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Thousands of young East Berliners crowd atop the Berlin Wall on November 11, 1989. (GERARD MALIE/AFP/Getty Images)

Liberalism's Beleaguered Victory: "The End of History?" at 25

Abram N. Shulsky

About 25 years ago, the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe revived a line of speculation that had lain dormant for eighty years: that human history was fundamentally progressive in nature, and that reasonable and humane liberal democratic governance, capable of promoting peace and prosperity, was destined to be globally triumphant. Frank Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man and Max Singer and Aaron Wildavsky’s The Real World Order: Zones of Peace, Zones of Turmoil revived this optimistic outlook, characteristic of many 19th-century thinkers, which had seemingly vanished for good in the trenches of World War I.

The last hurrah of 19th-century optimism appeared in a work published not long before the outbreak of the Great War: Norman Angell’s The Great Illusion. The “illusion” in question was the idea that a state could use military power to advance its economic and other interests. Angell maintained that, given the modern “globalized” economy, war was an anachronism and hence military power was irrelevant to a society’s well-being.1 He believed that he had decisively disposed of the remnants of earlier ways of understanding economics, international relations, and the world, which were already on the way out of intellectual circulation.
(As we shall see, he was mistaken in his belief that the threat to peace came only from the remnants of the old ideas; it came as much from new ideas and political trends.)

The next eighty years of hot and cold war on a global scale seemingly relegated Angell’s book to the dustbin of history. But the unexpectedly rapid and peaceful collapse of communism seemed to indicate that liberal democracy had triumphed over all its ideological competitors and could be expected to spread worldwide.

This conclusion depended upon a set of assertions that can be summarized as follows:

  • As Fukuyama argued, Hegel’s notion of an “end of History” eventuating in a fully satisfying (and hence, presumably, durable) human situation had been vindicated;
  • Liberal democracies, given their objective of improving the lives of their citizens and their understanding of how to do that through technological development, would find no sufficient cause to make war on each other;
  • Non-liberal democracies would either not become technologically advanced or, if they did, their citizens would demand the right to participate in governance, pushing them toward liberal democracy;
  • As a result, the possibility of war between advanced states had all but disappeared.

While the “end of History” thesis has not yet been decisively vindicated, neither have pessimistic predictions concerning the immediate post-Cold War period—for example, those based on formulaic international relations realism. The coalition of Western powers that confronted the Soviet Union did not break apart once the Soviet threat was gone, as realists predicted. Traditional antagonisms among the European powers, and between the United States and Japan, did not re-emerge, nor did any Cold War allies of the United States develop nuclear weapons.2

There were no wars between major powers; instead, academics debated the “democratic peace” thesis that wars between democracies would not occur. Economic globalization continued, and the feared division of the world into competing economic blocs did not take place either. While China and Russia have resisted liberalization, they have not (not yet, at least) mounted a serious ideological challenge to liberal democracy that can attract their own intellectuals, let alone those of the West, in the way that communism and fascism did.

Of course, despite the predictive successes of the “end of History” thesis, the period has been anything but peaceful. While much of the bloodletting of the 1990s was attributable to unsolved ethnic tensions left over from Western colonialism and Communist state repression, that of the 21st century generally has been motivated, in one way or another, by the rise of extremist ideology in the Muslim world. This ideology, commonly labeled Islamism, is essentially a political ideology about how society and government should be organized that bases itself on its understanding of what Islam requires. As French sociologist Olivier Roy has noted:

Islamists see Islam not as a mere religion, but as a political ideology that should reshape all aspects of society (politics, law, economy, social justice, foreign policy, and so on). The traditional idea of Islam as an all-encompassing religion is extended to the complexity of modern society and recast in terms of modern social sciences. . . . This ideologization of Islam is explicit among Islamist actors.3

Thus, Islamism represents a political ideology that claims to restore the pristine Islam of the 7th century and indeed appeals to Muslim history and sensibility, but in fact represents something new. As Roy notes, “The illusion held by the Islamic radicals is that they represent tradition, when in fact they express a negative form of westernization.”4

The rise of Islamism and its major political and geostrategic effects raise the question of how this phenomenon relates to the “end of History” thesis. Those who look at the religious basis of Islamism may see it as a refutation of the thesis that liberal democracy has triumphed. After all, if liberal democracy means anything, it means that religious belief is a private matter that the state should leave as free as possible, whereas the power of Islamism to attract large numbers of adherents seems based on the opposite notion. So are the ideological underpinnings of the “end of History” not as solid as the thesis claims?

