by Daniel Johnson
The Daily Telegraph London
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UNNOTICED here in Britain, a new spy scandal has surfaced in France. After receiving a dossier from the KGB, the French secret service has confirmed that, for some 30 years, the philosopher and senior official Alexandre Kojeve was a Soviet agent. Should we care about a spy who died in 1968, of whom even French intellectuals have scarcely heard, much less read? Yes, we should. Kojeve's subterranean influence is ubiquitous. His ideas echo around our political arena. Francis Fukuyama's "end of history" is recycled Kojeve. So is Tony Blair's vision of a post-conservative, post-national, post-political, post- historical Europe. So who was Kojeve?
He was born, in 1902, Alexander Kochevnikoff and grew up in a fashionable quarter of Moscow, the Arbat. After the Bolshevik revolution, this bourgeois youth was arrested for black marketeering in soap. Other boys were shot; not Kojeve. Was he already "turned" at the age of 16? By his own testimony: "I was a Communist; there was no reason to flee Russia."
But he did leave, voluntarily, in 1920: first to Poland, then to Germany. He studied philosophy in Heidelberg and Berlin, where he discovered Hegel. There, too, he found his uncle, Wassily Kandinsky, then teaching at the Bauhaus, with whom he struck up a lifelong friendship. In 1926, he moved to Paris, changed his name and acquired French citizenship. In 1933, he began his celebrated Hegel seminar at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes, which continued until 1939. Here the French love affair with German philosophy, known today as "post-modernism", began. Its participants included Andre Breton, Georges Bataille, Raymond Aron, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Eric Weil, Jacques Lacan and Raymond Queneau. Yet even this company of "superintellectuals", as Aron recalled, "did not resist the magician". Kojeve's method was Talmudic: they read one book, Hegel's Phenomenology, line by line. His close reading of this arcane text allowed him to elucidate world history. His lectures were published, as Introduction a la Lecture de Hegel, in 1947, but though a reader of genius, he was a rebarbative writer.
Kojeve's reading of Hegel had given him his big idea. When the Swabian schoolmaster wrote the Phenomenology in 1807, just after Napoleon's victory at Jena, history came to an end. Though the emperor isn't actually mentioned by name in Hegel's book, he is the key to Kojeve. Hegel is the evangelist of the Napoleonic messiah: "It is the reality of Napoleon revealed by Hegel who is the real and living God, appearing to mankind in the world which he has created so that it can recognise itself. And it is this revelation by Hegel that transforms the myth of Christian faith into absolute knowledge." Kojeve saw himself as the custodian of this absolute knowledge, and the cleverest men in France believed him. The French revolution marked the moment when the dialectical opposition of master and slave had been resolved once and for all: the human desire for equal recognition had been realised. With Napoleon's extension of the ideas of 1789 across the globe, the era of universal empire had dawned. Class conflict, world wars and revolutions were leading to an intermediate phase of continental empires. American culture foreshadowed the homogenised, "post- historical" humanity of the future.
In this endgame of history, however, there was still one man of destiny whom Kojeve revered: Joseph Stalin. Throughout the Terror, Kojeve remained a "strict Stalinist". To Raymond Aron he privately conceded the horrors of Soviet Russia, remarking that only "imbeciles" could be unaware of it. And yet when Stalin died, Kojeve was devastated "as if he had lost a father". Aron explained Kojeve's loyalty to Stalin as residual Russian patriotism, assuming that it did not affect his "unshakeable loyalty" to France. Even the least gullible of French intellectuals was deceived.
Kojeve's role in the war is obscure. His biographer, Dominique Auffret, says he was active in the Resistance in Marseilles, where he was arrested by a Tartar unit serving in the Wehrmacht. Deploying his eloquence and his Russian, Kojeve apparently almost persuaded the Tartars to desert, but was denounced and brought before the German commandant. This officer turned out to be the former director of a Munich gallery which Kojeve knew well. Again the philosopher was saved by his gift of the gab. Auffret relies on anecdote; it stretches credulity that Kojeve could escape the firing squad yet again, bamboozling the Nazis as well as the Soviets, without collaborating. Kojeve certainly gave serious thought to what would happen if the Germans won the war. He wrote a Note on Authority, arguing that it would be justifiable to collaborate with a victorious Third Reich in order to prepare for a post-Nazi Europe, dominated by a new, French- led "Latin empire".
This readiness to accommodate reappears in the correspondence he conducted with Leo Strauss, a German Jew who emigrated to Chicago and became the most influential political philosopher in America. Strauss admired Kojeve, but they disagreed about Xenophon's Hiero, a dialogue between a philosopher-poet and a tyrant. Kojeve saw his universal empire foreshadowed by that of Alexander the Great, whose mentor had been Aristotle himself. It would, he wrote, be "unreasonable if the philosopher were in any way whatsoever to criticise the concrete political measures taken by the statesman, regardless of whether or not he is a tyrant, especially when he takes them so that the very ideal advocated by the philosopher might be actualised at some future time".
After 1945, Kojeve decided that he "wanted to know how [history] happened". In France that means becoming a mandarin. In 1948, he was given a senior post in the department of foreign economic relations by one of his pupils, Robert Marjolin, and for the next 20 years he enjoyed the reputation of an extraordinary eminence grise. Formidable at international meetings, he talked the Americans out of their objections to the fledgling European Economic Community, which he helped to shape and which was the fulfilment of his hopes for a Latin Empire. Rising younger stars, such as the later president Giscard d'Estaing and prime minister Raymond Barre, fell under his spell. This guru of the Left was more than happy to serve under de Gaulle (another benign tyrant) and it was with his encouragement that the General twice said "Non!" to British EEC membership, turned his back on Nato and flirted with Krushchev. He taught a generation of French leaders to put the "Anglo-Saxons" in their place, hoping that a resurgent Europe and Japan would challenge American hegemony.
The French do not respect their intellectual leaders; they revere them. Aron declared that Kojeve was "more intelligent than Sartre". Barre said that he had "a superior, encyclopedic intelligence, such as probably no longer exists". Yet this miraculous mandarin turns out to have been a malevolent mole. Nobody of this eminence has ever been exposed as a traitor on this scale before. His sex life was mysterious and may explain much. Until the French release his KGB dossier, we can only guess at the damage he must have done. There were few secrets in France to which he did not have access through his pupils and proteges. Some of them are still alive and no doubt nervous. Even in the land of trahison des clercs, Kojeve must take pride of place. He will have his apologists. Le Monde, which exposed him, has yet to condemn him. But the Gaullists have been silent too: he was, after all, the General's confidante. The strange case of Kojeve reveals much about the present as well as the past. If, as Aron quipped, he was Stalin's conscience, he was also France's -- and Europe's -- evil genius.