Main The End of History and the Last Man

The End of History and the Last Man

Fukuyama's profound inquiry leads the reader to the question of whether humanity will eventually reach a stable state in which it is at last completely satisfied, or whether there is something about the condition of humans that will always lead them to smash this ultimate equilibrium and plunge the world back into chaos.
Categories: History
Year: 1992
Publisher: Free Press
Language: english
Pages: 446
ISBN 10: 0029109752
ISBN 13: 9780029109755
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Francis Fukuyan1a

THE: ENI)
OF HISTORY
ANL)
l�HE
I�AST
MAN

$24.95

As the tumultuous twentieth century shudders
toward its close - with the collapse of commu­
nism leading to a transformation of world
politics - Francis Fukuyama asks us to return
with him to a question that has been asked by
the great philosophers of centuries past: is there
a direction to the history of mankind? And if it
is directional, to what end is it moving? And
where are we now in relation to that "end of
history"?
In this exciting and profound inquiry, which
goes far beyond the issues raised in his world­
famous essay "The End of History?" in the
summer 1989 National Interest,

Fukuyama

presents evidence to suggest that there are two
powerful forces at work in human history. He
calls one "the logic of modem science" and the
other "the struggle for recognition:' The first
drives men to fulfill an ever-expanding horizon
of desires through a rational economic process;
the second, "the struggle for recognition:' is, in
Fukuyama 's (and Hegel's) view, nothing less
than the very "motor of history'.'
It is Fukuyama's brilliantly argued theme that ,
over time , the economic logic of modem
science together with the "struggle for recogni­
tion" lead to the eventual collapse of tyrannies,
as we have witnessed on both the left and right.
These forces drive even culturally disparate
societies toward establishing capitalist liberal
democracies as the end state of the historical
process. The great question then becomes: can
liberty and equality, both political and eco­
nomic - the state of affairs at the presumed
"end of history" - produce a stable society in
which man may be said to be , at last , com­
pletely satisfied? Or will the spiritual condition
of this "last man" in history, deprived of outlets
for his striving for mastery, inevitably lead him
to plunge himself and the world back into the
chaos and bloodshed of history?
(Continued on backjlap)

(Continuedfrom frontflap)

Fukuyama's contemporary consideration of this
ultimate question is both a fascinating education
in the philosophy of history and a thought­
provoking inquiry into the deepest issues of
human society and destiny.

FRANCIS FUKUYAMA is a former deputy
director of the U.S. State Department's Policy
Planning Staff. He is currently a resident
consultant at the RAND Corporation in Wash­
ington, DC.

1�1

THE FREE PRESS
A Division of Macmillan, Inc.
NEW YORK
© 1992 Macmillan, Inc. (New York)
jacket design© REM Studio, Inc.
author photo © Dan Bonis/Outline

Praise for Francis Fukuyama's

The End Of History and the Last Man
"Bold, lucid, scandalously brilliant. Until now the triumph of the West was merely a fact.
Fukuyama has given it a deep and highly original meaning:•
-Charles Krauthammer

"With one now-famous essay, Frank Fukuyama did what had hitherto seemed almost
impossible: he made Washington think. His subject was, and in this far more sweeping book
is, the place of America, and the American idea, in the stream of history. His conclusion is
at once exhilarating and sobering. We have won the struggle for the heart of humanity.
However, that will not necessarily be good for humanity's soul. Fukuyama is in, and is
worthy of, a grand tradition. He takes up where de Tocqueville left off, wondering whether
liberal democratic culture raises humanity only from its barbarism to banality, and whether
banality breeds instability, atavism and other old sorrows of historY:'
-George F Will

"Fukuyama provides a fascinating historical and philosophical setting for the twenty-first
century. His discussion of the idea of thymos may prove to be even more important than his
theory of the end of history:'
-Tom Wolfe

"A bold and brilliant work. Very, very impressive:'
-Irving Kristol

"Fukuyama tells us where we were, where we are, and most important, speculates about
where we will likely be-with clarity and an astonishing sweep of reflection and imag­
ination. His command of political philosophy and political facts takes us beyond the daily
newspapers to a grasp of the meaning of our situation:'
-Allan Bloom

"For me, [Fukuyama's thought] is an attempt to arm Western political thought with new
fundamental theoretical arguments to reinforce its practical actions. Moreover, it is not an
unsuccessful attempt. ...

"

-Eduard Shevardnadze

ISBN 0-02-910975-2

90000>

9 780029 1 09755

THE END
OF HISTORY
AND
THE
LAST
MAN

THE END
OF HISTORY
AND
THE
LAST
MAN
Francis Fukuyama

A

THE FREE PRESS

Division of Macmillan, Inc.
NEW YORK

Maxwell Macmillan Canada
TORONTO

Maxwell Macmillan International

NEW YORK

OXFORD

SINGAPORE

SIDNEY

Copyright © 1992 by Francis Fukuyama
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form
or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by
any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from
the Publisher.
The Free Press
A Division of Macmillan, Inc.
866 Third Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10022
Maxwell Macmillan Canada, Inc.
1200 Eglinton Avenue East
Suite 200
Don Mills, Ontario M3C 3N1
Macmillan, Inc. is part of the Maxwell Communication
Group of Companies.
Printed in the United States of America
printing number
3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Fukuyama, Francis.

The end of history and the last man I Francis Fukuyama.
p.

em.

Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 0-02-910975-2

I. History-Philosophy.

D16.8.F85
901--dc20

2. World politics-1945-

I. Title.

1992
91-29677
CIP

To Julia and David

CONTENTS

Acknowledgments
By Way of an Introduction
Part I
1
2
3
4

IX
XI

AN OLD QuESTION AsKED ANEW

Our Pessimism
The Weakness of Strong States I
The Weakness of Strong States I I , or,
Eating Pineapples on the Moon
The Worldwide Liberal Revolution

3
13
23
39

Part II THE OLD AGE OF MANKIND
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
Part III
13
14
15
16
17
18
19

An Idea for a Universal History
The Mechanism of Desire
No Barbarians at the Gates
Accumulation without End
The Victory of the VCR
In the Land of Education
The Former Question Answered
No Democracy without Democrats

55
71
82
89
98
109
126
131

THE STRUGGLE FOR RECOGNITION

In the Beginning, a Battle to the Death
for Pure Prestige
The First Man
A Vacation in Bulgaria
The Beast with Red Cheeks
The Rise and Fall of Thymos
Lordship and Bondage
The Universal and Homogeneous State
Vll

143
153
162
171
181
192
199

Vlll

CoNTENTS

Part IV LEAPING OvER RHODES
20
21
22
23
24
25
26

The Coldest of All Cold Monsters
The Thymotic Origins of Work
Empires of Resentment, Empires of Deference
The Unreality of "Realism"
The Power of the Powerless
National Interests
Toward a Pacific Union

211
223
235
245
254
266
276

Part V THE LAST MAN
27
28
29
30
31

In the Realm of Freedom
Men without Chests
Free and Unequal
Perfect Rights and Defective Duties
Immense Wars of the Spirit

287
300
313
322
328

Notes
B ibliogra ph y
Index

341
391
403

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
The "End of History" would never have existed, either as an
article or as this present book, without the invitation to deliver a
lecture by that title during the 1 988-89 academic year, extended
by Professors Nathan Tarcov and Allan Bloom of the John M.
Olin Center for Inquiry into the Theory and Practice of Democ­
racy at the University of Chicago. Both have been long-time teach­
ers and friends from whom I have learned an enormous amount
over the years-starting with, but by no means limited to, political
philosophy. That original lecture became a well-known article
due, in no small measure, to the efforts of Owen Harries, editor
of the journal The National Interest, and to the work of that jour­
nal's small staff. Erwin Glikes of the Free Press and Andrew
Franklin of Hamish Hamilton provided crucial encouragement
and advice in moving from the article to the book, and in the
editing of the final manuscript.
The present volume has profited enormously from conversa­
tions and readings by any number of friends and colleagues. Most
important of these has been Abram Shulsky, who will find many
of his ideas and insights recorded here. I would like to pay special
thanks to Irving Kristol, David Epstein, Alvin Bernstein, Henry
Higuera, Y o�hihisa Komori, Yoshio Fukuyama, and George
Holmgren, all of whom took the time to read and comment on the
manuscript. In addition, I would like to thank the many people­
some of them known to me and many others not-who commented
usefully on various aspects of the present thesis as it was presented
in a variety of seminars and lectures in this country and abroad.
James Thomson, president of the RAN D Corporation, was
kind enough to provide me office space while drafting this book.
Gary and Linda Armstrong took time out from writing their dis­
sertations to help me in the collection of research materials, and
provided valuable advice on a number of topics in the course of
writing. Rosalie Fonoroff helped in the proofreading. In lieu of
conventional thanks to a typist for helping to prepare the manu­
script, I should perhaps acknowledge the work of the designers of
the Intel 80386 microprocessor.
IX

X

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Last but most important, it was my wife, Laura, who encour­
aged me to write both the original article and the present
book, and who has stood by me through all of the subsequent
criticism and controversy. She has been a careful reader of the
manuscript, and has contributed in innumerable ways to its final
form and content. My daughter Julia and my son David, the latter
of whom chose to be born as the book was being written, helped
too, simply by being there.

