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August 1, 2004

Kojeve's Latin Empire

From the “End of History” to the “epoch of Empires”


“The Era where all of humanity together will be a political reality still remains in the distant future. The period of national political realities is over. This is the epoch of Empires, which is to say of transnational political unities, but formed by affiliatednations.”


That pronouncement about geopolitics sounds as if it could have been taken from the latest issue of Foreign Affairs or Foreign Policy, the prognostication of some trendy theorist reflecting on the future of the European Union or hemispheric integration in the Americas (the ftaa). Astonishingly, however, the quoted statement appears in a memorandum of advice to Charles de Gaulle written in 1945 at the end of the Second World War. Its author is Alexandre Kojève, the famous Marxist/Hegelian philosopher whose much more familiar prophecy is the impending arrival of the “universal and homogenous state” at the “End of History.” At first glance, the announcement of the End of History would seem to be quite a different proposition from the idea of a dawning epoch of regional empires. In fact, there is no contradiction between the two, but the paradox is illustrative of the richness of the thought of this still-underappreciated and widely misunderstood major twentieth-century thinker.1 

Born a child of the bourgeoisie in Russia, Kojève left in 1920. He studied philosophy in Berlin under Karl Jaspers and later settled in Paris — where, during the 1930s, he gave a series of celebrated lectures on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. These classes were attended by many of the era’s leading intellectuals (Raymond Aron, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jacques Lacan, Raymond Queneau, and others). With considerable rhetorical brilliance, Kojève there presented an atheistic, Marxist/humanist reading of Hegel based on the centrality of the Master/Slave dialectic in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. According to Kojève, the decisive resolution of the struggle between the class of masters and that of slaves came with the French Revolution in the form of universal citizenship — the aristocratic class recognizing the bourgeois and working classes as fully human on account of their work, i.e., productive economic activity. The possibility of such recognition through citizenship transcending a single political community was reflected in the project of Napoleon and the spread beyond French borders of his imperial civil code.  
Kojève taught that the French Revolution together with Napoleon represented the End of History. Afterwards, there was no longer a need for violent struggle to establish the rational supremacy of the regime of rights and equal recognition. At the same time, Kojève saw a long, arduous path to the full realization of equal recognition in adequate economic, social, and legal institutions, even if the struggle to establish the ideal was complete. The path would be very different for different countries or civilizations, and in some cases it would be quite bloody, given the need to clear away anachronistic but still powerful interests and castes.
In the 1930s, Kojève spoke of himself as a Stalinist. He had no illusions about the barbarism of Stalin’s rule, nor did he imagine that Stalin was out to realize the project of equal recognition. Rather, Kojève appears to have believed that forced “modernization” was the only, or the fastest, means of bringing Russia to the point where it might be capable of a peaceful transformation into a regime of rights. Stalin was merely a vehicle of post-history. Moralizing against him was philosophically meaningless from the perspective of Kojève’s historicism, which effectively (and some would say brutally) denies any intrinsic, non-instrumental morality to politics.  (On these issues, Leo Strauss’s exchange with Kojève on tyranny remains instructive.)  
Kojève’s Hegelian Marxism emphasizes work as an essential path to recognized humanity. Kojève adds an existentialist twist. He understands work — the conquest or attempted conquest of the natural world and the making of artifacts that could outlive the worker — as connected, ultimately, to the revolt by man against his mortality, his purely natural, animal being. (Kojève thereby rejects, in favor of Existenz, Hegel’s own proto-romantic philosophy of nature; he diverges, as well, from Marx’s and Engel’s materialist metaphysics and reductive psychology.)
This combination of Hegel’s account of struggle and recognition, Marx’s theory of humanization through work, and Heidegger’s “Being before Death” informed much of the thinking of the French left in the postwar period, and in turn the outlook of what Allan Bloom called “contemporary radicalism” in his essay on Kojève collected in Giants and Dwarfs (Simon and Schuster, 1990).

Let this may not be Kojève’s most important intellectual legacy. After the Second World War he largely avoided radical circles; he despised the student rebels of the 1960s. Kojève instead labored in the French ministry of foreign economic relations and became an architect of the European Community and the gatt system of liberalized trade.

