Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man is the book of its historical moment, of Western triumph, as Paul Kennedy’s Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1988) was of a slightly earlier phase of American self-doubt. Its thesis, that capitalist democracy is the final stopping place of historical evolution, is of compelling interest, and one that it would be evasive to ignore. Whatever the quality of Fukuyama’s arguments, he does at least present socialists with the challenge of a coherent historical narrative, antithetical to that of their own tradition, and provokes us to question whether in the light of recent events we any longer have a tenable narrative of our own. The argument, implicitly deployed by some of Fukuyama’s critics in dismissing his book, that historicist arguments like his are simply misconceived, or that the future is inherently unpredictable, is a risky one. Socialism, as a system of ideas, was strong because of the intellectual claims that it made, and the hope that socialist conviction and influence will survive the tacit abandonment of many of these claims is unlikely to be fulfilled. As unlikely, in fact, as in the analogous case of Christian belief when it was challenged by scientific explanation of a world it had once sought comprehensively to account for. Residual moral sentiment is no substitute for definite and lucid understanding.

The End of History and the Last Man is in fact more memorable for its boldness of theme, and its resonances with its moment of publication, than for its actual quality or originality of argument. The text is often derivative, of earlier first-hand versions of some of its major theses. (An example of this is Fukuyama’s reworking of Albert Hirschman’s elegant and paradoxical analysis, in The Passions and the Interests, [Princeton, N.J. 1977] of the Enlightenment advocacy of bourgeois self-interest against aristocratic pride.) Though Fukuyama develops substantive philosophical arguments, incorporating interpretations of Plato, Hegel and Nietzsche, his writing is overdependent on secondary readings of these texts, probably because of the priority he gives to developing his own bold theses over fine-grained scholarship. Fukuyama is an intellectual from the RAND Corporation, an institution where political relevance is no doubt valued very highly. This frame of concerns, and Fukuyama’s sense for important issues, has given this book and its preceding Public Interest article (1989) a large and deserved impact, but will probably deny it a more lasting scholarly reputation.

The obvious reason for the great impact of Fukuyama’s work lies in its conjunction with the successes of capitalist democracy in the 1970s and 1980s in southern Europe, Latin America, and now of course in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. But Fukuyama is a highly intelligent writer who has understood the need to find a theoretical structure able to bear the weight of arguments of major scope. His book develops two substantive theses, one seeking to explain ‘The End of History’, and the other ‘The Last Man’ of the book’s title. These theses need to be examined in theoretical terms, not merely set against various counterfactuals (like, for example, how many democracies actually are there in the modern world?), even though such awkward facts cast doubt on some of Fukuyama’s bolder claims.

Democracy, he holds, is now without serious ideological competitors in the modern world, and we may confidently expect its further spread. Two main kinds of explanation are given for this hegemony. The first is a functionalist argument, which claims that democracy is the set of political arrangements best adapted to the development of capitalism. The second is an argument from human nature: it is the fundamental desire of human beings for mutual recognition that makes democracy so much more attractive than those forms of rule which define some citizens as inherently less worthy of respect than others. It is because democracy treats human beings as inherently equal that it has become a universal aspiration of all societies. Even the former functionalist argument, from the needs of capitalism, rests on motivational presuppositions. Capitalism is propelled, in Fukuyama’s view, by the fact that it is able to satisfy material needs more than other economic systems do. It is the application of reason, especially in the forms of science and technology, to meet human desires that explains why capitalism has outstripped and is defeating, for the moment, all competing systems.

Fukuyama presents in this theory a liberal version of historical materialism, explaining the triumph of a superior system of economic organization by its capacity to bring reason to bear on the problems of meeting human desires. Unlike Marx, however, Fukuyama sees no inherent contradictions, imagines no further stage of economic and social development, than that of the present. Like Ernest Gellner, who put forward a not dissimilar kind of historicist liberal view in his Thought and Change thirty years ago, Fukuyama sees democratic capitalism, combining as it does the satisfaction of material desires with a measure of self-rule, as all that social and economic arrangements need to provide.

The vulnerability of this argument—as Fukuyama more than once hints that he recognizes in his discussion of possibly successful authoritarian forms of capitalism—lies in the necessity or otherwise of the relationship between capitalism and democracy. Fukuyama’s basic theoretical strategy is to privilege a universalized individualist motivation as the main explanatory principle underlying both these institutions. On this basis the ultimate conjunction of capitalism and democracy is made to seem plausible. The element of human nature committed to the satisfaction of biological and material desires will naturally seem to prefer the most effective form of economic organization. The other key element of human nature postulated by Fukuyama, the thymotic element or the desire for recognition and respect, will on the other hand naturally opt for political systems based on equal rights of citizenship. Thus democracy and capitalism each in their way satisfy fundamental (though different) needs of the individual subject, and are essentially complementary.

There are two critical points to make about this argument. The first is that the entitlements fundamental to capitalism are rights of ownership to property, in its many forms, which were neither equally distributed at any notional outset of market competition, nor necessarily become more equally distributed as this competition proceeds. Capitalism can obtain many benefits from democratic systems, including, as Fukuyama points out, the unfettered exchange of information (increasingly important in the era of the tertiary economy and the primacy of information production) and the means of peaceful regulation of conflicts. But it is also potentially threatened by claims made within democratic systems for equal economic entitlements, or for defences of particular citizens against the destructive (to them) effects of competition. Capitalist democracies typically operate within limits which protect them against the enforcement of such claims. As Adam Przeworski has pointed out, social-democratic parties in government find themselves obliged to maintain the cooperation of the major holders of power in the market. If they fail to do so, they damage the economic interests of their supporters and find themselves driven from office. If, on the other hand, they accept the need for this collusion, they find they can do little about the inequalities they were voted in to redress.