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Volume 10, Number 2 - March 2000 FOCUS: Post Cold War Politics  
Table of contents for this issue  
The Spy Who Loved Hegel

By Matthew Price
Theme: After the Cold War

WAS ALLAN BLOOM'S FAVORITE STALINIST A KGB AGENT? Concerned Hegelians want to know, ever since Le Monde published allegations in September that the philosopher Alexandre Kojève spied for the Soviet Union for the last thi rty years of his life.

Le Monde cited a three-page memo that France's counterespionage service, the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire (DST), had compiled in 1982-83 under the title "L'espionnage de l'Est et la gauche" (Eastern-bloc espionage and the left). If th e DST memo was accurate, the newspaper wrote, Kojève "would have played an important role in the networks of Charles Hernu and of the KGB."

This didn't quite constitute proof against the philosopher, whose famous seminar on Hegel inspired a generation of radical French intellectuals. Although Kojève wasn't alive to defend himself, a living politician also tarred by the DST memo called it "a tissue of stupidities." Neither Le Monde nor DST released the memo to the public.

STILL, IT SOUNDED BAD. Charles Hernu, the alleged ringleader, was Kojève's office mate at the French Ministry of Economic Affairs during the 1960s. In 1996 L'Express claimed that Hernu had spied for the Romanian, Bulgarian, and So viet secret services during the 1950s and 1960s. Later, two Romanian spymasters claimed the KGB made the whole thing up, but the mauvaise odeur around Hernu, who served as François Mitterrand's minister of defense, still hasn't dissipated.

Did the KGB fabricate a file on Kojève, too? After the article in Le Monde, Kojève's defenders lambasted the paper's sketchy evidence and seemingly McCarthyite tactics. Others, however, judged the new evidence substantial enough to convict. Britain's right-wing Daily Telegraph proclaimed with melodramatic alliteration that "this miraculous mandarin turns out to have been a malevolent mole." In the United States, The New Criterion used the occasion to take a swipe at Kojève's seminal i nterpretations of Hegel, calling them "almost comical in their fuzzy megalomania."

And yet it's odd that the conservative press should rejoice at Kojève's fall from grace. He isn't quite their enemy, even if he did once call himself "Stalin's conscience." Leo Strauss, guru to a generation of American conservative political philos ophers, admired Kojève, and the two men corresponded for years. Allan Bloom called Kojève's Introduction á la lecture de Hegel (1947) "one of the few important philosophical books of the twentieth century." And Kojève pr ovided the title idea of Francis Fukuyama's essay "The End of History?" -- namely, that history had a direction and a conclusion, which Fukuyama located in the triumph of Western democracies in the Cold War.

Could a Left Hegelian admired by so many Right Hegelians have been working for Moscow?

BORN ALEXANDRE VLADIMIROVITCH KOJÈVNIKOV in 1902 to a wealthy Moscow family, Kojève grew up among the leading lights of the Russian intelligentsia. His uncle was the painter Wassily Kandinsky. But his family's fortunes sour ed with the revolution: Thrust into poverty, the young Kojève was arrested and condemned to execution in 1917 for selling soap on the black market. With Dostoyevskian timing, family friends intervened to spare him from the firing squad at the last minute. Kojève left prison a committed communist. But he nonetheless foresaw, he later told an interviewer, that the Bolshevik seizure of power would usher in "thirty terrible years."

In 1920, he fled to Poland, where he was again arrested, this time because Polish authorities suspected him of being a Bolshevik infiltrator. After a short stint in prison, he ended up at the University of Heidelberg, where he completed a dissertation und er the supervision of Karl Jaspers. After graduation, Kojève moved to Paris to teach.

It was in Paris that Kojève secured his fame. In 1933, at L'Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, he held a seminar on Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit that attracted a Who's Who of twentieth-century French thinkers: surrealist André Breto n, philosopher Georges Bataille, phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, sociologist Raymond Aron, psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, and experimental novelist Raymond Queneau. Bataille was so thrilled by Kojève's lectures that he experienced the abject: The seminar left him "broken, crushed, killed ten times over, suffocated and nailed down." Aron thought Kojève one of the most superior minds he had known -- "smarter than Sartre," he said.