To gain an understanding of this phenomenon, we can look at a strange aspect of liberalism’s “victory”: the constant appearance of counter-ideologies that have arisen in reaction against it.5 Despite its overall success, liberalism has for two centuries been dogged by a series of counter-ideologies. So far, they have all been defeated, but sometimes only at great cost. Fascism and the various forms of communism and leftist extremism were the major counter-ideologies during the 20th century; varieties of extreme nationalism played a similar role during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Various other intellectual trends, including some without comparable but still not trivial political significance, such as the Romanticism of the early 19th century and related forms of bohemianism and avant-gardism, might also be considered in this context.

However varied they are, these counter-ideologies generally share a sense that liberalism’s protection and privileging of individual self-interest as opposed to the common good (however defined) makes it ignoble; potentially or actually unjust; and chaotic or anarchic and hence ultimately weak. This sensibility is evident in the pejorative meaning of the term “bourgeois”: someone who is so immersed in the pursuit of petty material concerns that he is blind to both nobility of soul and the claims of social justice.

Roughly speaking, there are two ideal types of counter-ideologies: those holding that liberalism is too disorganized to work well and hence cannot survive, and those fearing that liberalism will succeed (or has already succeeded) and will diminish human life as a result. These sound like mutually contradictory objections, but by calling them ideal types we recognize that in practice most counter-ideologies have elements of both: Liberalism is bad because it is successful in forcing or seducing people to adopt a “bad” way of life, but its faults mean that it will fail eventually.

Counter-ideologies to liberalism have taken a great many forms over the years. Writing in the first half of the 19th century, Auguste Comte developed the theory that the human mind is evolving toward “positivism”, by which he meant the method of modern natural science. Comte saw liberalism as a necessarily transitional stage between the “theological” understanding of human life (represented by the orientation of Christianity in the European Middle Ages) and the future “positive” stage in which natural scientific reasoning would dominate political and social life. Liberalism belonged to the “metaphysical” phase (as opposed to the prior “theological” phase or the later “positive” one) because it depended on abstract conceptions such as “rights” and “consent of the governed.” According to Comte, these types of “metaphysical” notions hindered the application of “pragmatic” scientific reasoning to political and social problems.

Marx’s “scientific socialism” was the most elaborate (and successful) counter-ideology of this sort. Marx’s analysis of surplus value and related economic concepts sought to prove that, in the absence of central planning, capitalism—with its liberal concern for private property and the sanctity of contracts—would necessarily produce a general and systemic economic crisis that would destroy it root and branch. Given Marx’s Hegelianism, it is not surprising that his “scientific socialism” saw capitalism as an initially progressive force—thus his praise of capitalism in the Communist Manifesto and in “The British Raj in India.” (This became incomprehensible to the “New Left”, which was more concerned with liberalism’s ignobility and injustice than its mere supposed impracticality.)

Fascism also had an element of this contempt for liberalism as doomed to failure. In this view, liberalism, by emancipating the individual desire for material gain, weakened a population’s sense of unity and moral strength. In particular, its focus on individual self-interest weakened the nation’s martial valor, thus leading to its inevitable military defeat. Racist notions also played a role in this critique. By treating people as individuals rather than as members of a racial or ethnic group, liberalism ignored differences between superior and inferior races and ethnicities. This, fascists believed, would pave the way for racial mixing (“mongrelized” was the term the Nazis used to describe American society), which would weaken peoples physically and genetically.

In general, critics saw liberalism as too disorganized and anarchic to survive because it left individuals too free to pursue individual interests at the expense of a concern for the common good. As we have seen repeatedly over the years, it is easy for liberalism’s enemies to underestimate a democracy’s geopolitical (including military) strength as a result. The advantages of a less centralized political and economic system reside in the fact that, once galvanized by a common threat, such a system can make better use of the various talents of all members of society. This truth is easily overlooked by those who adhere to this critique of liberalism.

