In the autumn of 1933, Alexandre Kojève announced to his class that history was over. He did not mean that the apocalypse was at hand, that wars and violence had ceased, that human beings would no longer love, mate, and play. Kojève called himself a god and made a radical reading of Christianity, but he claimed to be a philosopher, not a prophet. History was over because the final truth about human life had at last been discovered—in the thought of Hegel, the subject of Kojève’s seminar. It followed that there could be no serious debate, and no real conflict, over the proper organization of political life. Kojève’s announcement, in the face of a looming disaster, was that the ideological conflicts of his age were a mirage. The future belonged not to socialism, liberalism, or fascism, but to a philosophy, known to him alone, which would succeed them all.
Kojève never held an academic appointment, and his six-year seminar, which ended in 1939, was to be his first and only university class. He had been asked to serve as a replacement lecturer at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, a Paris university founded in 1868 to support research by less-traditional scholars. French philosophy is often said to begin with Descartes, the first philosopher to publish in French, but in the early 1930s it was seeking inspiration beyond its linguistic borders. The cataclysm of the Great War, the rise of extreme political parties, and the growing prestige of Marx’s writings, now widely available in translation, pressed French philosophers to address existential questions about history, violence, and alienation.
Kojève had recently completed his doctorate in Germany, where he spent most of his time studying religious texts and learning Eastern languages. He had no expertise in the seminar’s assigned topic—he initially dismissed Hegel’s thought as “silly”—but his class nonetheless became the most famous in twentieth-century philosophy. Though enrollment was perennially low, many seminar attendees would go on to reshape the intellectual landscape of France in the decades to come. The future celebrities included Raymond Aron, Jacques Lacan, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Georges Bataille, Emmanuel Levinas, Andre Breton, and Eric Weil. They were drawn to the mysterious instructor as much as to the subject matter. Nearly every one of them described Kojève as the most captivating lecturer they had ever encountered. He spoke without a prepared text, and it is thanks to student notes that a complete transcript of the lectures exists.
Year in and year out, Kojève’s seminar consisted of commentary on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. Published in English as Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, the lectures crackle with aphorism, irony, and hyperbole, reflecting Kojève’s views as much as Hegel’s. Though the lectures mocked academic conventions, scholars have never stopped talking about them, or their enigmatic author. Kojève proposed a theory of human nature unlike any in the history of political philosophy. He claimed that human beings were not fundamentally motivated by a desire for knowledge, power, happiness, pleasure, or resources. They were driven by a desire for recognition. Rousseau had identified our comparative impulse as the root of social life and bemoaned our quest to appear worthy in the eyes of others. But Kojève was the first to theorize a politics built entirely around the demand for recognition by those who believe their identities have historically been marginalized or denigrated. His genius was not simply to describe the human desire for status and the hidden conflicts it generated across history. It was to trace the evolution of the human cry for recognition—from the Christian faith that gave birth to it, to the secular tyranny that will complete it.
Born Alexandre Kojevnikov in 1902, Kojève arrived in Paris after fleeing revolutionary Russia as a teenager. A child prodigy from a prominent family (his uncle was the painter Wassily Kandinsky), he converted to Marxism in a Moscow jail cell, where he spent a year for the crime of selling soap on the black market. Kojève always regarded himself as a faithful Marxist, even during his second career in French government, when he was monitored on suspicion of being a Soviet spy. But from the start, he espoused views that deviated from orthodox Marxism. Unable to remain in the young communist state, Kojève fled in 1919, eventually continuing his studies at Heidelberg under the direction of Karl Jaspers.
Kojève shared the political goal of Marxism: to usher in the final stage of human history, which would resolve all social contradictions, allowing human beings to relate to one another as free and equal persons. But he charted a different path to this end. He took inspiration from a famous chapter of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. The chapter offers an allegory about a Master and a Slave. Hegel used the parable to describe different forms of human self-consciousness, whose philosophical evolution his book claimed to reveal. The meaning of history, Hegel argued, is found in the human mind’s movement from simple consciousness (the Master) through growing self-awareness (the Slave) into a state of absolute knowledge. The Phenomenology inaugurated a new kind of philosophy. Its primary concern was not to describe the unchanging truth of things; it was to illuminate how human beings became capable of seeing truth as truth. No other book claims as much for itself. Hegel implied that writing it was an event in which, for the very first time, a man had become perfectly aware of his own rationality. The Phenomenology revealed that the search for truth had reached its everlasting completion in the thought of Hegel.
