The Past and Present Ends of History
Francis Fukuyama’s thesis about the end of history(1) is sometimes invoked as an example of extreme naivete. However, in his famous book Fukuyama did not say that nothing new would happen in history. He merely stated that it is inconceivable for a more perfect organizational structure to appear than one embedded in liberal democracy and market capitalism. Most of Fukuyama’s critics agree with his thesis. Often they are more “Fukuyamist” than Fukuyama himself, although they may not realize it. Poland in particular is replete with such “Fukuyamists.” They are not only convinced that the present “Western” forms of political and economic life are perfect, but also that they themselves have always advanced the thesis that the Third Republic [Poland since 1989] is the final and ultimate end of the history of Poland, and that nothing better could ever conceivably happen to the Poles. This last belief has recently been shaken by world events, but the opinion that thetelos of history finds its fulfillment in the European Union is still very popular.
On second look, however, Fukuyama’s opus does not inspire optimistic conclusions. His description of the “posthistoric” state was penned largely under the influence of Friedrich Nietzsche. Like Nietzsche and like Alexandre Kojève, a Russian émigré whose interpretations of Hegel influenced many French and American intellectuals, Fukuyama maintains that at the end of history man ceases to be human in the traditional sense, and instead reverts to the essentially animalistic stage of contentment with the world, becoming similar to a well-fed dog rolling about in warm sunshine. “The last man,” or the man of the liberal democracy, is interested first of all in his own health and security. This seems to have been borne out by practice-today’s German youth are interested mainly in the question of who will pay for their dentures during their years of retirement. Contrary to the nightmares of many Poles, even Erika Steinbach would not be able to rouse them up to battle.
For Nietzsche, such a stage of animalistic contentment was a frightening vision, for Kojève a positive one, while Fukuyama seems to have placed his hopes in a variety of social inequalities which liberal democracy continues to manufacture. As long as these inequalities exist, people will want to stand up and struggle in order to be more highly regarded than others, and by that means avoid becoming like generously fed dogs sunning themselves. However, the possibilities of “standing out” and getting ahead of the pack seem to be diminishing both in the economy and in politics. There remain substitutes such as sports and a broad range of snobberies.
It is worth remembering that history was supposed to end many times in the past. These aborted endings are instructive. It was Hegel, the same philosopher who stated that he “discovered” History, that was the first to announce its demise. However, his pupils soon found that their master made excessive promises and that history did not end. This caused no less confusion among them than among the early Christians when the Kingdom of God failed to arrive. However, according to Kojève, Hegel committed only a slight mistake-he was in too much of a hurry. Hegel’s philosophy is not yet true, but it will become true. The master and slave dialectic has not yet reached its final point. Like Tadeusz Kroński in Poland and many other admirers of Hegel elsewhere, Kojève was of the opinion that only the Soviet Union would finally bring to fruition Hegel’s reasoning about the end of History. While Hegel admired Napoleon as a person of great historical significance, Kojève admired Stalin as the man leading History to its fulfillment. He maintained that one can understand Phenomenology of Spirit only insofar as one comes to understand Stalin.(2)
Kojève was born in 1912 into a well-to-do intelligentsia family. His real name was Kozhevnikov, and Vassilii Kandinsky was his uncle. During the October Revolution he was arrested, but owing to his family’s connections he managed to get out of jail. In spite of this episode, he left Russia in 1920, and he left it-as he later stated-a convinced Communist. He lived in Poland for a few years; there too he was imprisoned on charges of spying for Soviet Russia. Later he moved to Germany. He studied philosophy with Karl Jaspers in Heidelberg and received a doctorate from that university. His PhD thesis dealt with the religious thought of Vladimir Soloviev.(3). In 1926 he was invited to France by another Russian émigré, Alexander Koyré, and was introduced to Paris’s intellectual circles. When Koyré departed for a trip to Egypt, he asked Kojève to take over his lectures on Hegels’ philosophy of religion in Ecole pratique des hautes études. Kojève was an instant success as a lecturer, and he held the post at Ecole pratique for six years (1933-39). He lectured primarily on the Phenomenology of Spirit. Among his listeners were such future luminaries as Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jacques Lacan, Georges Bataille, Louis Althusser, Raymond Queneau, Leon Aron, and André Breton. A suggestive portrayal of Kojève can be found in Mark Lilla’s The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics.(4)
According to Vincent Descombes, Kojève possessed a fascinating personality. He succeeded in “compromising philosophy,” i.e., he compelled it to take interest in the aspects of social life which philosophy usually passes over in silence: political cynicism, massacres of civilians, and violence. He considered these to be the forces that push History forward. He was also credited with revealing “the irrational sources of reason” and enabling his students to [sympathetically] understand “the terror-oriented vision of history.” It was under Kojève’s influence that such people as Sartre and Merleau-Ponty became so sympathetic to Stalin and the Soviet system, under the assumption that terror and the show trials moved History forward.
