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Home arrow Philosophy arrow Philosophy, History, and Tyranny: Reexamining the Debate Between Leo Strauss and Alexandre Kojeve

On Tyranny and Totalitarianism

In conclusion, bearing in mind the earlier discussion, let us remember that the dialogue between Strauss and Kojeve in On Tyranny emerges from a world beset with very real totalitarian tyrannies including the Soviet Union and Communist China, while the Third Reich was a very recent memory. My own view of totalitarianism is that it is the attempt, beginning with the Jacobins, to create by revolutionary violence a society in which every human integer is interchangeable with every other human integer in an austere and selfless collective. Once the class or racial enemy (the bourgeoisie, the kulaks, the Jews) standing in the way of this millenarian nirvana is exterminated, all mankind will live in peace and harmony forever. In practice, because human nature can never be permanently stripped of every tie to family, faith, country, property, and freedom, the totalitarian state’s project to reengineer the human soul is a relentless and ongoing process of the state’s terrorization of its own populace.[1] As Solzhenitsyn argued, the Soviet Gulag system of slave labor was not merely a particular organization of labor—it was the future ideal of the Communist regime itself.

My understanding of totalitarianism was shaped by my study of Hegel’s diagnosis of the French Revolution, by Solzhenitsyn, as well as by the great Cold War scholarship of Talmon, Conquest, Leites, and others. But my original inspiration, beginning as an undergraduate, was On Tyranny itself, where I believe the totalitarian blueprint I have just sketched is implicit—embraced by Kojeve as the universal homogeneous state, decried by Strauss as the Final and Universal Tyrant. While the debate is generally philosophical, there are definite references and allusions to the U.S.S.R. and the Third Reich (Strauss’s references to Stakhanovism, the NKVD, labor camps, and particularly his use of the term “co-ordination” [Gleichschaltung] to describe modern tyranny’s “collectivization of thought,” a key Nazi term for the total collectivization and homogenization of society under the state [OT27, 202]).

Nevertheless, I am still struck by the gaps in On Tyranny’s assessment of totalitarianism. To be sure, the final blueprint is there and perhaps one should not ask for more. Missing, however, as I have suggested, is the millenarian passion, the twisted longing for heroism, the perversion of youthful idealism, although elsewhere than in On Tyranny, for instance in his essay on National Socialism, Strauss brilliantly diagnoses this psychological explanation of Nazism’s appeal. Also largely missing are the distinctive utopian visions of the major totalitarian movements. Although all share in common the dream of the coming collective, the total eradication and submergence of the individual in the whole, missing from On Tyranny are the specific contours of Bolshevik and Nazi ideology, and how their respective fantasies dictated the murderous practices needed to bring them about. This is perhaps another indication of Heidegger’s undertow, which, as I have suggested, shapes Kojeve’s Hegel and Strauss’s willingness to engage it for the sake of this specific debate. Contrary to Heidegger’s absorption of all political motivations into “technology,” the Nazis did not carry out the Holocaust because they had developed the technology—they developed the technology because they wanted to carry out the Holocaust. One has to think through why. Even in the form of the grotesque ideologies of utopian genocide, purpose and specific conceptions of justice in politics, even totalitarian politics, however perverted, still matter. Kojeve’s universal homogeneous state, like Heidegger’s concept of technology, swallows them up.

That said, as I have tried to argue, whatever may be the missing dimensions in Strauss’s understanding of modern tyranny in his debate with Kojeve in On Tyranny, they are more than made up for when one has recourse to his other writings, including his understanding that the real Hegel, as opposed to Kojeve’s Hegel, could never, owing to his appreciation for the “sacred constraints” ingrained in man, and to his deep respect for the classics, have endorsed the universal homogeneous state. Moreover, the defense of the philosopher’s “self-admiration,” while perhaps not adequate as our sole buttress against the universal homogeneous state, is surely a very formidable impediment, especially when combined with Strauss’s recognition elsewhere of the middle range approach to the problem of justice and the condemnation of tyranny, centering both on the commands of piety and the psychological satisfactions of virtue. So for me, at the end of the day, Strauss’s understanding of both ancient and modern tyranny wins hands-down against that of Kojeve.

Not surprisingly, in light of all that we have considered, there is also an imbalance between Kojeve’s and Strauss’s respective stances toward the actual tyrannies of their times, and it flows directly from their respective philosophical positions not only in On Tyranny but in all their works. Briefly, but I trust not misleadingly put, Kojeve was an unconditional friend of Soviet communism, while Strauss was a conditional friend of liberal democracy.

As both an eminent thinker and a high-ranking civil servant in France, Kojeve made no secret of his sympathies for communism, the Soviet Union, and Stalin. Throughout Stalin’s Terror, during which the Father of Peoples liquidated hundreds of thousands of his comrades, Kojeve remained a strict Stalinist. In private, he fully acknowledged the horrors of Soviet rule, telling Raymond Aron that only “imbeciles” could believe otherwise. But when Stalin died, Kojeve felt “as if he had lost a father.”[2] He used his influence in government to advance the causes of accommodation with the Soviet Union and of European integration in order to clip the wings of American world power.

