The “end of history” revisited: Francis Fukuyama and his critics

Danny Postel
1 May 2006

Francis Fukuyama's name is once again everywhere. His latest book (titled America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power and the Neoconservative Legacy in the United States, After the Neocons: America at the Crossroads in Britain) has provoked a firestorm of debate in and beyond Washington. A trenchant "goodbye to all that" to his erstwhile comrades in the neo-conservative movement, it has been reviewed in virtually every organ of political commentary, canvassed on countless blogs and websites.

It would be false modesty for us not to point out that openDemocracy was ahead of the curve on this: a full eighteen months ago, in October 2004, we prefigured the current row in an article – "Fukuyama's moment: a neocon schism opens" that anatomised Fukuyama's defection and quickly became a reference-point in the flurry over it.

But this is not the first time the political cosmopolis has been abuzz over Fukuyama. In the final months of 1989 his unusual essay "The End of History?" came to occupy centre-stage in the cultural conversation of the time and turned a previously unheard-of policy intellectual into a fixture of the zeitgeist. "Within a year", as Perry Anderson put it in his book A Zone of Engagement,"an arcane philosophical wisdom had become an exoteric image of the age, as Fukuyama's arguments sped round the media of the globe."

That an article published in a relatively obscure journal (The National Interest) that relied pivotally on the ideas of an enigmatic philosopher (Alexandre Kojève) could have made such an imprint around the world – and before the Internet was around to disseminate it instantaneously – was an extraordinary event. Fukuyama expanded the essay into a book, The End of History and the Last Man, published in 1992. If its impact was less sensational than the original article's, it was even more ambitious in scope: and its release occasioned a reprise of debate and criticism.

Now, some seventeen years after the appearance of the article and some fourteen years after the publication of the book, Fukuyama critically revisits and reconsiders his argument in light of some of the criticisms levelled against it and in light of world affairs over the last decade and a half. The occasion for this reconsideration is the publication of a new paperback edition of the book, for which Fukuyama has written a new Afterword.

openDemocracy is excited to be publishing that text, along with an accompanying symposium on it. We have invited a distinguished international ensemble of thinkers to weigh in on Fukuyama's reconsideration of his thesis. We will publish their pieces – twelve in all – along with a reply by Fukuyama himself at the forum's conclusion.

The participants in the symposium come from across the globe: France (Olivier Roy), the Netherlands and Argentina (Saskia Sassen), Egypt (Saad Eddin Ibrahim), Britain (Gavin Kitching, Anthony Pagden, Roger Scruton), Jamaica (David Scott), Pakistan (Talal Asad), India (Vinay Lal), Canada (Shadia Drury), and the United States (Charles Maier, Stephen Holmes). They also represent varying intellectual disciplines: history (Pagden, Maier, Kitching, Lal), sociology (Sassen, Ibrahim, Roy), political science (Drury, Holmes), anthropology (Scott, Asad), philosophy (Scruton), and middle-east studies (Roy).

We welcome readers to read, engage with and respond to this vital dialogue as it unfolds over the next two weeks. It promises to be the most bracing and most stimulating discussion yet of Fukuyama's landmark but largely misconstrued idea.

Also in openDemocracy on neo-conservatism, American foreign policy, and global politics:

Danny Postel, "Nobel lies and perpetual war: Leo Strauss, the neocons, and Iraq"
(October 2003)

Mark Blitz, "Leo Strauss, the Straussians and American foreign policy"
(November 2003)

Danny Postel, "Fukuyama's moment: a neocon schism opens" (October 2004)

John Mearsheimer, "Hans Morgenthau and the Iraq war: realism versus neo-conservatism"
(May 2005)

Ivan Krastev, "The end of the 'freedom century'"
(April 2006)

A disturbing force

In his new Afterword to The End of History and the Last Man, Fukuyama addresses the many misunderstandings and misrepresentations to which his thesis has been subjected. There is no need to cover the ground the author himself traverses, but it is worth noting briefly how pervasive such readings were. Indeed, to quote Perry Anderson once again, upon first encountering it the "great majority of Fukuyama's commentators in the world's press greeted his argument with incredulity". Indeed critics from across the ideological spectrum – left, right, and centre – were at once flummoxed and incensed by the thesis.

Many interpreted Fukuyama literally to mean nothing else was going to happen anymore – or at least nothing important. Not so: what he meant was not that historical events would stop happening but rather that, with the collapse of Soviet communism and fascism before it, there were no major competing visions to liberal democracy as a system and thus that we had reached an end-point in our "ideological evolution" as a species. One can of course debate that proposition – as several of the participants in our symposium do – but that, and not something else, is the proposition.

Many others read the thesis as a form of unbridled American triumphalism, an unqualified celebration of the United States model of capitalist democracy, end of discussion. Not so: in fact, Fukuyama asserts that "the European Union is a much fuller real-world embodiment of the concept than is the contemporary United States." Moreover – and this aspect almost entirely evaded comprehension – the second half of the book's equation, the "last man", is in fact a dark cloud looming over the end of history: the spectre, taken from Friedrich Nietzsche, of life stripped of great passions or of ideals worth struggling for – a bloodless bourgeois routine of consumption.

The attacks on the thesis were manifold. It was not only those on the left but several conservatives who reacted with suspicion. Samuel Huntington detected more than a whiff of Marxism in the argument. (Indeed Marx does figure in Fukuyama's mosaic, along with Hegel and Kojève, as an exponent of the progressive view of history that sees human societies evolving, moving in a particular direction and toward a goal, albeit not the one Marx envisioned.)

I tend to agree with Anderson's claim (Anderson being a Marxist, incidentally) that "the outcry his original thesis provoked was a token, not of its ineptitude, but of its disturbing force." There was in fact an unmistakably disturbing force to Fukuyama's argument – but it was precisely that disturbing force that was most arresting and challenging about it. Whatever one made of Fukuyama's politics, his argument confronted us with a set of first-order, big-picture questions – about where we were "at" historically, about the meaning of the dramatic global events of the period, about the direction in which the world was moving, about the possibilities available to us. Even if one disagreed with Fukuyama's answers to these questions, these were – and indeed remain – essential questions, ones that are rarely posed with the boldness and clarity Fukuyama's thesis possessed.

Needless to say, Fukuyama's thesis was – is – open to any number of objections. To his credit, in his essay he engages what he considers the most penetrating of the objections levelled against his argument over the years. He takes those objections seriously and proposes possible ways out of the dilemmas they identify. As our symposium will demonstrate, yet further objections will remain after the exercise. I know I'm not alone in looking forward to Fukuyama's response to his interlocutors. openDemocracy is proud to present this clarifying intellectual dialogue.

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