Kojève’s lectures on Hegel were published in 1947. While they constitute interesting reading material, they lack the alleged compelling and almost magical force attributed to them by Kojève’s students and admirers. Other than these lectures, Kojève published virtually nothing during his lifetime. He died in 1968. In the 1990s his work came out in three volumes titled Essai d’une histoire raisonnée de la philosophie payenne, but they failed to meet the high expectations of his admirers. Much more significant-and revolting-was the revelation that Kojève was a Soviet agent not only in theory but in practice: he literally worked for the Soviet intelligence (which incidentally confirms the good reputation of the Polish counterintelligence between the two world wars).
Today Kojève is considered to be one of the fathers of postmodern politics, the politics of “the end of history.” He is regarded as a major influence on the American neoconservatives on the one hand, and on the other, he influenced such key personalities in the construction of the European Union as the former French President Giscard d’Estaing. Kojève corresponded with, and was a friend of, Leo Strauss, the father of neoconservatism. Part of this correspondence was published in Strauss’s well-known volume On Tyranny.(5) Allan Bloom was one of Leo Strauss’s students. He was also Francis Fukuyama’s teacher.
Thus Kojève was not only a Hegelian and a Soviet agent. Together with his friend Leo Strauss, he was a source of inspiration for a trend known today as American neoconservatism (although it should be stressed that Strauss disagreed with some of Kojève’s views). He can also be described as the first Eurocrat, because after the Second World War he ceased to lecture on Hegel and became a French bureaucrat. He worked in the Ministry of Foreign Trade and specialized in inter-European affairs. According to those who specialize in the study of his writings, he was one of the architects of the European Common Market and of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). (6) He influenced Giscard d’Estaing, the father of the European Constitution project. Thus if Kojève had languished in the Polish prison longer than he actually did, we might have been deprived of an interesting interpretation of Hegel and-if one is to believe the opinions about his influence on the process of conceptualizing European unity-of the European Union itself.
Among Kojève’s writings published posthumously there was a Memorandum dealing with the French foreign policy. Until it was published in 1990 in La règle du jeu and republished in translation in the neoconservative journal Policy Review in August 2004, it was known mostly by hearsay. (7) Policy Review commentator Robert Howse (University of Michigan professor and a specialist in twentieth-century European legal and economic matters) found in this Memorandum a very relevant vision of Europe, one worthy of attention and recommendation. (8) This Memorandum allows one to correct Fukuyama’s prognoses of the end of history. According to Howse, from Kojève’s perspective it is clear that, contrary to what Fukuyama postulated, the fall of Communism does not signify a victory of liberal capitalism. Europe’s historical mission supposedly consists in showing the world other perspectives of development which will include some Socialist elements.
