The End of History Toward the End of the Twentieth Century: Francis Fukuyama

In the summer of 1989, Francis Fukuyama published an article entitled “The End of History?” in The National Interest. Its editor, Owen Harries, had commissioned four other authors to write comments on it, among them Pierre Hassner, who has told the story of his reaction to Fukuyama’s article as a comic commentary on his own inability to judge the likely reactions of intellectual publics. Hassner agreed to contribute an appreciation and critique to The National Interest, but he thought it unlikely that this Kojevian argument would be of much interest to American readers. Then, when it had in fact occasioned an astonishing amount of discussion and controversy in the U.S., Jean-Claude Casanova, editor of Commentaire, solicited Has- sner’s opinion regarding the idea of publishing a French translation of the article in that journal. Hassner took the view that the Americans, surprisingly enough, had found this unfamiliar Kojevian argument fascinating, but that the French, having debated these matters at length two and three decades before, were unlikely to be eager to revisit them. Casanova went ahead with publishing the translated article anyway, however, and it proceeded to stimulate a similarly remarkable quantity of discussion and controversy in France as well.

How should we understand so powerful a reaction to “The End of History?” The article did not break new ground philosophically, but took Koj eve’s affirmation of the end of history as a premise, rather like a hypothesis in political science, and proceeded to examine whether contemporary events in the world seemed to be explained by this hypothesis and thus to support its likely validity. In the context of the impending breakdown of the Soviet Union and its eastern European empire, in contrast with the successes of liberal democracy and market economics, Fukuyama presented a clear and forceful argument that the lineaments of a Kojevian end of history were now clear. The Western democratic victory in the Cold War could be seen as the realization of the end of history; no other ideology or mode of political-social-economic organization presented itself as a serious competitor. The triumphalist tone of this analysis was tempered or saddened, however, by the reflection (of Nietzschean flavor but to be found also in some statements by Kojeve himself) that much of what made life exciting, interesting, or creative no longer has a real place at the end of history.[1] We can perhaps best understand the surprisingly widespread and lively reaction to the article as the consequence of two factors. First, the remarkable turn of events leading toward the end of the Cold War drew every thoughtful person’s attention and kindled an eager desire to reflect on its meaning. Second, the article’s argument raised fundamental philosophical questions that ordinary political debates and intellectual discussions usually pass over in silence—questions about how one can recognize progress, whether history has a pattern and a meaning, and whether liberal democracy falls short of the more just goals aimed at by Marxist socialism, or is basically converging toward the same end state, or is in fact superior to the communist alternative.

Most of those who wrote about Fukuyama’s article did so to take exception to it. Three types of objections are easily distinguished. One is that no one could ever reasonably claim to know the end of history: who knows what new movement or discovery might lie ahead, such as to make all kinds of things, including humanly important things, change? This objection appeals to our common sense, to be sure, but it does not come to grips with the issue of how one can have knowledge of a being that changes fundamentally in the course of its development over time; it amounts, therefore, to the assertion of a skeptical relativism which, though repeated more, perhaps, than any other view, basically affirms nothing philosophically. A second objection is that liberal democracy as the end of history can hardly be a genuinely Hegelian position: Hegel criticized liberalism (and the French revolutionary doctrines) for abstractness, incapacity to illuminate the full range of human moral, familial, and civic life. One might respond to this objection that it is not fundamental; one would need to inquire further into the various details of the political doctrines that Hegel presented. As we have seen, in the Phenomenology he viewed Napoleon’s victory as heralding the end of history that would actualize the rights of man; later events led him to develop his political teaching in a more complex manner (which is indeed critical of too simple or abstract a liberalism). In a third type of objection, many pointed out the irony, or perhaps self-refuting absurdity, of using the doctrines of Kojeve, who favored Marx and even defended the actions of Stalin, to support liberal democracy as the goal of history. This objection (which does not, however, amount to a refutation) would seem valid against the more Marxist version of the end of history that Kojeve affirmed earlier. But as we have seen, the later Kojeve held that Hegel was right about history’s ending in 1806; wars and political issues since then have been matters of working out the details of the end of history and the specific path to it rather than the confrontation of fundamentally opposed alternatives on a world-historical level. Hence the later Kojeve could hold that the United States had advanced further toward actualizing the end of history than the Soviet Union—and that the greatest authentic Marxist of the twentieth century was Henry Ford.[2]

