Alexandre Kojeve:
The Roots of Postmodern Politics

by Shadia B. Drury,
ISBN: 0312120923

Post Your Opinion
Heaven on Earth - Yours, at a Price
by Bryan-paul Frost

This book on the political thought and influence of Alexandre Kojčve is further testimony to the absolutely central place this left-wing French philosopher occupies for anyone who wants to think seriously about the meaning of modernity and post-modernity. Shadia Drury is not the first person to take an interest in Kojčve. In America, Kojčve's political thought was recently appropriated and popularized by Francis Fukuyama in his run-away best-seller, The End of History and the Last Man. But Canadians did not have to wait for Fukuyama to become acquainted with Kojčve: George Grant had already introduced him to his readers many years before in Technology and Empire. Grant saw Kojčve as perhaps the most thoughtful and powerful exponent of the goals and aspirations of modernity, and Grant's penetrating reflections probably influenced later Canadian scholars such as Barry Cooper and Tom Darby to turn to Kojčve's writings. Drury, too, is a Canadian, a professor at the University of Calgary.

Who was Alexandre Kojčve, and why have Canadians continued to take an interest in his political philosophy?

He is best known for a series of lectures he gave in Paris from 1933 to 1939 on Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit (published in English as Introduction to the Reading of Hegel). Kojčve's auditors were a veritable who's who list of future French intellectuals. Persons as different as Raymond Aron, Georges Bataille, André Breton, Father Gaston Fessard, Jacques Lacan, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Raymond Queneau, and Eric Weil attended his course and were influenced by his interpretation of Hegel. During these lectures, Kojčve coined what is certainly one of the most worn out and misunderstood phrases of our time: "the end of history". By this, he did not mean that wars and revolutions would be eliminated in the foreseeable future; nor did he mean that newspapers would lack sundry material to fill their pages. He meant first and foremost the end of the history of the development of politics. The most satisfying and fully rational form of government would be one which embodied the principles of the French Revolution, namely liberty, equality, and fraternity. Kojčve called this final form of government the universal and homogenous state. The state was universal (i.e., encompassed all of humanity) because he saw no reason why people should be disadvantaged simply on account of where they were born; and it was homogenous because he believed that everyone should enjoy equal rights and duties. In addition, Kojčve argued that modern science and technology would continue to exploit with ever greater efficiency and ingenuity the power of nature, and this, in turn, would secure the material prosperity of all citizens. In the universal and homogenous state, wealth would be fairly distributed, people would live long and healthy lives, and everyone would have the opportunity to pursue those activities they found most fulfilling.

If all of this sounds like heaven on earth, it is-but Kojčve emphasized that it was heaven on earth, without the crutch of religion. Kojčve found in Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit a convincing and wholly atheistic account of human history and progress, an account that demonstrated that human beings and human beings alone determine their future and that this is the future human beings want above all else. Phenomena such as nationalism, Islamic fundamentalism, neo-nazism, and radical environmentalism are nothing more than rear-guard actions by recalcitrant groups and states in response to the global expansion of technology and the ideals of the French Revolution. But when the push of History comes to shove, people will be persuaded that a Kojčvean future is the best and brightest of all, and no one will seriously advocate returning to some pre-modern form of government. Inevitably, nation-states will give way to ever larger trading blocks, and these, in turn, will slowly consolidate as humanity unites under a single form of government. Although Kojčve himself wrote a great deal in his spare time, in true Hegelian fashion he spent most of his life working as a high-level civil servant in the Direction des relations économiques extérieures. He was according to everyone who worked with him the éminence grise of French economic policy, and he was the instrumental in promoting European Union, the GATT negotiations, and fairer North-South trade relations.

George Grant recognized that Kojčve's universal and homogenous state embodied the goals and aspirations of modernity. According to Grant, modernity had set about to conquer human and non-human nature with the expectation that this would finally allow human beings to become masters of their own fate. By shaping the world to respond to our needs, we would be liberated from natural scarcity, disease, overwork, and poverty; and with our new found freedom, we could set about creating the conditions for the happiness of one and all. Grant, however, raised some serious questions regarding Kojčve's claim that the universal and homogenous is the best political order simply. While fully aware that technology has made millions of people materially prosperous, Grant wondered how we would use our freedom to satisfy the needs of our soul: would we engage in genuinely high and praiseworthy pursuits at the end of history, or would we flock towards ever more vulgar and titillating forms of entertainment? Living north of the border of the most technologically advanced society, Grant was probably more aware than his American counterparts of the practical significance for Canadians of coming to grips with Kojčve's arguments: for if Kojčve was right that a universal and homogenous state is the best political order, then the disappearance of Canada should be counted as a blessing in History's forward march toward human bliss and perfection.

