The End of History: A History

Written by Benjamin Macready.


In 1989, in an article published in The National Interest, Francis Fukuyama famously declared that humankind had reached ‘the end of history’.[1] By this Fukuyama did not mean that the apocalypse was imminent, or that events of historical significance would no longer occur. Rather Fukuyama believed that we had reached ‘the end point of mankind's ideological evolution’.[2] He felt that the wave of revolutions across Eastern Europe (which would ultimately lead to the fall of the Berlin wall, the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the collapse of the Soviet Union) demonstrated the victory of liberal democracy ‘in the realm of ideas or consciousness’. [3] Fukuyama felt that this proved that liberal democracy was ‘the final form of human government’ which all nations ultimately aspired to reach. [4]


Fukuyama’s views were widely rebuked. In a later article in The National Interest, Fukuyama quipped that ‘my real accomplishment has been to produce a uniquely universal consensus, not on the current status of liberalism, but on the fact that I was wrong’.[5] Indeed looking back on Fukuyama from 31 years on it is fairly evident that he was incorrect. Current liberal democracies are struggling to grapple with the challenge presented by external subversion via algorithmically targeted disinformation. Not to mention that It is not yet known whether they are capable of resolving the thorny issue of climate change, which threatens to bring a far more literal end to human history.


It is clear then that it is too soon to close the book on humanities potential ideological development. Yet Fukuyama was not the first to pre-emptivley declare that human history had wrapped up, or was en-route to a definitive endpoint. Many historians in the past felt that they were living at the end of history.

Fukuyama cites Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel as his inspiration and ideological precursor, describing him as ‘the philosopher who most correctly speaks to our time’.[6] Hegel saw the progress of history as a ‘dialectical process’ meaning that he believed history advanced due to the conflict between contradictory forces.


Two of these forces, Hegel dubs ‘the master’ and ‘the slave’. Hegel uses the master and the slave as a demonstration of how ruling members of society exert authority other others. The master defines themselves through their ability to dominate, the slave meanwhile defines themselves through their subservience to the master. By enduring hardship, the slave ultimately acquires self-consciousness and breaks free from the master’s grip, moving history into its next phase and setting up a new dialectical conflict.


Dialectical processes such as this reoccur in each historical era, and advance human civilisation. This is a massively simplified description of the Hegelian dialect, yet it demonstrates the fundamental core of Hegel’s view. Namely his belief that a reasoned and logical pattern informs the progression of history. In his work The Philosophy of History, Hegel lays out this argument, stating ‘Reason governs the world, and has consequently governed its history’.[7] History then, as Hegel sees it, is the gradual unfolding of a reasoned process which is slowly building towards a state of completion. To quote The Philosophy of History again, Hegel argues ‘Reason is the Sovereign of the World; the history of the world, therefore, presents us with a rational process. [8]


After the Battle of Jena In 1806, in which Napoleon Bonaparte soundly defeated the Prussians, some readings of Hegel argue that he implies this perfected end point had arrived. He referred to Napoleon as the ‘world-soul’ and describes him with deific reverence, stating that he ‘astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters It’.[9] These comments, and several other statements made by Hegel at this time, have attracted many differing interpretations. Alexandre Kojeve, a prominent Hegelian scholar, argues that ‘according to Hegel, it is in and by the wars of Napoleon and, in particular the battle of Jena, that this completion of History is realized through the dialectical overcoming of both the Master and the Slave’.[10]


In Hegel’s view, or at least his view as interpreted by Kojeve and others, Napoleon’s victory demonstrated the ultimate victory of the liberal values of the French Revolution over the antiquated absolutist values of Prussia and the other Ancien Regimes of Europe. This exactly parallels, and indeed informs, Fukayama’s view, more than a century later, that the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe was a victory for the values of liberty and modernity over tyranny and regression. Both Hegel and Fukuyama believed these victories were absolute and marked an irrevocable endpoint to the unfolding process of world history.

Hegel’s most famous pupil, Karl Marx, also advocated for an end of history. Marx argued that the attainment of Communism would mark the conclusion of the process of historical development. Like Hegel, Marx also saw the advancement of history as a dialectical process. Yet Marx saw the conflict which pushed history forward occurring not between broad conceptual forces like the master and the slave, but being played out in the struggling of different social classes.


