Hegel, Kojève, Fukuyama: different views of history

History hasn’t ended

Francis Fukuyama got it very wrong

This article is taken from the October 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

‘‘The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.”

J. M. Keynes’s celebrated words have been ringing through my head as, like everybody else, I’ve followed the astonishing events in Afghanistan. For our defeat is much more than a military failure. It also represents a complete failure of policy and, above all, the failure — likewise complete and absolute — of the body of ideas which have driven Western policy for the last 30 years.

The epitome of all of this is Tony Blair: he of the staring eyes and messianic self-belief. Which is why, post the fall of Kabul, he’s popping up everywhere to insist, like a political Edith Piaf, that he regrets nothing: not Iraq, not Afghanistan, not immigration, not anything, for he knew that he was “on the right side of History” and to think anything else is “imbecilic”.

Which brings us back to Keynes: “Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.” In Blair’s case, the “frenzy” is all his own; the “academic scribbler” is Francis Fukuyama; and the “few years back” the summer of 1989 when, in the wake of glasnost and the impending collapse of Soviet Communism, Fukuyama published his celebrated essay The End of History?

The phrase is taken from the German Idealist philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. For Hegel, history was a battle of ideas/ideals (as, rather more ironically, it was for Keynes). This meant, Hegel declared, that history had ended in the real battle at Jena in 1806, with the victory of Napoleon, “The World Spirit on Horseback”, the defeat of the Prussian absolute monarchy and the triumph of the French Revolutionary ideals of liberty and equality.

But Hegel, who was neither a liberal nor a democrat, wasn’t talking about political freedom but rather the realisation of the spiritual freedom first adumbrated by Christ in the phrase “whose service is perfect freedom”.

The man who brought all this down to earth, as it were, was Hegel’s disciple, the twentieth-century Franco-Russian intellectual, Alexandre Kojève.

Kojève offered a straightforward political reading of Hegel. The goal of history now became the realisation not of spiritual but political freedom. And it was this, Kojève claimed, which had been achieved by the American and French revolutions and cemented by the battle of Jena.

The result was what Kojève called the “universal homogenous state”. This, in Fukuyama’s summary, “is liberal insofar as it recognises and protects through a system of law man’s universal right to freedom, and democratic in so far as it exists only with the consent of the governed”. It also, since it is invariably associated with free-market capitalism, satisfies all human wants.

The result is everything — and nothing. Since every want is satisfied, there is nothing to fight about, either within states or between them. There is no history since it is finished and no philosophy either since everything is understood. The only activity is economic and that is handled by experts.

It sounds like a somewhat idealised picture of the EU (or Common Market, as it then was). Which indeed Kojève saw as the ultimate human community. Unlike most intellectuals, he practised what he preached, ceasing to teach and becoming a Brussels bureaucrat until his death in 1968.

Fukuyama’s only substantial addition to Kojève was to declare that history had ended (again) in 1989 with glasnost and the impending collapse of communism, the only serious ideological rival to the “universal homogenous state”, aka liberal democracy. This means of course that history has ended — err — twice.

Here it’s worth recalling the verdict of John Lingard, Hegel’s contemporary and the author of the first history of England to be written from original sources. Philosophers of history, Lingard declared, were neither philosophers nor historians. Instead they were mere “literary empirics”.

In other words, they were charlatans.

This is too severe. The best “philosophic” historians are thinkers of the calibre of Hume, Gibbon and Hegel himself. Their works are like good lectures. They make you think about history in new ways. But then of course, to be of any use, these new ideas need to be subjected to Lingard’s methods and tested against the evidence.

Fukuyama and Kojève, on the other hand, are mere epigones. They fail the “lecture” test because they close down ideas rather than open them up; they cannot survive the slightest contact with the evidence and, above all, they are wilfully unhistorical. The End of History? is history without history. And history — “the whirligig of time” — has had “its revenges”.

The hubris Fukuyama induced in Western policymakers and elites has left them acutely unprepared

These have come both from within liberal democracy and without. For the “universal homogenous state” has turned out to be much less universal than Fukuyama and Kojève predicted and far less homogenous too. Far from satisfying all human needs, it has proved only that Christ was right when he said “man shall not live by bread alone”. God may be dead but the religious reflex isn’t and Extinction Rebellion, with its proclamation that “The End of the World is Nigh”, is flagellant millenarianism in environmental fancy dress.

Even sillier, it transpires, was the claim that the liberal democratic state was uniquely stable and impervious to change since its “basic principles … could not be improved upon”. 

On the contrary, liberalism is a revolutionary doctrine and, like all revolutions, consumes itself. The liberalism of the French Revolution ended in the Terror; the liberalism of the Sixties is ending in identity politics, the destruction of the western canon and the denial of objective reality. The last has been one of the pillars of the astonishing progress of the last five hundred years; the other was freedom of expression. This too is under grave threat from the New Puritanism of “cancellation”.

Externally we fare no better. Far from following the “universal” path of liberal democracy, post-communist Russia has reverted to the repression and military adventurism of its Tsarist past while, even more destructively for Fukuyama’s thesis, Xi’s China shows that it is possible to separate economic freedom, which it permits, from political freedom, which it denies. If it manages to show that innovation can be separated from political freedom as well, we are lost and history, or at least the history of the West, will end indeed.

Meanwhile, beyond the end of history, there is the EU. But, far from being Fukuyama’s culmination of history, it looks like a strange appendix. And, far from resolving the contradictions of European history, it looks as though — again like a diseased appendix — it will burst apart under their strain.

Probably much of this would have happened whether Fukuyama had written or not. But the hubris he induced in western policymakers and elites has left them acutely off-guard and unprepared. It has also encouraged in every field — immigration, the EU referendum campaign, foreign policy — the adoption of measures that were the opposite of what was required.

Fukuyama, in short, was a true quack: he couldn’t diagnose; prescribed false remedies, and even helped make the well sick.

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