Is liberal democracy the “final form of human government”? 25 years after The End of History and the Last Man, return to a controversial thesis (BOURGOIS for Eurasia Prospective)

The year 2017 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of Francis Fukuyama’s best selling publication, The End of History and the Last Man[1]. This work, published in 1992, developed the thesis of an article published in the summer of 1989 in the magazine The National Interest under the title “The End of History?”[2]. In this thesis, the American political scientist[3] asserts that liberal democracy, being on the point of triumphing over all rival ideologies, “may constitute the ‘end point of mankind’s ideological evolution’ and the ‘final form of human government’”[4]. The article and especially the book have had a considerable audience. They allowed Fukuyama to become known around the world. This thesis was announced in a favorable context, with the end of the Cold War. At the time, it seemed to represent a coherent explanation of current event. It above all appeared to explain the triumphant victory of economic and political liberalism over communism.


 [Pierre Bourgois]


A brief explanation of “the End of History” thesis

For Francis Fukuyama, we are therefore at the end of history because liberal democracy is the “final form of human government”. But, for him, the history is not a random sequence of events. It’s a “single, coherent, evolutionary process, when taking into account the experience of all peoples in all times”[5]. Thus, Fukuyama is inspired by “Hegeliano-Marxist” premises. Indeed, according to Fukuyama: “Both Hegel and Marx believed that the evolution of human societies was not open-ended, but would end when mankind had achieved a form of society that satisfied its deepest and most fundamental longings. Both thinkers thus posited an ‘end of history’: for Hegel this was the liberal state, while for Marx it was a communist society”[6]. In this way, Francis Fukuyama endorses Hegelian history, which “can be understood in the narrower sense of the ‘history of ideology,’ or the history of thought about first principles, including those governing political and social organization. The end of history then means not the end of worldly events but the end of the evolution of human thought about such first principles”[7].

If the history has a direction, what are its driving forces? For Fukuyama, there are two main explanations of historical process. The first force of history is the “logic of modern natural science”[8]. In this way, according to the American political scientist: “The unfolding of modern natural science has had a uniform effect on all societies that have experienced it”[9]. For Fukuyama, this can explain why the majority of societies are capitalist economies. It also explains why socialist economies are fewer and fewer in the early 1990s. Surely, “the logic of modern natural science would seem to dictate a universal evolution in the direction of capitalism”[10]. However, for him, this force – the logic of modern natural science – is not enough to explain the historical process. If it can explain the standardization of societies around capitalism, it does not help to understand the triumph of liberal democracy. In accordance with Fukuyama, “while the historical mechanism represented by modern natural science is sufficient to explain a great deal about the character of historical change and the growing uniformity of modern societies, it is not sufficient to account for the phenomenon of democracy”[11]. In this regard, concerning the other force, Fukuyama still refers to Hegel. Truly, for him, the second force in the historical process is the “struggle for recognition”[12]. Man aspires to be recognized. “In particular, he wants to be recognized as a human being, that is, as a being with a certain worth or dignity”[13]. For Hegel, only the French and American revolutions have been able to fully satisfy human desire for recognition. Fukuyama thus is inspired by the Hegelian vision. According to Fukuyama: “The desire for recognition, then, can provide the missing link between liberal economics and liberal politics”[14]. In other words, if the logic of modern natural science can explain the standardization of capitalist system, only the desire for recognition allows the triumph of liberal democracy.

In summary[15], for Fukuyama, we are at the end of history because principles of liberal democracy fully satisfy the basic human desire to be recognized. In this sense, there is no higher model of political organization.


“The End of History”: a controversial thesis

Of course, this thesis was strongly criticized. Firstly, in the late 1980s following the publication of the article in The National Interest. On this subject, the magazine published several responses to Fukuyama from the summer of 1989[16]. We could cite, for instance, the response of Gertrude Himmelfarb who does not agree with an important part of the “paper, in which liberal democracy is universalized and eternalized, bringing history to an end”[17]. For her, we “must take cognizance of a future of which we know only that it is unknowable”[18]. The National Interest also published the Fukuyama’s answer. In his response, Francis Fukuyama especially observes that his thesis has “produce a uniquely universal consensus”[19]. According to him: “This consensus is all the more remarkable since it extends from Margaret Thatcher, William F. Buckley, and the Wall Street Journal on the right to the Nation, André Fontaine, Marion Dönhoff, and other leading liberal lights in Europe and America on the left”[20]. Indeed, the criticism was from several countries. In addition to André Fontaine[21], quoted by Fukuyama, we could also mention, in France, the example of Julien Cheverny (or Alain Gourdon) who evokes a “disarming Fukuyama”[22].