BY WAY OF AN

INTRODUCTION
The distant origins of the present volume lie in an article entitled
"The End of History?" which I wrote for the journal The National
Interest in the summer of 1989. 1 In it, I argued that a remarkable
consensus concerning the legitimacy of liberal democracy as a
system of government had emerged throughout the world over
the past few years, as it conquered rival ideologies like hereditary
monarchy, fascism, and most recently communism. More than
that, however, I argued that liberal democracy may constitute the
"end point of mankind's ideological evolution" and the "final form
of human government," and as such constituted the "end of his­
tory." That is, while earlier forms of government were character­
ized by grave defects and irrationalities that led to their eventual
collapse, liberal democracy was arguably free from such funda­
mental internal contradictions. This was not to say that today's
stable democracies, like the United States, France, or Switzerland ,
were not without injustice o r serious social problems. But these
problems were ones of incomplete implementation of the twin
principles of liberty and equality on which modern democracy is
founded, rather than of flaws in the principles themselves. While
some present-day countries might fail to achieve stable liberal
democracy, and others might lapse back into other, more primi­
tive forms of rule like theocracy or military dictatorship, the ideal
of liberal democracy could not be improved on.
The original article excited an extraordinary amount of com­
mentary and controversy, first in the United States, and then in a
series of countries as different as England, France, Italy, the So­
viet Union, Brazil, South Africa, Japan, and South Korea. Criti­
cism took every conceivable form, some of it based on simple
misunderstanding of my original intent, and others penetrating
more perceptively to the core of my argument. 2 Many people
were confused in the first instance by my use of the word "his­
tory." Understanding history in a conventional sense as the oc­
currence of events, people pointed to the fall of the Berlin Wall,
XI

Xll

BY WAY OF AN INTRODUCTION

the Chinese communist crackdown in Tiananmen Square, and
the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait as evidence that "history was con­
tinuing," and that I was ipso facto proven wrong.
And yet what I 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 pro­
cess, when taking into account the experience of all peoples in all
times. This understanding of History was most closely associated
with the great German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel. It was made
part of our daily intellectual atmosphere by Karl Marx, who bor­
rowed this concept of History from Hegel, and is implicit in our
use of words like "primitive" or "advanced," "traditional" or
"modern," when referring to different types of human 'societies.
For both of these thinkers, there was a coherent development of
human societies from simple tribal ones based on slavery and
subsistence agriculture, through various theocracies, monarchies,
and feudal aristocracies, up through modern liberal democracy
and technologically driven capitalism. This evolutionary process
was neither random nor unintelligible, even if it did not proceed
in a straight line, and even if it was possible to question whether
man was happier or better off as a result of historical "progress."
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 fun­
damental longings. Both thinkers thus posited an "end of his­
tory" : for Hegel this was the liberal state, while for Marx it was a
communist society. This did not mean that the natural cycle of
birth, life, and death would end, that important events would no
longer happen, or that newspapers reporting them would cease to
be published. It meant, rather, that there would be no further
progress in the development of underlying principles and insti:
tutions, because all of the really big questions had been settled.
The present book is not a restatement of my original article,
nor is it an effort to continue the discussion with that article's
many critics and commentators. Least of all is it an account of the
end of the Cold War, or any other pressing topic in contemporary
politics. While this book is informed by recent world events, its
subject returns to a very old question: Whether, at the end of the
twentieth century, it makes sense for us once again to speak of a
coherent and directional History of mankind that will eventually
lead the greater part of humanity to liberal democracy? The an-

·

BY WAY OF AN INTRODUCTION

XIll

swer I arrive at is yes, for two separate reasons. One has to do with
economics, and the other has to do with what is termed the "strug­
gle for recognition."
It is of course not sufficient to appeal to the authority of He­
gel, Marx, or any of their contemporary followers to establish the
validity of a directional History. In the century and a half since
they wrote, their intellectual legacy has been relentlessly assaulted
from all directions. The most profound thinkers of the twentieth
century have directly attacked the idea that history is a coherent
or intelligible process; indeed, they have denied the possibility
that any aspect of human life is philosophically intelligible. We in
the West have become thoroughly pessimistic with regard to the
possibility of overall progress in democratic institutions. This pro­
found pessimism is not accidental, but born of the truly terrible
political events of the first half of the twentieth century-two
destructive world wars, the rise of totalitarian ideologies, and the
turning of science against man in the form of nuclear weapons
and environmental damage. The life experiences of the victims of
this past century's political violence-from the survivors of Hit­
lerism and Stalinism to the victims of Pol Pot-would deny that
there has been such a thing as historical progress. Indeed, we
have become so accustomed by now to expect that the future will
contain bad news with respect to the health and security of decent,
liberal, democratic political practices that we have problems rec­
ognizing good news when it comes.
And yet, good news has come. The most remarkable develop­
ment of the last quarter of the twentieth century has been the
revelation of enormous weaknesses at the core of the world's
seemingly strong dictatorships, whether they be of the military­
authoritarian Right, or the communist-totalitarian Left. From
Latin America to Eastern Europe, from the Soviet Union to the
Middle East and Asia, strong governments have been failing over
the last two decades. And while they have not given way in all
cases to stable liberal democracies, liberal democracy remains the
only coherent political aspiration that spans different regions and
cultures around the globe. In addition, liberal principles in
economics-the "free market"-have spread, and have succeeded
in producing unprecedented levels of material prosperity, both in
industrially developed countries and in countries that had been,
at the close of World War II, part of the impoverished Third
World. A liberal revolution in economic thinking has sometimes

XIV

BY WAY OF AN INTRODUCTION

preceded, sometimes followed, the move toward political freedom
around the globe.
All of these developments, so much at odds with the terrible
history of the first half of the century when totalitarian govern­
ments of the Right and Left were on the march, suggest the need
to look again at the question of whether there is some deeper
connecting thread underlying them, or whether they are merely
accidental instances of good luck. By raising once again the ques­
tion of whether there is such a thing as a Universal History of
mankind, I am resuming a discussion that was begun in the early
nineteenth century, but more or less abandoned in our time be­
cause of the enormity of events that mankind has experienced
since then. While drawing on the ideas of philosophers like Kant
and Hegel who have addressed this question before, I hope that
the arguments presented here will stand on their own.
This volume immodestly presents not one but two separate
efforts to outline such a Universal History. After establishing in
Part I why we need to raise once again the possibility of Univer­
sal History, I propose an initial answer in Part I I by attempting to
use modern natural science as a regulator or mechanism to explain
the directionality and coherence of History. Modern natural sci­
ence is a useful starting point because it is the only important social
activity that by common consensus is both cumulative and direc­
tional, even if its ultimate impact on human happiness is ambigu­
ous. The progressive conquest of nature made possible with the
development of the scientific method in the sixteenth and seven­
teenth centuries has proceeded according to certain definite rules
laid down not by man, but by nature and nature's laws.
The unfolding of modern natural science has had a uniform
effect on all societies that have experienced it, for two reasons. In
the first place, technology confers decisive military advantages on
those countries that possess it, and given the continuing possibility
of war in the international system of states, no state that values its
independence can ignore the need for defensive modernization.
Second, modern natural science establishes a uniform horizon of
economic production possibilities. Technology makes possible the
limitless accumulation of wealth, and thus the satisfaction of an
ever-expanding set of human desires. This process guarantees an
increasing homogenizatioJ! of all human societies, regardless of
their historical origins or cultural inheritances. All countries un­
dergoing economic modernization must increasingly resemble

BY WAY OF AN INTRODUCTION

XV

one another : they must unify nationally on the basis of a central­
ized state, urbanize, replace traditional forms of social organiza­
tion like tribe, sect, and family with economically rational ones
based on function and efficiency, and provide for the universal
education of their citizens. Such societies have become increas­
ingly linked with one another through global markets and the
spread of a universal consumer culture. Moreover, the logic of
modern natural science would seem to dictate a universal evolu­
tion in the direction of capitalism. The experiences of the Soviet
Union, China, and other socialist countries indicate that while
highly centralized economies are sufficient to reach the level of
industrialization represented by Europe in the 1 950s, they are
woefully inadequate in creating what have been termed complex
"post-industrial" economies in which information and technolog­
ical innovation play a much larger role.
But while the historical mechanism represented by modern
natural science is sufficient to explain a great deal about the char­
acter of historical change and the growing uniformity of modern
societies, it is not sufficient to account for the phenomenon of
democracy. There is no question but that the world's most devel­
oped countries are also its most successful democracies. But while
modern natural science guides us to the gates of the Promised
Land of liberal democracy, it does not deliver us to the Promised
Land itself, for there is no economically necessary reason why
advanced industrialization should produce political liberty. Stable
democracy has at times emerged in pre-industrial societies, as it
did in the United States in 1 776. On the other hand, there are
many historical and contemporary examples of technologically
advanced capitalism coexisting with political authoritarianism,
from Meiji Japan and Bismarckian Germany to present-day Sin­
gapore and Thailand. In many cases, authoritarian states are ca­
pable of producing rates of economic growth unachievable in
democratic societies.
Our first effort to establish the basis for a directional history is
thus only partly successful. What we have called the "logic of
modern natural science" is in effect an economic interpretation of
historical change, but one which (unlike its Marxist variant) leads
to capitalism rather than socialism as its final result. The logic of
modern science can explain a great deal about our world : why we
residents of developed democracies are office workers rather than
peasants eking out a living on the land, why we are members of

XVI

BY WAY OF AN INTRODUCTION

labor unions or professional organizations rather than tribes or
clans, why we obey the authority of a bureaucratic superior rather
than a priest, why we are literate and speak a com'mon national
language.
But economic interpretations of history are incomplete and
unsatisfying, because man is not simply an economic animal. In
particular, such interpretations cannot really explain why we are
democrats, that is, proponents of the principle of popular sover­
eignty and the guarantee of basic rights under a rule of law. It is
for this reason that the book turns to a second, parallel account of
the historical process in Part III, an account that seeks to recover
the whole of man and not just his economic side. To do this, we
return to Hegel and Hegel's non-materialist account of History,
based on the "struggle for recognition."
According to Hegel, human beings like animals have natural
needs and desires for objects outside themselves such as food,
drink, shelter, and above all the preservation of their own bodies.
Man differs fundamentally from the animals, however, because in
addition he desires the desire of other men , that is, he wants 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. This worth
in the first instance is related to his willingness to risk his life in a
struggle over pure prestige. For only man is able to overcome his
most basic animal instincts--chief among them his instinct for
self-preservation-for the sake of higher, abstract principles and
goals. According to Hegel, the desire for recognition initially
drives two primordial combatants to seek to make the other "rec­
ognize" their humanness by staking their lives in a mortal battle.
When the natural fear of death leads one combatant to submit,
the relationship of master and slave is born. The stakes in this
bloody battle at the beginning of history are not food, shelter, or
security, but pure prestige. And precisely because the goal of the
battle is not determined by biology, Hegel sees in it the first glim­
mer of human freedom.
The desire for recognition may at first appear to be an unfa­
miliar concept, but it is as old as the tradition of Western political
philosophy, and constitutes a thoroughly familiar part of the hu­
man personality. It was first described by Plato in the Republic,
when he noted that there were three parts to the soul, a desiring
part, a reasoning part, and a part that he called thymos, or "spir­
itedness." Much of human behavior can be explained as a com-