The other line of criticism is that life loses its attractiveness and value in a bourgeois world. This sensibility can be traced back to the Romanticism of the early 19th century and the various forms of the bohemian and the avant-garde in the arts. The speech by Nietzsche’s Zarathustra about the “Last Man” encapsulates this critique in brilliant and stinging language. He paints a picture of human beings who no longer have anything distinctively human about them except their basic animal functions: “No shepherd and one herd! Everybody wants the same, everybody is the same: whoever feels different goes voluntarily into a madhouse.”

The extreme forms of nationalism that characterized many countries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries also reflect a critique of this sort. They claimed that liberalism destroyed the distinctiveness of nations and their specific cultures, and promoted in their stead a homogenous global “bourgeois” culture that impoverished life. Thus the concern of the Slavophiles in 19th-century Russia that their country not become an imitation of England and France, but that it retain what was most precious—its Russian “soul”—in the face of liberal influences from abroad. Similarly, many German nationalists saw their country in a struggle to preserve German “Kultur” against the poverty and frivolity of English commercialism and French “Zivilisation.”6

The New Left of the 1960s reflected much of this critique. The leftist intelligentsia gradually shifted from Marx’s “scientific socialism”, according to which capitalism was doomed by virtue of its economic contradictions, to the view that capitalism was all too successful in imposing a kind of “soft” enslavement on man. This view was typically traced to his early works, in which he denounced liberalism’s tendency to “alienate” man from his true nature, by treating him merely as a producer and a consumer of material objects. Ultimately, this rendered him vulnerable to being satisfied with the consumerism that liberalism fostered.

Against this background we can better understand Islamism as one of a long series of counter-ideologies that reject liberalism. It differs from the others in claiming a divine basis for its opposition, but many of its complaints about liberalism are similar to those voiced by other counter-ideologies. Thus Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, in 1947: “[W]e assert that the civilization of the West, which was brilliant by virtue of its scientific perfections for a long time, and which subjugated the whole world with the products of its science to its states and nations, is now in decline.”7

This decline was directly connected with liberalism, which al-Banna thought threatened Egypt as well:

A wave of dissolution which undermined all firm beliefs, was engulfing Egypt in the name of intellectual emancipation. This trend attacked the morals, deeds and virtues under the pretext of personal freedom. . . . I saw the social life of the beloved Egyptian people, oscillating between her dear and precious Islam which she had inherited, defended, lived with during fourteen centuries, and this severe Western invasion which was armed and equipped with all destructive influences of money, wealth, prestige, ostentation, power and means of propaganda.8

Similarly, Sayyid Qutb, one of the main Islamist theorists of the post-World War II period, thought the West was in irreversible decline. In the words of one scholar:

When one looks at Western societies, says Qutb . . . one sees the future—and it does not work. This is the future awaiting Muslim societies: unbridled individualism, dissolution, depravity, leading to moral and social decline. A vast array of examples is marshaled to prove his point: from the writings of Western cultural critics (Arnold Toynbee, Alexis Carrel), to current affairs of the 1950s. . . . Islam is bound to overcome, [Qutb] declared in his 1962 book, The Future of This Religion, because modernity is inherently incapable of quenching man’s thirst for spirituality.9

Thus we have the paradoxical situation that, as liberalism becomes generally successful in the world, it continues to be challenged by counter-ideologies. These counter-ideologies often have the support of broad segments of the intellectual class of the liberal states— it is now forgotten that fascism once did, and certainly Marxism did too—a phenomenon well described in Daniel Bell’s The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976). This is far less the case with Islamism: Despite its adoption of many common anti-Western themes, its appeal to Islamic history and sensibility limits interest in it and support for it outside the Muslim world.

We may descry various causes for this succession of counter-ideologies. Of them, two are incidental to the essence of liberalism, but two others seem to be inherent to it. Among the incidental ones are, first, the negative reaction to liberalism as an import from another culture and, second, the difficulties of the transition from a traditional to a modern, liberal society.