But it is especially his book, The End of History and the Last Man, published in 1992, which provoked the most comments. In fact, his famous book appeared in over twenty foreign editions. Just like his article, the critique in both substance and form thus came from all over the world. There were a multitude of reactions, by articles, books, and other forms, which contradicted Fukuyama’s thesis[23]. On this subject, we often contrast “The End of History” thesis with the famous “Clash of Civilizations” thesis of Samuel P. Huntington. It first appeared as an article in the magazine Foreign Affairs in 1993[24]. According to Huntington, the end of the Cold War does not mean the end of history, but a new phase of world politics where clashes will be between civilizations. “It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural”[25], he declares. According to Huntington: “The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future”[26]. Already, in 1989, Huntington had opposed the Fukuyama thesis. Indeed, Huntington argued particularly: “To hope for the benign end of history is human. To expect it to happen is unrealistic. To plan on it happening is disastrous”[27]. The thesis of “Clash of Civilizations” will be especially developed in a book published in 1996 entitled The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order[28].

Among the French criticisms, we can cite the example of the famous book of Jacques Derrida, Spectres de Marx[29]. The philosopher makes a long critique of Fukuyama’s book, which for him “frequently resembles, it is true, the disconcerting and tardy by-product of a ‘footnote’: nota bene for a certain Kojeve who deserved better”[30]. According to Derrida, we should ask ourselves “why this book, with the ‘good news’ it claims to bring, has become such a media gadget, and why it is all the rage in the ideological supermarkets of a worried West”[31].

The thesis of Fukuyama – the article and the book – thus received a flood of criticism coming from all horizons.


What is the relationship between Fukuyama and his thesis?

But, how has this thesis evolved since 1989?[32] During the 1990s, Fukuyama regularly returned to this topic to confirm his general idea: liberal democracy remains the only possible horizon for modern societies, because it is the only one that can fully satisfy the desire for recognition of human being. For example, in 1994, Francis Fukuyama wrote an essay entitled “Reflections on The End of History, Five Years Later” in the book of Timothy Burns, After History? Francis Fukuyama and His Critics[33]. The book of Fukuyama was especially criticized on an empirical and theoretical level. In this respect, Fukuyama argues in the essay that he “will take on each of these groups of criticisms, beginning with the relationship of the empirical to the normative argument, then moving to the empirical argument itself, and finally to the most difficult issue, the normative or theoretical question”[34]. The aim of this paper thus is to clarify and confirm his thesis “in light of both the significant events that have taken place in the real world since 1989, and in light of the criticisms that have been made of”[35] his article and his book.

In 1999, for the tenth anniversary of his article, Fukuyama confirms again his thesis. Therefore, for him, no event during 1990s has come to contradict his thesis. He writes: “Nothing that has happened in world politics or the global economy in the past ten years challenges, in my view, the conclusion that liberal democracy and a market-oriented economic order are the only viable options for modern societies”[36]. But, for the first time, he admits a serious mistake: “the argument that I used to demonstrate that History is directional, progressive and that it culminates in the modern liberal state, is fundamentally flawed. Only one of the hundreds of commentators who discussed ‘The End of History’ ever identified its true weakness: History cannot come to an end as long as modern natural science has no end; and we are on the brink of new developments in science that will, in essence, abolish what Alexandre Kojeve called ‘mankind as such’”[37]. These reflections were discussed in a book published in 2002 entitled Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution[38]. But this is another subject. Certainly, this does not bring into question the fact that democracy remains, according to him, the only viable option for our modern societies.

The context developing Fukuyama’s thesis was radically different from that of the 2000s and even more so today. In the 1990s, the Western liberal model seemed to be the undisputed system in the world. But, there were several challenges for democracy in the early 2000s. The first of them were the September 11 terrorist attacks and the rise of radical Islam. Many have announced that these events questioned Fukuyama’s thesis[39]. But, once again, according to Fukuyama, it was not a contradiction to his thesis. He especially writes: “I believe that in the end I remain right: Modernity is a very powerful freight train that will not be derailed by recent events, however painful and unprecedented. Democracy and free markets will continue to expand over time as the dominant organizing principles for much of the world”[40]. In this way, for him: “We remain at the end of history because there is only one system that will continue to dominate world politics, that of the liberal-democratic West” and these sort of events only “consists of a series of rearguard actions from societies whose traditional existence is indeed threatened by modernization”[41].

During 2000s, Fukuyama disassociated himself from George W. Bush’s foreign policy, especially from the intervention in Iraq in 2003. He admits the important consequences of the “Bush doctrine” on the American image and, more generally, on the advance of democracy in the world. However, his thesis remains valid for him. Fukuyama continues to think, against criticisms, that liberal democracy represents the final stage of human history and that principles of liberal democracy “are universal”[42]. He recently published an article – for the twenty-fifth anniversary of his article’s publication – in which he confirms again his thesis. “I believe that the underlying idea remains essentially correct” he declares, even if he admits that he “also now understand many things about the nature of political development that I saw less clearly during the heady days of 1989”[43]. For Him, “Even as we raise questions about how soon everyone will get there, we should have no doubt as to what kind of society lies at the end of History”[44].