BY WAY OF AN INTRODUCTION

XVll

bination of the first two parts, desire and reason: desire induces
men to seek things outside themselves, while reason or calculation
shows them the best way to get them. But in addition, human
beings seek recognition of their own worth, or of the people,
things, or principles that they invest with worth. The propensity
to invest the self with a certain value, and to demand recognition
for that value, is what in today's popular language we would call
"self-esteem." The propensity to feel self-esteem arises out of the
part of the soul called thymos. It is like an innate human sense of
justice. People believe that they have a certain worth, and when
other people treat them as though they are worth less than that,
they experience the emotion of anger. Conversely, when people
fail to live up to their own sense of worth, they feel shame, and
when they are evaluated correctly in proportion to their worth,
they feel pride. The desire for recognition, and the accompanying
emotions of anger, shame, and pride, are parts of the human
personality critical to political life. According to Hegel, they are
what drives the whole historical process.
By Hegel's account, the desire to be recognized as a human
being with dignity drove man at the beginning of history into a
bloody battle to the death for prestige. The outcome of this battle
was a division of human society into a class of masters, who were
willing to risk their lives, and a class of slaves, who gave in to their
natural fear of death. But the relationship of lordship and bond­
age, which took a wide variety of forms in all of the unequal,
aristocratic societies that have characterized the greater part of
human history, failed ultimately to satisfy the desire for recogni­
tion of either the masters or the slaves. The slave, of course, was
not acknowledged as a human being in any way whatsoever. But
the recognition enjoyed by the master was deficient as well, be­
cause he was not recognized by other masters, but slaves whose
humanity was as yet incomplete. Dissatisfaction with the flawed
recognition available in aristocratic societies constituted a "contra­
diction" that engendered further stages of history.
Hegel believed that the "contradiction" inherent in the rela­
tionship of lordship and bondage was finally overcome as a result
of the French and, one would have to add, American revolutions.
These democratic revolutions abolished the distinction between
master and slave by making the former slaves their own masters
and by establishing the principles of popular sovereignty and the
rule of law. The inherently unequal recognition of masters and

XV Ill

BY WAY OF AN INTRODUCTION

slaves is replaced by universal and reciprocal recognition, where
every citizen recognizes the dignity and humanity of every other
citizen, and where that dignity is recognized in turn by the state
through the granting of rights.
This Hegelian understanding of the meaning of contempo­
rary liberal democracy differs in a significant way from the Anglo­
Saxon understanding that was the theoretical basis of liberalism in
countries like Britain and the United States. In that tradition, the
prideful quest for recognition was to be subordinated to enlight­
ened self-interest--desire combined with reason-and particu­
larly the desire for self-preservation of the body. While Hobbes,
Locke, and the American Founding Fathers like Jefferson and
Madison believed that rights to a large extent existed as a means
of preserving a private sphere where �en can enrich themselves
and satisfy the desiring parts of their souls, 3 Hegel saw rights as
ends in themselves, because what truly satisfies human beings is
not so much material prosperity as recognition of their status and
dignity. With the American and French revolutions, Hegel as­
serted that history comes to an end because the longing that had
driven the historical process-the struggle for recognition-has
now been satisfied in a society characterized by universal and
reciprocal recognition. No other arrangement of human social
institutions is better able to satisfy this longing, and hence no
further progressive historical change is possible.
The desire for recognition, then, can provide the missing link
between liberal economics and liberal politics that was missing
from the economic account of History in Part I I . Desire and rea­
son are together sufficient to explain the process of industrializa­
tion, and a large part of economic life more generally. But they
cannot explain the striving for liberal democracy, which ultimately
arises out of thymos, the part of the soul that demands recognition.
The social changes that accompany advanced industrialization, in
particular universal education, appear to liberate a certain de­
mand for recognition that did not exist among poorer and less
educated people. As standards of living increase, as populations
become more cosmopolitan and better educated, and as society as
a whole achieves a greater equality of condition, people begin to
demand not simply more wealth but recognition of their status. If
people were nothing more than desire and reason, they would be
content to live in market-oriented authoritarian states like Fran­
co's Spain, or a South Korea or Brazil under military rule. But

BY WAY OF AN INTRODUCTION

XIX

they also have a thymotic pride in their own self-worth, and this
leads them to demand democratic governments that treat them
like adults rather than children, recognizing their autonomy as
free individuals. Communism is being superseded by liberal de­
mocracy in our time because of the realization that the former
provides a gravely defective form of recognition.
An understanding of the importance of the desire for recog­
nition as the motor of history allows us to reinterpret many phe­
nomena that are otherwise seemingly familiar to us, such as
culture, religion, work, nationalism, and war. Part IV is an attempt
to do precisely this, and to project into the future some of the dif­
ferent ways that the desire for recognition will be manifest. A re­
ligious believer, for example, seeks recognition for his particular
gods or sacred practices, while a nationalist demands recognition
for his particular linguistic, cultural, or ethnic group. Both of these
forms of recognition are less rational than the universal recogni­
tion of the liberal state, because they are based on arbitrary dis­
tinctions between sacred and profane, or between human social
groups. For this reason, religion, nationalism, and a people's com­
plex of ethical habits and customs (more broadly "culture") have
traditionally been interpreted as obstacles to the establishment of
successful democratic political institutions and free-market econ­
omies.
But the truth is considerably more complicated, for the suc­
cess of liberal politics and liberal economics frequentl y rests on
irrational forms of recognition that liberalism was supposed to
overcome. For democracy to work, citizens need to develop an
irrational pride in their own democratic institutions, and must
also develop what Tocqueville called the "art of associating,"
which rests on prideful attachment to small communities. These
communities are frequently based on religion, ethnicity, or other
forms of recognition that fall short of the universal recognition
on which the liberal state is based. The same is true for liberal
economics. Labor has traditionally been understood in the West­
ern liberal economic tradition as an essentially unpleasant activ­
ity undertaken for the sake of the satisfaction of human desires
and the relief of human pain. But in certain cultures with a
strong work ethic, such as that of the Protestant entrepreneurs
who created European capitalism, or of the elites who modern­
ized Japan after the Meiji restoration, work was also undertaken
for the sake of recognition. To this day, the work ethic in many

XX

BY WAY OF AN INTRODUCTION

Asian countries is sustained not so much by material incentives,
as by the recognition provided for work by overlapping social
groups, from the family to the nation, on which these societies
are based. This suggests that liberal economics succeeds not sim­
ply on the basis of liberal principles, but requires irrational
forms of thymos as well.
The struggle for recognition provides us with insight into the
nature of international politics. The desire for recognition that
led to the original bloody battle for prestige between two individ­
ual combatants leads logically to imperialism and world empire.
The relationship of lordship and bondage on a domestic level is
naturally replicated on the level of states, where nations as a whole
seek recognition and enter into bloody battles for supremacy.
Nationalism, a modern yet not-fully-rational form of recognition,
has been the vehicle for the struggle for recognition over the past
hundred years, and the source of this century's most intense con­
flicts. This is the world of "power politics," described by such
foreign policy "realists" as Henry Kissinger.
But if war is fundamentally driven by the desire for recogni­
tion, it stands to reason that the liberal revolution which abolishes
the relationship of lordship and bondage by making former slaves
their own masters should have a similar effect on the relationship
between states. Liberal democracy replaces the irrational desire to
be recognized as greater than others with a rational desire to be
recognized as equal. A world made up of liberal democracies,
then, should have much less incentive for war, since all nations
would reciprocally recognize one another's legitimacy. And in­
deed, there is substantial empirical evidence from the past couple
of hundred years that liberal democracies do not behave imperi­
alistically toward one another, even if they are perfectly capable of
going to war with states that are not democracies and do not share
their fundamental values. Nationalism is currently on the rise in
regions like Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union where peoples
have long been denied their national identities, and yet within the
world's oldest and most secure nationalities, nationalism is under­
going a process of change. The demand for national recognition
in Western Europe has been domesticated and made compatible
with universal recognition, much like religion three or four cen­
turies before.
The fifth and final part of this book addresses the question of
the "end of history," and the creature who emerges at the end, the

BY WAY OF AN INTRODUCTION

XXl

"last man." In the course of the original debate over the National
Interest article, many people assumed that the possibility of the
end of history revolved around the question of whether there
were viable alternatives to liberal democracy visible in the world
today. There was a great deal of controversy over such questions
as whether communism was truly dead, whether religion or ul­
tranationalism might make a comeback, and the like. But the
deeper and more profound question concerns the goodness of lib­
eral democracy itself, and not only whether it will succeed against
its present-day rivals. Assuming that liberal democracy is, for the
moment, safe from external enemies, could we assume that suc­
cessful democratic societies could remain that way indefinitely? Or
is liberal democracy prey to serious internal contradictions, con­
tradictions so serious that they will eventually undermine it as a
political system? There is no doubt that contemporary democracies
face any number of serious problems, from drugs, homelessness,
and crime to environmental damage and the frivolity of consum­
erism. But these problems are not obviously insoluble on the basis
of liberal principles, nor so serious that they would necessarily lead
to the collapse of society as a whole, as communism collapsed in the
1980s.
Writing in the twentieth century, Hegel's great interpreter,
Alexandre Kojeve, asserted intransigently that history had ended
because what he called the "universal and homogeneous state"­
what we can understand as liberal democracy-definitely solved
the question of recognition by replacing the relationship of lord­
ship and bondage with universal and equal recognition. What
man had been seeking throughout the course of history-what
had driven the prior "stages of history"-was recognition . In the
modern world, he finally found it, and was "completely satisfied."
This claim was made seriously by Kojeve, and it deserves to be
taken seriously by us. For it is possible to understand the problem
of politics over the millennia of human history as the effort to
solve the problem of recognition. Recognition is the central prob­
lem of politics because it is the origin of tyranny, imperialism, and
the desire to dominate. But while it has a dark side, it cannot
simply be abolished from political life, because it is simultaneously
the psychological ground for political virtues like courage, public­
spiritedness, and justice. All political communities must make use
of the desire for recognition, while at the same time protecting
themselves from its destructive effects. If contemporary constitu-