For Kojève, the figures of Master and Slave were not simply metaphors for philosophical concepts. They were a template for understanding real political actors and the friction of accusation and resentment that agitates every society. Kojève was a storyteller, and he brought this confrontation vividly to life. As he told it, history had begun with a fight to the death for pure prestige. It had begun, that is, when two human beings risked everything in a struggle for recognition.
Kojève’s story placed status conflicts at history’s center. He saw human life as defined by our need to have our special worth acknowledged by others, even at the cost of our lives and possessions. As he put it, “Man is human only to the extent that he wants to impose himself on another man, to be recognized by him.” Kojève therefore read political history as the attempt of Masters to dominate inwardly the Slaves they had outwardly defeated. Whether he looked at opposing armies or ideologies, or at art and religion, Kojève always found one group of people trying to impose its self-image on another—trying to make those “below” affirm the rightful rule of those “above.” History is simply the bloody record of contests for status supremacy. It chronicles the Master’s need to derive his self-worth from the Slave, and the gradual awakening of the Slave to the freedom and equality he is denied.
Kojève joked that his lectures were “political propaganda,” but they advanced a fascinating theory of human behavior, whose pathologies he promised to solve. Although an atheist, Kojève believed there was a “spiritual” drive to human life that could not be understood in purely material terms. It is his most interesting claim, and it effectively repudiated both liberal and Marxist theories of society. Kojève not only denied that we are driven by a desire for biological self-preservation or economic well-being; he denied that these are properly human motivations at all. What makes us human? Kojève’s answer was intriguing: Man is a being who flirts with death. What makes us human, he explained, is our unique ability to contradict our animal desires for merely natural goods. Kojève was impressed by the apparent gratuitousness of human behavior—by our ability to sacrifice everything for a symbol, a motto, or a line on a map. “Without this fight to the death,” he wrote, “there would never have been human beings on earth.”
The Western tradition interprets this excess as a fruit of man’s desire for transcendence. We toss aside concerns about pleasure, even survival, in order to bind ourselves to higher things. Kojève studied Christian theology intensely, and he knew this tradition of thought well, but he did not see our striving as an expression of our desire for God. We transcend the animal world only because the proper object of our desires is other human desires. As he put it, “Man feeds on human desires as an animal feeds on natural things.” For Kojève, our deepest need is therefore relational and psychological. It is to have others see and value us as we wish to be seen and valued. More than anything, we want to be socially esteemed, to have our identities properly acknowledged. More wounding than anything is to be ignored or disparaged.
Kojève’s picture of human desire rejected the materialism of Marx. The value we seek to extract from one another is not economic, he argued, but social. It is the acknowledgement that we are politically and culturally preeminent—that other people live “in our frame,” not we in theirs. Kojève called this basic need a “desire for recognition,” and it opened up a radically new vision of political life. It saw identities as more important than ideologies, position as more important than power, and appearance as more important than facts. The history of politics was therefore an existential struggle, and Kojève revealed its basic script. Masters are those whose identities are fully recognized by their society and reflected in its culture. Slaves are those whose identities are not.
Yet Slaves drive history. Kojève invited his students to imagine the past from a revisionary point of view. History is not the record of great men’s deeds, nor is it explained by the laws of economic development. Kojève identified Slaves as “the source of all human, social, [and] historical progress.” He meant this in a philosophical sense: All human progress, all genuine creativity, flowed from the struggles of those deprived of recognition. Kojève followed Hegel in explaining the arc of Western history from the perspective of its invisible underclass. Understood correctly, the history of art, politics, and religion is a testimony to that class’s hidden acts of creativity and resistance. But Kojève suggested more, with implications that were politically explosive. As the Slave attains agency, he not only learns to fight for the freedom and equality he is denied; he comes to understand freedom and equality as the means by which the subjugated rise from anonymity to recognition. To grasp the meaning of history, Kojève taught his students, one must see it through the eyes of its unseen victims.
