Perhaps the most famous expositor and popularizer of Hegelian philosophy in the 20th century was the Russian-born French philosopher, Alexandre Kojève. His reputation as an interpreter of Hegel was made by a set of lectures he gave in Paris from 1933-1939—published in English in 1947 as Introduction to the Reading of Hegel—which were attended by such influential figures as Jean Paul Sartre, Jacques Lacan, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Georges Bataille, Louis Althusser, and others on the ‘Left.’ Yet his influence also extended to notable figures of the ‘Right,’ such as his friend Leo Strauss and one of Strauss’ best-known students, the American conservative philosopher Allan Bloom. Through this odd mix of famous disciples, Kojève’s interpretation of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit would become central to the history and development of philosophy in the 20th century.
Yet Kojève was not only a philosopher, but an active politician. Indeed, he spent a total of six years as an academic, and he devoted the rest of his career thereafter to civil service. As a bureaucrat in the French government, he was deeply involved in the reconstruction of Europe after World War II, and he understood himself to be carrying out the philosophy of Hegel in political action. Though Kojève is often dismissed by conservatives as just another Marxist, his peculiar understanding of history and his own role in the rebuilding of Europe is marked by a surprisingly conservative instinct, even as it is also undeniably revolutionary.
This conservative instinct is borne out in a concrete fashion in his famous prescription for post-War Europe, which still sheds much light on the geopolitical, economic, and cultural struggles of today. That prescription was what Kojève called the ‘Latin Empire’: a federation of the Catholic countries of Southern Europe. But to understand the significance of the Latin Empire, its inherent conservatism, and its abiding relevance for today, it is necessary first to review the basic rudiments of Kojève’s philosophy of history.
Kojève’s dense writing should not intimidate first-time readers, since the most central components of his philosophy are quite simple. Like Hegel, Kojève believed that the unfolding of history was guided by certain rational laws that can be understood philosophically. In Kojève’s view, history is propelled by the struggle between ‘masters’ and ‘slaves’—concepts drawn from a short but pivotal section in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. Both masters and slaves pursue what Kojève calls ‘universal recognition’: they seek to be known and respected by all, including by themselves, as fully human rather than mere animals. This pursuit of self-knowledge is identified with philosophy, or the pursuit of wisdom.
Masters attain this goal in a partial way by the domination of slaves, but are left unsatisfied by the recognition which they obtain from lesser men—that is, from slaves who, in a way, remain like animals. By contrast, slaves can attain this goal by working to create a world in which slavery itself has become obsolete, by a process that echoes Marx’s description of the emancipatory potential of technological progress under capitalism. Consequently, slaves can overcome their masters through struggle without needing to enslave them in turn.
Kojève believed that this whole historical process will culminate in the achievement of an ‘end of history,’ and the construction of a ‘universal and homogenous state’—a secularized version of the Russian theologian Vladimir Solovyov’s universal Catholic theocracy, but also with resonances of Marx’s communism. In this state, the conditions for the realization of universal recognition will have been established by the elimination of dehumanizing enslavement and the end of all struggle. Kojève identified the primary protagonist of this end of history as none other than the sage. This is the philosopher—i.e., the slave who was in pursuit of recognition and self-knowledge—who has finally become a wise man, because he finally knows himself and is known by all to be fully human.
At this end of history, there will be no more justifiable cause for the forms of human action that once propelled history forward, namely struggle and work—the acts of masters and slaves. There will be no more cause for revolution or even progress, for the conditions will have been laid down for the universal recognition of all humanity. In line with Marx’s communism, no more shall the oppression of one subset of humanity be necessary for the well-being of another. Man’s time will be truly his own; he will need only to learn how to use it in the manner most worthy of his humanity. His manner of life will therefore necessarily be ‘conservative.’
Similarly, there will be no more cause for doing philosophy, understood as the search for wisdom. For wisdom and self-knowledge will have been realized in the figure of the sage. The activity of posthistorical man will resemble something more like contemplation, art, or even ritual: the ‘useless’ activities proper to a sage. Human life will be characterized more by formal repetition and dramatic memorialization rather than acts possessing historical significance of their own. All that will be left is for men to spend their time freely enjoying the products of cultural and artistic creation that have been scattered like seeds of posthistory across history itself. Tradition, memory, and cultural conservation will be the default mode of posthistorical consciousness.
