Looking back at The End of History

In 1989 American academic Francis Fukuyama caused a sensation with his article 'The End of History?' which argued that western liberal democracy had triumphed and man's ideological evolution was approaching an end. Twenty years later he talks to Rob Attar about his famous theory and whether he believes it still holds true

A statue of Lenin in Germany being removed from its plinth to be demolished. (Photo by Régis BOSSU/Sygma via Getty Images)

This article was first published in the November 2009 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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What inspired your original article?

In 1988 I was working on Soviet domestic politics at a think-tank in California. I remember reading a speech of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s in which he said the essence of socialism was competition [contradicting communist doctrine]. At this point I called one of my friends, also a political theorist, and I said you could say that this was the end of history, according to the Marxist or Hegelian tradition.

The end of history for a Marxist or Hegelian concerns the direction of history and the final point to which societies are evolving.

For the last 100 years prior to 1989 progressive intellectuals had believed that the end of history would be some kind of communism or socialism. It seemed to me then that that obviously was not going to happen and that the communists themselves were admitting it was not going to happen.

I gave a lecture at the University of Chicago and was asked by the editor of The National Interest if I would write it up into an article. That was published in the summer of 1989. By that time East German unrest had already begun so when the article came out it was clear to a lot of other people that something big was happening with regard to the communist world.

Were you surprised by the impact the article and the follow-up book in 1992 had?

I didn’t think anyone beyond a small circle of my friends would ever read it so I was quite surprised.

Why do you think it had such an impact?

You can’t divorce it from the time it was published because 1989 was one of those momentous years like 1789 or 1914 that marked really big transitions in history. I wouldn’t claim to be more than a few months ahead of everybody else but the article probably was one of the earliest admissions that communism was collapsing and that we were entering a very different phase of history. Many of my more sceptical friends were still convinced that Gorbachev was a fraud and it was just a propaganda stunt being used by hard-liners in Moscow to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes.

The End of History? posited the eventual triumph of liberal democracy. What were the key events that enabled this to happen?

That depends on how far back you want to go. For a lot of the critical developments you really have to go back to the 16th and 17th centuries when some European states moved in an absolutist direction and others established a principal of parliamentary accountability. If you want to go earlier than that I would say that the most important institution lacking in almost every under-developed country is some sense of rule of law, the belief in a set of laws that are superior to sovereignty. For the origins of that you have to start with the establishment of common law.

Was there a point in history where the end of history became assured?

You can’t pin this down. Alexandre Kojeve [a 20th-century Russian-French philosopher] said, somewhat playfully I think, that history ended in 1806 when Napoleon defeated the Prussian monarchy at the battle of Jena. It’s worth thinking why that is not such a laughable proposition. What he was saying is that this was the moment when the French Revolution was brought to this particular corner of Europe and that the principles of liberty, freedom and equality were universalised across continental Europe. So that’s as good a date as any for the end of history because I don’t think we’ve moved all that much beyond the principles of the French Revolution in the 200 years since Jena.

In the 20th century, liberal democracy was under threat from both fascism and communism. Did either have a realistic chance of winning?

Yes they had a serious chance. Human agents have made important differences and if, for example, Winston Churchill had not stood up to Hitler, Britain might have lost the Second World War and fascism could have consolidated across Europe. Or if Acheson [former US secretary of state] and President Truman hadn’t created NATO then the Soviet Union might have dominated western Europe. I don’t believe that the ultimate demise of these alternative systems was predetermined.

‘Kojeve said that history ended in 1806 when Napoleon defeated the Prussian monarchy at Jena. It’s worth thinking why that is not such a laughable proposition’

Twenty years after writing the article have you revised your views on The End of History?

I think that the essential Hegelian-Marxist point is still very much there to the extent that there is a process of political and economic evolution and at the end of the road as far as I can see is some form of market-oriented liberal democracy. Nothing that has happened has really altered this significantly. Obviously we are in a period of regression at the moment. In the late 1980s there were something like 70 to 80 liberal democracies in the world and that number later went up to about 140. Now we’re in a period of retrenchment in that a lot of what we thought were transitions to democracy are actually relapsing back into some form of authoritarianism – the most clear-cut case is that of Russia. However on the whole there have been huge gains for democracy and most are not going to be reversed.

The most serious threat is China where an authoritarian system has been created that has proven to be pretty good at mastering the management of economic development. Because it is authoritarian the Chinese government can do things that India, for example, can’t in terms of infrastructure development and being able to shift policy in reaction to circumstances. China is the really big authoritarian modernisation project going on out there and if it works it might attract some imitators.

Have policy makers since 1989 been influenced by The End of History?

The charge has been made that President George W Bush took the thesis a little too seriously in believing that there is an inevitable wave of democracy that would then apply to the Middle East and Iraq. I hope this is not true because I think a proper reading of what I was saying would not have suggested I was implying that. However I do think the thesis probably reinforced the sense, certainly in the 1990s, that there weren’t alternatives to democracy.

Was it the final nail in the coffin of the Marxist alternative?

I think it did serve to help undermine the legitimacy of communist systems, particularly in eastern Europe.

So did The End of History? have its own impact on history?

That’s for other people to say, not me.

Francis Fukuyama is Bernard L Schwartz professor of international political economy at John Hopkins University in Washington DC. He is the author of numerous books, including The End of History and the Last Man (Penguin, 1993), which expanded on his 1989 article.


What is the end of history?

German philosopher Georg Hegel (1770–1831) devised the idea of human history as an ideological struggle that would end with mankind coming together with a shared moral outlook. Building on this, Karl Marx famously suggested that history was an economically-driven conflict heading towards an eventual communist utopia. An alternative vision was offered by the Russian-French philosopher Alexandre Kojeve in the mid-20th century. He argued that history was destined to end with a liberal form of government reflecting the ideals of the French Revolution.

When Kojeve was writing, both fascism and communism threatened his thesis. However by the late 1980s fascism was dead, while communism seemed destined for failure, and this prompted Francis Fukuyama, a follower of Kojeve, to pen his tremendously influential 1989 article The End of History? In this piece he wrote: “What we may be witnessing 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 universalisation of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”.

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The idea of the end of history does not mean that events will cease to happen. Wars, revolutions and other major episodes may well continue to occur but in the long-run Fukuyama believes that liberal democracy will become more and more prevalent.