In the Memorandum Kojève outlines a thesis that is fashionable today, of the death of the nation states. He also develops a postmodern version of the old-fashioned notion of Empire. He maintains that “the spirit of History” has already left the nation state, but it has not yet assumed a universal form, and that is why it assumes the mediating form of Empire. It is from this point of view that one should assess the historical role of twentieth-century dictators. Hitler was doomed from the very beginning because his Third Reich was anachronistically nationalist, whereas Stalin turned out to be forward-looking because he was building an empire based on universalist ideology. Kojève stated that after the Second World War there arose a necessity to construct a Latin Empire in which France could retain its cultural role. This Empire would serve as a counterweight to the Anglo-Saxon Empire on the one hand, and to the Soviet-Slavic Empire on the other; it would occupy a middle ground between the barbarous statism of the Soviets and Anglo-Saxon liberalism. It is this thought that Kojève’s contemporary admirers found particularly attractive.
It should be pointed out that Kojève’s project differs significantly from the European Union in its present form. First, the objective of Kojève’s Latin Empire was to save France. The Empire as an autonomous political entity was to preserve the French cultural identity. Second - and this point is omitted from Howse’s discussion of Kojève - the major reason for assembling the Latin Empire was to oppose a natural German hegemony in continental Europe. Kojève stated that “the direct danger comes from Germany. It is not a military but an economic danger, and therefore a political danger.” Thus the Latin Empire would not have been the same as today’s integrated Europe; it was supposed to be an answer to the integration of Germany with Europe.
Events turned out differently. European integration and the ensuing European Union became for Germany a foundation of its rehabilitation and return to a leadership position. The European Union allowed Germany to liberate itself from Anglo-Saxon control. While Kojève assumed that Germany would ally itself closer with the Anglo-Saxon world, it is evident today that instead, Germany and France have formed a kind of “European Directorate.” Present-day Germany’s economic weakness (relative though it may be) is an unexpected factor which had not been anticipated by the author of this grandiose vision of the future. The spiritual strength necessary for full integration of East and West Germany has also been lacking; as a result after fifteen years the integration process has not yet been completed. It remains to be seen how these two crises will be resolved in Germany. The direction Germany will take in the future will depend on the methods of resolution of these crises.
The Soviet Empire has fallen. Putin’s Russia is trying to raise it up from the dead, but unsuccessfully so far, as Ukraine’s example shows. Russia is no longer a threat to the French and German Europe; on the contrary, it has become a potential partner. The only country that can play the role of adversary is the United States. One can speak of revitalization of the layout of forces that briefly existed in Europe shortly after the French campaign of 1940: a united continental Europe poised against the Anglo-Saxon world in the West, and rebellious Poland in the East.
It bears repeating that the project of the Latin Empire was based on an entirely different set of premises than the present European Union. Its basis was supposed to be some kind of spiritual and mental kinship. According to Kojève, this kinship colors the ideas of liberty, equality, and brotherhood in Latin Europe; without it democracy could not survive. But what is significant is not the details of Kojève’s plan but rather its general theoretical bent toward Empire and against the nation state, the bent that resurfaces in neoconservative theorizing today.
Kojève had stated that this Latin Empire should have Catholicism as its base. The separation of church and state was an outcome of the long rivalry between the nation state and religion; however, since the liberal epoch was over, this separation lost its raison d’être. Both institutions would profit from the new alliance, because without the help of religion the Empire could not maintain vitality for long, and without Empire the Church would not have a solid basis either.
Thus Kojève’s project does not seem to have much in common with the present day European Union, which is secular and not based on cultural traditions. According to the majority of its deciding members, the UE should not and could not be built on a common cultural base; at the very most, it could only be based on certain abstract and generally understandable values. The UE is supposed to be the first culturally neutral political entity. It is supposed to be a place where postmodern liberalism would find its final realization. Even though the original project of the European Union was worked out by the Christian Democrats, at present it is not a project related to Christianity. The sign of the cross can be accepted only as a secular sign.