Thus, although his philosophy of history was unquestionably revolutionary, Kojève was a conservative of the most principled and aristocratic sort. He insisted that revolution could not go forever: the idea of a ‘permanent revolution’ was a form of historical nihilism. Revolution, in order to be truly revolution, must be complete: it must be final. It must bring history to an end. And in Kojève’s view, history had already come to its end with the French Revolution and its culmination in the Napoleonic empire. After this end point, it was necessary only to construct the institutions needed for the administration and preservation of this posthistorical world, the universal and homogenous state.
As a bureaucrat involved in the post-War reconstruction of Europe, Kojève understood himself to be engaged in exactly this work of building the institutions of the universal and homogenous state. He also demonstrated a keen concern for the material conditions of the global poor in Asia and Africa, whom he recognized were still—needlessly—kept in a condition of proletarian poverty, in subjugation to more developed civilizations of the West. Thus, in his capacity as a statesman, he understood himself to be undertaking the posthistorical project of preserving and extending to all humanity both the material and cultural gains of history itself. If Kojève was a conservative, he was also a communist in his conservatism: that which he sought to preserve of humanity’s material and cultural achievements he also sought to universalize.
The Idea of a ‘Latin Empire’
It is common for Hegelians and Marxists to be criticized for being mere idealists and utopians, and at times this is fair. There are certainly philosophers of this stripe whose thought is overly abstracted from the realities of human life. However, as a statesman who was regularly confronted with the pragmatic business of politics, Kojève was in a position to avoid this pitfall, and he carefully considered how his lofty vision of posthistorical institution-building could align with reality on the ground.
Perhaps the best example of this pragmatism is a lengthy memo Kojève sent to General Charles de Gaulle in 1945, entitled Outline of a Doctrine of French Policy. It is a text as rich in geopolitical foresight as it is in cultural, historical, and philosophical erudition. It is also a characteristic example of his peculiar blend of different philosophical casts of mind, showcasing the rigor with which he brought together revolutionary and conservative dispositions in a coherent unity.
The text begins with the assertion that France in 1945 was in danger of being reduced to a mere secondary power in Europe by the rising economic primacy of Germany. By this assertion, Kojève was not merely referring to France’s political marginalization. Rather, he also intended to communicate that France’s cultural heritage, which it shared with the other ‘southern’ countries of Europe (mainly Spain and Italy), was in danger of being supplanted by the primarily ‘economic’ calculations that would come to rule over Europe if Germany were to be incorporated into the European system. In order to avoid such a tragic outcome, Kojève proposed that France expand its political base and governing apparatus beyond the boundaries of its traditional status as a nation state, and become instead the head of an empire, the ‘Latin Empire,’ whose member states would include Spain and Italy as well. If France remained a nation state subservient to primarily economic interests, it would be in danger of political marginalization, and the culture of ‘Latino-Catholic civilization’ would be in danger of extinction.
The explanation for such an outcome, in Kojève’s estimation, was that the culture of Germany was predominantly a Protestant culture that prized a way of life governed by economics over other ways of life. In this, Kojève echoes Max Weber’s famous study of the Protestant origins of the capitalist work ethic. Crucially, Germany shared this culture with one of the two major empires into which the contemporary world order was divided, namely the Anglo-Saxon empire that was (and today still is) presided over by the United States of America. Consequently, if Germany, whose economic potential surpassed any other European nation, were to become a part of the European system as whole, Kojève feared that Europe would effectively become a vassal of the Anglo-Saxon empire: a mere economic unity, a mere subset of cogs in the growing machine of global capitalism. If this were to happen, the unique cultures of Europe, particularly the ‘Latin’ culture to which France had contributed so much over the centuries, would be tread underfoot by a purely economic calculation serving the expansion of material wealth.
The essence of Latin civilization, in Kojève’s estimation, is a culture that prizes leisure and contemplation, the ‘sweetness of living’—what in Italy is known as dolce far niente—over a life of labor and concern for mere material comforts. Kojève identifies this culture as the source of Europe’s rich traditions of art, literature, music, etc.—in short, the elements of culture itself. And he makes no hesitation to attribute this culture largely to the influence of Catholicism. By contrast, a Protestant, German-Anglo-Saxon, capitalistic hegemony would have no tolerance for the apparent laziness and indulgent lifestyles of artists and contemplatives. “Let us moreover not forget that Catholicism above all sought—often by appealing to art—to organize and humanize the ‘contemplative,’ or even inactive, life of man, while Protestantism, hostile to the methods of artistic pedagogy, was mainly preoccupied with the worker-man.” One might restate this by saying that Catholicism has concerned itself with the life of sages, while Protestant has concerned itself with the life of slaves who fail to transcend their slavery. This would explain why Kojève thought the Catholic Church should be directly involved in the governance of the Latin Empire, in direct contrast to all liberal notions of ‘separation of Church and State.’
