September 15, 2004


Kojève’s Latin Empire (Robert Howse, August 2004, Policy Review)

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.

Actually, Mr. Fukuyama was quite right and Kojeve obviously wrong, as America's continued rise to global hegemony and Europe's rapid decline towards existential crisis amply demonstrates.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 15, 2004 6:40 AM

It's hard to imagine Chileans, Brazilians and Mexicans looking to France for leadership.

Posted by: pj at September 15, 2004 7:35 AM


Maybe not (though there are many more Garcia Marquez' than there are Mario Vargas Llosas).

It is plain to see, however, that France has taken on the role of political spokesman for the Arab world.

France and Syria: A Tangled History

Posted by: Eugene S. at September 15, 2004 3:17 PM