Kojève read Hegel idiosyncratically -- as if Marx hadn't needed to stand Hegel on his feet because he'd been a materialist all along. In Hegel's parable of the struggle between master and slave for mutual recognition, for example, Kojève alr eady saw the Marxist struggle between the classes. Hegel had once described Napoleon as the world-spirit on horseback, and Kojève -- excited by some Hegel juvenilia unearthed in the 1930s by Alexandre Koyré -- decided that Hegel believed Nap oleon was actually bringing history to an end. Whether or not Hegel believed in the end of history as a datable event, Kojève certainly did. Only in Kojève's opinion, it was Stalin, the red Napoleon, who would finish history off.

That doesn't mean Kojève was a doctrinaire Stalinist. "You have to allow for the fact that in his generation someone like him could simultaneously admire not so much Stalin the man as Stalin the vehicle of historical progress and be admired and lis tened to by people who despised Stalin," says NYU's Tony Judt, author of Past Imperfect: French Intellectuals, 1944-1956.

Indeed, some of Kojève's greatest fans were French leftists put off by the crudeness of Stalinism. Hence the chagrin at the espionage charge among those on the left who still revere Kojève. "If it turns out that Kojève is a polluted s ource," says Judt, "then another leg is kicked out from underneath the rather unstable stool of noncommunist Marxist thought."

AFTER WORLD WAR II, Kojève was canny enough to realize that the world spirit was moving west. After a recalibration, he decided that it was indeed Napoleon, not Stalin, who had brought history to an end. (Just before his death he said, "The Chinese Revolution is nothing but the introduction of the Napoleonic Code into China.") All that was left to do was work out the details of the universal state. In 1948 Kojève took a job at the Centre National du Commerce Extérieur of the French Ministry of Economic Affairs.

Kojève played a significant role in creating Europe's postwar institutions. He helped lay the foundations for the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the European Union. For an erstwhile leftist intellectual, he was remarkably happy in his pro-capitalist desk job. Though he continued to write articles and even books, he called bureaucracy a "superior game" to philosophy, and when a customs scheme of his was accepted, he was overjoyed.

He was reportedly grief stricken on hearing of Stalin's death in 1953, which confounded his colleagues at the ministry. Fukuyama, however, feels that any affection Kojève expressed for Stalin must have been complex, if not ironic. "For all of his p rofessions of belief in Stalinism, that wasn't the core of what he was about," says Fukuyama. "In fact, he felt building the European Community did constitute the end of history."

Others are less charitable about the contradictions in Kojève's character. Shadia Drury, a political scientist at the University of Calgary and author of Alexandre Kojève: The Roots of Postmodern Politics, calls him a "historical dete rminist" -- that is, a historical opportunist. "If he thought Stalin was going to be the end of history, he was on Stalin's side," says Drury. "Once he thought it was the Americans, he was on the Americans' side." Indeed, in 1940 Kojève wrote an es say about the possibility of a Nazi victory in Europe, arguing that collaboration with the victorious Germans would be acceptable if it meant the economic supremacy of Europe.

COULD THIS COMPLEX THINKER have been a Soviet spy? Drury guesses that if Kojève did spy, he would only have done so between 1945 and 1948 -- before he figured out that Stalin was going to be history's loser.

University of Rennes professor Edmond Ortigues doubts Kojève could have been a communist spy, citing his correspondence with the fiercely anticommunist mother he left behind in Moscow. "How can one believe that Kojève was able to trick his mother to the point of playing a double game with her for thirty long years?" Ortigues asks. Unfortunately, although Kojève himself told Ortigues about this correspondence with his mother, Ortigues never read the letters they exchanged, nor does he know if they still exist.

Even if the allegations against Kojève are true, argues Dominique Auffret, Kojève's French biographer, they may not be as straightforward as they at first appear. Auffret notes that the DST distinguished among several categories: "traitor, a gent of influence, simple contact, spy, or simple political sympathizer." Auffret calls for the release of the material so that "it might be made the object of scientific criticism."

Perhaps Kojève considered spying another aspect of the "superior game" he was playing at the ministry. Indeed, Auffret entertains just such a notion: One must consider, he says, "the hypothesis that Kojève sought to use the KGB for his own e nds, and perhaps in perfect agreement with the French government." Or perhaps communism and the west didn't seem so far apart to Kojève. After all, he once declared Henry Ford to be "the only great authentic Marxist of the twentieth century."

Matthew Price is LF's editorial researcher. His article "Who Owns Arthur Koestler?" appeared in the September 1999 issue.


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