The End Of History?

December 01, 1989 17 min read

As he rises to shake hands, Francis Fukuyama is unsmiling, and his eyes dart nervously from the visitor’s face to his shoes. Fukuyama, 36, the U.S. State Department’s deputy director of policy planning, rounds his desk slowly, with an almost palpable air of trepidation, his manner as stiff as the creases in his striped, button-down shirt.

Fukuyama’s almost grim formality can be partly explained by the fact that it has been, and continues to be, a busy afternoon of meetings at his Foggy Bottom headquarter. His mind is on more pressing matters. But there’s something else. Fukuyama is riding out a storm of publicity stemming from his authorship of an article in the Summer 1989 issue of The National Interest a Washington-based political journal. In it, he predicts something truly mind-boggling: the end of history.

What the Harvard-educated Fukuyama boldly envisions is the conclusion of an epic struggle for the hearts and minds of the masses. In the courage of the Chinese students in Tiananmen Square, in the impossible victory of Poland’s Solidarity union, and in the joyous faces of East Germans crossing the border into the West, Fukuyama has seen the future—and it is free. In the great battle of ideas, the West has won.

“What we may be witnessing,’' he writes, “is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.’'

Much of Fukuyama’s theory springs full-flowered from the dialectic of the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who held that history is not cyclical, but instead has a beginning, a middle, and an end. According to Fukuyama’s interpretation, Hegel believed “that history culminated in an absolute moment—a moment in which a final, rational form of society and state became victorious.’'

In short, the ideas of Marx have been tried and found wanting. By default, the ideas of Western democracy have won the right to ride into history’s sunset.

Heady stuff, to be sure, but even Fukuyama could not have predicted the critical firestorm sparked by his own words. If one thing can be said to account for Fukuyama’s transparent unease, it may be that he was caught unprepared for his “15 minutes of fame.’' At the moment, he is the recipient of both accolades and brickbats, and there are rumors that The National Interest is even now preparing a largely negative response to his thesis. A fevered debate over what has now been christened “endism’’ has flared up in the nation’s Op-Ed sections, and puckish reporters stop by his seventh-floor office now and then to ask: Is this for real?

They have come, and they have teased. In a tongue-in-cheek analysis in The Washington Post (headlined: “Francis Fukuyama and the Schism Over His Ism’’), Henry Allen wrote:

“Fukuyama roots his End ism in the philosophy of G.W.F. Hegel, who after seeing Napoleon at the Battle of Jena in 1806, said history had ended then. (Did it have anything to do with the fact the French troops flattened Hegel’s house?)’'

Others, reading Fukuyama’s epilogue, wondered themselves whether the author was taking the idea seriously. He wrote that the end of history might trigger the beginning of “centuries of boredom.’' He lamented: “The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands.’' It all seemed too ponderous to be taken seriously, inviting a Woody Allen-style punch line: “And, alas, Elvis will still be dead.’'

On the other hand, some heavy hitters lined up not to bury, but to praise, Fukuyama’s vision. The influential Allan Bloom, a professor on the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago and author of the best-selling The Closing of the American Mind, called Fukuyama’s article “bold and brilliant.’'

But even those who didn’t seize the opportunity to ridicule, nonetheless wondered whether Fukuyama wasn’t indulging in some world-class wishful thinking.

Pierre Hassner, research director at the Fondation Nationale Des Science Politiques in Paris, praised the article for its “seductive charm,’' but he questioned whether the author’s perception of the end is truly the end of history—or merely the end of a cycle. “In the latter case,’' he wrote, “it would be followed, one day, by new Caesars and new prophets, by a new age of heroism, austerity, and religion, and possibly of conquest and fanaticism.’'

And now, on this bright afternoon in the early fall, yet another inquisitor lies in wait. Chicago history teacher Earl Bell, in contrast to his host, is completely at ease. He wears scuffed loafers, a plaid flannel shirt, and khaki slacks, and he speaks in a pliable drawl that betrays his Carolina origins. He is tall, a self-confessed former high school jock, with coppery hair lately turning gray, and jowls that jiggle when he laughs, which he says he does often in his junior and senior classes at University High School.

