Tuesday, October 22, 2013

From the Archives: A Look Back at 1989's 'The End of History?'

There were, perhaps, only two scholarly articles published in limited-circulation journals of opinion in the twentieth century that stimulated debate and discussion far outsizing the usual readership their authors and editors might have expected.

One was George Kennan's "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," based on his "long telegram" from Moscow and published pseudonymously in Foreign Affairs in 1947. The other was Francis Fukuyama's "The End of History?," which appeared in The National Interest in 1989.  (You readers might be able to suggest other articles with similar reach and controversy; feel free to name them in the comments section, below.)

The phenomenon that was "The End of History?" was described by James Atlas in the New York Times Magazine in October 1989:

Within weeks, "The End of History?" had become the hottest topic around, this year's answer to Paul Kennedy's phenomenal best seller, "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers." George F. Will was among the first to weigh in, with a Newsweek column in August; two weeks later, Fukuyama's photograph appeared in Time. The French quarterly Commentaire announced that it was devoting a special issue to "The End of History?" The BBC sent a television crew. Translations of the piece were scheduled to appear in Dutch, Japanese, Italian and Icelandic. Ten Downing Street requested a copy. In Washington, a newsdealer on Connecticut Avenue reported, the summer issue of The National Interest was "outselling everything, even the pornography."

"Controversial" didn't begin to cover the case. Unlike that other recent philosophical cause celebre, Allan Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind," Fukuyama's essay was the work of a representative from what is often referred to in academic circles as the real world. This was no professor, according to the contributor's note that ran in the magazine, but the "deputy director of the State Department's policy planning staff."

Fukuyama later expanded his article into a book, The End of History and the Last Man, but before that was released, he participated in a lively conversation about the changing conditions that resulted in the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the return of liberal democracy to Central Europe, and the economic liberalization of the People's Republic of China.  That era also saw the end of non-communist, authoritarian regimes in South Korea and other East Asian countries, Chile and elsewhere in Latin America, and South Africa and its neighbors, with varying degrees of successful transition.

Some of that conversation appeared in print but some of it was conducted face-to-face with scholars, policy analysts, and politicians.  One such occasion was a conference at the U.S. Institute of Peace on July 24, 1989 (mentioned in passing in Atlas' article, cited above), coincident with the publication of Fukuyama's article in The National Interest's summer number.

I happened to attend that event and apparently took comprehensive notes, which I transformed into an article that was published just after Labor Day in the New York City Tribune.  It's hard to believe that "The End of History?" controversy is almost a quarter-century old.  Many of the doubts expressed by participants in that USIP conference, you will see, proved to be prescient given all that has happened since then -- the first Gulf War, the Global War on Terror, the Arab Spring, the decline of liberal democracy in Russia under Vladimir Putin, and so forth.

Here, for the first time on the Internet, is "Historians Debate End of History," as it appeared in the New York City Tribune on September 5, 1989.

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An amazing debate is taking place in Washington and other world capitals. The subject is more cerebral than the typical debates about policy and performance that we read about in the papers. Participants in this debate include historians, philosophers, journalists, literary gurus, and politicians. And the time-frame of the events discussed in this debate is “plus or minus 200 years”!

The object of this intense speculation and discussion as an article in the current issue of The National Interest, a quarterly journal devoted to defense and foreign policy issues. In the article entitled, “The End of History?”, author Francis Fukuyama argues that our era will see the end of ideological struggle because liberal democracy has triumphed and all contenders against it – including fascism and communism – are in quick retreat.

Drawing on the philosophy of history developed by the 19th-century German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel (who also inspired Karl Marx) and Hegel's 20th-century disciple Alexandre Kojeve, Fukuyama asserts that the fundamental changes we see occurring in the Soviet Union and what we used to call Red China signify something far greater than anyone has yet thought.

“What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history,” says Fukuyama, “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.”

