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  • Exploring the End of History
  • Marc F. Plattner (bio)
The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama. The Free Press, 1992. 418 pp.

Francis Fukuyama's essay "The End of History?" is surely the most often mentioned and widely discussed article in recent memory. Writing in The National Interest in the summer of 1989, Fukuyama boldly asserted that the world might be witnessing not merely the end of the Cold War, but "the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government." The extraordinary resonance that his article achieved was no doubt partly due to good timing—on the eve of the democratic revolution that swept Eastern Europe, he was the first to offer a grand theory to explain the impending demise of communism. Yet there was one very striking fact that distinguished the debate over Fukuyama's article from other similar intellectual controversies; though he had numerous critics, ranging from the highly respectful to the dismissive, no one came forward as a wholehearted supporter of his thesis.

Now Fukuyama has developed the themes touched upon in his short article into a full-length book. Resisting what must have been a powerful temptation to dwell on how his critics misread or misunderstood him, he has instead produced a profound, wide-ranging, and carefully structured elaboration of his thinking on the problems and prospects of liberal democracy. Drawing with equal facility on both the classics of political philosophy and the works of modern political and social science, he skillfully weaves into the fabric of his argument most of the key issues that affect both the internal health and the external security of liberal democratic societies. [End Page 118]

Fukuyama begins Part I of his book by questioning the historical pessimism of our era, the understandable product of the global wars, genocidal atrocities, and totalitarianism of the twentieth century. The experience of these evils has seemingly exploded not only the naive nineteenth-century faith in progress, but any notion of a coherent and directional Universal History of mankind. But Fukuyama asks whether our pessimism is still justified, as he traces the remarkable crises of authoritarian rule that have marked recent decades: "As mankind approaches the end of the millennium," he concludes, " . . . [there is] only one competitor standing in the ring as an ideology of potentially universal validity: liberal democracy, the doctrine of individual freedom and popular sovereignty." Not only is it being adopted in more and more countries, but even its critics are increasingly unable to offer a coherent alternative. It is above all the exhaustion of all serious rival claimants to political legitimacy that lends new credence to the possibility that liberal democracy represents the culmination of human history.

In Parts II and III, Fukuyama outlines two separate though complementary accounts of such a Universal History. The first, emphasizing the cumulative character of modern natural science and the technology to which it gives rise, focuses on the imperatives of economic development. Societies that wish to become prosperous, or even merely to defend their independence against other technologically advanced states, are compelled to follow a similar path of modernization. Although communist central planning appeared to offer an alternative route to industrialization, this model has now been revealed as woefully inadequate to meet the challenges of the postindustrial economy. Thus contrary to Marx, the logic of economic development leads to the obsolescence of socialism and the triumph of capitalism.

Yet, while this economic interpretation may adequately account for the victory of liberalism, Fukuyama cautions that it is insufficient to explain the movement toward democracy. He notes that market-oriented authoritarian states like South Korea, Taiwan, Franco's Spain, and Pinochet's Chile have been remarkably successful economically, but have nonetheless given way to political democracy. Here another kind of explanation is called for, and Fukuyama finds it in the interpretation of Hegel's thought presented by the late Alexandre Kojève, a Russian emigré who had a powerful impact on French thought during the middle third of this century.

This discussion in Part III is the most difficult and in some ways the least satisfying section of Fukuyama...