In 1945, following the Second World War, the Marxist philosopher Alexandre Kojève wrote in Outline of a Doctrine of French Policy that the world was entering a decisively new stage of history, comparable to that which marked the end of the Middle Ages and the transition to modernity. Whereas the shift to the modern age was characterized by the supersession of the old feudal kingdoms by larger nation-states, the 20th century was characterized by the dissolution of the nation-states themselves into the larger formation of modern empire states. Nationalism had become outdated. By Kojève’s reckoning, this was the irresistible trend of history: away from small atomistic units of political sovereignty and towards ever larger entities. The new imperial stage itself was just a transitional phase en route to a later “internationalist” stage, which was still only a utopian ideal.
At the time he was writing, Kojève identified two empires into whose dominions the earth was then being divided: the “Anglo-American” empire, and the “Slavo-Soviet” empire, then represented, of course, by the United States and Russia. These empires were, respectively, Protestant and Orthodox in their basic cultural and ideological compositions. (Kojève famously linked Stalinism to the Orthodox theology of Vladimir Solovyov.) After the fall of the Third Reich—which Kojève attributed to Germany’s attempt to become a nation too late, in a world of transnational empires—the nations of Europe would be caught in the crossfires of a great global contest between the American and Soviet empires. In another text entitled Toward An Assessment of Modernity, Kojève identified America as the empire of the global capitalist class and the Soviet Union as the empire of the global proletariat; and he predicted that Europe would either be absorbed into the American capitalist empire or succumb to the global proletarian revolution led by the Soviet Union.
According to Kojève, the independence of European countries such as France, Spain, and Italy would depend upon their ability to combine as a third imperial power, with its own unifying culture, history, and political sovereignty. Whereas America was defined by Protestantism and Russia by Orthodoxy, this third empire, in Kojève’s estimation, should have been a Catholic one; for it was the catholicity of the Catholic Church, which had such a formative influence upon Southern Europe, that best fitted it for the coming universal society. Hence Kojève’s unique proposal to form an empire that would be presided over by none other than the Catholic Church. (Interestingly, aspects of this vision were shared by one of the European Union’s great founders: Robert Schuman.) This ‘integralist’ vision of course never materialized, and instead the modern-day European Union was formed: more of an economic union based upon purely utilitarian interests—at first, at least—than a political union under one imperial sovereign. To this extent, it is possible to assert that Europe came under the global sovereignty, not of itself, but of America, exactly as Kojève predicted.
Today, America still enjoys a position of imperial power; but after the fall of the USSR, America’s imperial power seemed to be reaching global proportions. The Russian empire waned for a time, crippled by the humiliation of the Soviet collapse. Meanwhile, the world was destined to be a unipolar world, whose main center of power was to be located in America. Not only Europe, but much of the Third World and even China came under the grip of the American liberal order. It was the end of history… or so we thought.
With tensions rising between America on the one hand and Russia and China on the other, there are now striking new similarities to the world which Kojève described. The Russian empire is rearing its head again, along with all the symbols and regalia of the Russian Orthodox tradition, displaying itself to the world as still a great power to be reckoned with—and one brimming with resentment towards the West. Smaller countries like the Ukraine now find themselves in the precarious position of being the victim of a violent tug-of-war between two great powers. And in a strange irony, even fully Westernized and modernized European countries like Germany, thanks to their dependence upon Russia for energy, are finding themselves stuck in the same old crossfires. In a new context, the situation that Kojève described in 1945 is being echoed in today’s context, like a phantom appearing in a dream.
However, Russia’s re-emergence as a great imperial power is overshadowed by the rebirth of another ancient civilization: China. After repeated humiliation by Western colonialism and then imploded by the violence of internal revolution, China’s rapid rise to power stands as a formidable challenge to American global hegemony. Unlike the Soviet Union, China has so far avoided collapse, even after opening up to the global flow of goods through an American-made trade system. China’s wealth, military prowess, soft power, and size make it a viable competitor for dominance on the world-stage, a real and present threat to American hegemony. And like the countries of Europe, there are smaller countries, especially Taiwan, that would tragically be caught in the crossfires of any coming Sino–American conflict.
Even more significantly, China has now totally supplanted Russia as the new representative state of the global proletariat. Indeed, this appellation is even truer of China than it was of Russia: China is the workshop of the world, the absolute center of global production, a truly proletarian empire (notwithstanding the inequalities that still persist there), and one that has clung to its socialist identity in a way that the Soviet Union could not. The imperial conflict between China and the West is nothing other than the class struggle at an international level—a state of affairs which Kojève himself recognized and foresaw in a 1957 speech entitled “Colonialism From A European Perspective.”
Like the world which Kojève observed in 1945 and again in 1957, ours is a world of great powers vying for global dominance. It is a multipolar world again, despite a long hiatus during which the United States was the global hegemon. That position, it turns out, was unstable, because global capitalism is still capitalism: a system that, for all of its immense powers, cannot go on forever, because it will inevitably foster within its deepest core the seeds of a new social order. “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” is a case in point, fostered within the womb of American global capitalism, in much the way Karl Marx predicted that socialism would be born from within the shell of capitalism. Not only are communist China and the U.S. now ‘equal’ geopolitical competitors, but one of them is the child of the other, possibly destined to inherit the world over which its predecessor once ruled—and possibly destined to be the new herald and sovereign of a truly global and unipolar world, beyond the multipolarity of the age of great imperial formations. If Kojève was right, then multipolarity itself does not signify a world beyond globalism, contrary to what some of its prominent defenders say; rather, it signifies precisely the globalization of class struggle, which can only be resolved in a new global state.
As history progresses towards such a state, it is only to be expected that it will witness bouts of resistance from various quarters of the globe—kicking and screaming as they are dragged inexorably towards unipolarity—in many cases, with complete justification. Moreover, it is only to be expected that different powers will compete with one another for the position of universal sovereign. It is possible to interpret all conflicts between today’s ‘great powers’ in these terms: as rebellions against unipolarity, or as competition for global sovereignty—or, perhaps paradoxically, both of these at once. It is also possible that those powers which come closest to the position of unipolar sovereign will fail to maintain this position, and that others must likewise fail after them, before a truly secure globalism is attained. This illusory “end of history” may have to be prolonged for an indefinite future, with the burden of its management shifted from one pole of power to another, until a stable and truly universal end-state is achieved—one where, perhaps, the universal and the particular will be fully reconciled in the organization of a multipolar society around a single, benevolent pole at the center of the world.
There is a kind of tragic inevitability to this process which the leaders and inhabitants of great powers of the world would do well to recognize. The foremost ethical obligation that faces humanity at both the individual and societal level becomes that of survival and optimization as this process unfolds: survival, because there will be inevitable destruction following upon geopolitical strife and international class warfare, from which we may have to protect ourselves and our loved ones; optimization, because although we cannot change the general trajectory of history towards unipolarity, we can at least attempt to make the best use of the resources it will produce and the infrastructure it will build, for the good of the human race. After all, human choices still matter even in the face of inevitable change.