Fukuyama elaborated his ideas extensively in his book, The End of History and the Last Man, published in 1992. Certainly events occurring between the article’s and the book’s publications, particularly in Russia and Eastern Europe, added plausibility to Fukuyama’s thesis. Like the article, the book occasioned widespread and wide-ranging discussion and debate. Commensurately with the book’s much fuller development of the philosophical and scientific grounds, empirical evidence, and implications of the argument, many contributions to the discussion probed deeply into crucial philosophic issues, about human nature, history, the sources of knowledge, and the meaning of events.[3]

As compared to the article, based on Kojeve’s idea of an end of history, the book takes a more complex approach. Looking for a pattern in history, it draws on modernization theories to argue that the combination of modern science and economics ends up constituting a mechanism that tends continually to drive historical development forward. Arguing that this mechanism is insufficient to account for many events in history, and especially the movement toward liberal democracy, it incorporates Kojeve-Hegel’s argument about the motive force of the Master-Slave dialectic, originating from the initial fight for recognition and moving eventually toward rational human satisfaction in the equal and reciprocal recognition of all through a universal and homogeneous state (realized in actuality as liberal democracy). Finally, it supplements (or dilutes) Kojeve’s purely historicist argument with an appeal to a trans-historical stan- dard—to a Platonic conception of the nature of the human soul, in accordance with which the mechanism (of modern science and economics) is driven by reason and desire while the distinctively moral aspects of the fight for recognition are driven by thymos or spiritedness. Thus the book’s philosophical basis is eclectic: a combination of a Platonic view of human nature with the adoption of a Hegelian conception of history. In consequence, in addition to being vastly more detailed, the book is more moderate, cautious in its affirmations, and commonsensical than the article. It is also impressive in the breadth and openness of its inquiry: in its fair-minded discussions of various theories, philosophical and social-scientific; in bringing to bear numerous and diverse historical examples; and in its wide-ranging and well-informed inquiry into developments all over the contemporary world. The book sparked serious reflection on many philosophical issues, especially the question of what history is and how we can think reasonably about it.

Fukuyama’s thesis seems about equally persuasive now as it did twenty-five years ago. On one hand, the continued tendency toward globalization of economics, information, and education seems to accord with the thesis. On the other hand, the growing political power of religious fundamentalism (perhaps most notably the dream of an Islamist caliphate), the effort of authoritarian Russia to regain lost empire, and the shortcomings or failures of newer democracies seem contrary to it. But the claim that an end of history had come upon us or was about to arrive never meant that a turn to irrational action, by individuals or even by societies, would become impossible; it meant only that a fully rationally defensible political-moral-legal order has come to exist and that no fundamentally different alternative can defend itself with adequate reasons. In this respect, the truth or falsity of the Kojevian doctrine of an end of history would seem to remain what it has been since first enunciated.


  • [1] Francis Fukuyama’s book-length elaboration of his argument was thereforeentitled The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992).Strauss in writing to Kojeve about the latter’s Introduction a la lecture de Hegelraised two major objections. The first was to ask how to repair the gap in Hegel’sphilosophical system created by Kojeve’s abandonment of Hegel’s philosophyof nature. The second was to object that the end state, the universal and homogeneous state, could not provide genuine human satisfaction. After articulatingseveral criticisms, Strauss concludes: “If I had more time than I have, I couldstate more fully, and presumably more clearly, why I am not convinced that theEnd State as you describe it, can be either the rational or the merely factual satisfaction of human beings. For the sake of simplicity I refer today to Nietzsche’s‘last men.’” On Tyranny, 236-239 (letter of 22 August 1948). Of Kojeve’s laterwritings, a review essay about three novels of Raymond Queneau (including Ledimanche de la vie—see note 26 above) and another about two novels by Fran-joise Sagan convey a vivid sense of the absence of certain human types andexperiences from the end of history. See Nichols, Alexandre Kojeve, 87-89.
  • [2] For the former claim, see IRH 212-215. The latter claim was made in a lecturedelivered in 1957: “Kolonialismus in europaischer Sicht,” Schmittiana, vol. VI(Berlin: Duncker & Humboldt, 1998), 126-140. Translation by Erik De Vries,“Colonialism from a European Perspective,” Interpretation: A Journal of PoliticalPhilosophy 29 (no. 1, Fall 2001).
  • [3] See, for example, the articles in After History? Francis Fukuyama and His Critics,ed. Timothy Burns (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1994), and some ofthe articles in History and the Idea of Progress (see note 4 above).
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