Bell, also president of the Organization of History Teachers, has been brought to Washington by Teacher of the press corps, Bell knows as much about Hegel as he does about the Bears’ defensive line, which is to say, a lot--enough to be more than a little skeptical.

In this, Bell is not alone. Like most of the critics, he spots holes in the otherwise seamless garment of Fukuyama’s idea. For one thing, and not to belabor what might seem an obscure point, he reiterates Hassner’s concerns: Can history even be said to have an end, or does it run in cycles? If history is cyclical, will Western liberal democracy, now fashionable, one day go the way of platform shoes and granny dresses?

Another question, something like the chicken and the egg, crosses his mind: Are other countries in love with the ideals of liberal democracies, or are they only drawn to the benefits of consumerism that seem to follow when these forms of government take hold?

Finally, though Western ideals seem to be taking root in some unlikely places—Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union—in other nations, the old guard is hanging tough. And even if openness and restructuring bring about reform, Bell wonders, does the Gorbachev-inspired rush to embrace liberal ideals foretell the collapse of communism, or rather herald the onset of renewal—in other words, a kinder, gentler totalitarianism?

All of this concerns Bell as he sits with Fukuyama, making small talk while a photographer bustles about the room, checking light levels, adjusting the blinds behind Fukuyama’s desk, and, without showing the least curiosity, brushing past three baskets, marked, “In,’' “Out,’' and “Burn.’' In a few moments, the photographer says he is ready, and the interview begins.

Bell: I wonder if you would briefly describe the essential ideas that your end-of-history theory is based upon.

Fukuyama: It’s probably most easily understandable if you substitute “end of ideological evolution’’ for “end of history.’' Now this is a much narrower sense of the word “history’’ than most people commonly understand the term, but it is the sense in which I think Hegel views history. And my argument is primarily that that kind of ideological development had resulted in a final form of government that does not look like it’s going to be superseded by anything. This is all something that happens on the level of ideas and not necessarily the real world, yet.

Bell: Could you develop that just a little further? I understand from reading the article that you are saying this happens at a level of consciousness, but you did say that you felt the material world did affect certain states of consciousness. Could you elaborate?

Fukuyama: For Hegel and for Marx and for many modern thinkers, there has been something like a rational evolution of mankind. In the social sphere there’s a development that has affected people all over the world as they move up from tribal societies to nation-states, go through monarchies and aristocracies, and then finally up to more democratic egalitarian forms of social organization. And this does seem to be a fairly universal phenomenon, what political scientists sometimes call political modernization.

Hegel had a very elaborate theory for how all this was going to happen, and I think that he was a little bit premature, perhaps, in declaring that that evolution had ended, and [that] we took about a 100-year detour since his time trying to find some kind of a socialist stage beyond the bourgeois democratic stage that Hegel had arrived at.

But what I’m essentially saying is that there was a detour, and that it was a dead end that proved not to work, and what we’ve got left is liberal democracy. At the moment I don’t see any competitors to liberal democracy that seem to offer serious ideological challenges.

Bell: When you say the competition is between socialism, communism, and liberal democracy, are you using “liberal democracy’’ and “liberalism’’ as synonyms?

Fukuyama: Pretty much. I am using it as extremely broad. It encompasses everything from revolutionary France of the late 18th century up through modern-day France or modern Japan or Great Britain or the United States or Canada.

Essentially, the liberalism and the democracy are two separate elements. One has to do with representative government and the other has to do with limited government, or a government in which the state plays a relatively reduced role in setting goals and interfering in people’s lives. If you take those broad parameters, I think that includes North America, Western Europe, and Northeast Asia.

The most minimal definition [of liberalism] would be limited government, in which the state does not set higher ends of man other than the maintenance of a certain amount of order and stability, and that human happiness at any kind of higher end is left to private individuals to find in the sphere of their private lives. But it’s not part of the public domain.

Bell: You seem to feel that the spread of western liberalism is extensive in all areas of the world, correct?

Fukuyama: No. I don’t think that’s right. It’s true in the developed world. What’s interesting is that liberalism has begun to affect large parts of the communist world, most advanced in Hungary and Poland at the moment. There are definitely liberal tendencies in the Soviet Union right now, and up until Tiananmen Square there were also liberalizing tendencies in China. But there are vast areas of the world to which this does not really apply.