Liberalism developed, both theoretically and practically, in Britain and to a lesser extent in France. It was, of course, understood in principle to be universal, based on inalienable rights belonging to all men. Nevertheless, it has been resisted elsewhere as an import that devalues indigenous culture. Thus German nationalism and Slavophile sentiment in Russia in the 19th and early 20th centuries both saw liberalism as something dangerous to the essence of the spiritual life of their countries. Similarly, in both Japan and China, there was an attempt to balance the need to learn Western technology (for economic and especially military purposes) against the desire to maintain an Eastern “spirituality” that was felt to be lacking in the West.10

Liberalism meets with further opposition when the stresses and strains of the transition to modernity are particularly difficult. In the later developing countries, this transition is likely to occur at a faster rate. In the case of England, development of a modern liberal society didn’t occur faster than the rate at which various discoveries enabled industrialization and urbanization. For later adopters, the paradigm of what a developed society looks like already exists, as does the necessary technology, and foreign investment can expedite the transition. Hence, societal change is likely to be more rapid for late adopters than for early ones, creating greater social tension and disorganization, which further erodes liberalism’s popularity and credibility.

Other difficulties stem from more inherent problems or weaknesses of liberalism. Its origins lie in certain philosophic premises, concisely and memorably spelled out in the truths of the Declaration of Independence, concerning the rights with which all men are endowed and the establishment of governments by consent of the governed to protect those rights. As the document says, these truths were then regarded as self-evident; it is reasonable to say they are now hotly contested.

The loss of belief in these principles is reflected, for example, in the works of Comte and his assertion that mankind’s thinking proceeds from a theological stage, via a metaphysical one, to a mature, positive one. In this mature stage, man no longer believes he understands the essence of things, but contents himself with knowledge on the model of modern natural science—knowledge of the “how” but not of the “why” or the “wherefore.” The philosophic bases of liberalism fall within the “metaphysical” period; as the social sciences evolve into a “positive” phase, they concern themselves not with rights or any other kind of self-evident truths that relate to the fundamental character of society (more generally, values), but only with the knowable, objective relationships among variables. The switch to a more “positive” social science holds out the possibility of a more efficient and effective management of society, such as was promised by the Progressive movement of the early 20th century. But it does so at the cost of potentially weakening the hold of core liberal beliefs on society at large.

It is hard to know whether, or to what extent, the loss of belief in the philosophic principles underlying liberalism represents a practical weakness. In the guise of “human rights” the practical political strength of certain liberal principles is stronger than ever, especially on the international level. (The concept of “natural rights” was discarded for lack of belief that a compelling argument can be made about what is “natural” for human beings.) The seemingly paradoxical fact is that, despite the relativism pervading modern thought, human rights concerns have been incorporated into international law to an extent that far exceeds that which earlier thinkers would have thought possible. Indeed, that incorporation marks a shift from the understanding of international law as centered on reciprocity-based agreements among independent sovereign powers to one based on categorical obligations that are, in effect, trans-sovereign.

At the same time, the liberal societies betray a certain insecurity with respect to the legitimacy of applying their own fundamental beliefs. Their embrace of “multiculturalism”, for instance, becomes an apology for illiberal practices nestled within them. At the very least, the loss of belief in the philosophic bases of liberalism facilitates the development and spread of counter-ideologies.

Finally, in light of successive counter-ideologies we ought to ask whether liberalism itself is at fault by failing to satisfy a part of the human soul in a way that makes it persistently vulnerable. Admittedly, mention of the soul will appear incongruous in a political discussion, but that is precisely the point. The deconstruction of the notion of the soul as developed by the ancient philosophers was a large part of the modern project. From being the body’s center of movement and development, the soul contracted until it became merely the conscious, cognating “self” that resisted being subsumed by a mechanistic interpretation of human life.11

Modern politics, and the modern natural science that developed along with it, depend crucially on de-emphasizing certain human concerns, especially the concern with the afterlife and immortality (a concern at the center of the Christianity that dominated Europe for centuries). Politically, this meant that opinions about salvation had to be regulated either by the political authority (as in Hobbes) or relegated to the private sphere (as in Locke). In either case, the individual’s passionate concern for the fate of his immortal soul had to be tamed or contained; it was no longer to affect actions he might take in the public sphere, at least none that could not be sufficiently motivated and defended on a non-religious basis.