XXII

BY WAY OF AN INTRODUCTION

tional government has indeed found a formula whereby all are
recognized in a way that nonetheless avoids the emergence of
tyranny, then it would indeed have a special claim to stability and
longevity among the regimes that have emerged on earth.
But is the recognition available to citizens of contemporary
liberal democracies "completely satisfying?" The long-term future
of liberal democracy, and the alternatives to it that may one day
arise, depend above all on the answer to this question. In Part V
we sketch two broad responses, from the Left and the Right,
respectively. The Left would say that universal recognition in lib­
eral democracy is necessarily incomplete because capitalism cre­
ates economic inequality and requires a division of labor that ipso
facto implies unequal recognition. In this respect, a nation's abso­
lute level of prosperity provides no solution, because there will
continue to be those who are relatively poor and therefore invis­
ible as human beings to their fellow citizens. Liberal democracy, in
other words, continues to recognize equal people unequally.
The second, and in my view more powerful, criticism of uni­
versal recognition comes from the Right that was profoundly
concerned with the leveling effects of the French Revolution's
commitment to human equality. This Right found its most bril­
liant spokesman in the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, whose
views were in some respects anticipated by that great observer of
democratic societies, Alexis de Tocqueville. Nietzsche believed
that modern democracy represented not the self-mastery of
former slaves, but the unconditional victory of the slave and a
kind of slavish morality. The typical citizen of a liberal democracy
was a "last man" who, schooled by the founders of modern liber­
alism, gave up prideful belief in his or her own superior worth in
favor of comfortable self-preservation. Liberal democracy pro­
duced "men without chests," composed of desire and reason but
lacking thymos, clever at finding new ways to satisfy a host of petty
wants through the calculation of long-term self-interest. The last
man had no desire to be recognized as greater than others, and
without such desire no excellence or achievement was possible.
Content with his happiness and unable to feel any sense of shame
for being unable to rise above those wants, the last man ceased to
be human.
Following Nietzsche's line of thought, we are compelled to ask
the following questions: Is not the man who is completely satisfied
by nothing more than universal and equal recognition something

BY WAY OF AN INTRODUCTION

XXIII

less than a full human being, indeed, an object of contempt, a "last
man" with neither striving nor aspiration? Is there not a side of
the human personality that deliberately seeks out struggle, dan­
ger, risk, and daring, and will this side not remain unfulfilled by
the "peace and prosperity" of contemporary liberal democracy?
Does not the satisfaction of certain human beings depend on rec­
ognition that is inherently unequal? Indeed, does not the desire
for unequal recognition constitute the basis of a livable life, not
just for bygone aristocratic societies, but also in modern liberal
democracies? Will not their future survival depend, to some ex­
tent, on the degree to which their citizens seek to be recognized
not just as equal, but as superior to others? And might not the fear
of becoming contemptible "last men" not lead men to assert them­
selves in new and unforeseen ways, even to the point of becoming
once again bestial "first men" engaged in bloody prestige battles,
this time with modern weapons?
This books seeks to address these questions. They arise natu­
rally once we ask whether there is such a thing as progress, and
whether we can construct a coherent and directional Universal
History of mankind. Totalitarianisms of the Right and Left have
kept us too busy to consider the latter question seriously for the
better part of this century. But the fading of these totalitarian­
isms, as the century comes to an end, invites us to raise this old
question one more time.

Part I

AN OLD QUESTION
ASKED ANEW

I

Our Pessirnisrn
As decent and sober a thinker as Immanuel Kant could still seriously believe
that war served the purposes of Providence. After Hiroshima, all war is known
to be at best a necessary evil.As saintly a theologian as St. Thomas Aquinas
could in all seriousness argue that tyrants serve providential ends, for if it
were not for tyrants there would be no opportunity for martyrdom.After
Auschwitz, anyone using this argument would be guilty of blasphemy....After
these dread events, occurring in the heart of the modem, enlightened,
technological world, can one still believe in the God who is necessary Progress
any more than in the God who manifests His Power in the form of
super-intending Providence?
-Emile Fackenheim, God's Presence in History 1

The twentieth century, it is safe to say, has made all of us into
deep historical pessimists.
As individuals, we can of course be optimistic concerning our
personal prospects for health and happiness. By long-standing
tradition, Americans as a people are said to be continually hopeful
about the future. But when we come to larger questions, such as
whether there has been or will be progress in history, the verdict
is decidedly different. The soberest and most thoughtful minds of
this century have seen no reason to think that the world is moving
toward what we in the West consider decent and humane political
institutions-that is, liberal democracy. Our deepest thinkers have
concluded that there is no such thing as History-that is, a mean­
ingful order to the broad sweep of human events. Our own ex­
perience has taught us, seemingly, that the future is more likely
than not to contain new and unimagined evils, from fanatical
3

4

AN OLD QuEsTION AsKED ANEW

dictatorships and bloody genocides to the banalization of life
through modern consumerism, and that unprecedented disasters
await us from nuclear winter to global warming.
The pessimism of the twentieth century stands in sharp con­
trast to the optimism of the previous one. Though Europe began
the nineteenth century convulsed by war and revolution , it was by
and large a century of peace and unprecedented increases in
material well-being. There were two broad grounds for optimism.
The first was the belief that modern science would improve hu­
man life by conquering disease and poverty. Nature, long man's
adversary, would be mastered by modern technology and made to
serve the end of human happiness. Second, free democratic gov­
ernments would continue to spread to more and more countries
around the world. The "Spirit of 1 776," or the ideals of the French
Revolution, would vanquish the world's tyrants, autocrats, and
superstitious priests. Blind obedience to authority would be re­
placed by rational self-government, in which all men, free and
equal, would have to obey no masters but themselves. In light of
the broad movement of civilization, even bloody wars like those of
Napoleon could be interpreted by philosophers as socially pro­
gressive in their results, because they fostered the spread of re­
publican government. A number of theories, some serious and
the others less so, were put forward to explain how human history
constituted a coherent whole, whose twists and turns could be
understood as leading to the good things of the modern era. In
1 880 a certain Robert Mackenzie was able to write:
Human history is a record of progress-a record of accumu­
lating knowledge and increasing wisdom, of continual ad­
vancement from a lower to a higher platform of intelligence
and well-being. Each generation passes on to the next the
treasures which it inherited, beneficially modified by its own
experience, enlarged by the fruits of all the victories which
itself has gained . . . . The growth of man's well-being, rescued
from the mischievous tampering of self-willed princes, is left
now to the beneficent regulation of great providential laws. 2

Under the heading of "torture," the famous eleventh edition of
the Encyclopaedia Britannica published in 1 9 1 0- 1 1 explained that
"the whole subject is one of only historical interest as far as Eu­
rope is concerned." 3 On the very eve of World War I , the jour-

Our Pessimism

5

nalist Norman Angell published his book The Great Illusion, in
which he argued that free trade had rendered territorial aggran­
dizement obsolete, and that war had become economically irra­
tional.4
The extreme pessimism of our own century is due at least -in
part to the cruelty with which these earlier expectations were
shattered. The First World War was a critical event in the under­
mining of Europe's self-confidence. The war of course brought
down the old political order represented by the German, Aus­
trian, and Russian monarchies, but its deeper impact was psycho­
logical. Four years of indescribably horrible trench warfare, in
which tens of thousands died in a single day over a few yards of
devastated territory, was, in the words of Paul Fussell, "a hideous
embarrassment to the prevailing Meliorist myth which had dom­
inated public consciousness for a century," reversing "the idea of
Progress."5 The virtues of loyalty, hard work, perseverance, and
patriotism were brought to bear in the systematic and pointless
slaughter of other men, thereby discrediting the entire bourgeois
world which had created these values. 6 As Paul, the young soldier
hero of Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front,
explains, "For us lads of eighteen [our teachers at school] ought to
have been mediators and guides to the world of maturity, the
world of work, of duty, of culture, of progress-to the future . . . .
But the first death we saw shattered this belief." In words echoed
by young Americans during the Vietnam War, he concluded that
"our generation was more to be trusted than theirs." 7 The notion
that the industrial progress of Europe could be turned to war
without moral redemption or meaning led to bitter denunciations
of all attempts to find larger patterns or meaning in history. Thus,
the renowned British historian H. A. L. Fisher could write in 1934
that "Men wiser and more learned than I have discerned in his­
tory a plot, a rhythm, a predetermined pattern. These harmonies
are concealed from me. I can see only one emergency following
upon another as wave follows upon wave." 8
The First World War was, as it turned out, only a foretaste of
the new forms of evil that were soon to emerge. If modern science
made possible weapons of unprecedented destructiveness like the
machine gun and the bomber, modern politics created a state of
unprecedented power, for which a new word, totalitarianism, had
to be coined. Backed by efficient police power, mass political par­
ties, and radical ideologies that sought to control all aspects of

6

AN OLD QuESTION AsKED ANEW

human life, this new type of state embarked on a project no less
ambitious than world domination. The genocides perpetrated by
the totalitarian regimes of Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia
were without precedent in human histor� , and in many respects
were made possible by modernity itself. There have of course
been many bloody tyrannies before the twentieth century, but
Hitler and Stalin put both modern technology and modern polit­
ical organization in the service of evil. It had previously been
beyond the technical ability of "traditional" tyrannies to contem­
plate something so ambitious as the elimination of an entire class
of people like the Jews of Europe or the kulaks in the Soviet
Union. Yet this was precisely the task made possible by the tech­
nical and social advances of the previous century. The wars un­
leashed by these totalitarian ideologies were also of a new sort,
involving the mass destruction of civilian populations and eco­
nomic resources--hence the term, "total war." To defend them­
selves from this threat, liberal democracies were led to adopt
military strategies like the bombing of Dresden or Hiroshima that
in earlier ages would have been called genocidal.
Nineteenth-century theories of progress associated human evil
with a backward state of social development. While Stalinism did
arise in a backward, semi-European country known for its des­
potic government, the Holocaust emerged in a country with the
most advanced industrial economy and one of the most cultured
and well-educated populations in Europe. If such events could
happen in Germany, why then could they not happen in any
other advanced country? And if economic development, educa­
tion, and culture were not a guarantee against a phenomenon like
nazism, what was the point of historical progress? 1 0
The experience of the twentieth century made highly prob­
lematic the claims of progress on the basis of science and technol­
ogy. For the ability of technology to better human life is critically
dependent on a parallel moral progress in man. Without the lat­
ter, the power of technology will simply be turned to evil purposes,
and mankind will be worse off than it was previously. The total
wars of the twentieth century would not have been possible with­
out the basic advances of the I ndustrial Revolution: iron, steel, the
internal combustion engine, and the airplane. And since Hi­
roshima, mankind has lived under the shadow of the most terrible
technological advance of all, that of nuclear weapons. The fan­
tastic economic growth made possible by modern science had a