Bell: You talked a great deal about consumerism in your article. Could you just briefly explain how that relates to your ideas?

Fukuyama: I think part of the appeal of liberal political systems is liberal economics, which tends to produce a great deal of abundance and material well-being.

Fundamentally, people like liberal societies because they accept liberal ideas, but it’s also supported by the material prosperity of the societies as well, and that certainly helped the spread of liberalism.

There’s another school of thought that says it’s liberal economics and the desire for consumer societies that are driving everything, including the political liberties. I just don’t believe that’s true. They exist in parallel, and they support one another.

Bell: But consumerism could be the vanguard for western-style liberalism in different parts of the world?

Fukuyama: I think it has been, historically. It certainly helped to pave the way in Asia. The way in which that’s happened is quite complicated. People don’t say, well, we need liberal political systems simply because we want to have more color television sets. You know, you can’t enter the modern economic world without in some sense having technocratic needs, and without having people that get out into the larger world to market and to import and export and have contact with. So the larger trend is around them. And in the case of China, that’s very clearly what’s happening. You have a new generation growing up in China in the reform period that had that contact with the outside world. You had these 20,000 Chinese students studying in the United States who go back to China, and naturally they take back not just the engineering degrees and the technical expertise but certain ideas about government and political justice as well.

Bell: Is it your position, then, that ideas--not materialism--are at the foundation of human society?

Fukuyama: That is frequently the case. It works in both directions. But a lot of times you just have autonomous ideas that just spring from nowhere. For instance, if you accept one account of the origin of modern capitalism, it developed not because of some change in the material world but because this lunatic John Calvin had the idea of eternal predestination that just occurred to him one day. He developed this into a more elaborate theology that had appeal for his followers and came to govern their lives--but it didn’t come from anywhere except from the mind of John Calvin. And that’s the sense in which ideas are the foundation of society.

Bell: You say that when the state emerges at the end of history, it is liberal insofar as it recognizes and protects a system of law and of man’s universal right to freedom. And it is democratic insofar as it exists only with the consent of the governed. Are you saying that those two characteristics have to be present?

Fukuyama: I’m saying that’s a minimal condition.

Bell: That’s a minimal condition, and you’re saying that unless some alternative ideology or consciousness develops, this is the direction, regardless of the time it might take, that the world seems to be headed?

Fukuyama: That’s true, or I’d like to believe that’s true. It just seems to me that for it to be headed somewhere else you’d have to see an alternative. In the Third World there clearly are alternatives. Islamic fundamentalism is an alternative which is very powerful in the Islamic world, but in the non-Islamic parts of the world I don’t really see another source of traction that is pulling people.

Bell: By “consent of the governed’’ do you mean there has to be a right for opposition political parties to exist?

Fukuyama: The forms of that can vary. There are many differences in the specific kinds of parliamentary institutions that exist, but essentially I think in terms of multiparty democracies.

Bell: Let’s talk about the Soviet Union. As you know, it has a constitution that reads very democratically, and there has been some obvious opening up of opportunity for people seeking to serve in the legislative branch. But wouldn’t they have to go further along this line to really meet your requirements?

Fukuyama: Yes. They’d have to do the sorts of things that the Hungarians or the Poles are now contemplating, which is to have real multiparty elections in which some organization, not the Communist Party, could run for office and if the voters want to they can turn the Communist Party out of office. That hasn’t happened yet.

Bell: Your article seems to indicate that you see communism and socialism and liberal democratic capitalism as fairly clearly defined competing systems. Is that correct?

Fukuyama: I didn’t really try to define them that clearly, but it’s not that hard to do. A number of Europeans have said, what we have in Europe is not really what you understand to be democracy and capitalism. We’re much more socialist than you are. We have a bigger social welfare net--and this sort of thing. I accept all that as true.

It just seems to me that all the major European socialist parties have made their peace with capitalism fundamentally. It’s just a matter of degree rather than kind. They spend more money on social welfare programs than we Americans choose to, but that’s not a fundamental difference in the structure of their regime compared to ours. We could decide one day to vote in a new administration that would do what they do. That can all happen within the context of our system.