As we have seen, Fukuyama continues to maintain his thesis of “The End of History” since the 1990s. None of the events, according to him, has questioned his conception of a democracy as the “final form of human government”. Similarly, his critics have not been able to convince him to change his view. For Fukuyama, liberal democracy remains the only viable political system for modern societies. Yet criticisms continue to follow him and reinforce themselves because much of the world today is different from the one of the 1990s. Today, several observers note the “democratic recession” since the mid-2000s[45]. Fukuyama himself refers to the decay of several modern democracies, in the first place, the United States[46]. With reference to US, by the way, the political scientist has recently expressed his anxiety about the election of Donald Trump, whose the victory according to him “marks a watershed not just for American politics, but for the entire world order”[47]. He goes so far as to say that: “One way or the other, we are going to be in for a rough ride over the next few years”[48]. Is it an attempt to re-examine his thesis? In no way. After all, for him: “When observing broad historical trends, it is important not to get carried away by short-term developments. The hallmark of a durable political system is its long-term sustainability, not its performance in any given decade”[49]. The appointment thus is taken.

Pierre Bourgois is a PhD candidate in political science.

ATER (Attaché Temporaire d’Enseignement et de Recherche) in political science since 2017. Centre Montesquieu de Recherches Politiques (CMRP-IRM), University of Bordeaux. Contact:

[1] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, New York, The Free Press, 1992. This book has appeared in over twenty foreign editions.

[2] Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?”, The National Interest, n° 16, Summer 1989, pp. 3-18.

[3] Francis Fukuyama was born in Chicago in 1952. Today, he is professor of political science at Stanford University.

[4] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, op. cit., p. xi.

[5] Ibid., p. xii.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Francis Fukuyama, “A Reply to My Critics”, The National Interest, n° 18, Winter 1989/90, p. 22.

[8] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, op. cit., p. xv.

[9] Ibid., p. xiv.

[10] Ibid. p. xv.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., p. xvi.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., p. xviii.

[15] Of course, these elements present only very briefly the complex thesis of “the end of history” according to Fukuyama.

[16] See, for instance, Responses to Fukuyama”, The National Interest, n° 16, Summer 1989, pp. 19-35 or “More Responses to Fukuyama”, The National Interest, n° 17, Fall 1989, pp. 93-100.

[17] Gertrude Himmelfarb, “Responses to Fukuyama”, The National Interest, n° 16, Summer 1989, p. 25.

[18] Ibid., p. 26.

[19] Francis Fukuyama, “A Reply to My Critics”, op. cit., p. 21.

[20] Ibid.

[21] See André Fontaine, “Après l’Histoire, l’ennui ?”, Le monde, 27 September 1989.

[22] Julien Cheverny, “Désarmant Fukuyama”, Commentaire, vol. 13, n° 49, Spring 1990, pp. 71-73.

[23] Just like his article, we can’t cite the innumerable criticisms of Francis Fukuyama’s book. For instance, see Timothy Burns (ed.), After History? Francis Fukuyama and His Critics, Lanham, Rowman & Littlefield, 1994.

[24] Samuel P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?”, Foreign Affairs, vol. 72, n° 3, Summer, 1993, pp. 22-49.

[25] Ibid., p. 22.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Samuel P. Huntington, “No Exit: The Errors of Endism”, The National Interest, n° 17, fall 1989, p. 10.

[28] Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1996.

[29] Jacques Derrida, Spectres de Marx, Paris, Galilée, 1993.For the translation, see Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx, 1994, New York and London, Routledge, 2012.

[30] Ibid., p. 70.

[31] Ibid., p. 85.

[32] We can only mention here simple examples showing the general evolution of his thesis.

[33] Francis Fukuyama, “Reflections on The End of History, Five Years Later”, in Timothy Burns (ed.), After History? Francis Fukuyama and His Critics, op. cit., pp. 239-258.

[34] Ibid., p. 240.

[35] Ibid., p. 239.

[36] Francis Fukuyama, “Second Thoughts: The Last Man in a Bottle”, The National Interest, n° 56, Summer 1999, p. 16.

[37] Ibid., p. 17.

[38] Francis Fukuyama, Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2002.

[39] See, for instance, Fareed Zakaria, “The End of the End of History”, Newsweek, 24 September 2001.

[40] Francis Fukuyama, “History is Still Going Our Way”, Wall Street Journal, 5 October 2001.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Francis Fukuyama, “Is the age of democracy over?”, The Spectator, 13 february 2010.

[43] Francis Fukuyama, “At the ‘End of History’ Still Stands Democracy”, The Wall Street Journal, 6 june 2014.

[44] Ibid.

[45] See, for instance, Larry Diamond, The Spirit of Democracy: The Struggle to Build Free Societies Throughout the World, New York, Times Books, 2008.

[46] See, for instance, Francis Fukuyama, “The Decay of American Political Institutions”, The American Interest, vol. 9, n° 3, Winter (January/February) 2014, pp. 6-19.

[47] Francis Fukuyama, “US against the world? Trump’s America and the new global order”, Financial Times, 11 November 2016.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Francis Fukuyama, “At the ‘End of History’ Still Stands Democracy”, op. cit.