Alexandre Kojève After Revolutionary Terror

Kojeve's theory of revolutionary action can provide us with a better perspective on the historical significance of the more recent revolutions across the 'middle-eastern' region of the 'Dernier monde nouveau'.

The Russian book cover of Kojève’s Notion of Authority

If the French and Russian revolutions provided two models of post-revolutionary politics, neither of them  led to the realisation of a universal and homogenous state, an empirical existence where State, Right and Religion would become obsolete. Kojève’s overlooked theory of revolutionary action describes a mode of existence ruled by the universal and homogenous authority of judges, leaders and masters within the horizon of post-revolutionary terror and the global particular bourgeois state.

Often described as the philosopher of the end of history, Kojève mostly wrote about a form of modern post-revolutionary existence where history becomes “bad infinity”. As Picasso’s Guernica comes to Tunis in the next two days, and on-going popular protest is reclaiming public spaces around the world, Kojève’s theory of revolutionary action can provide us with a better perspective on the historical significance of the more recent revolutions across the “middle-eastern” region of the “Dernier monde nouveau“.

The most common misinterpretation of Alexandre Kojève’s philosophy has something to do with a footnote on the “post-historical condition” which he added to the second edition of his lectures on Hegel.

A closer reading of his oeuvre attests to the fact that virtually his life-time intellectual work was not about the end of history but rather a terrifying reflection on how human history is, in one of its chapters, nothing other than bad infinity within the ever receding horizon of the post-revolutionary “heterogeneous and particular bourgeois state.”

Since the mid 30s, Kojève scandalised the audience of his lectures on Hegel with the lurid substitution of Napoleon with Stalin. The former, he claimed, is the key to unlocking the mystery of the Phenomenology of Spirit, but in his view, Stalin is the “man of action” who inaugurated the era of the post-revolutionary state.

Who is Kojève’s Stalin in the context of his philosophy of action, and more precisely “revolutionary action” within historical, that is to say, human time? What exactly happens when the “tyrant” of the French revolution mutates into the “tyrant” of the Russian Revolution? What does Stalin mean in the context of the theme of “Saint Russia”, its princely myths and Orthodox Christianity, to Kojève who used to refer to God as “my colleague”?

Both the tragic Napoleon and the farcical Stalin as “tyrants” of the post-revolutionary state were in actual fact products of the same historical condition and similar, in that respect, to other “tyrants” evoked in one of Kojève’s letters to Carl Schmitt. American industrialist Henry Ford seems to have something in common with his political enemy, foreign minister and devout Stalinist Viacheslav Molotov “in a cow-boy hat”. Even more disturbing, is the post-revolutionary “tyrant” evoked in Kojève’s 1942 manuscript on authority where he portrays Maréchal Petain as a humiliated father of Nazi-occupied France, and his project for a “révolution nationale” as a “simulacrum revolution.”

The Kojevean notion of authority rests on four irreducible pillars: Judge, Master, Leader and Father. Interestingly, the authority of the father is identified as the weakest link in the post-revolutionary state. Kojève’s astounding statement in La Quainzaine littéraire in 1968 when he claimed: “I was a communist, I had no reason to leave Russia” makes sense only in light of his interpretation of the post-revolutionary state as a universal condition with a uniform type of authority where right, mastery or leadership rule supreme. Symbolically, when Kojève left Moscow at the end of January in 1920, he has already lost his father in Tsarist Russia’s war with Japan, then his step-father between the two Russian revolutions.

The Kojevean fatherless “modern world” has come into being ex-nihilo through a revolutionary act (of absolute freedom). In other words, everything we recognise today as “modern” is an ideological offspring of the French and Russian revolutions. So when Kojève identified Marx with Heidegger as key references in any post-Hegelian future philosophical project, he was bringing together the “philosophy of work” and the “philosophy of death” as defining parameters of our modern post-revolutionary world.

First, there is revolutionary action which must be understood in its modern dimension as something different from ancient revolts. Then, there is the necessary moment of revolutionary terror, a point where the absolute freedom of revolutionary action is suppressed by an equally absolute form of freedom.

The modern revolutionary, unlike his or her “pagan” counterpart, can no longer aspire to a “sacred” death nor to a symbolic burial. The casualties of modern revolutions died a death which must not be taken personally, so to speak and is no longer even a legal question for juridical authority. Consequently, the anachronistic martyrs and saints of the post-revolutionary world can only be relics of a pre-modern consciousness, and the “state” which may arise from their ashes or on their mummified corpse is a derelict mausoleum for a deluded historical consciousness.