Our Pessimism

7

dark side, for it has led to severe environmental damage to many
parts of the planet, and raised the possibility of an eventual global
ecological catastrophe. It is frequently asserted that global infor­
mation technology and instant communications have promoted
democratic ideals, as in the case of CNN's worldwide broadcasting
of the occupation of Tienanmen Square in 1 989, or of the revo­
lutions in Eastern Europe later that year. But communications
technology itself is value-neutral. Ayatollah Khomeini's reaction­
ary ideas were imported into Iran prior to the 1 978 revolution on
cassette tape recorders that the Shah's economic modernization of
the country had made widely available. If television and instant
global communications had existed in the 1 930s, they would have
been used to great effect by Nazi propagandists like Leni Riefen­
stahl and Joseph Goebbels to promote fascist rather than demo­
cratic ideas.
The traumatic events of the twentieth century formed the
backdrop to a profound intellectual crisis as well. It is possible to
speak of historical progress only if one knows where mankind is
going. Most nineteenth-century Europeans thought that progress
meant progress toward democracy. But for most of this century,
there has been no consensus on this question. Liberal democracy
was challenged by two major rival ideologies-fascism and
communism-which offered radically different visions of a good
society. People in the West themselves came to question whether
liberal democracy was in fact a general aspiration of all mankind,
and whether their earlier confidence that it was did not reflect a
narrow ethnocentrism on their part. As Europeans were forced to
confront the non-European world, first as colonial masters, then
as patrons during the Cold War and theoretical equals in a world
of sovereign nation states, they came to question the universality
of their own ideals. The suicidal self-destructiveness of the Euro­
pean state system in two world wars gave lie to the notion of
superior Western rationality, while the distinction between civi­
lized and barbarian that was instinctive to Europeans in the nine­
teenth century was much harder to make after the Nazi death
camps. Instead of human history leading in a single direction,
there seemed to be as many goals as there were peoples or civili­
zations, with liberal democracy having no particular privilege
among them.
In our own time, one of the clearest manifestations of our
pessimism was the almost universal belief in the permanence of a

8

AN OLD QuESTION AsKED ANEW

vigorous, communist-totalitarian alternative to Western liberal de­
mocracy. When he was secretary of state in the 1 970s, Henry
Kissinger warned his countrymen that "today, for the first time in
our history, we face the stark reality that the [communist] chaJ­
lenge is unending. . . We must learn to conduct foreign policy as
other nations have had to conduct it for so many centuries­
without escape and without respite . . . . This condition will not go
away. " 1 1 According to Kissinger, it was utopian to try to reform
the fundamental political and social structures of hostile powers
like the USSR. Political maturity meant acceptance of the world as
it was and not the way we wanted it to be, which meant coming to
terms with Brezhnev's Soviet Union. And while the conflict be­
tween communism and democracy could be moderated, it and the
possibility of apocalyptic war could never be overcome completely.
Kissinger's view was by no means unique. Virtually everyone
professionally engaged in the study of politics and foreign policy
believed in the permanence of communism; its worldwide col­
lapse in the late 1 980s was therefore almost totally unanticipated.
This failure was not simply a matter of ideological dogma inter­
fering with a "dispassionate" view of events. It affected people
across the political spectrum, right, left, and center, journalists as
well as scholars, and politicians both East and West. 1 2 The roots of
a blindness so pervasive were much more profound than mere
partisanship, and lay in the extraordinary historical pessimism
engendered by the events of this century.
As recently as 1 983, Jean-Fran�ois Revel declared that "de­
mocracy may, after all, turn out to have been a historical accident,
a brief parenthesis that is closing before our eyes . . . " 1 3 The Right,
of course, had never believed that communism had achieved any
degree of legitimacy in the eyes of the populations it controlled,
and saw quite clearly the economic failings of socialist societies.
But much of the Right believed that a "failed society" like the
Soviet Union had nonetheless found the key to power through
the invention of Leninist totalitarianism, by which a small band of
"bureaucrat-dictators" could bring to bear the power of modern
organization and technology and rule over large populations
more or less indefinitely. Totalitarianism had succeeded not just
in intimidating subject populations, but in forcing them to inter­
nalize the values of their communist masters. This was one of the
distinctions that Jeanne Kirkpatrick, in a famous 1 979 article,
drew between traditional authoritarian regimes of the Right and
.

Our Pessimism

9

radical totalitarianisms of the Left. While the former "leave in
place existing allocations of wealth, power, status" and "worship
traditional gods and observe traditional taboos," radical totalitar­
ianisms of the Left seek to "claim jurisdiction over the whole of
the society" and violate "internalized values and habits." A total­
itarian state, in contrast to a merely authoritarian one, was able to
control its underlying society so ruthlessly that it was fundamen­
tally invulnerable to change or reform : thus "the history of this
century provides no grounds for expecting that radical totalitar­
ian regimes will transform themselves." 1 4
Underlying this belief in the dynamism of totalitarian states
was a profound lack of confidence in democracy. This lack of
confidence was manifested in Kirkpatrick's view that few of the
currently non-democratic countries in the Third World would be
able to democratize successfully (the possibility of a communist
regime democratizing being discounted entirely) , and in Revel's
belief that the strong and established democracies of Europe and
North America lacked the inner conviction to defend themselves.
Citing the numerous economic, social, and cultural requirements
for successful democratization, Kirkpatrick criticized as typically
American the idea that it was possible to democratize govern­
ments anytime and anywhere. The idea that there could be a
democratic center in the Third World was a trap and an illusion ;
experience taught us that the world was divided between author­
itarianisms of the Right and totalitarianisms of the Left. Revel, for
his part, repeated in a much more extreme form the criticism
originally made by Tocqueville that democracies have great dif­
ficulties sustaining serious and long-term foreign policies. 1 5 They
are hamstrung by their very democratic nature : by the plurality of
the voices, the self-doubt and self-criticism that characterize dem­
ocratic debate. Hence, "As things stand, relatively minor causes of
discontent corrode, disturb, unsettle, paralyze, the democracies
faster and more deeply than horrendous famine and constant
poverty do the Communist regimes, whose subject peoples have
no real rights or means of redressing their wrongs. Societies of
which permanent criticism is an integral feature are the only liv­
able ones, but they are also the most fragile." 1 6
The Left came to a similar conclusion by a different route. By
the 1 980s, most "progressives" in Europe and America no longer
believed that Soviet communism represented their future, as did
many such thinkers through the end of World War I I . Yet there

10

A N OLD QUESTION ASKED ANEW

persisted a belief on the Left in the legitimacy of Marxism­
Leninism for other people, a legitimacy which usually increased in
proportion to geographical and cultural distance. Thus, while
Soviet-style communism was not necessarily a realistic choice for
people in the United States or Britain, it was held to be an au­
thentic alternative for the Russians, with their traditions of autoc­
racy and central control, not to mention the Chinese, who
allegedly turned to it to overcome a legacy of foreign domination,
backwardness, and humiliation. The same was said to be true for
the Cubans and Nicaraguans, who had been victimized by Amer­
ican imperialism, and for the Vietnamese, for whom communism
was regarded as a virtual national tradition. Many on the Left
shared the view that a radical socialist regime in the Third World
could legitimate itself, even in the absence of free elections and
open discussion, by engaging in land reform, providing free
health care, and raising literacy levels. Given these views, it is not
surprising that there were few people on the Left who predicted
revolutionary instability in the Soviet bloc or in China.
Indeed, the belief in the legitimacy and permanence of com­
munism took on a number of bizarre forms in the waning days of
the Cold War. One prominent student of the Soviet Union main­
tained that the Soviet system had, under Brezhnev, achieved what
he called "institutional pluralism," and that "the Soviet leadership
almost seems to have made the Soviet Union closer to the spirit of
the pluralist model of American political science than is the United
States . . . . " 1 7 Soviet society, pre-Gorbachev, was "not inert and
passive but participatory in almost all sense of the term," with a
greater proportion of Soviet citizens "participating" in politics
than in the United States. 1 8 The same kind of thinking charac­
terized some scholarship on Eastern Europe, where, despite the
obviously imposed nature of communism, many scholars saw a
tremendous social stability. One specialist asserted in 1 987 that "if
we were now to compare [the states of Eastern Europe] to many
countries in the world-for example to a number of Latin Amer­
ican cases-they would seem to be epitomes of stability," and crit­
icized the traditional image of "an 'illegitimate' party . . .
counterfoised against a necessarily hostile and unbelieving pop­
ulace." 1
While some of these views simply represented projection of
the recent past into the future, many of them rested on a judg­
ment concerning the legitimacy of communism in the East. That is,

Our Pessimism

11

for all of the undeniable problems of their societies, communist
rulers had worked out a "social contract" with their peoples, of the
sort satirized in the Soviet saying that "they pretend to pay us and
we pretend to work." 20 These regimes were neither productive
nor dynamic, but were said to govern with a certain degree of
consent from their populations because they provided security
and stability. 2 1 As the political scientist Samuel Huntington wrote
in 1 968 :
The United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union have
different forms of government, but in all three systems the
government governs. Each country is a political community
with an overwhelming consensus among the people on the
legitimacy of the political system. In each country the citizens
and their leaders share a vision of the public interest of the
society and of the traditions and principles upon which the
political community is based. 22

Huntington had no particular sympathy for communism, but be­
lieved that the weight of evidence forced us to conclude that it had
managed to earn a degree of popular approval over the years.
The pessimism of the present with regard to the possibility of
progress in history was born out of two separate but parallel cri­
ses: the crisis of twentieth-century politics, and the intellectual
crisis of Western rationalism. The former killed tens of millions of
people and forced hundreds of millions to live under new and
more brutal forms of slavery; the latter left liberal democracy
without the intellectual resources with which to defend itself. The
two were interrelated and cannot be understood separately from
one another. On the one hand, the lack of intellectual consensus
r:nade the wars and revolutions of this century more ideological
and therefore more extreme than they would otherwise have
been. The Russian and Chinese revolutions and the Nazi con­
quests during the Second World War saw the return, in a mag­
nified form, of the kind of brutality that characterized the
religious wars of the sixteenth century, for what was at stake was
not just territory and resources, but the value systems and ways of
life of entire populations. On the other hand, the violence of
those ideologically driven conflicts and their terrible outcomes
had a devastating effect on the self-confidence of liberal democ­
racies, whose isolation in a world of totalitarian and authoritarian

12

AN OLD QuESTION AsKED ANEW

regimes led to serious doubts about the universality of liberal
notions of right.
And yet, despite the powerful reasons for pessimism given us
by our experience in the first half of this century, events in its
second half have been pointing in a very different and unex­
pected direction. As we reach the 1 990s, the world as a whole has
not revealed new evils, but has gotten better in certain distinct
ways. Chief among the surprises that have occurred in the recent
past was the totally unexpected collapse of communism through­
out much of the world in the late 1 980s. But this development,
striking as it was, was only part of a larger pattern of events that
had been taking shape since World War I I . Authoritarian dicta­
torships of all kinds, both on the Right and on the Left, have been
collapsing. 23 In some cases, the collapse has led to the establish­
ment of prosperous and stable liberal democracies. In others,
authoritarianism has been followed by instability, or by yet an­
other form of dictatorship. But whether successful democracy
eventually emerged, authoritarians of all stripes have been un­
dergoing a severe crisis in virtually every part of the globe. If the
early twentieth century's major political innovation was the inven­
tion of the strong states of totalitarian Germany or Russia, then
the past few decades have revealed a tremendous weakness at
their core. And this weakness, so massive and unexpected, sug­
gests that the pessimistic lessons about history that our century
supposedly taught us need to be rethought from the beginning.

