The Austrian philosopher of science Karl Popper, who emigrated to New Zealand in the late 1930s (when he was in his late 30s) and then to London, had flirted with Communism in his youth. Actually, he more than flirted with it, although it was a whirlwind romance that lasted only a few months, came to a bad end, and had a profound effect on his life and his thinking thereafter:
[Popper] remembers that, although he was obviously dissatisfied with the society of its times, he was uneasy because the party obviously promoted a kind of murderous instinct against class-enemies: he was told, however, that this was necessary and that, in any case, it was not meant too seriously; also that in a revolution only victory can serve; and finally that under capitalism there are every day more victims than in the entire revolution. Popper notes that he agreed reluctantly, with the feeling that he had to pay a high price regarding his morality. Something similar happened regarding lies, as the leaders sometimes said one day white and the following day black; this would happen whenever they received a telegram from Moscow with the corresponding indications. When Popper protested, he was told that those contradictions were necessary and should not be criticized, as the unity of the party was essential for the triumph of revolution: although it was possible to commit mistakes, it was not allowed to criticize them openly, because only the discipline of the party could carry a fast victory. Popper remembers again that, although he reluctantly accepted this, he felt that he was sacrificing his personal integrity to the party, and that, when he realized that the leaders were disposed to contradict themselves at any moment, his attitude towards communism suffered a crisis
This is familiar, isn’t it? The slavish devotion to the Party over all, including rationality, was required. Young as he was at the time (age 17), Popper had trouble believing that 2 + 2 = 5, even when the Party demanded it.
The incident that was Popper’s turning point was a demonstration organized by the Communists, in which he took part and where quite a few people were killed by the police. He later wrote:
“I felt that as a Marxist I bore part of the responsibility for the tragedy -at least in principle. Marxist theory demands that the class struggle be intensified, in order to speed up the coming of socialism…”
…[T]he people dead, at least some of them, were young workers: Popper thought that other people who, like himself, were students or intellectuals, had special responsibility for those workers, who relied on the intellectuals. The other is that, as he said many years later, he had approved of the demonstration because it was supported by the communist party; he perhaps had even encouraged the participation of other people; and perhaps some of them were among the dead.
He was also upset by the attitude of the communist leaders. He asked himself whether he had discussed seriously and critically the Marxist theory which served as the basis for the sacrifice of human lives, and he recognized that he had not done it. However, when he arrived at the headquarters of the communist party, he realized that the leaders had an entirely different attitude: revolution made unavoidable the existence of such a type of victims, and furthermore this meant a kind of progress because workers would become every time more angry against the police and so they would become more and more aware of their real class-enemies. Popper’s reaction was clear: he never returned there, and this way, as he commented later, he escaped the Marxist trap…
…[H]e described it in his autobiography this way:
“I was shocked to have to admit to myself that not only had I accepted a complex theory somewhat uncritically, but I had also actually noticed quite a bit that was wrong, in the theory as well as in the practice of communism, but had repressed this -partly out of loyalty to “the cause”, and partly because there is a mechanism of getting oneself more and more deeply involved: once one has sacrificed one’s intellectual conscience over a minor point one does not wish to give up too easily; one wishes to justify the self-sacrifice by convincing oneself of the fundamental goodness of the cause, which is seen to outweigh any little moral or intellectual compromise that may be required. With every such moral or intellectual sacrifice one gets more deeply involved. One becomes ready to back one’s moral or intellectual investments in the cause with further investments. It is like being eager to throw good money after bad. I also saw how this mechanism had been working in my case, and I was horrified.”
I don’t think I’ve come across a better description of the thought process of one type of person who is often attracted to leftism: the idealist. Popper, a supremely rational man, also hated war and was attracted to what he perceived as the pacifism of the Communists (they weren’t really pacifists, but he didn’t know that at the time). For a while, then, as a teenaged activist, his desire to believe he was joining in a good cause trumped his rationality and his ethics, but soon both asserted themselves because they were so strong within him.
But it’s easy to see how other idealists, less rational and less ethical, could keep going for a long time in the Communist cause. And of course idealists are not the only people attracted to the left—there’s an entire group, among them usually the leaders, who are attracted not in spite of the cruelty and power but because of it.
The experience formed the basis of what became Popper’s life work:
This sufficed to make of Popper a fallibilist, strongly suspicious of pseudo-scientific creeds: the Marxist pseudo-scientific prediction of a necessary course of history was very dangerous, and the first condition that Popper would require in the future to any allegedly scientific theory was that it should be held with an attitude of intellectual modesty, namely an attitude that recognizes the magnitude of our ignorance and never forgets that our theories are always tentative and partial trials to progress. Scientific certainty had showed itself deceptive and should be replaced by an attitude of learning through our unavoidable mistakes. Now, mistakes would begin to be considered not as an evil, but as the way which prepares real progress.