TCS Daily


The Surprise of History

By Lee Harris - January 30, 2006 12:00 AM

It is widely assumed that the concept of the End of History is derived from the nineteenth century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Francis Fukuyama in his best-selling book entitled, The End of History and the Last Man, has done much to popularize this idea, so that in the minds of many intellectuals Hegel and the End of History thesis are one and the same. But Fukuyama is not the only contemporary thinker who has ascribed this thesis to Hegel. The fabulously erudite English author Paul Johnson has also argued that Hegel held this thesis, though for Johnson this was proof positive that Hegel was an intellectual charlatan, while for Fukuyama Hegel's thesis of the End of History was proof positive of his prophetic genius.

Consider Paul Johnson's comments:

"It is astonishing that Hegel's reputation survived his absurd declaration that history had ended with Bonaparte's victory over Prussia at Jena in 1806. Yet Hegel went on to hold what was then the most enviable academic post in Germany, the chair of philosophy in Berlin, and to write much more clever and influential nonsense. In due course his thoughts were transmuted by Marx not merely into a set of absolute answers about where history was heading but into a program for accelerating the process. Until recently this moonshine was believed by millions of comparatively well-educated people....." (From The Quotable Paul Johnson, p. 131.)

Absurd, nonsensical moonshine. That is Johnson's take on Hegel's End of History thesis. But was this really what Hegel said?

Of course, actually reading what Hegel wrote is a course of last resort, and one that it would appear both Paul Johnson and Fukuyama have understandably shied away from -- there are long passages of Hegel that are notorious for their tortuous (and torturous) difficulty. Yet, just as sunlight suddenly pierces through the darkest cloud covering on a gloomy day, so too there are many passages in Hegel that are perfectly lucid and virtually, it would seem, impossible to misunderstand.

One of these comes from his Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, in a passage where he is reflecting on a country that obviously interested him very much, namely, The United States of America, which at the time of the lectures was not even a half century old. Because these lectures were given toward the end of Hegel's life, they may be taken to represent his mature thinking on the philosophy of history.

"America," Hegel tells us,

"is the country of the future, and its world-historical importance has yet to be revealed in the ages which lie ahead....It is a land of desire for all those who are weary of the historical arsenal of old Europe....It is up to America to abandon the ground on which world history has hitherto been enacted. What has taken place there up to now [i.e., circa 1830] is but an echo of the Old World and the expression of an alien life; as a country of the future, it is of no interest to us here, for prophecy is not the business of the philosopher."

Note, first of all, that Hegel is explicitly and emphatically rejecting the idea that the philosopher of history can offer any deeper insight to the future than the average man can -- which is not very much at all. Not only does Hegel refrain from giving "absolute answers about where history is heading," his position is one of radical agnosticism about the future -- the philosopher has no business making predictions or prophecies. At best, Hegel is offering a hunch that America will come to play a critical role in future development of world history -- an attitude toward America that was not uncommon among Hegel's contemporaries, and which the actual course of history has certainly proven to be correct.

Second, Hegel says that America's "world-historical importance has yet to be revealed in the ages which lie ahead," and in making this remark he is clearly repudiating any notion of an End of History. Only the actual events of future history can reveal to us the significance and meaning of these future events, and it is only after they have occurred that the philosopher can look back on them, and try to discern their world-historical importance.

For example, Hegel takes issue with those of his contemporaries who argued that the first half century of the United States is proof "that republican states are possible on a large scale." The historical evidence, Hegel argued, was simply not sufficient to make this judgment, because "North America cannot yet be regarded as a fully developed and mature state, but merely as one which is still in the process of becoming." What exactly does Hegel mean by this?

"As to the politics of North America, the universal purpose of the state is not yet firmly established, and there is as yet no need for a closely knit alliance; for a real state and a real government only arise when class distinctions are already present, when wealth and poverty are far advanced, and when a situation has arisen in which a large number of people can no longer satisfy their needs in the way to which they have been accustomed. But America has a long way to go before it experiences tensions of this kind; for the outlet of colonization is fully adequate and permanently open, and masses of people are constantly streaming out into the plains of the Mississippi. By this means, the principal source of discontent has been removed, and the continued existence of the present state of civil society is guaranteed." (Italics mine.)

To put this into modern political jargon, Hegel is arguing that as long as America still had a virtually unlimited frontier it would remain a land of opportunity, a place where those who were not content with their lot in life could simply pick up and move on to virgin soil, creating for themselves a new life that was almost entirely of their own making -- which, of course, is exactly what many Americans were doing when Hegel wrote his lecture, and would continue to do for a long time after his death.

Because America had this convenient remedy for those who were dissatisfied with the status quo, there was no danger that those who were deeply dissatisfied with their position in the world would pose a political threat to the stability of the social order. Instead of rebelling against the status quo, they simply left it behind and went in search of a better life for themselves in the frontier -- potential rebels became pioneers. "If the ancient forests of Germany still existed, the French Revolution would never have occurred. North America will be comparable with Europe only after the measureless space which this country affords is filled and its civil society begins to press in on itself."

Hegel's conclusion? "It is therefore not yet possible to draw any lessons from America as regards republican constitutions."

It is hard to imagine a more sober statement than this, and one less full of moonshine and nonsense. Here Hegel is telling those who have made up their minds about the significance of the United States not to jump the gun -- it is too early to say how its historical course will develop. It may be that America will prove that large scale republics are possible; but, on the other hand, it may not prove this at all. Only the future can decide this question.