The first page of the Communist Manifesto famously declares that ‘the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle’.[11]

It is self-evident that in the classless society brought about via a transition to Communism, there could be no more history as there would be no more class struggle through which to generate it. Marx makes this point clear in his Paris manuscripts of 1844, where he states that Communism offers, ‘the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature and between man and man – the true resolution of the strife between existence and essence, between objectification and self-confirmation, between freedom and necessity, between the individual and the species’. He then summarises all of this by simply stating that ‘Communism is the riddle of history solved’.[12] In this way Marx too argues that history has an endpoint just like Hegel and Fukuyama.

Although Fukuyama saw Hegel as his predecessor, he harshly disparages Marx. He accuses Marx of foisting a ‘distorting lens’ over the ideals of Hegel, warping them to his own revolutionary ends.[13] It can be argued that the entire purpose of Fukuyama’s writing is to deny Communism the right to claim that it is history’s conclusion. This is made explicit when Fukuyama argues that ‘the egalitarianism of modern America represents the essential achievement of the classless society envisioned by Marx’.[14] Fukuyama is using the same Hegel-inspired model as Marx, but is moving history’s end forwards from a distant post-revolution future into the present day. This view is vindicated, in his assessment, by Eastern Europe’s rejection of Communist rule. Communism then, Fukuyama asserts, is not history’s endpoint but rather a diverging path, which leads away from the true conclusion which only liberal democracy can offer.



Though it may be comforting to believe to Fukuyama’s assertion that the values of our current era are ‘the end point of mankind's ideological evolution’ and that they shall survive until the end of time unchallenged and unchanged, such thinking is misplaced. The challenges liberal democracies face from digital subversion and climate change have already been mentioned. Ongoing Black Lives Matters protests, and rising global populism demonstrate that there are further institutional issues which current liberal democracies must contend with. We have not yet reached a perfected state where strife and struggle can be consigned to the past. Whether such a perfected state is even attainable remains an open question. In this author’s view so long as people still live there can be no end to history, nor should there be.


We can always improve the societies in which we live. Rather than attempting to close the book on our development we should instead focus on writing the next chapter.

[1] Francis Fukuyama, ‘The End of History?’, The National Interest, 16 (1989) p.4 [2] Ibid. p.2 [3] Ibid. p.2 [4] Ibid. p.2 [5] Francis Fukuyama, ‘A Reply to My Critics’, The National Interest, (1990) p.21 [6] Fukyama, ‘The End of History’, p.4 [7] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Philosophy of History, trans. by J.Sibree, (Ontario: Batoche Books, 2001) P.40 [8] Ibid. p.22 [9] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Hegel: the Letters, ed. By Clark Butler, Trans. by Clark Butler(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984) p.114 [10] Alexandre Kojeve, Introduction To The Reading of Hegel: Lectures On The Phenomenology of Spirit, ed. By Allan Bloom and Raymond Queneau, trans. by James H. Nichols Jr, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1969) p.44 [11] Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’, in Marx/Engels Selected Works, trans. by Samuel Moore, (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1969) p.14 [12] Karl Marx, Private Property and Communism, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/comm.htm#44CC4 [last accessed: 01/10/2020] [13] Fukuyama, The End of History?, p.4 [14] Ibid. p.9


Bibliography


Engels Frederick and Marx Karl, ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’, in Marx/Engels Selected Works, trans. by Samuel Moore, (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1969)

Fukuyama Francis, ‘The End of History?’, The National Interest, 16 (1989) pp.3-18

Fukuyama Francis, ‘A Reply to My Critics’, The National Interest, (1990) pp.21-28

Hegel Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, Hegel: the Letters, ed. By Clark Butler, Trans. by Clark Butler (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984) p.114

Hegel Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, The Philosophy of History, trans. by J.Sibree, (Ontario: Batoche Books, 2001)

Kojeve Alexandre, Introduction To The Reading of Hegel: Lectures On The Phenomenology of Spirit, ed. By Allan Bloom and Raymond Queneau, trans. by James H. Nichols Jr, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1969)

Marx Karl, Private Property and Communism, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/comm.htm#44CC4 [last accessed: 01/10/2020]

Written by Benjamin Macready.


Benjamin Macready studied history at an undergraduate level at the University of Kent and a postgraduate level at the University of Exeter. His primary areas of study were Russian, Napoleonic and Imperial history. Beyond history, Ben enjoys board games, the theatre and the books of Terry Pratchett.



The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the InFocus History website or its editors.

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