These choices could be explained in purely personal terms — Kojève was notoriously playful and a lover of paradox — or even in a sinister manner (it has been suggested that during this period Kojève was a spy for the Soviet Union). But they are certainly consistent with important aspects of Kojève’s thought that, until recently, have been largely ignored, both by his intellectual friends and by his critics.
While Kojève took from Marx his conception of the human value of work, he saw early on the mistakes of Marxist economics. On the one hand, what Marx had not appreciated with his theory of “pauperization” through capitalism was that the capitalists would get smart and pay their workers enough to be able to afford the products they produced (“Fordism”). On the other hand, the economics of “central planning” was too rigid and static to produce the kind of wealth necessary to provide a minimum level of well-being to all. Kojève sometimes had entertained the possibility that the Soviet system might eventually reform itself, bringing market mechanisms into socialism. But he saw the realization of the regime of equal recognition as more likely to occur first in the capitalist world through redistributive labor and social regulation within a market economy.  
The philosophical basis for these deviations from Marxism is developed at length in Kojève’s treatise on law, Outline of a Phenomenology of Right, written during the Second World War but not published until the 1980s. There, Kojève points out that the End of History does not itself resolve the tension within the idea of equality — the ideal of equal recognition that is rationally victorious with the End of History embodies elements of market justice, equal opportunity, and “equivalence” in exchange (the “bourgeois” dimension of the French Revolution). But it also contains within it a socialist or social democratic conception of equality of civic status, implying social regulation, welfare rights, and the like. The Universal and Homogenous State — the consolidated global social and economic order — supposes some kind of stable synthesis between market “equivalence” and socialist equality of status. But it is not obvious, even to Kojève, when and how a permanent, stable, and universal (i.e., globally accepted) synthesis of this kind would come about.
This dimension of Kojève’s thought is of great importance in understanding his vision of the postwar world. One reason it has received little attention is the way in which Francis Fukuyama popularized and adapted Kojève’s notion of the End of History. As the Cold War came to an end, Fukuyama took Kojève’s notion of a global, universal political and social order as a basis for understanding the direction of current events. According to Fukuyama, the remaining differences between nations after communism signify different paces or degrees of movement towards a common culture of liberal capitalism. In The End of History and the Last Man (Free Press, 1992), Fukuyama uses the image of a long wagon train strung out on a road. He writes: “The apparent differences in the situations of the wagons will not be seen as reflecting permanent and necessary differences between the people riding in the wagons, but simply a product of their different positions along the road” towards the “homogenization of mankind.” From a Kojèvian perspective, Fukuyama’s mistake was to understand the collapse of communism as the triumph tout court of liberal capitalism. This turn of events instead signifies the superiority of capitalism to Soviet communism in one, albeit crucial, respect: Unlike Soviet communism and its aparatchiks, capitalism and its real-world agents, the commercial classes, proved capable of compromise. Thus, while Soviet communism proved unable to engage in market reforms and internal liberalization without collapsing, Western societies proved agile at balancing the justice of the market with a conception of substantive equality — the latter perhaps rather minimalist in the case of the United States but still of enormous social importance.
A related and important deviation from Marxist political economy in Kojève’s thought is the rejection of the idea that the logic of capitalism would ultimately drive capitalist nations to war with one another, fighting over resources in the Third World. Just as he saw that the capitalists themselves had adapted and compromised to avoid “pauperization,” so he saw that the political leaders of capitalist states might choose the route of economic cooperation and integration as an alternative to mutually self-destructive wars.
But this alternative would become evident or obvious only after the final self-destruction of the national idea itself with the demise of the Third Reich in 1945. And this brings us to Kojève’s advice to de Gaulle at that crucial historical moment.

In 1945, kojève understood that any attempt to rebuild France’s greatness as a nation-state would be delusional, given the hard realities of Anglo-American military supremacy as well as the Soviet fact. The latter decisively pushes Germany itself into the Anglo-American empire as a protection against the risk of absorption by the Soviets. Kojève seeks to convince de Gaulle that this is no reflection on France, since demographic and technological realities are such that no single nation-state in the contemporary world could ensure an adequate base in military power, that is without allying or affiliating itself with other states and peoples. Believing otherwise, according to Kojève, was Hitler’s downfall.

