The author of the end of history.
The author of the "end of history." Astrid Stawiarz / GETTY

Leftist intellectuals have ideological enemies they like and ones they don't like. Francis Fukuyama, a conservative political philosopher, is certainly in the former group. His rise to fame began with a paper, "The End of History and the Last Man," published in the summer of the last year of "the short 20th Century," 1989. (For the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, the long 19th Century ended in 1914, and the short 20th Century ended in 1991—although I agree with Hobsbawm's first end point, the beginning of World War I, my second end point is marked by the fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989.)

In 1991, Fukuyama expanded his 1998 essay into a book of the same name, and it made the same daring Hegelian claim: The history of the world had come to an end with the triumph of liberalism (the combination of a free-market economy with a democratic political structure) over other competing social formations—communism, fascism, monarchism, and so on. The argument was Hegelian because, in Fukuyama's view, history wasn't mindless or objectless but actually had a concrete goal—namely, the full realization of liberalism. What this meant is the subjects of Europe, North America, and Japan had reached, by 1989, what can only be described as the absolute—a society that can’t be perfected.

The left, particularly the Marxist left, which has its roots in a loose circle of early 19th Century German intellectuals called the Young Hegelians, saw Fukuyama's paper as nothing but proof of the importance of ideas or concepts in the interpretation of world events. Even here, at the end of the 20th Century, a period of rapid scientific discovery, and also of philosophy's break from metaphysics and social theory and its complete commitment to analysis and formal logic, a political philosopher with real credentials was talking in their language: The End of History.

The New Yorker put it this way:

Hegel, Fukuyama said, had written of a moment when a perfectly rational form of society and the state would become victorious. Now, with Communism vanquished and the major powers converging on a single political and economic model, Hegel’s prediction had finally been fulfilled. There would be a “Common Marketization” of international relations and the world would achieve homeostasis.

The leftist intellectuals could not thank Fukuyama enough—except their gratitude was in the form of one scathing critique after another of Fukuyama's key concept. Here indeed was a conservative made of the same excellent stuff as Carl Schmitt, Leo Strauss, and Joseph Schumpeter. Real conservative intellectuals are hard to find, whereas leftist ones are a dime a dozen. Furthermore, Fukuyama's Hegelianism was concretized by his membership in the neoconservative movement, called the Project for the New American Century, which included Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz, the architects of the US's second war with Iraq. (Fukuyama, however, eventually became a critic of the illegal invasion.)

Fukuyama still believes in the concept he presented to the world in 1989 at the age of 36. But as the 20th Century was short, the end of history is, it turns out, very long.

Francis Fukuyama talks with Eric Liu about his new book The Discontents of Liberalism at Town Hall on Wednesday, May 11.