The Fall of the Berlin some 20 years ago is again on the mind of many. According to the NYTimes, “[t]he historical legacy of 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell and the cold war thawed, is as political as the upheavals of that decisive year.”
For many in the West, the events of 1989 represents the ultimate triumph of the West over East – of democratic, capitalistic liberalism over communist authoritarianism. Many envisioned that we were entering an “End of History.” Writing in 1989, Francis Fukuyama (a professor of international political economy at Johns Hopkins University) wrote:
The triumph of the West, of the Western idea, is evident first of all in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism. In the past decade, there have been unmistakable changes in the intellectual climate of the world’s two largest communist countries, and the beginnings of significant reform movements in both. But this phenomenon extends beyond high politics and it can be seen also in the ineluctable spread of consumerist Western culture in such diverse contexts as the peasants’ markets and color television sets now omnipresent throughout China, the cooperative restaurants and clothing stores opened in the past year in Moscow, the Beethoven piped into Japanese department stores, and the rock music enjoyed alike in Prague, Rangoon, and Tehran.
What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government. This is not to say that there will no longer be events to fill the pages of Foreign Affair’s yearly summaries of international relations, for the victory of liberalism has occurred primarily in the realm of ideas or consciousness and is as yet incomplete in. the real or material world. But there are powerful reasons for believing that it is the ideal that will govern the material world in the long run.
THE power of the liberal idea would seem much less impressive if it had not infected the largest and oldest culture in Asia, China. The simple existence of communist China created an alternative pole of ideological attraction, and as such constituted a threat to liberalism. But the past fifteen years have seen an almost total discrediting of Marxism-Leninism as an economic system. Beginning with the famous third plenum of the Tenth Central Committee in 1978, the Chinese Communist party set about decollectivizing agriculture for the 800 million Chinese who still lived in the countryside. The role of the state in agriculture was reduced to that of a tax collector, while production of consumer goods was sharply increased in order to give peasants a taste of the universal homogenous state and thereby an incentive to work. The reform doubled Chinese grain output in only five years, and in the process created for Deng Xiaoping a solid political base from which he was able to extend the reform to other parts of the economy. Economic Statistics do not begin to describe the dynamism, initiative, and openness evident in China since the reform began.
Important as these changes in China have been, however, it is developments in the Soviet Union – the original “homeland of the world proletariat” – that have put the final nail in the coffin of the Marxist-Leninist alternative to liberal democracy.
In the political sphere, the proposed changes to the Soviet constitution, legal system, and party rules amount to much less than the establishment of a liberal state. Gorbachev has spoken of democratization primarily in the sphere of internal party affairs, and has shown little intention of ending the Communist party’s monopoly of power; indeed, the political reform seeks to legitimize and therefore strengthen the CPSU’S rule. Nonetheless, the general principles underlying many of the reforms – that the “people” should be truly responsible for their own affairs, that higher political bodies should be answerable to lower ones, and not vice versa, that the rule of law should prevail over arbitrary police actions, with separation of powers and an independent judiciary, that there should be legal protection for property rights, the need for open discussion of public issues and the right of public dissent, the empowering of the Soviets as a forum in which the whole Soviet people can participate, and of a political culture that is more tolerant and pluralistic – come from a source fundamentally alien to the USSR’s Marxist-Leninist tradition, even if they are incompletely articulated and poorly implemented in practice.
The rise of religious fundamentalism in recent years within the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim traditions has been widely noted. One is inclined to say that the revival of religion in some way attests to a broad unhappiness with the impersonality and spiritual vacuity of liberal consumerist societies. Yet while the emptiness at the core of liberalism is most certainly a defect in the ideology – indeed, a flaw that one does not need the perspective of religion to recognize – it is not at all clear that it is remediable through politics. Modern liberalism itself was historically a consequence of the weakness of religiously-based societies which, failing to agree on the nature of the good life, could not provide even the minimal preconditions of peace and stability. In the contemporary world only Islam has offered a theocratic state as a political alternative to both liberalism and communism. But the doctrine has little appeal for non-Muslims, and it is hard to believe that the movement will take on any universal significance. Other less organized religious impulses have been successfully satisfied within the sphere of personal life that is permitted in liberal societies.
The other major “contradiction” potentially unresolvable by liberalism is the one posed by nationalism and other forms of racial and ethnic consciousness. It is certainly true that a very large degree of conflict since the Battle of Jena has had its roots in nationalism. Two cataclysmic world wars in this century have been spawned by the nationalism of the developed world in various guises, and if those passions have been muted to a certain extent in postwar Europe, they are still extremely powerful in the Third World. Nationalism has been a threat to liberalism historically in Germany, and continues to be one in isolated parts of “post-historical” Europe like Northern Ireland.