Kojève was more interested in building the future than in deconstructing the past. His overriding goal was to abolish Masters and Slaves forever, making impossible the humiliation of being seen (and seeing oneself) as possessing a subservient identity. This abolition would be the most important event in human history, since it would stop the wheel of history itself. How could we end the fights for prestige that had always defined human life? Kojève believed that with Hegel’s help he had accomplished just that. Human history was over—in theory, though not yet in fact. It had ended the moment the secret of human desire was revealed and a new form of political recognition became possible.
Kojève’s idea, untangled from a dense web of Hegelian arguments, is remarkably familiar. If human beings would learn to see one another as individuals, equal in rights and dignity, then a world of Masters and Slaves could be transformed into a world of global citizens. Kojève envisioned a political regime, inspired by the ideal of universal equality, in which no person or community would be subjected to the self-image of another, and in which all human beings, rather than the privileged few, enjoyed full recognition. He claimed that this ideal had been affirmed by the French Revolution and advanced by the Russian Revolution. But when grasped philosophically, he announced, the ideal of “equal recognition” marked a point of no return in human history. By opening our eyes to a society premised on equality, rather than on dominance and submission, it gradually changes the human condition from within. It does so not by eliminating our craving for recognition, but by transforming it—converting our desire for supremacy into a zeal for equality. Kojève’s lectures pointed toward a new political regime, one organized so as to satisfy (and inculcate) a desire to accord all persons equal recognition.
He called it a “universal and homogenous state,” and in the climate of the 1930s, it must have seemed naive. He imagined a political community in which differences of race, class, and sex were annulled through the universal enjoyment of human rights, and the global rule of law and democratic elections protected equal recognition. Kojève would be celebrated in the 1990s as a prophet of globalism, and it is easy to see why. He welcomed the blurring of borders and the blending of cultures and looked forward to the day when human beings would have few reasons to fight because they had identical tastes, habits, and values. But if Kojève hailed the open society, he also sought to close it to any new possibilities. The rule of Masters over Slaves was to be abolished, but the exercise of political power certainly was not. Kojève dreamed of a regime that “embrace[d] the whole of the human race” but did not require a world government. What was essential was a leadership class, linking nations around the globe, who understood the peculiar purpose of their authority.
Kojève boasted that he had discovered the form of political rule whose authority rested on the verdict of history. Its legitimacy required no appeal to God, national sovereignty, or even popular opinion, because every other political possibility had been objectively refuted. At the end of humanity’s political evolution, we therefore reach a new kind of human governance, secure in the certainty that it represents the summit of history. Its primary purpose is not to provide for our physical needs or security. Kojève’s lectures predicted the birth of the managerial state and the convergence of capitalism and communism, but he expressed little concern over material inequality. Instead, he foresaw a society whose chief purpose was to “satisfy” the growing need for psychological equality. This purpose not only required devising legal and bureaucratic institutions to promote equal recognition and to manage conflicts over its just distribution, topics that consumed Kojève’s writing in later years. It also required emancipating humanity from the religious ideas that had enslaved it.
The interest Kojève had in Christianity was intellectual, not spiritual. His dissertation on the Russian theologian Vladimir Soloviev evinced no piety, and nothing in his early notebooks suggests that he ever believed. But theological puzzles fill his work. He insisted that his political thought was “incompatible with theism,” and he gently discouraged French Jesuits from trying to reconcile Catholicism with Hegel. But he also claimed, with perfect sincerity, that “all that Christian theology says is absolutely true,” and that the “categories” of Christian belief should be preserved. The result was a theo-political paradox. As he envisioned it, a state whose highest value is equality must suppress every trace of transcendence and prevent the reemergence of traditional institutions. But it is also the fulfillment of Christian faith, whose destiny is to depose the God who originally inspired it.
Kojève traced the origins of the idea of equal recognition to the Christian doctrine of God, which awoke in believers an awareness of personal identity that had no precedent in pagan antiquity. Christianity not only denied that human identities are determined by the accidents of birth—ancient philosophers had already argued as much. It also taught that our true identities are formed by our individual responses to God’s offer of salvation. Kojève had no interest in the supernatural, but he was fascinated by Christianity’s influence on human subjectivity, especially by the way it subtly undercut earthly hierarchies and uprooted believers from their communities. Christianity tolerated and sometimes blessed human inequalities, and it left little room for private judgement on matters of doctrine. But according to Kojève, Christianity offered to every human being, regardless of his worldly status, the dignity of being “recognized” by God. In Christ, if not among men, there were no Masters or Slaves.