Two recent Canadian scholars have taken up and developed many of the same themes which Grant raised. In The End of History: An Essay on Modern Hegelianism (University of Toronto Press, 1984), Barry Cooper agrees with Grant that Kojčve's political thought expresses the self-understanding of modernity. Cooper knows that Kojčve's remarks about the end of history and the universal and homogenous state will probably strike many readers as eccentric or even nonsensical, and one of the virtues of his book is that he "demystifies" both Kojčve and Hegel by offering a long and detailed interpretation of their historical and political philosophies. At the end of the book, he uses this interpretation to explain a variety of modern phenomena-from imperialism to multinational corporations-arguing that Kojčve and Hegel are indispensable in helping us make sense of the world today. By contrast, Tom Darby's The Feast: Meditations on Politics and Time (University of Toronto Press, 1982) examines the spiritual and political impact of the modern emphasis on finding meaning in the historical process. Kojčve receives special attention because his political philosophy is based upon his philosophy of history, and Darby engages in a lively debate with Kojčve as to whether or not our humanity will be fulfilled or degraded at the end of history. This is a wide-ranging book which covers a number of topics and thinkers, from semiotics to religion, and from Rousseau to Jakob Böhme. Both books, however, provide a thoughtful and thought-provoking interpretation of Kojčve, and they can be read profitably by those interested in Kojčve and Hegel, in particular, and modernity, in general.

Although Shadia Drury is well aware of Kojčve's influential role as an academic and civil servant, she is not at all amused by his vision of modernity. Behind the "seductive" and even "hypnotic" facade of the "great storyteller" Kojčve lies a dark and ominous world. According to her, Kojčve's universal and homogenous state is more likely to be hell on earth, and she is on a crusade to expose him and his followers, and to save us from his "vulgar", "irrational", and even "fascistic" influence. This might be one reason why she does not find George Grant's work illuminating, and why she does not even mention Barry Cooper and Tom Darby: these three scholars took Kojčve to be a genuine philosopher, though they had disagreements with his philosophy.

Drury argues that Kojčve's philosophy represents the ultimate triumph of "instrumental" rationality, that application of reason which is in the service of technological and economic progress. According to Drury, this is a "cold" and "heartless" type of reason, one which is completely indifferent to our spiritual life. Kojčve's reason disenchants the world as it ruthlessly conquers and exploits it, and we will soon discover that the world has been stripped of any and all myths and mysteries. Moreover, the application of this kind of rationality in science and capitalism does not promote democracy or egalitarianism as Kojčve claims; rather, science and capitalism actually increase the power and wealth of the few rich over the many poor. In the final analysis, Kojčve's universal and homogenous state will be peopled by soulless, oppressed, and atomized individuals who will know nothing of the joys and beauties of life.

But this is not the worst of it. Drury correctly sees that if history is over, then there is no longer the possibility of performing great and glorious actions as there was in the past. Heroic deeds and noble self-sacrifices would not be meaningful but anachronistic in a world which is supposed to be fully satisfying to human beings. Where she disagrees with Kojčve is whether the end of history entails the fulfillment and completion of our humanity or its total abasement. Drury argues that the latter is true. The end of history means the end of our humanity, and we will become flaccid, self-satisfied creatures who are interested in little more than living a comfortable, peaceable existence-albeit with plenty of sports, sex, and entertainment. In the long run, however, this will hardly satisfy us. Sooner or later, we will wake up and find ourselves enclosed in a colourless and boring prison of our own creation, with nowhere to go and nothing more to do.

Sensing later in his life what the full implications were of the end of history, Drury claims that Kojčve began to "wax nostalgic" about what had previously been the motor of history, namely bloody revolutionary struggles. If the end of history entails the progressive elimination of war and revolution, then it was essential to get history going again by promoting gratuitous or random acts of violence. It is this valorization of violence that gives Kojčve his fascistic tone. According to Drury, Kojčve now began to thirst for a little chaos and irrationality, this being the only way we could demonstrate our freedom in the face of the closure of history. In sum, Drury claims that it is postmodernity's reaction to Kojčve's bleak picture of the future that gives it its "dark romanticism" and "Dionysian frenzy".