Kojève’s advocacy of the political function of religion is interesting, however, especially in the light of the fact that he had previously interpreted Hegel from the position of radical atheism. Hegel’s philosophy was supposed to replace, indeed eliminate, Christianity. God is nothing but the World Spirit, or humanity in its historical development. The teachings of Christianity were to be preserved, but the transcendent and immortal God was no longer necessary. According to Kojève, the central and major mistake of Christianity was the idea of the Resurrection. God must die to become Man, a finite and mortal man; and if man is really mortal, no God can exist. (9)
In the crusade of the Spirit through History, two men, in Kojève’s view, played a messianic role. In that he agreed with Hegel. One of the key passages in Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit is the last sentence of Chapter 6:
The reconciling Yea, in which the two ‘I’s let go their antithetical existence, is the existence of the ‘I’ which has expanded into a duality, and therein remains identical with itself, and, in its complete externalization and opposite, possesses the certainty of itself; it is God manifested in the midst of those who know themselves in the form of pure knowledge.(10)
Kojève comments on this text as follows: “Christ who exists in this world; God, who revealed himself to men; Logos; the Word which became flesh - are nothing else than the Napoleon-Hegel pair: the person who brought History to the end of its development by means of a bloody struggle, and the person who revealed the meaning of this development.” (11) In other words, Napoleon was a revealed deity who disclosed himself through Hegel and his disciples.
Carried away by the grandiose vision of history which he constructed, Hegel wished to be more than a human being; since for obvious reasons he could not become God, he became, as Eric Voegelin rightly pointed out, a magician in the sense of the word used by Bronisław Malinowski. He became a magician who invented his own image of history, and this image became a weapon with which to gain power.(12) Kojève retained Hegel’s theoretical bent and only changed the details to make them correspond with the actual political happenings in Europe.
Kojève held the opinion that history will end when men reach the state of satiation; it is human beings themselves that are the source of negativity because they produce it through their actions. One can always negate that which is. But one can also refuse to so negate, and here human freedom comes into play. The refusal to say “no” will become possible only when human beings become citizens of a “homogenous world polity,” or a classless society that will embrace all humanity. (13) In that imagined stage of human development politics will disappear, for politics is a sphere of defeat. It will be replaced by harmonious cooperation.
It is not entirely clear whether the imperial phase of History is only a transitory stage between the epoch of unenlightened humanity and the final posthistorical society, or whether Kojève changed his mind and ceased to believe in the fulfillment of history and the possibility of passing into this posthistorical stage. In any case, the hope for a universal and homogenous state remains alive in Europe. It includes the hope of total inclusiveness, or full recognition of the [Hegelian] slave by his master.
Unfortunately, the excluded seem to multiply instead of diminishing in number; the process of including them seems to create them anew, while American foreign policy pushes into the remote future the plans of constructing the world state that would resemble a giant worldwide NGO rather than the Prussian monarchy. The idea of the imperial EU, with its secularized and messianic call for creating a barrier to America’s evil empire, is alive in Europe. The Spirit of History is now supposed to embody itself in the European Parliament. Its political agents are Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder, while Jürgen Habermas and a few lesser intellectuals play the role of Hegel.
The attempts to end history tend to be painful for those individuals, classes, and nations that oppose such engineering ventures. However, the previous “ends of history” produced one comforting conclusion: the present end of history will also end some day, and perhaps sooner than some of us believe. ∆
4. Mark Lilla, The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics (New York: NYRB, 2001), 113-36. While Lilla states that Sartre was never a student of Kojève, “although he could have learned a great deal from him,” other authors count Sartre among Kojève’s students.
6. Schadia B. Drury, Alexandre Kojève: The Roots of Postmodern Politics (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994), pp. 3, 43; Dominic Auffret, Alexandre Kojève: La Philosophie, l’etat, la fin de l’histoire (Paris: Bernard Grasset, 1999).
A shorter version of this article appeared in Polish in Europa, a weekly cultural supplement to the daily Fakt (15/5, 19 January 2005). Translated by permission by the SR staff.
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