With that revolutionary idea, Christianity had sown the seeds of its own demise—as well as its final flowering. Kojève’s lectures attempted to show that Christianity had implanted in human beings a desire for equality that ultimately could not be contained within the bounds of Christian orthodoxy, nor within any vision of transcendence. “The Christian frees himself from the human master,” Kojève alleged, “only to be enslaved to the divine Master.” Kojève was not the first to argue that Christianity undermined every human authority yet trapped believers in perpetual servitude to God. But his lectures were original in one respect. He claimed that Christian belief, correctly understood, leads necessarily to unbelief. Since the “inner truth and greatness” of Christianity (as one Kojève scholar put it) is to rid the world of Masters and Slaves, its last insurrectionary act must be to liberate humanity from bondage to the divine Master as well. “The whole evolution of the Christian world,” Kojève concluded, “is nothing but a progress toward the atheistic awareness.”
Kojève’s time in the classroom was brief. In 1945, he entered the French Ministry of Economic Affairs, becoming an architect of trade agreements that led to the formation of the European Economic Community and the European Union. As an advisor and confidante to French presidents including Charles de Gaulle, Kojève became the grey eminence of a rising managerial class in the Fifth Republic. He continued to work as a “Sunday philosopher,” authoring book reviews and elaborating his Hegelian dream of a universal state. His second career only enhanced his reputation as an unorthodox and slightly mysterious Marxist. He offered qualified praise to Stalin and Mao, drawing the attention of France’s counterespionage services. But he also cautioned that the goals of Marxism were now being reached by means of capitalism, which erased class markers more effectively than did the Soviet state. “The only great authentic Marxist of the twentieth century,” he declared, was Henry Ford.
Kojève’s legacy rests on his lectures, however, and their fame grew after he left the classroom. Until his death in 1968, graduate students made pilgrimages to his government office, hoping to meet the philosopher-bureaucrat overseeing the end of history. They included pupils of Allan Bloom, who called Kojève “the most brilliant man I ever met” and introduced his lectures to a generation of American neoconservatives. Francis Fukuyama’s bestselling 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man popularized Kojève in explaining the ascendency of liberal democracy, whose global march was eliminating every political vestige of human enslavement.
But Kojève deserves a fresh reading today, without the ideological prism of the global consensus he once seemed to legitimate. His lectures are a better guide to the start of the present century than to the conclusion of the last, and they teach us more about liberalism’s failures than about its successes. Kojève was attuned, as no previous thinker had been, to the way modern politics is explained by accelerating anxieties over human identity. He understood how intensely human beings crave affirmation of their value and how deeply they desire recognition from others. Kojève did not use the phrase “identity crisis,” which dates from the 1950s, but he grasped the social dimensions of this psychological problem. As fewer people’s lives are defined by traditional social roles or shaped by religious faith, questions about individual identity become unavoidable. For a small minority, such questions are liberating, allowing them to shed roles they find binding and explore new possibilities. But for others they are overwhelming. And out of doubt or loneliness or both, such people furiously demand recognition from others—to confirm the dignity they desperately want, to dispel the confusion they secretly harbor, and to acquire the power they fervently crave.
In doing so, however, they seek an equality that debases their humanity rather than elevating it. If equal recognition can be extracted only by other persons—rather than being bestowed on all by God—we will be compelled to build communities, haunted by the fear of inequality, that have no hierarchy and no center, and point to no higher goods. Our passion to rid the world of Masters will become a leveling zeal: We will police our common life to ensure that no way of life, no image of human excellence, no tradition of human thought or creativity, is deemed superior to any other. Kojève anticipated this possibility and was ambivalent about its arrival. In a footnote to a later edition of his lectures, he reflected on the post-historical existence he saw emerging in the United States and Japan. He speculated that the end of history might mean the enervation of the human spirit and a “return to animality”:
Animals of the species Homo sapiens would react by conditioned reflexes to vocal signals or sign “language,” and thus their so-called “discourses” would be like what is supposed to be the “language” of bees. What would disappear, then, is not only Philosophy or the search for discursive Wisdom, but also that Wisdom itself. For in these post-historical animals, there would no longer be any “[discursive] understanding of the World and of the self.”