But it is not clear that nationalism represents an irreconcilable contradiction in the heart of liberalism. In the first place, nationalism is not one single phenomenon but several, ranging from mild cultural nostalgia to the highly organized and elaborately articulated doctrine of National Socialism. Only systematic nationalisms of the latter sort can qualify as a formal ideology on the level of liberalism or communism. The vast majority of the world’s nationalist movements do not have a political program beyond the negative desire of independence from some other group or people, and do not offer anything like a comprehensive agenda for socio-economic organization. As such, they are compatible with doctrines and ideologies that do offer such agendas. While they may constitute a source of conflict for liberal societies, this conflict does not arise from liberalism itself so much as from the fact that the liberalism in question is incomplete. Certainly a great deal of the world’s ethnic and nationalist tension can be explained in terms of peoples who are forced to live in unrepresentative political systems that they have not chosen.
While it is impossible to rule out the sudden appearance of new ideologies or previously unrecognized contradictions in liberal societies, then, the present world seems to confirm that the fundamental principles of sociopolitical organization have not advanced terribly far since 1806. Many of the wars and revolutions fought since that time have been undertaken in the name of ideologies which claimed to be more advanced than liberalism, but whose pretensions were ultimately unmasked by history. In the meantime, they have helped to spread the universal homogenous state to the point where it could have a significant effect on the overall character of international relations.
THE PASSING of Marxism-Leninism first from China and then from the Soviet Union will mean its death as a living ideology of world historical significance. For while there may be some isolated true believers left in places like Managua, Pyongyang, or Cambridge, Massachusetts, the fact that there is not a single large state in which it is a going concern undermines completely its pretensions to being in the vanguard of human history. And the death of this ideology means the growing “Common Marketization” of international relations, and the diminution of the likelihood of large-scale conflict between states.
This does not by any means imply the end of international conflict per se. For the world at that point would be divided between a part that was historical and a part that was post-historical. Conflict between states still in history, and between those states and those at the end of history, would still be possible. There would still be a high and perhaps rising level of ethnic and nationalist violence, since those are impulses incompletely played out, even in parts of the post-historical world. Palestinians and Kurds, Sikhs and Tamils, Irish Catholics and Walloons, Armenians and Azeris, will continue to have their unresolved grievances. This implies that terrorism and wars of national liberation will continue to be an important item on the international agenda. But large-scale conflict must involve large states still caught in the grip of history, and they are what appear to be passing from the scene.
The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history. I can feel in myself, and see in others around me, a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed. Such nostalgia, in fact, will continue to fuel competition and conflict even in the post-historical world for some time to come. Even though I recognize its inevitability, I have the most ambivalent feelings for the civilization that has been created in Europe since 1945, with its north Atlantic and Asian offshoots. Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again.
Do you believe Fukuyama’s prognosis for the world to have been largely on target? Is our world now simply a bland brand of “economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands,” as Fukuyama called it?
Historically speaking, the fall of the Berlin Wall definitely had an effect of China – at least people’s perception of China. In the midst of climate of uncertainty, the leaders of China under Deng called for a redoubling of efforts to continue economic and social reform and to not make such a big deal of ideology. In the West, many thought that the PRC would fall the way of the Soviet Union.
According to this article in the Economist,
In late 1989 China’s anxiety was so profound and its diplomacy in such confusion that it was difficult to imagine it would ever come to terms with the new world order. Fresh unrest seemed unavoidable. It was far from certain that Jiang Zemin, a little known leader who had been appointed party chief in the wake of the Tiananmen Square unrest, was on firm ground.
It was an appeal for cool heads by China’s 85-year-old senior leader, Deng Xiaoping, that helped China’s rulers weather the storm. In September 1989 he told them—in a speech only published years later—to be “calm, calm and again calm” and to carry on with China’s (mostly economic) reforms. Mr Deng’s advice, and its later elaboration, remains China’s guiding philosophy. Its central message is often summarised as taoguang yanghui, meaning “concealing one’s capabilities and biding one’s time”. Mr Deng wanted China to get on with building its economy and avoid ideological battles. The economy, in effect, would save the party.
David Shambaugh, an American scholar, wrote in a book published last year that China’s most important conclusion from communism’s ruin elsewhere was that an ossified party-state with a dogmatic ideology, entrenched elites, dormant party organisations and a stagnant economy was a certain recipe for collapse. The Chinese party, he argues, has been “very proactive” in reforming itself and adjusting its policies to new conditions.
When President Barack Obama comes to China on November 15th, he will diplomatically avoid any public suggestion that China’s party should disappear like its east European counterparts. In July, addressing a meeting of senior Chinese and American officials in Washington, Mr Obama noted that the tearing down of the Berlin Wall had unleashed a “rising tide of globalisation that continues to shape our world”. Perhaps to avoid embarrassing a crucial economic partner, Mr Obama did not mention the event’s impact on communism. Mr Deng’s strategy has paid off nicely.
Has China really been ideologically agnostic over the past 20 or so years? Or has it been developing its own ideology?
If China has been agnostic, has the agnosticism served China well? Or has China lost her soul, boringly pursuing its brand of “economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands,” as Fukuyama might call it?
For China to develop as a first-rate superpower and to gain the influence appropriate for a superpower, should China develop an alternative, competitive ideology to Western liberalism? Or has China – like the rest of the world – already accepted the basic premises of Western liberalism as Fukuyama argued 20 years ago?