2
The Weakness of Strong States I
The current crisis of authoritarianism did not begin with Gor­
bachev's perestroika or the fall of the Berlin Wall. It started over
one and a half decades earlier, with the fall of a series of right­
wing authoritarian governments in Southern Europe. In 1 974 the
Caetano regime in Portugal was ousted in an army coup. After a
period of instability verging on civil war, the socialist Mario Soares
was elected prime minister in April 1 976, and the country has
seen peaceful democratic rule ever since. The colonels who had
been ruling Greece since 1 967 were ousted also in 1 97 4, giving
way to the popularly elected Karamanlis regime. And in 1 97 5 ,
General Francisco Franco died i n Spain, paving the way for a
remarkably peaceful transition to democracy two years later. In
addition, the Turkish military took over the country in September
1980 as a result of the terrorism engulfing its society, but returned
the country to civilian rule by 1 983. Since then, all of these coun­
tries have held regular, free, multi-party elections.
The transformation that occurred in Southern Europe in less
than a decade was remarkable. These countries had earlier been
seen as the black sheep of Europe, condemned by their religious
and authoritarian traditions to reside outside the mainstream of
democratic Western European development. And yet by the
1980s each country had made a successful transition to function­
ing and stable democracy, so stable in fact that (with the possible
exception of Turkey) the people living in them could hardly
imagine the situation being otherwise.
A similar set of democratic transitions took place in Latin
13

14

AN OLD QUESTION ASKED ANEW

America in the 1 980s. This began in 1 980 with the restoration of
a democratically elected government in Peru after twelve years of
military rule. The 1 982 Falklands/Malvinas War precipitated the
downfall of the military junta in Argentina, and the rise of the
democratically elected Alfonsin government. The Argentine tran­
sition was quickly followed by others throughout Latin America,
with military regimes stepping down in Uruguay and Brazil in
1 983 and 1 984, respectively. By the end of the decade the dicta­
torships of Stroessner in Paraguay and Pinochet in Chile had
given way to popularly elected governments, and in early 1 990
even Nicaragua's Sandinista government had fallen to a coalition
led by Violetta Chamorro in a free election. Many observers felt
less confident about the permanence of the new Latin American
democracies than they did about those in Southern Europe. De­
mocracies have come and gone in this region, and virtually all of
the new democracies were in a state of acute economic crisis whose
most visible manifestation was the debt crisis. Countries like Peru
and Colombia, moreover, faced severe internal challenge from
insurgency and drugs. Nonetheless, these new democracies
proved remarkably resilient, as if their earlier experience of au­
thoritarianism had inoculated them against too easy a return to
military rule. The fact remained that, from a low point in the
early 1 970s when only a handful of Latin American countries
were democratic, by the beginning of the 1 990s Cuba and Guyana
were the only countries in the Western Hemisphere not permit­
ting reasonably free elections.
There were com parable developments in East Asia. In 1 986
the Marcos dictatorship was overthrown in the Philippines, and
replaced by President Corazon Aquino who was brought into of­
fice on a tide of popular support. The following year, General
Chun stepped down in South Korea and permitted the election of
Roh Tae Woo as president. While the Taiwanese political system
was not reformed in such a dramatic way, there was considerable
democratic ferment below the surface after the death of Chiang
Ching-kuo in January 1 988. With the passing of much of the old
guard in the ruling Guomindang party, there has been growing
participation by other sectors of Taiwanese society in the Nation­
alist Parliament, including many native Taiwanese. And finally,
the authoritarian government of Burma has been rocked by pro­
democracy ferment.
In February 1 990, the Afrikaner-dominated government of

The Weakness of Strong States I

15

F . W . de Klerk i n South Africa announced the freeing of Nelson
Mandela and the unbanning of the African National Congress
and the South African Communist party. He thereby inaugurated
a period of negotiations on a transition to power sharing between
blacks and whites, and eventual majority rule.
In retrospect, we have had difficulty perceiving the depths of
the crisis in which dictatorships found themselves due to a mis­
taken belief in the ability of authoritarian systems to perpetuate
themselves, or more broadly, in the viability of strong states. The
state in a liberal democracy is by definition weak: preservation of
a sphere of individual rights means a sharp delimitation of its
power. Authoritarian regimes on the Right and Left, by contrast,
have sought to use the power of the state to encroach on the
private sphere and to control it for various purposes-whether to
build military strength, to promote an egalitarian social order, or
to bring about rapid economic growth. What was lost in the realm
of individual liberty was to be regained at the level of national
purpose.
The critical weakness that eventually toppled these strong
states was in the last analysis a failure of legitimacy-that is, a crisis
on the level of ideas. Legitimacy is not justice or right in an ab­
solute sense ; it is a relative concept that exists in people's subjec­
tive perceptions. All regimes capable of effective action must be
based on some principle of legitimacy. 1 There is no such thing as
a dictator who rules purely "by force," as is commonly said, for
instance, of Hitler. A tyrant can rule his children, old men, or
perhaps his wife by force, if he is physically stronger than they
are, but he is not likely to be able to rule more than two or three
people in this fashion and certainly not a nation of millions. 2
When we say that a dictator like Hitler ruled "by force," what we
mean is that Hitler's supporters, including the Nazi Party, the
Gestapo, and the Wehrmacht, were able to physically intimidate
the larger population. But what made these supporters loyal to
Hitler? Certainly not his ability to intimidate them physically: ul­
timately it rested upon their belief in his legitimate authority.
Security apparatuses can themselves be controlled by intimida­
tion, but at some point in the system, the dictator must have loyal
subordinates who believe in his legitimate authority. Similarly for
the most lowly and corrupt mafia chieftain: he would not be a capo
if his "family" did not accept, on some grounds, his "legitimacy."
As Socrates explains in Plato's Republic, even among a band of

16

AN OLD QuESTION AsKED ANEW

robbers there must be some principle ofjustice that permits them
to divide their spoils. Legitimacy is thus crucial to even the most
unjust and bloody-minded dictatorship.
It is clearly not the case that a regime needs to establish legit­
imate authority for the greater part of its population in order to
survive. There are numerous contemporary examples of minority
dictatorships that are actively hated by large parts of their popu­
lations, but have succeeded in staying in power for decades. Such
is the case of the Alawi-dominated regime in Syria, or Saddam
Hussein's Ba'athist faction in Iraq. It goes without saying that
Latin America's various military juntas and oligarchies have ruled
without broad popular support. A lack of legitimacy among the
population as a whole does not spell a crisis of legitimacy for the
regime unless it begins to infect the elites tied to the regime itself,
and particularly those that hold the monopoly of coercive power,
such as the ruling party, the armed forces, and the police. When
we speak of a crisis of legitimacy in an authoritarian system, then,
we speak of a crisis within those elites whose cohesion is essential
for the regime to act effectively.
A dictator's legitimacy can spring from a variety of sources:
from personal loyalty on the part of a pampered army, to an
elaborate ideology that justifies his right to rule. In this century,
· the most important systematic attempt to establish a coherent,
right-wing, non-democratic, non-egalitarian principle of legiti­
macy was fascism. Fascism was not a "universal" doctrine like
liberalism or communism, insofar as it denied the existence of a
common humanity or equality of human rights. Fascist ultrana­
tionalism maintained that the ultimate source of legitimacy was
race or nation, specifically, the righ� of "master races" like the
Germans to rule other people. Power and will were extolled over
reason or equality, and were considered titles to rule in them­
selves. Nazism's assertion of German racial superiority had to be
actively proven through conflict with other cultures. War was
therefore a normal rather than a pathological condition.
Fascism was not around long enough to suffer an internal
crisis of legitimacy, but was defeated by force of arms. Hitler and
his remaining followers went to their deaths in their Berlin bun­
ker believing to the last in the rightness of the Nazi cause and in
Hitler's legitimate authority. The appeal of fascism was under­
mined in most people's eyes retrospectively, as a consequence of
that defeat. 3 That is, Hitler had based his claim to legitimacy on

The Weakness of Strong States I

17

the promise of world domination ; what the Germans got instead
was horrifying devastation and occupation by supposedly inferior
races. Fascism was highly appealing not only to Germans but to
many people around the world when it was mainly a matter of
torchlight parades and bloodless victories, but made much less
sense when its inherent militarism was carried to its logical con­
clusion. Fascism suffered, one might say, from an internal con­
tradiction: its very emphasis on militarism and war led it inevitably
into a self-destructive conflict with the international system. As a
result, it has not been a serious ideological competitor to liberal
democracy since the end of the Second World War.
Of course, we could ask how legitimate fascism would be today
if Hitler had not been defeated. But fascism's internal contradic­
tion went deeper than the likelihood that it would be defeated
militarily by the international system. If Hitler had emerged vic­
torious, fascism would nonetheless have lost its inner raison d'etre
in the peace of a universal empire where German nationhood
could no longer be asserted through war and conquest.
After Hitler's defeat, what remained as an alternative to lib­
eral democracy on the Right was a group of persistent but in the
end unsystematic military dictatorships. Most of these regimes
had no grander vision than the preservation of a traditional social
order, and their chief weakness was the lack of a plausible long­
term basis of legitimacy. None was able to formulate, as Hitler
did, a coherent doctrine of nation that could justify perpetual
authoritarian rule. All of them had to accept the principle of de­
mocracy and popular sovereignty, and argue that for various rea­
sons their countries were not ready for democracy, either because
of a threat from communism, terrorism, or the economic misman­
agement of the previous democratic regime. Each had to justify
itself as transitional, pending the ultimate return of democracy. 4
The weakness implied by the lack of a coherent source of
legitimacy did not, however, spell the quick or inevitable collapse
of right-wing authoritarian governments. Democratic regimes in
Latin America and Southern Europe had serious weaknesses as
well, in terms of their ability to deal with a variety of serious social
and economic problems. 5 Few had been able to generate rapid
economic growth, and many were plagued by terrorism. But the
lack of legitimacy became a crucial source of weakness for right­
wing authoritarianism when, as was almost always inevitably the
case, these regimes faced a crisis or failure in some area of policy.