But, Kojève proposes, France can find political purpose and direction in an Anglo-American dominated postwar world by bringing into being and assuming leadership of a Latin Empire.
This empire would be a political and economic union of the Latin Catholic states of Europe, backed by an army — albeit one unable to stand up to Anglo-American military might (and probably not to Soviet strength either) if push came to shove, but formidable enough to establish a sphere of political independence from either the Anglo-American or the Soviet Empire in time of peace.
Kojève admits that no one will fight for a Latin Empire as an abstract idea: It has to be based on felt affinity among the Latin peoples. Kojève underlines that such an affinity is not “racial.” “The “kinship” of nations is, above all, a kinship of language, of civilization, of general “mentality,” or — as is sometimes also said — of “climate.” “And this spiritual kinship is also manifested, among other things, through the identity of religion.” Here, Kojève explicitly includes the secularized Catholic ethos of even anti-clerical Latin peoples (such as the French). The Latin mentality being less materialistic and more open to beauty and leisure than the Anglo-American, Kojève anticipates that the economic philosophy of the Latin Empire will reject the brutal “laissez-faire” tendency of protestant Anglo-American capitalism. But it will also eschew rigid social planning of the Soviet kind.
If one looks at the trajectory of the project of European integration over the past 50 years, Kojève’s sketch of the “Latin Empire” seems like nothing so much as a blueprint for what is today the European Union. Although Kojève’s Latin Empire doesn’t include Britain, the United Kingdom entered the European project late and since then has never overcome its ambivalence about its choice. And while Kojève foresaw Germany as allied to the Anglo-American and not the Latin Empire, he understands this alliance as connected to the need for security against Soviet aggression (a need that would be fulfilled by nato, allowing Germany to participate in the Latin-led project of European Community). And it can hardly be denied that throughout much of the history of European integration, French politicians and senior bureaucrats have played a predominant — and later on, at the very least, a special — role, whether in Paris or Brussels.  
In the early days of the European Coal and Steel Community, and of the eec, few could imagine that the European project would greatly extend beyond free trade and economic policy cooperation to concerted policy action in numerous areas of regulation, as well as the aspiration to a European foreign and defense policy. Half a century before the debate on European governance or a European “constitution” had even begun in Brussels, Kojève was able to write about the “Latin Empire” posing “new problems for democratic political thought, which would finally permit it to overcome its traditional ideology, which is suited only to national frameworks and is consequently anachronistic. It is perhaps by determining relations within an Empire (and ultimately within Humanity) that democracy will anew have something to say to the contemporary world [emphasis added].” Today, in many respects, with its notorious “democratic deficit” and reliance on bureaucrats and bargaining among national elites, the European Union appears ill-prepared for its imminent experiment with constitutionalism. If only his fellow architects of an earlier phase in European integration had taken to heart Kojève’s counsel about the challenge for democratic governance posed by the “Latin Empire” idea. The creation of a European Parliament (albeit with very few powers) did reflect, in earlier days, at least a dim recognition of Kojève’s vision of transnational democracy, which was nevertheless shared at the time only by some far-seeing founders of the European project and certainly not grasped by the technocratic elites who became prime movers of European integration.
But these various observations about the affinities between the current European project and the “Latin Empire” abstract from, or ignore, Kojève’s idea that the “Latin Empire” is in the last analysis held together by the cultural and spiritual affinity of the Catholic, “Latin” peoples. After the first wave of expansion, today’s eu could not plausibly draw its identity from such sources.2 It should be recalled that Kojève foresaw a Europe that would span not only the “Latin Empire” but also the Anglo-American and Slav Empires.
To what extent will new forms of transnational democratic governance in Europe ultimately overcome the need for some kind of common civilizational base such as Latin Catholicism? This is the question posed but not answered by Kojève’s “Latin Empire” proposal and perhaps the most fundamental question underlying today’s controversies about the future of Europe as a “constitutional” order.
Certainly, when we think of the European Union as encompassing on the one hand Britain and on the other Poland and Slovenia as well as the Baltic states, the idea of a common “European” foreign and defense policy immediately seems problematic. One need only recall Kojève’s observation about the existence of an “Anglo-American Empire,” the outlook of which cannot but be influenced by its military supremacy. And it would be hardly appropriate to craft a single European foreign policy, to which the “Eastern countries” were fully bound, without integrating the legitimate interests of Russia. Could the ultimate implication of the quest for a common European foreign and defense policy be the integration of Russia into the European Union — an idea that has caused consternation in Brussels whenever it has been flagged by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi? And how then would the Anglo-American Empire coexist with a European foreign and defense policy area spanning from Ireland to the eastern and southern borders of Russia?

The question of the identity and inherent boundaries of “Europe” is one that also dogs the future of Europe in relation to Islam. Here, too, Kojève appears to have seen further in 1945 than many considering these issues today.

