In conversation after a television discussion of his The End of History and the Last Man,footnote1 an occasion somewhat deviated by the interventions of a bibulous Labour dignitary, Francis Fukuyama revealed that his maternal grandfather had studied in Germany under Werner Sombart. The grandfather had subsequently purchased Sombart’s library and taken it back to Japan. ‘One day,’ Fukuyama said, ‘I shall inherit a first edition of Marx’s Das Kapital.’ Fukuyama is far from being a Marxist, but his work raises many questions of interest and challenge to historical materialism and is lacking in the standard reflexes of academic anti-communism: his treatment of Marx, as of others such as Hobbes, Hegel and Nietzsche, while at times idiosyncratic, encourages reconsideration.

There are, however, some theoretical schools that Fukuyama, for all his range of engagement—from Plato to the nlr—chooses to ignore or treat in a slight manner. The difficulties that ecology and feminism pose for his argument—the former by intimating catastrophe, and man-made catastrophe at that, the latter by suggesting a quite other ‘history’ with which liberal democracy does not engage—are glancingly referred to, but not in any substantial way confronted. It does not look as if the RAND Corporation library has as yet managed to get in many books on feminist political theory. An even greater absence is Freud (significantly the one index listing is a misprint): yet Fukuyama’s whole argument rests upon a theory of the human mind, and of the contradictory impact of the desire for ‘recognition’, thymos. It might be thought that in the late twentieth century no theory of human psychology, and of the unconscious and irrational forces within it, could be developed without at least a contestatory engagement with Freud. What we have in The End of History is not, however, dismissal of Freud, or behaviourist epiphenomenalism, but a bland refusal to engage with the major theory of the irrational, in favour of a brave, but forced, assertion that history and psychology can be explained by reference to the ‘thymotic’ element in man.

In some respects, the real object of Fukuyama’s critique is not Marx, or Freud, but rather Weber, since it is his thesis that the universal ideals predominant in the world today are not specific to particular cultures (the Protestant) but can prevail, in terms of social and political organization, on a world scale. As Fukuyama himself intimated in discussion, what would most challenge his thesis is not the prevalence of wars and inequality in the world, the standard empiricist fare of his critics, but the success of an illiberal, Confucian, capitalism in the Far East. The Sombart connection is also a suggestive one, leading one friend to observe that the subtitle of Fukuyama’s book might well be Why is There No Socialism in America? And regrettably, for the moment at least, not much sign of it elsewhere, one could add.

Fukuyama’s theses, first enunciated in his article ‘The End of History?’ in the summer of 1989, and expanded in his book, have been the centre of a notable international debate, marked by extremes of excoriation and appropriation. He has been accused of capitalist, if not usocentric, triumphalism, of neglecting the major contradictions prevalent in the world today, of downplaying the challenge to his version of liberal democracy from radical Islam, of complacency about US society itself, and so forth. Others have seen in his work a robust, if philosophically eccentric and in its Hegelian provenance unwelcome, assertion of Western advanced capitalist victory in the Cold War and of the resolution of the major ideological conflicts of the past two hundred years.

Fukuyama himself appears puzzled by the reception of his theses, if not ungratified by the reputation it has generated. On his tour of Europe to promote the book’s simultaneous publication in France, Germany and Britain he was struck by the, apparently predictable, responses: French rejection on the grounds that he is still another totalizing grand thinker; German amusement that anyone should be surprised at these ideas which, in the assertive Länder of the land where Hegel first pronounced, are self-evident. In Britain there is a range of response, from the empiricist scepticism of the Right (‘I can’t see what he is going on about. History is just one damn thing after another’) and a Left divided between those who see him as just a capitalist ideologue, blind to the potential of revolutionary socialism, and those who seek to recruit him for a revisionist progressivism. ‘It is strange to find that, in Europe, many of the people who defend me are Marxists’, he observes. In Japan—a country with which, despite family background, he has little sense of common identity—recognition for a successful member of the diaspora is outweighed by suspicion of his universalism, which looks all too much like an apologia for US hegemony.

Prior to his 1989 article, Fukuyama wrote studies of Third World ‘states of socialist orientation’, such as Ethiopia, Mozambique and South Yemen, for the RAND Corporation, in which there was much of interest. The same applies to his book. Like an opera, it has its longueurs, repetitions and borrowings, but four of its theses are important and worth engaging with.

First is his assertion of the importance of progress in contemporary history. Fukuyama is not saying that progress is without costs, nor is he sure that it is destined to continue, but he does assert that humanity as a whole has made progress of a significant kind over recent centuries and that it has the capacity, ecological and nuclear disaster aside, to continue. In this way he rejects both the pessimism of the Right—that history is circular, unintelligible, or plain decadent—and that of the Left, based on various forms of historical romanticism or, in the case of Wallerstein, on a combative assertion of overall human decline since 1400.footnote2 This cautiously optimistic note is significant, not only because there is something out there which most people would recognize as progress (like ‘imperialism’ and ‘patriarchy’, it leaves much to be desired as a concept, but faute de mieux we need to go on using it) but also because in order to argue about progress, and whether or not one accepts that it has occurred, one needs universal analytic and moral criteria. In the contemporary intellectual climate, of nationalist and religious particularism, and post-modernist confusion of all kinds, this firm eighteenth-century assertion of the possibility of universal criteria, whatever their historic, social and geographical origins, is to be welcomed. In that sense those who deny there has been progress, Wallerstein included, are still welcome allies against those who say we cannot know, since their judgement too pre-supposes principles.