This spring, the rightwing French journal, Commentaire, published a story about the philosopher, Alexandre Kojève, by Raymond Nart, a former officer with the DST, French Counter-intelligence. Commentaire, in the past, had published articles in praise of Kojève and even articles by Kojève. Kojève, after WWII, declared himself a “Sunday philosopher”, and had proceeded to devote most of his time to reconstructing France’s economy as an subminister in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In this post, Kojève became one of the great behind-the-scenes architects of France’s thirty glorious years, that experiment in dirigiste capitalism under the Bretton Woods system which finally came a header in the period of rampant inflation and the Oil crisis of the seventies. Notably, he helping to lay the foundation of the Common Market.
Nart’s article was entitled, ominously, Alexandre Kojevnikov dit Kojève. Scholars of the great Cold War Communist hunts will be delighted to learn that the old rhetorical maneuver of tearing away the legal name to reveal the old, Russian name spying behind it still lives. Nart has nothing new to say about Kojève’s famous Introduction to Reading Hegel, a series of lectures that he gave between 1933–1939 which were edited and published by Raymond Queneau in 1947. Nart’s attention, instead, is all on the Kojève who was giving the Soviets microfilm and
packages of documents. What was in those documents, Nart regrets, we can only guess. But they must have been of value! Nart relies for his story on other documents, files that come from now defunct Eastern European and Soviet espionage agencies. Nart has used these sources before, in the 1990s, to claim that Charles Hernu, Mitterand’s first war minister, spied for the Soviets in the fifties. Nart is of the walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, must be a duck school of thought. His conclusion is that the philosopher was a spy.
To the broader mind, though, one that has a knowledge of both ducks and other creatures with bills, like platypuses, Nart’s proof is far from convincing. As Kojève was helping build the framework for the Common Market, he would have every reason to establish a backchannel to the Soviets. Stepping back from the narrow image of Kojève Nart presents, we might consider the mores of French ministries that enacted long term policies that were often indifferent to the political figures heading the governments, a sort of background hum of the machinery keeping it all going. Constantine Melnik, a counter-intelligence expert who has worked at Rand, has already pointed out before in the matter of Nart’s Hernu accusations that there is a difference between having a backchannel relationship with the Soviets and spying. Using Nart’s method, one could as well say that Henry Kissinger, the emblematic back-channel man, was a Soviet spy.
Yet Nart’s story is not the first time Kojève’s loyalties have been suspected. This is the White Russian who proclaimed that Stalin was the philosopher-king, the end of history, in the Paris of the Popular Front of the 30s. He was a man who had a talent for both entrancing and mystifying, and an audience that went out and changed French intellectual culture in the 50s and 60s. He was, as it were, a back-channel philosopher.
It would be nice to have an English language biography of Kojève. I thought I’d found one this summer when I picked up Jeff Love’s The
Black Circle: a Life of Alexandre Kojève (Columbia University Press, 2018), but it turned out that the sub-title belonged to a book in some other parallel universe, for this book is as little like a life of Kojève as a donut is like a spare tire. Love, a professor of German and Russian literature at Clemson, is after the life of the mind, not the intrigue of the exile. Love has given us a reading of Kojève that is now fascinating, now plodding, now insightful — especially about the last sections of Kojève’s lectures on Hegel, which have mostly not been translated into English — and too often lengthy paraphrase.
An American might not be tempted to read the book at all. In France, at least, Kojève is a second level intellectual celebrity: but in the United States, it has been his fate to owe his fame, what there is of it, to the Straussians, who are ideologically his opposites. One of them, Francis Fukuyama, referenced him directly in his bestselling The End of History and the Last Man (1992). This prompted the NYT reviewer of Fukuyama’s book, the historian William H. McNeill, to confess that the name was utterly unknown to him. But Americans who are concerned with the broader intellectual culture of the 20th century should really know their Kojève, and in more than a Jeopardy way (for two hundred, Alex, who was the philosopher who spied for the Soviets while creating the European Union?).
Read the rest at Willetts Magazine.