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Bertel Nygaard

From the past to the present – and beyond?
A long view of conceptions of revolution, social agency and World History


History has come to an end, was the famous, or infamous, verdict of Francis Fukuyama in 1989, around the fall of the Berlin Wall as the symbol of ’really existing socialism’. For decades, many people considered the authoritarian brand of socialism based on the model of the USSR to be the only feasible alternative to western capitalism. Now that alternative lost credibility.

Retelling this familiar story one must add, of course, that Fukuyama does not mean that history, considered as petty movements and small events, will no longer be. What he means is that History with a capital H, universal history, history as World History in Hegel’s sense, or History as a theodicé, has come to an end. Any major historical movement beyond capitalism and liberal democracy will be impossible or will fall significantly behind the civilizing effects of capitalism. With just a bit of simplification we may claim that, for Fukuyama, the slogan ‘capitalism or barbarism’ constitutes the lesson of Soviet experiment.

Thus acknowledging the prior existence of a universal teleological pattern of history, Fukuyama claims that once this telos has been attained, there can be no more History. The end of the threat of a macro-historical anti-capitalist revolution means the end of History. Indeed, this recognizes a close association of World History with the modern concept of revolution: The lack of a credible social alternative and the lack of a macro-social, macro-historical revolutionary subject have undermined the continued progress of World History.

I do not suggest that we accept the arguments about End of History/End of Revolutions uncritically as interpretation of the true character of modern history. But we should probably accept it at least as an adequate expression of the Zeitgeist, as a sign of a mentality largely dominant during the recent decades. Perhaps we should even accept it as a sign of a widespread use of certain central concepts and conceptions in the whole modern epoch as such.

Through a sketch of the struggle and interrelation between concepts of revolution, agency and history in the light of revolutionary developments themselves we may get a better historical sense of this Zeitgeist, and thereby we may even indirectly confront also the question of the adequacy of this Zeitgeist as an account of the actual macro-historical prospects for revolution and revolutionary agency.

Through a review of long-term developments in the association between conceptions of revolutionary agency and conceptions of World History, it shall be argued here that Fukuyama’s analysis implies the negation of a long-lasting conceptual historical cycle, longer than merely 1917-1989; that it is part of a long struggle of different concepts and ideas concerning revolution and history; and that the dominance of the wider mentality of which the Fukuyama thesis is a part tends to reify a sense of closure, despite oft-asserted claims to the contrary.

Conceptions of World History are inextricably tied to conceptions of the present and the future, to political and social conceptions and to conceptions of socio-historical agency. And the understanding of history and revolutionary agency is tied to the waves of revolution itself, as an expression of the historical self-image of engaged spectators.

Francis Fukuyama’s claims about the End of History are tied to conceptions of History, revolution and agency basic to modern liberalist ideas with a significantly longer ancestry. This can be illustrated by the example of François Furet’s earlier revisionist interpretation of the French Revolution as a cycle definitively closed in the post-Second World War period through what he considers to be a successful integration of individual rights and state authority securing the stability of the social order. Like Fukuyama’s approach, this interpretation implies a closure of history with the establishment of stable capitalist democracies.

Neither of these arguments, however, are particularly novel. They constitute recent additions to recurring debates on the character of revolution and World History. This can be seen in some of the earliest uses of the concept ‘revolution’ to describe social rebellion and change, namely, contemporary interpretations of the English Revolution 1640-60. The Earl of Clarendon, writing in the 1660’s, uses the concept in its original sense of ‘rotating’ in describing the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 as a ‘revolution’. This does not yet associate the term with macro-historical progressive development, but it does associate it with a positive evaluation of a social event. In the contemporary analysis of James Harrington, the term is even naturalized to describe a change towards new political forms, corresponding to changes in social property.

Only with the Enlightenment development of histories of civilization and with the experience of the French Revolution in 1789 does ‘revolution’ become systematically conceptualized as both a singular event and as an integral part of the general development of civilization towards perfection. This is expressed in the contemporary interpretations of the revolution by Antoine de Barnave and Pierre-Louis Roederer, respectively, applying general notions of history and civilization developed by Enlightenment historians and thinkers, especially Adam Smith, John Millar and Turgot.

In the writings of the moderate Liberal historians of the 1820’s onwards, this view of the French Revolution is coupled with new concepts of collective social agency, through the development of the concept of class struggle. This ties concepts of World History, revolution and agency together in a much clearer way than anything before. Still, however, class struggle and revolution are explanatory features of the past leading towards the redemption of the present, and as such they can be integrated within the normative framework. But any revolution and class struggle beyond what Guizot considers to be the ‘principles of 1789’, that is, beyond constitutional monarchy and a strictly censured franchise, can no longer be legitimate, nor lead to further advances of civilization. In effect, Guizot claims for the July Monarchy established in 1830 what Furet claims for Post-World War France: World History is over, revolution is over, macro-historical agency can exist no more

Increasingly throughout the 19th century, however, socialist critics develop conceptions of World history and Revolution as transcending the present epoch. This can be seen in the development of Marxism, though this in itself contained a dual potential. One was leading to a conception of history as radically open (Marx himself). The other was leading to a conception of history as a closed, linear movement towards a fixed telos situated in a definite model of communist society (Second International Marxism, Stalinism). Thus, some versions of Marxism, at least, pointed towards a new closure of the interrelated conceptions of World History, revolution and social agency.

Rather than really novel or anti-determinist views, Fukuyama’s and Furet’s proclamations of an end to History and an end to Revolutions signify returns to pre-Marxist closed views of historical time as culminating in the bourgeois and capitalist present. Any notion of large-scale subjectivity transcending the present is proclaimed an aberration, an ‘illusion’ as François Furet termed 20th century communism.

As such, we may term their views ideologies in the true analytical sense of that word: not as factually wrong or as false representations of reality, but as pictures of the whole distorted through a partial perspective. Viewed in this way, their analyses of a revolutionary challenges as aberrations reflect a generalization of a number of particular experiences to the level of universality: the generalization of self-proclaimed, bureaucratic ‘actually existing socialism’ as socialism tout court, thus denigrating socialism as achieved through the struggles of the working class and other repressed groups; the generalization of a jubilant conservative politician anno 1990 as the true fate of History as such, thus denigrating the persistence of opposition. These generalizations have real and socio-historical foundations within the experience of a particular generation, but as a totalization it is premature.

Fukuyama’s and Furet’s conclusions, then, are but recent contributions to a continuing struggle over concepts and mentalities between conservative, apologetics of the existing capitalist social system and the revolutionary struggle for future alternatives. And though it was dominant during the first few decades of its existence, this is still less than the French restorationists could claim for their ending of History – or what Stalin proclaimed for his ending of History, of revolutionary agency. This, of course, still does not it itself prove either analysis of the prospects of 21st century revolutionary change wrong in a factual sense. But by relativizing Fukuyama’s or Furet’s perspectives historically we may at least claim that their diagnoses are open to future challenges.