18

A N OLD QuESTION AsKED ANEW

Legitimate regimes have a fund of goodwill that excuses them
from short-term mistakes, even serious ones, and failure can be
expiated by the removal of a prime minister or cabinet. In illegit­
imate regimes, on the other hand, failure frequently precipitates
an overturning of the regime itself.
An example of this was Portugal. The dictatorship of Antonio
de Oliveira Salazar and his successor, Marcello Caetano, had a
superficial stability that prompted some observers to describe the
Portuguese people as "passive, fatalistic and endlessly melan­
choly."6 Just like the Germans and the Japanese before them, the
Portuguese people proved wrong those outside Western observ­
ers who earlier deemed them unready for democracy. The Cae­
tano dictatorship collapsed in April 1 97 4 when its own military
turned against it and formed the Movimento das Forcas Armadas
( MFA) . 7 Their immediate motive was Portugal's deepening and
unwinnable colonial war in Africa, which consumed a quarter of
the Portuguese budget and the energies of a large part of the
Portuguese military. The transition to democracy was not a
smooth one because the MFA was by no means uniformly suf­
fused with democratic ideas. A significant part of the officer corps
was influenced by the strict Stalinist Portuguese Communist party
of Alvaro Cunhal. But in contrast to the 1 930s, the center and
democratic right proved unexpectedly resilient: after a stormy
period of political and social turmoil, Mario Soares' moderate
Socialist party won a plurality of votes in April 1 976. This oc­
curred to no small degree as a result of assistance from outside
organizations, ranging from the German Social Democratic party
to the American CIA. But outside help would have proved feck­
less had Portugal not possessed a surprisingly strong civil society­
political parties, unions, the Church-which were able to mobilize
and control broad popular support for democracy. The allure of
modern West European consumer civilization also played a role;
in the words of one observer, "Workers . . . [who] might have
marched in demonstrations and chanted slogans of Socialist rev­
olution . . . spent their money on the clothes, appliances, and
artifacts of West European consumer societies to whose standard
of living they aspired." 8
The Spanish transition to democracy the following year was
perhaps the purest recent case of the failure of authoritarian
legitimacy. General Francisco Franco was, in many ways, the last
exponent of the nineteenth-century European conservatism that

The Weakness of Strong States I

19

based itself on throne and altar, the same conservatism that went
down to defeat in the French Revolution. But Catholic conscious­
ness in Spain was in the process of changing dramatically from the
1 930s: the church as a whole had liberalized after Vatican I I in
the 1 960s, and important parts of Spanish Catholicism adopted
the Christian democracy of Western Europe. Not only did the
Spanish church discover that there was no necessary conflict be­
tween Christianity and democracy, it increasingly took on the role
of human rights advocate and critic of the Francoist dictatorship. 9
This new consciousness was reflected in the Opus Dei movement of
Catholic lay technocrats, many of whom entered the administra­
tion after 1 957 and had been intimately involved with the subse­
quent economic liberalization. Thus, when Franco died in
November 1 975, important parts of his regime were prepared to
accept the legitimacy of a series of negotiated "pacts" that peace­
fully dissolved all important Francoist institutions, legalized an
opposition that included the Spanish Communist party, and per­
mitted elections for a constituent assembly that would write a fully
democratic constitution. This could not have happened if impor­
tant elements of the old regime (most importantly, King Juan
Carlos) had not believed that Francoism was an anachronism in a
democratic Europe, a Europe that Spain had come to resemble
increasingly on a social and economic plane. 1 0 The last Francoist
Cortes did a remarkable thing: it overwhelmingly passed a law in
November 1 976 that in effect constituted its own suicide by stip­
ulating that the next Cortes be democratically elected. As in Por­
tugal, the Spanish population as a whole provided the ultimate
ground for democracy by supporting a democratic center, first by
giving strong support to the December 1 976 referendum approv­
ing democratic elections, and then by calmly voting Suarez's
center-right party into office in June 1 977. 1 1
In the cases of the Greek and Argentine turns to democracy in
1 97 4 and 1 983, respectively, the military in both countries was not
forcibly ousted from power. They gave way to civilian authority
instead through inner divisions within their ranks, reflecting a loss
of belief in their right to rule. As in Portugal, external failure was
the proximate cause. The Greek colonels who came to power in
1 967 had never sought legitimation on grounds other than de­
mocracy, arguing only that they were preparing the way for the
restoration of a "healthy" and "regenerated" political system. 1 2
The military regime was thus vulnerable when it discredited itself

20

AN OLD QuESTION AsKED ANEW

by supporting a Greek Cypriot bid for unity with the mainland,
leading to the occupation of Cyprus by Turkey and the possibility
of full-scale war. 1 3 The major aim of the military junta that took
over power in Argentina from President Isabella Peron in 1 976
was to rid Argentine society of terrorism ; it accomplished this in
a brutal war and thereby undercut its chief raison d'etre. The mil­
itary junta's decision to invade the Falklands/Malvinas was subse­
quently sufficient to discredit it by provoking an unnecessary war
which it could not subsequently win. 1 4
In other cases, strong military governments proved ineffective
in dealing with the economic and social problems that had de­
legitimized their democratic predecessors. The Peruvian military
turned over power to a civilian government in 1 980 in the face of
a rapidly accelerating economic crisis, in which the government of
General Francisco Morales Bermudez found it could not cope
with a series of strikes and intractable social problems. 15 The
Brazilian military presided over a period of remarkable economic
growth from 1 968 to 1 973, but in the face of a world oil crisis and
slowdown , Brazil's military rulers found they had no particular
gift for economic management. By the time the last military pres­
ident, J oao Figueiredo, stepped down in favor of an elected civil­
ian president, many in the military were relieved, and even
ashamed of the mistakes they had made. 16 The Uruguayan mil­
itary initially took power to wage a "dirty war" against the Tupe­
maros insurgency in 1 973-74. Uruguay had a relatively strong
democratic tradition, however, which is perhaps what persuaded
the Uruguayan military to put the institutionalization of its rule to
the test through a plebiscite in 1 980. It lost, and by 1 983 had
voluntarily stepped aside. 1 7
Architects of the apartheid system in South Africa, like former
Prime Minister H . F. Verwoerd, denied the liberal premise of
universal human equality, and believed that there was a natural
division and hierarchy between mankind's races. 18 Apartheid was
an effort to permit the industrial development of South Africa
based on the use of black labor, while at the same time seeking to
reverse and prevent the urbanization of South Africa's blacks that
is the natural concomitant of any process of industrialization. Such
an effort at social engineering was both monumental in its ambi­
tion and, in retrospect, monumentally foolish in its ultimate aim:
by 1 98 1 , almost eighteen million blacks were arrested under the
so-called "pass-laws" for the crime of wanting to live near their

The Weakness of Strong States I

21

places of employment. The impossibility of defying the laws of
modern economics had, by the late 1 980s, led to a revolution in
Afrikaner thinking that caused F. W. de Klerk, well before he
became state president, to assert that "the economy demands the
permanent presence of millions of blacks in urban areas" and that
"it does not help to bluff ourselves about this." 19 The apartheid
system's loss of legitimacy among whites was thus ultimately based
on its ineffectiveness, and has led to an acceptance on the part of
a majority of Afrikaners of a new system of power sharing with
blacks. 20
While recognizing the real differences that exist between these
cases, there was a remarkable consistency in the democratic tran­
sitions in Southern Europe, Latin America, and South Africa.
Apart from Somoza in Nicaragua, there was not one single in­
stance in which the old regime was forced from power through
violent upheaval or revolution. 2 1 What permitted regime change
was the voluntary decision on the part of at least certain members
of the old regime to give up power in favor of a democratically
elected government. While this willing retreat from power was
always provoked by some immediate crisis, it was ultimately made
possible by a growing belief that democracy was the only legiti­
mate source of authority in the modern world. Once they accom­
plished the limited aims they set for themselves--eliminating
terrorism, restoring social order, ending economic chaos, and so
forth-authoritarians of the Right in Latin America and Europe
found themselves unable to justify their continuation in power,
and lost confidence in themselves. It is difficult to kill people in
the name of throne and altar if the king himself seeks to be no
more than the titular monarch of a democratic country, or if the
Church is in the forefront of the struggle for human rights. So
much, then, for that bit of conventional wisdom that maintains
that "nobody gives up power voluntarily."
It goes without saying that many of the old authoritarians
were not converted to democracy overnight, and that they were
frequently victims of their own incompetence and miscalculation.
Neither General Pinochet in Chile nor the Sandinistas in Nicara­
gua expected to lose the elections to which they submitted them­
selves. But the fact is that even the most die-hard dictators
believed they had to endow themselves with at least a patina of
democratic legitimacy by staging an election. And in many cases,
the relinquishing of power by strong men in uniform was done at

22

AN OLD QUESTION ASKED ANEW

considerable personal risk, since they thereby lost their chief pro­
tection against the vengeance of those whom they had mistreated.
It is perhaps not surprising that right-wing authoritarians
were swept from power by the idea of democracy. The power of
most strong states on the Right was actually relatively limited when
it came to the economy or society as a whole. Their leaders rep­
resented traditional social groups who were becoming increas­
ingly marginal to their societies, and the generals and colonels
who ruled were generally bereft of ideas and intellect. But what
about those communist totalitarian powers of the Left? Had they
not redefined the very meaning of the term "strong state," and
discovered a formula for self-perpetuating power?