Bell: So you pretty much reject the theories of convergence, the idea that [all] societies are becoming one?

Fukuyama: We’ve been moving further away from that, if anything.

Bell: What indicates that?

Fukuyama: In the United States and Britain most clearly--but to a lesser extent in Germany and other developed countries--there has been the equivalent of the Reagan revolution in the past decade--a very strong revulsion to strong central government and a desire to restrict the role of government. So that does not mean we are creeping toward socialism.

The convergency theories really had their heyday in the period of the New Deal, and F.D.R. really did have a very activist social-welfare program. But in the United States that hasn’t been on the agenda for some time.

Bell: You make a point that very few leaders in the Soviet Union really take Marxist-Leninist ideology very seriously, and that it has very little to do with policy. Is it having less to do with it now that Gorbachev is in power?

Fukuyama: That’s not quite true. There are people who do take Marxism-Leninism seriously, who have been taking it seriously. But there is a great deal of cynicism in the Soviet elite, and most party officials and government officials don’t really think very much about ideology. They certainly don’t believe in Marxism-Leninism at this point as a group in the way we believe in the principles of our own founding Declaration of Independence and Constitution. They are much more careerist and opportunist, and they’ve been publicly supporting their system out of those kinds of motives rather than because they really believe.

Bell: But hasn’t that been true of every generation of leadership in the Soviet Union?

Fukuyama: No. Up through Khrushchev, the real hard core of the Communist Party believed literally in everything that Stalin said. I mean, we have these accounts of Khrushchev breaking down and crying when he heard that Stalin had died because the country would be leaderless, and without any wise, strong leader to really guide them through a period of troubles. The first real break with that was with Khrushchev, when he finally admitted that Stalin had been a murderer and a very brutal leader. For the first time, you have a generation of very disillusioned communists. Up to then, the hard core of the party really believed, and those who didn’t, were all either killed or expelled from the party.

Bell: And you’re saying it’s much less likely that party fights now would in any way use Marxist and Leninist justifications?

Fukuyama: Not in the way that Stalin did. You can still use ideology, but it is now more loyalty to perestroika than loyalty to that kind of strict Leninism.

Bell: What could happen in the Soviet Union that would create the most difficulty for your view of the way things are going? In other words, what if Andropov’s allies, if there are any left, were to take power, and Gorbachev were no longer around?

Fukuyama: That would be the real test. If there were a real reversion to Brezhnevism, where these kind of old-line Stalinists came back to impose discipline, and somehow got people to believe them, I would have to admit I was wrong.

Bell: What about China? You seem to be concerned about what happened at Tiananmen Square as it affects your ideas.

Fukuyama: All the events taken together in China this spring really support my hypothesis because I never said that it was impossible for a group of 80-year-old party leaders and generals to crack down and kill a lot of students and re-establish order. Obviously, that could happen. But what’s really striking is the pro-democracy movement that brought on the repression, which I think few people expected.

It shows that political liberalism really has some meaning in China to this new generation that has grown up under reform, that they took that very seriously, and it was a spontaneous mass movement in China. There is a school of interpretation that says the Chinese are only interested in economic reform and not political reform, but I just think that’s wrong; as it turns out, they wanted both. So I would use China to support my case, and I think we haven’t seen the end of it. MarxismLeninism is still not in good shape in China. Even though people are being forced at gun point to repeat slogans, very few people even in the party or bureaucracy believe them.

Bell: Exactly what did you mean when you referred to the “great boredom?’' That attracted a lot of headlines.

Fukuyama: It was just one sentence at the end of the article. People are reading things a little bit too literally.

Bell: How do you see this sort of Western liberal society that you’re talking about, then? Do you share Solzhenitsyn’s concerns about spiritual vacuousness?

Fukuyama: That’s a real concern. I’m a liberal. I believe that liberal democracy is the best of all the available alternatives. But, as you know, it does leave higher ends up to us, and so it’s up to us to think about them and to pursue them in our own lives. The state is not going to make you do that, so it’s a question we have to re-address in every generation.

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A version of this article appeared in the December 01, 1989 edition of Teacher as The End Of History?