How to End History
Kojève’s philosophical description of the sage shines through his concern to preserve the culture of the Latin countries, and his advocacy for the construction of a Latin Empire has no other purpose than to make possible for a greater portion of humanity the sagelike way of life that was cultivated and incubated in the bosom of Catholic Europe. But this remarkably conservative intention is also justified by an invocation of the greatest revolutionary thinker, namely Karl Marx: “Did Marx himself not say, in repeating, without realizing it, a saying of Aristotle’s: that the ultimate motive of progress, and thus of socialism, is the desire to ensure a maximum of leisure for man?”
Likewise, Kojève’s philosophy of history also lies in the background of his proposal, in a number of ways. First, since history is driven by conflict and struggle (and by labor), when it comes to its completion it will be necessary for men to learn how else to spend their time—the time which they are accustomed to spending in war (or in labor). Thus, in the Outline of a Doctrine of French Policy, Kojève writes that “it is precisely to the organization and the ‘humanization’ of its free time that future humanity will have to devote its efforts.” In vaguely Marxist terms, when men are freed from the alienating and therefore dehumanizing conditions of capitalism, they will be faced with the new project of determining how to live in a truly human and non-alienated way. Kojève was confident that the mere existence of the Latin Empire as a political, economic, and cultural unity would ensure the existence of a ‘safe space’ for precisely this humanization of leisure to take place. By contrast, the extension of a German-Anglo-Saxon empire across all of Europe would effectively foreclose this possibility: posthistorical man would be doomed to continue wasting his free time in dehumanizing struggle and labor.
Second, history in Kojève’s sense is an inexorable progression towards the universal, the absorption or expansion of former nation states (such as France or Germany) into ever large ‘imperial’ units en route to the international level was a historical necessity. To be clear, which imperial units dominate this process is quite a contingent matter: either France should preside over an empire rather than a mere nation state, or Europe as a whole would (following Germany’s path) become absorbed into the Anglo-Saxon (i.e., American) empire.
At an even broader level, Kojève saw the whole world as split predominantly between the Anglo-Saxon and the Slavo-Soviet empires, either one of which would probably be the principal embodiment of the universal and homogenous state. In one of his letters to Leo Strauss (published alongside Strauss’ reflections on tyranny), he cited the ancient saying, “All roads lead to Rome,” and wrote: “If the Westerners remain capitalist (that is to say, also nationalist), they will be defeated by Russia, and that is how the End-State will come about. If, however, they can ‘integrate’ their economies and policies … then they can defeat Russia. And that is how the End-State will be reached.”
Incidentally, just as he identified the culture of the Latin countries as Catholic, and that of the German-Anglo-Saxon countries as Protestant, Kojève also identified the culture of Soviet Russia as still basically Orthodox. Indeed, just as Kojève was writing, Josef Stalin was orchestrating the reintegration of the Russian Orthodox Church back into Soviet society, not only legalizing it (with strings attached), but restoring it as the public religion of Russia. With these events in mind, Kojève predicted something remarkable. The formation of a Latin Empire in Europe would not only protect France and the Latin countries from encroachment by Anglo-Saxon America, but it could also potentially form the basis for a peaceful political cooperation with the USSR, in common resistance to Anglo-Saxon capitalism. This would in turn provide the basis for a mutual understanding between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, potentially even “render[ing] useless the canonical independence of the latter.” In other words, Kojève saw nothing less than the healing of the Great Schism as a central feature of sound geopolitical strategy for the future of humanity.
Kojève’s Wisdom for Today
In 2013, the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben published a brief but provocative article in which he argued that Kojève’s original ‘Latin Empire’ idea was still a good idea nearly 70 years later. Indeed, even now into the year 2023, the unfolding of events in Europe and around the world have demonstrated the amazing geopolitical foresight that lay at the root of Kojève’s unique proposal. As Agamben notes, it is now obvious that Germany has indeed become the main economic powerhouse of the European Union. Today, the economic effects of the war in Ukraine have demonstrated Europe’s dependence upon Germany all too well.
But not only this: in the form of the EU, Europe itself has been decidedly transformed into a mere economic entity, a space for the efficient flow of capital, and little more than that. The EU’s unity is not founded, as Kojève hoped for the Latin Empire, on a common cultural heritage; on the contrary, as conservatives all across Europe know all too well, culture and tradition as such enter hardly at all into the calculations of a purely economic form of administration. Indeed, culture and tradition are practically suppressed, bullied into non-existence, by such a form of administration. According to Agamben, Kojève’s predictions as to why this would happen turned out to be exactly right: on account of the economic primacy which Germany easily assumed among all the member states of the EU, Europe as a whole succumbed to the domination of the Anglo-Saxon empire, governed from the offices of Washington D.C., the chief presider over global capitalism.
