Perhaps because we are nearing the end of a millennium, there seems to be a renewal of interest in theories of history. We seek regularities in the long movements of history, trying to find our place in a bigger picture than the evening news and hoping to see what is coming next.
Three kinds of theories of history have been prominent in recent discussion--ending theories, wave theories, and cycle theories.
The ending theories identify ages with distinguishing features that have come to an end or will come to an end and will not recur. The distinguishing features may be dominance by one nation, the prevalence of a particular social system, or the pervasiveness of a certain technology. The Roman Empire came to an end, feudalism came to an end, and some say that the Industrial Age is coming to an end. These periods will not come back. There may or may not be common features that bring ages to an end. There may or may not be a predictable sequence of ages, as in the Marxist theory that feudalism leads to capitalism and capitalism leads to socialism--a theory that, so far, seems to have been erroneous.
The most ambitious of the recent ending theories is the theory of the end of history, advanced by Francis Fukuyama, a member of this week's panel.
Wave theories postulate the recurrence of phases with similar characteristics. Thus, History goes A-B, A-B or A-B-C, A-B-C. All the As have similar features that distinguish them from the Bs or Cs. But the As may be of quite different lengths from each other, and so may the Bs and Cs, and they may have their distinguishing features to different degrees. A recent wave theory is that propounded by David Hackett Fisher. He finds in history long waves of inflation, each followed by a crisis followed by a period of equilibrium followed by another wave of inflation, and so on.
Cycle theories, unlike wave theories, suggest that the phases of history are of roughly similar duration. That permits prediction of the remaining duration of the present phase and the coming of the next phase. A simple historical cycle consists of alternating phases of political activism followed by political passivity. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a member of our panel, is the leading exponent of this idea, which was first put forward by his father.
A more complex cycle is described by co-authors William Strauss and Neil Howe, two of our panelists. They visualize a four-phase cycle. These phases are 1) an era of strengthening institutions, 2) an era of spiritual awakening, 3) an era of weakening institutions, and 4) an era of crisis. The entire four-phase cycle is believed to last about 80 years.
Our panel to discuss the validity and implications of these and other theories of history will consist of the aforementioned Messrs. Fukuyama, Schlesinger, Strauss, and Howe; and Professor George Modelski, of the University of Washington.