Kojève promoted neither the language nor the tactics of Marxism. Instead of invoking class struggle, false consciousness, or a vanguard party, he spoke of freedom and equality, the langue de bois of the French state. He accepted that human history was the story of dominant groups who oppress and exploit others. But he detached the oppressor-oppressed relationship from any shared reality or agreed-upon conception of justice. The roles of Master and Slave were not defined by legal status, material wealth, or even conventional political power. They were defined by perceptions of status into which all of humanity, past and present, could be fit. Kojève’s personality was notoriously aristocratic, and there is no evidence that he wished to pour acid on what remained of Western civilization. But his ideas, if not his explicit intentions, authorize us to ask of every symbol, norm, curriculum, and institution: Does it promote equal recognition? Merely to pose the question is to sense its terrible political power. And as Kojève understood, nothing from the past, nothing in “history,” meets this criterion.
This is something Kojève’s students understood better than their teacher, and their ideas would eventually fracture the world he had sought to build. The New Left saw the “universal and homogenous” regime not as a realm of freedom, but as a prison house that repressed the expression of human differences, even those deemed mad, deviant, or perverse. They were inspired not by Kojève’s image of the Last Man, who accepted the satisfactions of the end of history, but by his portrait of the First Man, who risked everything in a fight for recognition. We do not have to agree with them to acknowledge what they saw hidden among the discarded and dispossessed peoples of the world. Human beings not only desire the recognition of their sameness and the tempering of their vital impulses. They also seek to celebrate their differences and the defiant expression of life in the face of death. Kojève looked forward to a future in which human beings would find recognition in equality, rather than through domination. He called this future, in a letter to Leo Strauss, the “kingdom of heaven” on earth. But until this kingdom comes, Kojève darkly implied, “man is always Master or Slave,” driven by what another thinker, writing at the end of another fading empire, called the libido dominandi.
Kojève believed that his lectures brought to an official close an intellectual development begun by Christianity, accelerated by modern political revolutions, and completed in the thought of Hegel. Its story had begun when two human beings fought to the death for pure prestige. It ended when the recognition human beings had once sought in God was finally found in other humans. Kojève had a more positive view of Christianity than did most other Marxists. Philosophers had the job of confirming Christianity’s essential truth, he believed, not disproving it. In a revealing remark, he claimed that the work of modern “Intellectuals” was to preserve the Christian idea of equality while “eliminating the Christian idea of transcendence.” It is to his credit that Kojève admitted that he taught a Christian heresy. For what is our world if not the revenge of Christian equality on the Christian promise of salvation, which depends upon the power and lovingkindness of the dying Master?
In imagining God as a Master and believers as Slaves, Kojève supposed that both were consumed by a lust for recognition. But here it is he, and not Christians, who are projecting. For all his brilliance, Kojève made illegible a central theme in Western and Christian thought. It is not the case that Socrates or Augustine fought to the death for prestige. They threw themselves into the task of serving something higher, hazarding their lives for the freedom of self-mastery, which is a truer deliverance than mastery over others. Kojève would have rejected the tribalism of identity politics, but he understood its passions better than its partisans. Human beings today frantically, nervously, and blindly try to wrest from others what God once gave freely: a recognition of their lives, often riven with suffering and always under the shadow of death, as dignified, meaningful, and real.
Many proponents of modern secularism imagine that disenchantment brings freedom. Without God to serve, we will have more time to discover and express our individual identities. If there is no transcendent truth, then we can make our own ways in the world. This was the silk purse Sartre made of nihilism. But events have proven otherwise. Our age has brought an awful bondage to the opinion and gaze of others, which now manifests itself in insatiable demands for recognition. Like many utopians, Kojève thought we could break through to a world of universal recognition, fulfilling Marx’s dream of a world in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all. But it cannot be so, for the desire to ascend to the role of Master is intrinsic to our humanity. The upward arrow of transcendence cannot be blunted, at least not permanently. As Scripture teaches, we cannot be released from a lust for domination until we are ransomed by a Master who does not call us slaves, but friends.
Matthew Rose is director and senior fellow at the Berkeley Institute.