One alternative to religiously understood immortality that early modern writers did offer was the prospect for immortal, or at least long-lived, glory. For Machiavelli, this would be political glory, the fame gained by the founder of a new political order. For Francis Bacon, there was an even greater form of glory, the recognition that went to an inventor as a benefactor of mankind. In both cases, however, one may wonder whether the suggested solutions were adequate. In a well-governed republic, as Abraham Lincoln noted about 175 years ago,

[M]en of ambition and talents [who] will . . . continue to spring up amongst us . . . will as naturally seek the gratification of their ruling passion as others have done before them. The question then is, Can that gratification be found in supporting and maintaining an edifice that has been erected by others? Most certainly it cannot. Many great and good men, sufficiently qualified for any task they should undertake, may ever be found whose ambition would aspire to nothing beyond a seat in Congress, a gubernatorial or a presidential chair; but such belong not to the family of the lion or the tribe of the eagle. What! think you these places would satisfy an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon?12

In other words, might normal, sensible, liberal democratic politics simply be too boring or uninteresting or spiritually unambitious for those seeking higher levels of glory? Similarly, as the scientific enterprise has matured, and the processes by which major discoveries are made have become more complex, has Bacon’s notion of the glory available to inventors as benefactors of mankind become inadequate? One hundred years ago, Thomas Edison achieved heroic stature in this way; is this route still open? (At present, the only people who come close to Edison’s public stature are the founders of major tech companies, such as Bill Gates and the late Steve Jobs.)

So to assess the health of liberal democracy, we must keep in mind two opposing thoughts: It is strong because it opens the way to the satisfaction of the real needs and desires of most people, most of the time; and it is weak, ultimately, because its own intellectuals no longer truly believe in it and because there are seemingly ineradicable longings of the human soul that it ignores or pretends do not exist—and, indeed, that its own liberality encourages into expression.

The “incidental” weaknesses (the “not invented here” syndrome and the stresses of transition) can perhaps be expected to fade over time, in some places more slowly than in others, no doubt. But the inherent ones are another matter. Our only defense against them, in the long run, is the inculcation in the body politic of a sense of moderation that understands the inherent limits of politics in the search for human happiness.

1 The term “globalized” is anachronistic in that Angell did not use it, but a contemporary reader is struck by how central to his thesis are precisely those phenomena for which we use the term “globalization” today.
2 For unrealized realist predictions concerning these matters, see John J. Mearsheimer, “Why We Will Soon Miss the Cold War”, The Atlantic Monthly (August 1990).
3 Roy, Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah (Columbia University Press, 2004), p. 58.
4 Roy, Globalized Islam, p. 20.
5 I use the term “liberalism” rather than “liberal democracy” to reflect the fact that “one man-one vote” democracy, which appears of overriding importance to us, was not central to liberal theory as it developed from Locke onward.
6 A chilling example is the open letter published by 93 prominent German academics in defense of German military actions in Belgium in 1914, including the destruction by fire of a large part of the university city of Louvain. The letter describes the war as a conflict in defense of German Kultur: “It is not true that the battle against our so-called militarism is not a battle against our Kultur. . . . Without German militarism, German Kultur would have long ago been wiped off the face of the earth.” Aufruf an die Kulturwelt!, October 4, 1915.
7 Al-Banna, “Toward the Light” in Five Tracts of Hasan al-Banna (University of California Press, 1978), p. 106.
8 Quoted in Brynjar Lia, The Society of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt: The Rise of an Islamic Mass Movement 1928–1942 (Ithaca Press, 1998), p. 28.
9 Emmanuel Sivan, Radical Islam: Medieval Theology and Modern Politics (Yale University Press, 1985, enlarged edition), pp. 24, 66.
10 For example, the Japanese technologist Sakuma Shozan (1811–64), “in an effort to justify the technological changes that he realized were necessary, coined the slogan ‘Eastern ethics and Western science,’ a concept which, like its counterpart developed in China, was to prove comforting to a whole generation of modernizers.” John K. Fairbank, Edwin O. Reischauer, and Albert M. Craig, East Asia: Tradition and Transformation (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1973), p. 486. However, as Japan expert Edwin Reischauer noted, “in practice . . . no clear line could be drawn between the external aspects of Western civilization and its internal value system.” Fairbank et al., East Asia, p. 528.
11 See Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (Oxford University Press, 2012) for a thorough—and thoroughly heterodox—re-examination of the basic premises on which the Cartesian understanding is based.
12 Lincoln, “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions”, address before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, January 27, 1838.

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