the Second World War. His engagement with Marxism was strongly influenced by his critical reactions to the influence of Marxism on Austrian politics. While – as his ‘The Theory of Totalitarianism” (1946), now inAfter the Open Society makes clear – his critical treatment of Plato was conducted in part because he came to the conclusion that the kind of reaction to social change which he found in Hitler, was also to be found in Plato’s work.
Popper was drawn into disagreement with Soviet philosophers after the Second World War, e.g. by way of their critical reaction to his ‘Utopia and Violence’. In addition, it is clear that, after the Second World War, he became concerned about totalitarianism. In this context, he was particularly exercised to try to make sure that a split did not develop between liberals and non-totalitarian socialists. When he was invited to the initial meeting of what would become Hayek’s Mont Pelerin Society, he urged Hayek to invite various socialists to take part, for fear that Hayek’s existing plans for the society would enhance the risk of such a split. (Hayek himself was at the time concerned about the risk of a split, but between conservatives – notably, among German opponents of National Socialism – and liberals, and I suspect that he and Popper may have been at cross-purposes over this.) Popper’s own political views were open to interpretation – both Bryan Magee and Malachi Hacohen consider The Open Society as containing a program for the democratic left, while Hayek thought that there were strong commonalities between his approach and Popper’s (although regretting some continuing influence of Popper’s early socialism). It was clear, though, that Popper was not a market-oriented liberal of Hayek’s kind.
All this would, on the face of it, have made him an obvious candidate for being a Cold War intellectual. However, he did not, for example, participate in the activities of the Congress for Cultural Freedom (something to which Hayek, when he attended a meeting, did not find himself sympathetic, because it did not share his view of freedom). One might have expected that Popper would have been sympathetic to their views, but I can only speculate why he was not involved: was it, perhaps, a result of his intellectual disagreements with Michael Polanyi who played a leading role in the group in England; was it a product of Popper’s allergy to cigarette smoke, or of his at times prickly personal relations with other academics?