Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man has been widely regarded as a celebration of the triumph of the West.footnote1 Its message, on the accepted view, is that, with victory in the Cold War and the death of Communism, the Western way of life has emerged as the culmination of humanity’s historical evolution. As the end state towards which that evolution has been tending it represents a pattern of universal validity, a light to itself and to all non-Western societies still struggling in history. It will be argued here that this interpretation is wholly misconceived and, indeed, that it must be stood on its head to obtain the true meaning of the book. The distinctive core of what the West stands for, in Fukuyama’s view, is liberal democracy. What his book tells us is that this is itself a transitory historical form, the process of whose dissolution is already well advanced. It is a verdict inescapably grounded in the logic of the argument, in the fundamental tenets of the philosophy of history Fukuyama espouses. Thus, in the classic style of that subject, he arrives on the scene too late, when a way of life has grown old beyond hope of rejuvenation. There is a sharp irony in the fact that philosophy’s grey on grey should be taken in this case as an expression of maturity and vigour. Something is owed here to the complex perversity of the times, but something also, it must be admitted, to the strangely half-hearted, double-minded and inadequately self-conscious way in which Fukuyama has approached his task. All this constitutes, however, a reason not for abandoning the agenda he has set but for taking it onwards towards completion.

The thesis of Fukuyama’s book on the usual reading is that history has now come to an end with the definitive victory of what might be called capitalist democracy or democratic capitalism; that is, of the combination of capitalism and liberal democracy. Although this reading cannot be sustained it must be acknowledged to have some rather obvious textual support. For a preliminary view of the scene its support and then the evidence that tells just as plainly against it will be sketched. These conflicting indications fix the terms of the discussion that follows.

In restating and defending an earlier version of Fukuyama’s position, he tells us that what he had suggested had come to an end was ‘not the occurrence of events, even large and grave events, but History: that is, history understood as a single, coherent, evolutionary process, when taking into account the experience of all peoples in all times’.footnote2 The process is one that ‘dictates a common evolutionary pattern for all human societies—in short, something like a Universal History of mankind in the direction of liberal democracy’.footnote3 Fukuyama is, quite generally, still more confident that it is an evolution in the direction of capitalism, an outcome ‘in some sense inevitable for advanced countries’.footnote4 Hence it is that ‘We who live in stable, long-standing liberal democracies . . . have trouble imagining a world that is radically better than our own, or a future that is not essentially democratic and capitalist’.footnote5 This inability to imagine alternatives is itself a large part of the substance of the belief that we in the contemporary West are living at the end of history. It seems clear that Fukuyama’s commitment to this belief is sufficiently well advertised as to explain and excuse what was referred to earlier as the usual reading of his book. Indeed, it is reasonable to speak in this connection of its official doctrine or, more strictly, of the first version of that doctrine.footnote6

The book also contains formulations which cannot be reconciled with this version or, indeed, with any end of history thesis. They seem to gain in urgency as it proceeds so that its final chapter is ready to suggest the following conclusion:

No regime—no ‘socio-economic system’—is able to satisfy all men in all places. This includes liberal democracy . . . Thus those who remain dissatisfied will always have the potential to restart history.footnote7

The last paragraph of the book points the moral by affirming that ‘the evidence available to us now’ concerning the direction in which the wagon train of history is wandering ‘must remain provisionally inconclusive’. Fukuyama takes leave of us on the following still more judicious and sombre note:

Nor can we in the final analysis know, provided a majority of the wagons eventually reach the same town, whether their occupants, having looked around a bit at their new surroundings, will not find them inadequate and set their eyes on a new and more distant journey.footnote8