Both revolutionary action and revolutionary terror are dialectically surpassed while being conserved in a post-revolutionary State dominated by work, and which Kojève predicts will tend to be nationalist first, then imperial and ultimately universal. The end or aim of the post-revolutionary modern state is to become both universal and homogeneous, a point at which it actually disappears as a political entity, because it will no longer have an enemy.

In Kojève’s reading, neither universality nor homogeneity have been reached in the seemingly interminable post-revolutionary state. We are indeed still living in the historical aftermath of revolutionary terror, but in different and seemingly opposite conditions in relation to the “homogenous” and the “universal”.

In this specific context of his philosophical reflection on modern revolutions, and around 1943, Kojève shifts gear from the “phenomenology of spirit” to a “phenomenology of right”. What this shift means in Kojève’s oeuvre is that he was effectively engaging with a philosophical project on post-revolutionary history and the causes of its de-realisation rather than, as widely popularised from Fukuyama to Agamben, indulging in a playful and cynical reflection on the end of history and the beginning of animality.

Whether subjects of the absolute hegemony of bourgeois right, or as the non-particular entities of the totalitarian state labouring under equal economic conditions, we are all living under the uniform historical time of post-revolutionary terror and absolute freedom.

Thinking this particular post-revolutionary condition in those terms is the philosophical task recognised in Kojève’s work in the early 40s and which may also provide a better context to understand his “Latin Empire” or the Russian manuscript he left with Georges Bataille, a copy of which was allegedly dispatched to Stalin in mysterious circumstances.

In Kojève’s work after the lectures on Hegel, the scale of universality and homogeneity are explicitly posited as the hypothetical frame which measures to what extent the “terrorist state” born out of revolutionary action and revolutionary terror, meaning the human (atheist) modern world founded by an act of absolute freedom, have managed to sublate these two mutually antithetical forms of action. Kojève left us with a sinister conclusion: neither the Western world created from the French Revolution, nor the Eastern world which came out of the Russian Revolution managed to establish a perfect model of the universal and homogenous state. This is precisely the world we all share today within the same triangle of a global authority supported by judges, masters and leaders.

When Kojève’s life ended in Brussels on June 4th 1968 while arguing for European integration and the common market, he may not have been, as his biographer suggests, “a renegade intellectual who confused Reason with Raison d’état”. His transition from the “Republic of Letters” (a phrase he used disparagingly to describe the bourgeois intellectual of the post-revolutionary state), to the company of international political economists is not contradictory in the context of his philosophy. Kojève, an accelerationist avant la lettre, was perhaps working under the universal authority of the particular and heterogeneous empire, he astutely recognised as such, in order to unhinge it from its bad infinity and readjust its course in the orbit of its end.

Hager Weslati, Kingston University & the London Graduate School

Show References

Alexandre Kojève, Introduction à la lecture de Hegel. (Gallimard, 1947), Esquisse d’une phénoménologie du droit (Gallimard, 1981) “Carl Schmitt- Kojève Correspondence” in Interpretation: a Journal of Political Philosophy Vol. 29, n. 1, Fall 2001; “Extraits d’un inédit d’Alexandre Kojève: Esquisse d’une doctrine de la politique française” (a version of which is popularised as ‘the Latin Empire’) in colloques de la BNF : Hommage à Alexandre
; The Notion of Authority (Verso, 2013)

Biographical sources: Dominique Auffret, Alexandre Kojève: la philosophie, l’État, la fin de l’Histoire (Grasset & Fasquelle, 1990), A revised intellectual biography focused on Kojève’s formative early 20s- mid 40s was compiled by Marco Filoni in Il filosofo della domenica. La vita e il pensiero di Alexandre Kojève (2008)

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  2 comments for “Alexandre Kojève After Revolutionary Terror

  1. 24 August 2013 at 1:48 pm

    Really cool post, highly useful and creatively-written..Good Job

  2. Benjamin Pavitt
    5 July 2014 at 8:10 am

    Tocqueville remarked that the chaos of the French revolution was mostly caused by the unwillingness of the aristocracy to accept the lack of legitimacy of pre-revolutionary France. If enough aristocrats had done like Lafayette and sought to mold the new French state instead of denying its existence and begging foreign powers to intervene on their behalf, there might have been sufficient counterbalance, as their was in America, to prevent either chaos or totalitarianism or both. The aftermath of the Arab Spring did not fail from a lack of hegemonic influences; it failed because instead of take control of their country the technocratic elite fled to Western nations and, as in Iran, left the poorly educated to run the State as a theocratic reactionary despotism.

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