Kojeve believed that modernization in the direction of the universal homogeneous state was a universal process that had nothing intrinsically to do with any particular regime, civic morality, religious ethic, or set of democratic institutions. To him, it made no difference whether it was being advanced by the United States or the U.S.S.R., or whether the “end of history” was brought about by an FDR or a Stalin (hence his partiality to Heidegger’s view that they were “metaphysically the same”). He leaned toward the Stalinist side, in my view, because he saw the Stalinist route as more candid and straightforward about the radical measures required by modernization, and more free of idealistic illusions or nostalgia about carrying the project forward. One searches in vain in his writings for any appreciation of a noble account of liberal democracy and modernity. For him, American democracy is driven by the same imperative of technological and economic maximization as the Soviet Union, the only difference being that the Soviet Union got started later and so could not afford the luxury of an edifying account of bourgeois self-interest. This is the irony of invoking Kojeve’s vision of the universal homogeneous state to celebrate America’s victory in the Cold War and the spread of liberal democracy that it promised for the future. For Kojeve, the end of history had nothing to do with the moral victory of liberal democracy over communism. In his view, both “ideologies” would vanish in the coming homogeneous global society of pedestrian gratifications and a passive “recognition” of everyone’s equality that would require no political participation or civic commitment of any kind—indeed, the politics of recognition were entirely compatible with a global despot. The end of history did not signify the victory of Locke over Marx, but the disappearance of both.

I believe that for Strauss, in sharp contrast, as for many thinking people of his generation, the experience of Nazi and Bolshevik totalitarianism had shattered the benign belief, still widespread on the eve of World War I, that mankind was progressing cumulatively toward a future of ever greater freedom, enlightenment and peace. What fascinated Strauss about the Hiero, I submit, was that it came closer than any other Socratic writing to entertaining the notion that the condemnation of tyranny might be relaxed if tyranny could be converted into an instrument for stable authority, trading virtue and self-government for prosperity and peace. But in the end, according to Strauss, Xenophon resists a blanket endorsement of Simonides’ reformed tyranny (or even that of his Cyrus). Despite its pride and prestige, the life of a benevolent despot pales in comparison with the satisfaction of philosophy and perhaps even that of the civic-spirited gentleman in a self-governing republic. For Strauss, then, the Hiero, and Xenophon’s political philosophy as a whole, ultimately reaffirm the possibility of the distinctions central to classical political philosophy between just and unjust, better and worse, kinds of government, distinctions that are established by a politike guided by the philosopher’s pursuit of knowledge about the eternal order of the whole, a reaffirmation that is strengthened precisely by Xenophon’s experimental flirtation with the liberation of tyranny as the engine of reform. Kojeve, by contrast, unreservedly endorses Simonides’ blueprint for a benevolent dictatorship—history has already brought it about in Salazar’s Portugal. For him, there are no permanent distinctions in the nature of things between tyranny and wisdom, or between just and unjust government. History has always been a war between Masters and Slaves, rulers and ruled, to conquer the external world and human nature as well, so as to progressively actualize man’s struggle for freedom. Kojeve shared Heidegger’s understanding of modernization as assimilable to “technology.” The difference is that while Heidegger resisted this process of global modernization on behalf of the Volk of destiny and belonging, Kojeve embraced it as the inevitable dystopia that would achieve mankind’s longstanding desire for equality. For both, liberal democracy was as dead as a doornail.

Like any sober observer, by contrast, it seems to me that Strauss believed (as Winston Churchill had put it) that democracy was the worst form of government except for all the others. Strauss recognized that one can distinguish better and worse regimes from one another. This distinction is not just a cultural prejudice, nor just a particular historical belief that might change with the times. The capacity to distinguish between just and unjust government, like the distinction between virtue and vice, is grounded in human nature and is eternally accessible to the human mind. When one defends liberal democracy, it is not that one believes it to be perfect or free of failings—far from it. But no balanced observer can believe that liberal democracy, with its flaws and all too frequent lapses from its own standards of justice, is no better than a vicious tyranny that does evil things not as lapses, but as its only principle.

At bottom, it is hard to imagine a more fundamental lack of moderation than Heidegger’s equation—shared by Kojeve—of democracy and totalitarianism on the grounds that the technological dynamo of modernization has swallowed up all such distinctions between better and worse regimes and rendered them naive. In the years since On Tyranny, however, the attempts to do an end run around the concept of the regime in favor of allegedly “global” trends (whether economic or social) has become ever more entrenched in our opinion elites and in higher education. Strauss’s focus on the centrality of the regime therefore serves more than ever to remind us that in the modern world freedom can only be exercised in the modern nation-state with its individual liberties and representative political institutions, and that all political movements claiming to be able to create “global” peace and justice are at best naive and at worst open the door to aspiring universal tyrannies. Like Plato’s Socrates, in short, Strauss was a civic philosopher. He is as right today as he was fifty years ago when he wrote in the first line of his response to Kojeve: “A social science that cannot speak of tyranny with the same confidence with which medicine speaks, for example, of cancer, cannot understand social phenomena as what they are. It is therefore not scientific” (OT 189).

  • [1] See Newell, Tyranny: A New Interpretation.
  • [2] See Keith Patchen, “Alexandre Kojeve: Moscow’s Mandarin Mole in France,”National Observer (no. 58, Spring 2003).
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