Indeed, after the fall of the Soviet Union, it appeared that the Anglo-Saxon empire governed by America had indeed triumphed over all challengers. This led to that other notorious ‘end of history’ thesis, the one proposed by Francis Fukuyama, who attempted to argue that Kojève’s end-state had in fact been achieved in the American unipolar moment. To be sure, Kojève had predicted something like such a world, though he hardly relished it. Given such a predicament, one would be forgiven for thinking it too late for a Latin Empire. The old Europe was definitively swallowed up by the American empire, its native cultures crowded out by the global culture of consumerism, and no longer could Europe hope or even desire to find an ally in Russia against American imperialism.
But since then, it has become evident that there was a hidden ‘transfer of power’ from the hands of the fallen Soviet Union into the hands of the Communist Party of China, which has gradually emerged as the new global challenger to Anglo-Saxon capitalism—and in many respects a more formidable one than the USSR ever was. What is more, Russia itself has undergone a surprising political revival; although its former economic might was all but destroyed by overnight marketization, Russia has acquired geopolitical leverage as one of the world’s largest exporters of oil. Deepening ties between the two countries portend the rise of a ‘Eurasian empire’ to replace the former Slavo-Soviet empire. Further still, the manner in which the U.S. has nakedly exploited the Ukraine war for its own economic interests has doubtlessly affected many Europeans’ perception of the former ‘beacon of liberty.’ The possibility of cultivating deeper ties between Europe and China—and even, for countries such as Hungary, of maintaining ties with Russia—has suddenly become attractive enough that even the chancellor of Germany, Olaf Scholz, cannot rule it out. If only because China now represents a plausible alternative to American hegemony, perhaps the hour is not too late for Europe after all.
In addition to these considerations, it is worth observing the position of the Catholic Church in contemporary politics and geopolitics, which has been repeatedly marginalized and neutralized. As a case in point, Pope Paul VI’s controversial Ostpolitik towards the Soviet Union might have had a greater impact if the Church had enjoyed the political support of a Latin Empire. More recently, the Holy See’s present modest efforts to bring peace amidst the conflict of the war in Ukraine would likewise bear more promise, not only for Catholic-Orthodox relations but also for Europe-Russia relations, if the Church still enjoyed the privileges of political power in the form of an empire. Similar speculations might be applied to the Church’s recent attempts at any kind of diplomacy with China. It is undeniable, from a Catholic point of view, that the Church’s ability to act as a political entity in the modern world has been severely hampered since the loss of the Papal States in 1870. The recovery of some semblance of concrete political power by means of an alliance with a Latin Empire would go a long way towards filling this gap.
The essence of Kojève’s prescription for Europe evidently remains relevant in the context of today’s geopolitical, economic, and cultural struggles. It also has the virtue of transcending the narrow boundaries of ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ political ideologies, containing advice that all sides of the dominant political spectrum would do well to heed. For those on the Left, Kojève’s philosophy as a whole serves as a reminder that revolution cannot go on forever: it must have its own completion always in view. Moreover, to whatever extent the revolutionary motion of history has been completed, it becomes the business of humanity to figure out how to conserve the world that has been built. Tradition and historical memory are the inheritance of the end of history.
For conservatives on the ‘Right,’ Kojève’s proposal contains the crucial insight that the nation state is no longer equipped to do the work of preserving cultural identity. In France’s case, the outdated form of the nation state could not hope to stand up to the greater weight of American imperial power, especially once it infused its cultural essence into the veins of Europe itself with the formation of the EU. In order to preserve the authentic traditions of Latin Europe, an empire would have been required: for empire can only be resisted by empire. The emerging multipolar world is a world of empires, no longer a world of nations. Today’s ‘national conservatives’ would do well to consider this advice.
Finally, Kojève offers a caution against a too-willing embrace of the capitalist model, particularly as it has been shaped by the American (Anglo-Saxon) hegemony. Precisely because they care about their rich cultural heritage and wish to preserve it in memory, European conservatives must resist the American paradigm. Kojève would remind them that the ‘Americanization’ of Europe is at the root of the very loss of historical memory which they rightly decry. The Americanization of European conservatism itself would only further undermine their concern. Conservatives are thus obligated to strike a delicate balance: neither the outdated model of nationalism nor the exploitative universalism of American capitalism, but a new universalism that preserves and offers the goods of culture and sagelike contemplation for the enjoyment of all humanity.