Heavy stuff! To consider the implications of Fukuyama's thesis, the United States Institute of Peace gathered an impressive array of scholars at its headquarters in Washington recently. The panel included Gertrude Himmelfarb, a professor of history emeritus from New York University; syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer; Ambassador Owen Harries, co-editor of The National Interest; historian Richard Pipes; and Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic. Fukuyama was there to defend his thesis.

Needless to say, the three-hour workshop was intellectually stimulating. Wieseltier launched the first salvo. “I don't believe we are witnessing the end of history,” he said. “We are witnessing the end of the 20th century, and good riddance,” explaining: “The defeat of communism is not quite the same thing as the triumph of liberalism.”

Others found shortcomings in Fukuyama's work without condemning it. Pipes, for instance, said that history is not a good tool to predict the future. “History does not teach clairvoyance,” he noted, “it teaches patience.” Pipes was seconded by Himmelfarb, who said that “history doesn't tell us what will happen, only that something will happen.”

For his part, Krauthammer – who in an essay in Time magazine last year may have been the first American intellectual to proclaim an end to the Cold War – said that Fukuyama has it “half-right.” There may be an end to ideology, he argued, but it is an unwarranted leap to call that an end to history. Simply because the world lacks competing ideologies does not mean evil will be eliminated. “Evil will always be inherent in human nature and will always be able to find an organizing principle.”

Krauthammer was echoed by Harries, who said that “one shouldn't underestimate the inventiveness and imagination of evil.” He said that “it's more certain that Marxism-Leninism has failed than that liberal democracy has triumphed,” adding the perspective that Fukuyama's article “could have been written in 1928.” At that time, he said, “the prospects for liberal democracy looked good … but then the Great Depression came and all bets were off.” The Depression made possible the rise of the Third Reich and, eventually, the Soviet-Nazi alliance that started World War II.

Himmelfarb warned that we should not be too complacent. Using a phrase familiar to anyone who has studied Soviet propaganda, Prof. Himmelfarb said: “It is no accident, comrades, that liberal democracy exists in so few countries.” Although both communist and Third World regimes seem attracted to liberal democracy because of its economic success, the finality of the triumph of liberal democracy depends on more than continued economic prosperity.

“Liberal democracy is a very difficult regime to sustain,” she said. It is fragile – it requires compromise, accommodation, civility, consensus on large questions.

There is little evidence that these nuances of democracy are understood by current communists seeking reform. Pipes pointed out that “the liberalization of the Soviet Union is an extremely superficial phenomenon.” He said that his conversations with reformers in Moscow showed him that they don't understand what liberalism really involves.

For example, they don't understand the idea of protecting the rights of accused criminals even if that person is obviously guilty of a crime. Concepts like habeas corpus are totally alien to them. A basic problem of perestroika is convincing Soviet citizens, steeped since birth in the teaching of Marx and Lenin, that it's okay to make a profit. These are all things we take for granted in the United States.

Fukuyama agreed that there is no certainty in the changes taking place in the world. “It looks increasingly dicey,” he said, that Gorbachev “can keep all the balls that he's juggling in the air.” He warned of a real threat of fascism in the Soviet Union, Slavophile fascists and militarists who make no secret of their anti-Semitism and disdain for non-Russian ethnic groups.

Still, he said, what you see in many countries is “liberalism corroding the moral basis” of political ideologies like communism. He used China as an example. Despite the June 4 massacre, he asserted, “Tiananmen Square vindicates my position.” The remarkable thing about the Chinese experience is that Deng Xiaoping's economic liberalization was supposed to take place without accompanying political reform. The people would not stand for that. The Chinese people, Fukuyama said, “wanted political liberalization not because it brings economic rewards but for itself.” The basic human urge for liberty is hard to stifle.

Ironically, Fukuyama's article about the end of history is just the beginning of what will be a long and fruitful debate about human nature and politics. Already some of the sharpest minds in the United States are participating in this subject.

Richard Sincere is a Washington-based issues analyst and writer.

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