3
The Weakness of
Strong States II, or, Eating
Pineapples on the Moon
All right, then, here are some excerpts from a Kuybyshev ninth-grader, written
as recently as the 1 960s: "It is 1 981 . Communism: Communism is the
abundance of material and cultural blessings. . . . All of the city transportation
is electrified, and harmful enterprises are removed beyond the city limits . . . .
We are on the Moon, we are walking by flower bushes and fruit trees . . .
"

So how many years does that make it that we have been eating pineapples on
the Moon? If only we could someday eat our fill of tomatoes here on earth!
-Andrey Nuikin, "The Bee and the Communist Ideal" 1

Totalitarianism was a concept developed in the West after World
War II to describe the Soviet U nion and Nazi Germany, which
were tyrannies of a very different character from the traditional
authoritarianisms of the nineteenth century. 2 Hitler and Stalin
redefined the meaning of a strong state by the very audacity of
their social and political agendas. Traditional despotisms like
Franco's Spain or the various military dictatorships of Latin Amer­
ica never sought to crush "civil society"-that is, society's sphere of
private interests-but only to control it. Franco's Falangist party
or the Peronist movement in Argentina failed to develop system­
atic ideologies and made only half-hearted efforts to change pop­
ular values and attitudes.
The totalitarian state, by contrast, was based on an explicit
23

24

AN OLD QuESTION AsKED ANEW

ideology that provided a comprehensive view of human life. To­
talitarianism sought to destroy civil society in its entirety, in its
search for "total" control over the lives of its citizens. From the
moment the Bolsheviks seized power in 1 9 1 7, the Soviet state
systematically attacked all potential competing sources of author­
ity in Russian society, including opposition political parties, the
press, trade unions, private enterprises, and the Church. While
institutions remained at the end of the 1 930s bearing some of
those names, all were ghostly shadows of their former selves, or­
ganized and completely controlled by the regime. What was left
was a society whose members were reduced to "atoms," uncon­
nected to any "mediating institutions" short of an all-powerful
government.
The totalitarian state hoped to remake Soviet man himself by
changing the very structure of his beliefs and values through
control of the press, education, and propaganda. This extended
down to a human being's most personal and intimate relations,
those of the family. The young Pavel Morozov, who denounced
his parents to Stalin's police, was for many years held up by the
regime as a model Soviet child. In Mikhail Heller's words, "The
human relations that make up the society's fabric-the family,
religion, historical memory, language-become targets, as society
is systematically and methodically atomized, and the individual's
close relationships are supplanted by others chosen for him, and
approved by the state." 3
Ken Kesey's 1 962 novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, pro­
vides an illustration of the totalitarian aspiration. The book centers
around the inmates of an insane asylum who lead lives of childish
inanity under the eyes of a tyrannical Big Nurse. The novel's hero,
McMurphy, tries to liberate them by breaking the asylum's rules
and eventually leading the inmates to freedom. But he discovers in
the process that none of the inmates is being kept there against his
will ; in the end, all are afraid of the world outside and remain vol­
untarily incarcerated, in a relationship of secure dependence on
Big Nurse. This then was the ultimate goal of totalitarianism: not
simply to deprive the new Soviet man of his freedom, but to make
him fear freedom in favor of security, and to affirm the goodness
of his chains even in the absence of coercion.
Many people believed that the efficacy of Soviet totalitarian­
ism would be buttressed by the authoritarian traditions of the

The Weakness of Strong States I I

25

Russian people pre-dating Bolshevism. A European view of the
Russians popular in the nineteenth century was exemplified by
the French traveler Custine, who characterized them as a race
"broken to slavery, [who] have . . . taken seriously only terror and
ambition."4 Western confidence in the stability of Soviet commu­
nism rested on a belief, conscious or not, that the Russian people
were not interested in or ready for democracy. Soviet rule, after
all, was not imposed on the Russians by an external power in
1 9 1 7, as it was in Eastern Europe after World War I I , and it had
survived for six or seven decades after the Bolshevik Revolution,
weathering famine, upheaval, and invasion. This suggested that
the system had won a certain degree of legitimacy among the
broader population, and certainly within ruling elites, reflecting
that society's own natural inclinations toward authoritarianism.
Thus, while Western observers were perfectly ready to credit the
Polish people with a desire to overturn communism if given the
chance, the same was not held to be true of the Russians. They
were, in other words, contented inmates of the asylum, held there
not by bars and straightjackets but by their own craving for secu­
rity, order, authority, and some extra benefits that the Soviet re­
gime had managed to throw in like imperial grandeur and
superpower status. The strong Soviet state looked very strong
indeed, nowhere more so than in the global strategic competition
with the United States.
The totalitarian state, it was believed, could not only perpet­
uate itself indefinitely, it could replicate itself throughout the
world like a virus. When communism was exported to East Ger­
many, Cuba, Vietnam, or Ethiopia, it came complete with a van­
guard party, centralized ministries, a police apparatus, and an
ideology to govern all aspects of life. These institutions appeared
to be effective, regardless of the national or cultural traditions of
the countries in question.
What happened to this self-perpetuating mechanism of
power?
The year 1989-the two hundredth anniversary of the French
Revolution, and of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution­
marked the decisive collapse of communism as a factor in world
history.
Since the early 1 980s, so rapid and continuous has the pace of
change been in the communist world that at times we tend to take

AN OLD QuESTION AsKED ANEW

26

change for granted, and forget the magnitude of what has hap­
pened. It would, therefore, be useful to review the major mile­
stones of this period:
•

•

•

•

•

•

In the early 1 980s, the Chinese communist leadership
began permitting peasants, who constituted 80 percent of
China's population, to grow and sell their own food. Agri­
culture was in effect de-collectivized, and capitalist market
relationships began reappearing not only throughout the
countryside, but in urban industry as well.
In 1 986, the Soviet press began to publish articles critical
of the crimes of the Stalin era, a subject which had not
been broached since Khrushchev's ouster in the early
1 960s. Press freedom expanded rapidly thereafter, as
one taboo after another was broken. By 1 989, Gorbachev
and the rest of the Soviet leadership could be attacked
openly in the press, and in 1 990 and 1 99 1 large
demonstrations occurred across the Soviet Union calling
for his resignation.
In March 1 989, elections were held for a newly
restructured Congress of People's Deputies and Supreme
Soviet. Further elections took place the next year in each
of the USSR's fifteen constituent republics, and on a local
level. The Communist party tried to rig these elections in
its favor, but even so did not manage to prevent any
number of local parliaments from coming under the
control of non-communist deputies.
In the spring of 1 989, Beijing was temporarily taken over
by tens of thousands of students calling for an end to
corruption and for the establishment of democracy in
China. They were eventually crushed ruthlessly by the
Chinese army in June, but not before they were able to
publicly call into question the legitimacy of the Chinese
Communist party.
In February 1 989, the Red Army withdrew from
Afghanistan. This, as it turned out, was only the first of a
series of withdrawals.
In early 1 989 , reformers in the Hungarian Socialist
Workers party announced plans for free, multi-party
elections the following year. In April 1 989, a round table
agreement led to a power-sharing agreement between the

The Weakness of Strong States II

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Polish Workers party and the Solidarity trade union. As a
result of elections-which the Polish communists also
tried unsuccessfully to rig-a Solidarity government came
to power in July.
In July and August 1 989, tens and then hundreds of
thousands of East Germans began fleeing into West
Germany, leading to a crisis that rapidly led to the
tearing down of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the
East German state.
The East German collapse then triggered the fall of
communist governments in Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and
Romania. By early 1 99 1 , all formerly communist states in
Eastern Europe, including Albania and the major
republics of Yugoslavia, had held reasonably free,
multiparty elections. Communists were initially turned
out of office everywhere except in Romania, Bulgaria,
Serbia, and Albania, while in Bulgaria, the elected
Communist government was soon forced to step down.5
The political basis for the Warsaw Pact disappeared, and
Soviet forces began to withdraw from Eastern Europe.
In January 1 990, Article Six of the Soviet Constitution,
guaranteeing the Communist party a "leading role," was
revoked.
In the wake of the abolition of Article Six, a number of
non-communist political parties were established in the
Soviet Union, and came to power in a number of Soviet
Republics. Most striking was the election of Boris
Yeltsin as president of the Russian Republic in the
spring of 1 990, who with many of his supporters in the
Russian Parliament subsequently left the Communist
party. This same group then began advocating the res­
toration of private property and markets.
Freely elected parliaments in every constituent republic,
including Russia and the Ukraine, declared their
"sovereignty" in the course of 1 990. The parliaments in
the Baltic states went well beyond this to declare their
complete independence from the Soviet Union in March
1 990. This did not lead to an immediate crackdown, as
many had anticipated, but to a power struggle within
Russia over whether or not to preserve the old Union.
In June 1 99 1 , Russia held its first completely free

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popular election, and elected Yeltsin president of the
Russian Federation. This reflected the rapidly
accelerating devolution of power from Moscow to the
periphery.
In August 1 99 1 , a coup against Gorbachev by a group of
communist hardliners collapsed. This occurred partly as
a result of the plotters' incompetence and lack of resolve,
but also because of a remarkable outpouring of support,
led by Boris Y eltsin, for democratic institutions on the
part of the allegedly passive and authority-craving Soviet
people.

A sober student of communist affairs back in 1 980 would have
said that none of these events was likely or even possible in the
coming decade. This judgment would have been based on the
view that any one of the above developments would have under­
mined a key element of communist totalitarian power, thereby
dealing a mortal blow to the system as a whole. And, indeed, the
final curtain came down when the old USSR dissolved itself and
the communist party was banned in Russia following the failure of
the August 1 99 1 coup. How, then, were earlier expectations be­
lied, and what accounts for the extraordinary weaknesses of this
strong state, revealed to us since the onset of perestroika?
The most basic weakness whose full gravity escaped the atten­
tion of Western observers was economic. It was much more dif­
ficult to tolerate economic failure in the Soviet system because the
regime itself had explicitly based its claims to legitimacy on its
ability to deliver its people a high material standard of living.
Hard as it is to recall now, economic growth had actually been
considered a strength of the Soviet state up through the early
1 970s: between 1 928 and 1 955, Soviet GNP had increased at a
yearly rate of 4.4 to 6.3 percent, and had grown half again as fast
as U.S. GNP in the two decades thereafter, giving real credence to
Khrushchev's threat