Tolerance, the Extreme Right, and Karl Popper’s ‘Open Society and its Enemies’

There’s a particularly wet argument permeating the internet right now; that counter-protesting against fascism is a betrayal of the tolerance and virtue that the left should aim to embody. It’s easy to see why some people might fall for this easy assumption; after all the President of the United States unequivocally blamed ‘violence on all sides’ for the debacle in Charlottesville.

But can we really operate in a world that thinks marching down residential streets with flaming torches and calling for the oppression and deaths of millions based on race, sexuality and religion is acceptable, but denounces any and all attempts to retaliate?

No. That wasn’t as rhetorical as I thought.

Karl Popper’s work on tolerance and the ‘open society’ might be useful to us here. The impossible decision faced by left-wing activists right now is where we should draw a line. How do we defend the principles of free speech in society while also defending the people our society is made of?


Karl Popper

Karl Popper was a Jewish intellectual living and writing in the mid-twentieth century. His work is often linked up with political critics and advocates of the period, like Hannah Arendt or Isaiah Berlin, but does not seem to get the same level of individual attention. This may be because he was a precise writer and careful with his ideas: you don’t find many sweeping statements or catch-all quotes in his book The Open Society and its Enemies. Instead he offers a compelling understanding of the issues of free speech, tolerance and protest in society-wide politics.

Less well known is the paradox of tolerance: Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.

Karl R. Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, 1945.

Can a tolerant society tolerate intolerant people? Liberal and centrist stances on tolerance seems to imply that we should continue to allow Neo-Nazis, the Alt-Right or whatever they choose to call themselves, to march across cities with fiery torches and openly-carried weapons, calling for the mass murder, political oppression and historical decimation of groups of human beings.

Karl Popper’s understanding of tolerance is nuanced, but forthright, and based in his conception of free speech. Free speech exists in a paradoxical balance; tolerance of a spectrum of political and social beliefs is vital to creating an open and free society, but this cannot be outweighed by the heavy discrimination, fear and murderous capacity of fascism. Our democratic societies have become more tolerant of the increasingly public face of white supremacist and fascist movements, and centre-grounders fight tooth and nail for the rights of those people to express far-right ideals. Views once understood to be reprehensible, views worth fighting a world war over, are now merely dismissed as ‘fringe’ or ‘radical.’ Denouncing white supremacy or fascism has become a revolutionary and praise-worthy act on social media and in government alike, when expressed by people who would not be affected or oppressed by such views regardless.

The rise of the far right has often been ignored or dismissed by the centre-ground; opinion-shapers and policy makers who are unaffected by racism, misogyny, homophobia or ableism. The liberal approaches, ranging from ignoring the problem outright up to a bemused coddling and joking online, has been a dangerous extension of acceptance. Every Radio 4 invitation that was extended to Nigel Farage and every time a local council refuses to disband an EDL march has been an act of legitimisation; a reward for their appalling and inhuman beliefs. Extending tolerance to intolerant people poisons society.


The centre-ground strives to achieve a position that pleases no sides. They seem to feel that only by alienating the left and the right of the spectrum, tarring those on both sides as equal in their potential danger and subversiveness, that they will achieve some kind of perfect democracy. Instead of being tolerant of a broad spectrum of beliefs, the current liberal instead preserves only their own platform and seeks to silence any decriers. How can the left fight for tolerance if our activism is denounced as ‘just as bad’?

This platform cannot be supported as the ‘default’ any longer. Occupying the centre of the current political spectrum is not the same as neutrality. When a centrist makes apologies for Nazis by blaming economic inequality or rising multiculturalism, they are committing a radical act of intolerance. The centre of the spectrum is supposed to be a reflection of the most typical or moderate views, and should be used as an arbiter of public opinion and a means of moderating the edges of the spectrum of political opinion. If the centre of the spectrum moves to the right, as it has done over years of conservative political domination in Europe and the US, then it fails in its duty to reflect the breadth of society.

In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols.

Karl R. Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, 1945.

Popper held his faith for resolution in ‘the critical rational method.’ In essence, he believed that rational and balanced discussion creates wiser participants and better solutions- and that this rationality should be defended at all costs. Charmingly, he believed that a democratic and tolerant society would teach even the most intolerant people to be better.

This is not the cold and clinical understanding of politics that you might expect from a professional intellectual, but Popper’s most unique appeal is his willingness to acknowledge and encourage the significance of emotions in ethics and belief. His insistence that freedom to think and speak is the core of a positive society should feel familiar. This book was written through the Second World War and published in 1945, and as a result Popper was writing explicitly in favour of democracy and in disgust of the rise of fascist, nationalist and authoritarian politics in Europe.

Until recently, fighting the far right was a position we never had to question. To equivocate and become squeamish at the idea that political change may be forced to happen in the streets is an expression of privilege by those who have never had to advocate for change. In the meantime, other lives are put at risk.

An officer patrols in front of a recent KKK rally in Charlottesville, Va. Jill Mumie 

That favourite standby of ‘fighting hate with love’ means extending a hand of kindness to marginalised groups- it doesn’t mean humanising the inhuman. It means calling out intolerance where you see it. It means protecting the people under genuine physical threat. White supremacism, nationalism and fascism are intolerant perspectives, breaching the basic human rights of other people, and these platforms need to be removed from our society by any and all means available.

Are you waiting for the final mic-drop?

We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.

Karl R. Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, 1945.


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