Although the core of some of Drury's objections are worth serious consideration, overall she fails to make a prima facie case. Two reasons account for this. In the first place, she does not discuss Kojčve's corpus as a whole. In particular, she fails to discuss at all Kojčve's 600-page Outline of a Phenomenology of Right, his most systematic exploration of the justice of the universal and homogenous state. In the second place, she does not engage in a serious and sustained analysis of Kojčve's arguments. Consequently, she is able to discuss and then to dispense with the economic, political, philosophic, artistic, religious, and psychological implications of the end of history thesis in a mere twenty-three pages-a real tour de force.

Let us begin with Drury's claim that Kojčve is the apotheosis of instrumental rationality. Although Kojčve would not deny that science is going to disenchant the world, he would emphasize why nature is to be conquered: to liberate us from being enslaved to demeaning, back-breaking labour. Once we attain a liberation from natural necessity, we can direct our energies to the activities that we find most fulfilling. First and foremost among these is philosophy. According to Kojčve, knowledge about who we are as human beings would satisfy some of the deepest longings of our soul, and it would more than compensate for the myths and mysteries science undermined. Drury pays scant attention to the importance of philosophy for Kojčve, probably because she does not believe he has articulated the truth about human beings. But surely she would have to admit that knowledge is more satisfying than myth, and that even if reason does disenchant the world, knowledge of who we are as human beings would more than make up for the loss. At all events, Drury does not really acknowledge the very obvious improvement in the lives of millions of people that modern science and capitalism have achieved. Unless Drury can show that we can have both the benefits of science and enchantment, she is left either to advocate the elimination of technology altogether or to demonstrate the possibility of some as yet unheard of alternative.

No-one familiar with Kojčve will deny that he zeroed in on the importance of violence in human history. But it is one thing to understand the importance of violence and war, and quite another to advocate it for its own sake. According to Kojčve, wars and revolutions were instrumental in tearing down old and unjust political orders and in erecting new and better ones. As he saw it, the effect of violence was the progressive improvement of the human race: more individuals were enfranchised, more persons were considered worthy of rights, and more people were given the means to lead productive, dignified lives. As those in positions of power were not likely to relinquish their authority voluntarily, violence was necessary in order to create egalitarian social orders. Contrary to Drury's assertion, Kojčve never advocated violence for its own sake, and the entire violent history of human beings was only justified because in the end wars and revolutions would be eliminated altogether. One may question whether he was right in this assessment but one cannot not question his intent.

And finally, Drury's claim that the end of history is the abasement of humanity must be examined more closely. Drury is right to point out that the end of history means that the glorious actions and self-sacrifices of the past would no longer be possible, but she fails to address adequately whether or not the end product is worth it. Kojčve is more thoughtful here than Drury gives him credit for. We need only ask ourselves whether or not we would like to see an end to wars, to poverty, and even an end to Canada altogether if it meant the progressive enfranchisement and betterment of humanity. Drury dismisses Kojčve's vision as silly and unrealistic; but Kojčve knew that the universal and homogenous would not appear in his lifetime. Nevertheless, he was prescient enough to see that human beings have improved their lot since the Second World War; that large, continental trading blocks do seem to be the wave of the future; and that the principles of the French Revolution continue to be the guiding ideals of those states we call civilized. Most every state in the world today justifies itself before the bar of equality and freedom, and this implies that the only legitimate direction for and legitimizing discourse about politics is that of modernity. If the goals and aspirations of modernity mean the triumph of a universal consumer and technological culture, at least Kojčve was thoughtful enough to know its price, a price he argued we were willing to pay.

These criticisms notwithstanding, Drury's discussion of Kojčve's influence on post-war French intellectuals is informative. According to Drury, the novelist Raymond Queneau's attitude towards the end of history was one of "playful resignation", so that his novels depict Kojčvean sages living in a post-historical world. George Bataille's and Michel Foucault's reaction to Kojčve's vision of modernity, by contrast, was outright rebellion; consequently, they began to long "for the delights of the forbidden and the glory of transgression." Anyone interested in these thinkers would do well to consult her book. As an introduction to the political philosophy of Kojčve, however, it cannot be recommended. We can close by pointing out that Kojčve's thought continues to be compelling, and even those persons who vehemently disagree with him cannot dismiss him silently.

Bryan-Paul Frost is a Ph.D. candidate in political theory at the University of Toronto. His thesis is on Alexandre Kojčve's juridical writings.


Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us