It is remarkable that an essay by a State Department official in the conservative quarterly the National Interest should provoke a storm of debate in the US and be syndicated by papers throughout the world. The burden of Francis Fukuyama’s argument is that we are witnessing the end of history. That end will not be as it has so often been imagined – either apocalypse or utopia. History, in the sense of fundamental ideological and political change, will cease with the worldwide triumph of Western liberalism. The blunt political message that the Cold War is over and the West has won is softened by suitably edifying references to high social theory. Much of his essay is taken up with a discussion of Hegel. Essays of this kind do not attract massive media attention because they make the right up-market references. Fukuyama has become news because he has caught a mood and because he has justified that mood by seizing upon a fundamental and novel fact.
The fact is that Western liberal democracy is now secure against effective political competitors in a way that it has never been since 1914. Into the 1980s Western liberals have feared the threat of powerful authoritarian regimes and political movements. That fact seems to me to be true, but we can explain and interpret it in other ways than Fukuyama’s. He implies that liberalism’s survival, its outlasting of its competitors, was because of its superiority as a political and economic system. Yet part of the power of the threat to liberalism was the weakness of liberals – especially in the 1930s. It is easy to forget how craven liberal regimes were when faced with the Fascist threat, how much they relied on the illiberal Soviet regime in defeating Nazism, and how far they tended to overrate the Soviet threat once the Cold War had set in.
In 1945 Fascism ceased to have a future and by 1950 Stalinism had no hope of seizing power in the West. Fascism’s credibility was destroyed by its failure in terms of its own values. The unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan forced upon the inhabitants of those countries the utter failure of their leaders. The first newsreels of Belsen destroyed any possible moral appeal Fascists might make out of the ruins of defeat. 1945 was not to be like 1918.
The Soviet Union ended the war as a victorious superpower, but its ideology rapidly ceased to have the capacity to move beyond the range of Russian tanks. Marxism-Leninism was destroyed politically in the West by the great post-war boom and by the exposure of Western publics to the truth about Stalin’s purges and the Gulags. However cautious Soviet policy might be in practice, it remained an external competitor. The Soviet Union continued to harbour the illusion that it was a superior social system to the West and that it would eventually triumph over it. Even Nikita Khrushchev threatened ‘we will bury you,’ by peaceful means.
Soviet power ceased to be a threat in this sense only in the mid-1980s. By then the legacy of failure from the Brezhnev years had become insupportable. Although reform had become inevitable, nothing guaranteed it would take the radical form inspired by Mikhail Gorbachev. Glasnost has liquidated a regime based on illusion and lies. Almost nobody in the Eastern bloc now believes that Soviet-style socialism can compete with the West in terms of economic performance. Almost nobody now believes that Marxism is a superior means of understanding and directing society. The Soviet Union is far from becoming a liberal state, but it has ceased to be a challenge to liberalism. With a Solidarity government in Poland and the rapid progress toward multi-party democracy in Hungary, the triumph of liberalism appears credible. Even the horror of Tiananmen Square has done little to shake the new confidence of the West. The prospects for a similar coup against reform in the Soviet Union seem less good. Even relatively conservative Western leaders and analysts are willing to base policy on the continuance of the reform programme.
The fact that Western liberals have suddenly found themselves secure in the mid-1980s has generated an immense feeling of relief. Intense cold war between nuclear-armed states was insupportable. We have all lived too long with the constant prospect of an immediate and horrible end to history. Fukuyama’s essay gives expression to this mood and provides it with a coherent rationale. His use of a neo-Hegelian philosophy of history serves to rationalise the fact that liberalism has survived its putative grave-diggers and that we have escaped the perils of the Second Cold War.