In other words, not only does Hegel refrain from trying to predict the future himself, but he discourages it in others. Not only does he refuse to give "absolute answers" on the question of where history is headed, he rejects even tentative ones. In fact, all he is prepared to say is that a society that has a vast frontier available to it can afford a more libertarian and less centralized form of government than one that lacks such a frontier.

Curiously enough, those who are familiar with the American historian Frederick Jackson Turner's famous Frontier Thesis will see that Hegel anticipated the basic logic of this thesis sixty years before Turner announced it. What might well have surprised Hegel is how short a time it would take to declare the American frontier closed.

Yet Hegel was quite prepared for history to surprise him. Unlike Marx, who did believe that history obeyed iron-clad laws similar to those scientific laws that governed the behavior of physical objects, Hegel recognized that the existence of human freedom, and the role of accident and chance, rendered all attempts to predict the future course of history futile and even dangerous. Again, unlike Marx who did believe that history would have an end, Hegel emphatically rejected such a notion. There would always be something to divide human beings, and hence there would always be a struggle between them, and out of this struggle would arise the phenomenon known as history.

We live in a world in which there is a crying need for a sober and realistic philosophy of history -- not in order to divine where we're headed, but simply in order to know where we have come from. What a pity that the thinker who has offered the deepest insights into mankind's struggle for freedom, namely Hegel himself, has been so wantonly misunderstood both by his detractors as well as by some of his admirers. He deserves better -- and so do we.

Lee Harris is author of Civilization and Its Enemies: The Next Stage of History.
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4 Comments

Lebensraum
"In fact, all he is prepared to say is that a society that has a vast frontier available to it can afford a more libertarian and less centralized form of government than one that lacks such a frontier."

This is beautiful kind of thinking. It inspired all kinds of thinking in Germany later, some theories of Lebensraum not so very libertarian. We could also ask why the vast frontiers have not particularly well bene*****d freedom in Russia, China, Kazakhstan or African countries.

Take one contemporary example of great curiosity: Russian Far East, with Primorskii Kray and the surrounding areas of Trans-Baykal. Usually the Soviets ruined everything they touched, but something they did manage to develop relatively well was advance in purely technical sciences, which had nothing to do with politics. Still there are lots of scientists and relatively highly educated people around the Siberian and Far Eastern cities. Go there and you will find many of them driving taxi, cleaning places or simply drinking off their sorrow while hoping to emigrate, while former KGB are getting "newly rich" with different means of crime and all real productive work is being done by Chinese and Koreans.

Yet this is area far less dismal than many Westerners imagine. Primoriye has a relatively warm climate. Russian Far East and Trans-Baykal are areas of some of the world's richest natural resources. There is plenty of potential skilful labor, yet factories run empty, people are alcogolics and amidst the freeze of winter electricity is cut and somebody stole all the oil. And yet this are is right next to the world's most rapidly growing markets in Eastern Asia.

But nothing works. All wealth is being suck into Moscow, some drops of it ending up in St. Peterburg and a couple of other privileged places far away in Western Russia. Any symptom of independence or initiative, whether political or economic, is considered as a dangerous sign of irredentism or separatism and therefore subject to immediate "liquidation of banditry".

Russia rules the superiorly largest territory of all the world's states, and controls the richest national resources of all world. Yet Moscow has behaved centuries as if it would be a country about the size of Luxemburg and constantly threatened by such horrible dangerous invaders as Latvia and Chechnya.

Most of this vast territory is rapidly getting empty, since all who can, move either to the large centers in Western Russia or abroad. It is estimated that within 20 years both Turkey and Germany will be bigger countries than Russia (in terms of population).

Amidst all the hype about Russia's economic growth we should contrast that with countries such as China and Turkey and add that all of it is based on the abnormally and artificially high price on oil and natural gas. The whole economy of Russia is about the size of the Netherlands and Turkey. But since it is basically a governmental monopoly and based on selling oil and gas and importing the rest, its diversity is at the same level with Saudi Arabia, another country that claims to profess "controlled democracy".

What about China? The overcrowded cities of Hong Kong and Singapore are among the most free places upon earth, and it seems also the continental Chinese "frontiers of freedom" are located in a few restricted grand cities of southern and western coasts, while a short trip to the vast Turkic speaking frontiers in Xinjiang reveal the gloom and old totalitarian face of the Red Giant that Westerners frequenting Shanghai or Shenzhen so easily forget nowadays.

I won't even elaborate on Kazakhstan and Africa.

No Subject
"Hegel is arguing that as long as America still had a virtually unlimited frontier it would remain a land of opportunity, a place where those who were not content with their lot in life could simply pick up and move on to virgin soil, creating for themselves a new life that was almost entirely of their own making -"

As long as the US remains a federal republic in which states can compete, there will always be opportunity.
CA was the Golden state for decades, yet political oppression will kill opportunity, as you describe in Russia. Those not content in CA are finding opportinity in AZ, NV, ID, ...

Hegel
One problem with Hegel, of course, is that he said a lot of things, and some of them none too clearly. The result is a certain amount of cherry-picking and latitude in interpretation. One reader can extol Hegel's emphasis on the growth of freedom in history (Singer), another can condemn him as a theorist of fascism (Popper).

Marx made a different kind of mistake, taking Hegel's idea of dialectical conflict seriously at one level, but not at another. Workers vs. owners seemed a good theoretical fit, but it was a mistake to imagine a homogeneous, unitary working class. Lenin quickly found that out in practice, responded by launching a brutal campaign to re-enserf the peasantry, and it was down hill from there.

Hegel?
Why defend Hegel when he really has nothing to offer?

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