Kojève views the Latin Empire as potentially encompassing much of the Middle East, certainly all the former French and Italian colonies in Mediterranean Africa. But this means predominately Muslim nations, which would not seem to share the Catholic roots of what first appears to be Kojève’s conception of Latinity. As if anticipating the objection, Kojève observes:
It is even possible that it is in this unified Latino-African world that the Muslim problem (and perhaps the “colonial” problem in general) can one day be resolved. For since the Crusades, Arab Islam and Latin Catholicism united in their mutual opposition concerning several synthetic points of view (the influence of Arabic thought on Scholasticism, the penetration of Islamic art into the Latin countries, etc.). And there is no reason to believe that, within a true Empire, this synthesis of opposites could not be freed of its internal contradictions, which are really irreducible only with respect to purely national interests.
This statement is certainly laconic, and perhaps cryptic. But it does suggest a different (and more hopeful) way of conceptualizing the relationship between Islam and the West, or indeed the situation of Islam in relation to Europe, than the predominant thinking, which in various versions assumes a “clash of civilizations” or the task of somehow liberalizing and democratizing Islam on the basis of abstract “Western” principles of politics. The Latin Empire is really the idea of a Mediterranean world where those differences that are the product of religious doctrine or past colonial conflict can be mediated through transnational democratic relations between peoples who share something like a common Mediterranean sensibility. Kojève had no illusions that such a result would happen overnight, and he is scarce on the details of how to bring it about. What is important is that he articulates a different path for addressing the “Islam question” — the idea of evolving a Mediterranean economic and political space. From the mere fact that the longing for liberal democracy coexists in millions of Arab Muslims with an equal desire not to be assimilated to an American or even a purely “Western” culture or civilization or way of life, the Mediterranean idea merits careful exploration.3
Finally, Kojève’s “Latin Empire” idea may offer insight on the question of whether the functions of the welfare state ought to be performed, and to what extent, at the European level. On the left, Jürgen Habermas, among others, has suggested that a transnational redistributive function is a critical element of a European polity, and indeed a necessary response to “economic” globalization. Indeed, it is often argued that “Europe” distinguishes itself from America by a more generous, or at least more “socialist,” approach to the question of distribution. But Kojève observes that the balance between market justice and equality of result or status in a society, or even a transnational grouping, will depend on cultural and spiritual identity. In the present essay, Kojève puts the matter as follows: “[T]here is nothing to suggest that the ‘liberalism’ of great unregulated cartels and massive unemployment dear to the Anglo-Saxon bloc and the leveling and sometimes ‘barbaric’ ‘statism’ of the Soviet Union, exhaust all possibilities of rational economic and social organization.” In the Outline of a Phenomenology of Right and elsewhere, he is even more emphatic — such extreme capitalist or pure “socialist” solutions are doomed to self-destruction because they are not rational, as they suppress one or another of the essential elements in the principle of equal recognition on which every rational society must be based.
The “Latin Empire” will be the avant-garde of a world where economic surplus will increasingly be directed to providing more leisure to all; the humanization of work (early Marx) will ultimately mean the humanization of leisure. Here, Kojève has in mind Aristotelian leisure for everyone, and not the decadent condition of the “Last Man” that Fukuyama portrayed. The humanization of leisure means the synthesis of purposive intelligence and creativity that man perfects through work with the spontaneity and absence of necessity that characterize play (Marx’s Paris Manuscripts; Schiller’s Aesthetic Education of Mankind).
In France’s hopes for the four-day workweek, one can see the political economy of the Latin Empire at work. But is that kind of policy a feasible basis for a pan-European social welfare state? In order for the European project not to destabilize, it must be non-threatening to the maintenance and evolution of the different balances between market and “socialist” justice that emerge from different cultural and spiritual sensibilities within Europe. That means that Europe’s economic arrangements — including its external trade policy — have to be designed so that they undermine neither the greater “socialist” tendency of the Latin Empire nor the greater “capitalist” tendency of the United Kingdom, for instance. Or, one might add, some of the more communitarian forms of capitalism characteristic of the Slav world (that are often condemned too rapidly by Anglo-American economists as mere “cronyism”).
Here, “Europe” may have a very special role in the evolution of globalization: that of ensuring appropriate “subsidiarity” in the institutions of global economic governance, such as the World Trade Organization, such that these regimes accommodate and do not undermine, in their liberalizing effects on flows of goods, services, and capital, different approaches to the mixed economy.4 This is where the Europe of today could have a real impact in counterbalancing the United States to the long-term benefit of both.

1 The author wishes to thank Timothy Garton Ash and Kalypso Nicolaidis for their invitation to present some of these ideas at the Centre for European Studies, St. Anthony’s College, Oxford University, and very useful comments on that first effort to come to grips with Kojève’s “Latin Empire” and its contemporary significance. Conversations with Peter Berkowitz, Tod Lindberg, Daniel Halberstam, Martti Koskenniemi, and David Kennedy were also enormously useful.

2 For an unusual contrary argument from a leading scholar of the European Union, see Joseph Weiler, Un’Europa Christiana (2004), and my critical response, “Piety and the Preamble,” Legal Affairs (May-June 2004).

3 The EU has a Mediterranean initiative, but its potential has been blocked both by hostility towards Israel, a crucial player in any future Mediterranean integration, and by the Cyprus problem (itself related to the question of Turkey and its place in “Europe”).

4 See Kalypso Nicolaidis and Robert Howse, “This Is My EUtopia,” Journal of Common Market Studies (1993).