Hegel Summary

Displacement One: Marx (The Master-Slave Dialectic)

In his brilliant and influential Introduction, Kojève makes his treatment of the Phenomenology revolve around Hegel’s great set-piece, Lordship and Bondage, which Kojève renders as “master and slave”. It is no accident that Kojève begins with a quotation from Marx: “Hegel … grasps labour as the essence of man,” and then places his own heavily glossed version of the master-slave dialectic at the start of his Introduction so that this chapter governs the work as a whole. This is consonant with Kojève’s statement that the master-slave dialectic is the key to Hegel and that it “determined the whole of Marx’s thought”. Kojève’s assertion is that: “in having discovered the notion of recognition, Hegel found himself in possession of the key idea of his whole philosophy. Also, it is through the analysis of this fundamental notion that one understands the role of the different aspects and elements of the Hegelian dialectic.”

Kojève argues that for Hegel, human society and human ‘discourse’ began when men were first willing to risk their ‘animal’ and biological existence in a ‘fight to the death for pure prestige,’ for ‘recognition’ by ‘the other’. The man who became master was willing to ‘go all the way’. Yet although he master has the pleasure, they do not yet have the satisfaction of recognition by an equal: mastery is ultimately ‘tragic’ and ‘an existential impasse’. It is the slave, who through work “negates given being” who overcomes the world: “the man who works transforms given being … where there is work there is necessarily change, progress, historical evolution”. For work, according to Kojève’s interpretation of Hegel, is education or development in a double sense: it transforms the world and also educates the slave.

So long as there is slavery – whether to master, god or capital – man will never truly be ‘satisfied’ or truly free, since true satisfaction and freedom come from being recognised as an equal by an equal, which is possible only in the universal, Hegelian state. As Kojève puts it, “the final struggle, which transforms the slave in to the citizen, suppresses mastery in a non-dialectical fashion: the master is simply killed, and he dies as a master. If idle mastery is an impasse, the future, by contrast, belongs to the laborious slave: Laborious slavery is the source of all human social historical progress. History is the history of the working slave.”

The whole of “ideology” according to Kojève’s interpretation of Hegel, “is a sort of ideal ‘superstructure’ which has a sense and a possibility of being only on the basis of a real ‘infrastructure’, formed by the totality of political and social struggles and of labours undertaken by man”. This “aspect” of “the Hegelian dialectic” he concludes, “is materialist” and it actually “determined all of Marx’s thought”. But if Kojève stresses concepts that have Marxist resonances (work, struggle, ideology, and history as the history of the labouring slave), there is an important sense in which his employment of them is strictly non-Marxist.

In Marx, “men can be distinguished from animals … as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence.” For Kojève, by contrast, humanity is distinguished from animal life by the struggle for recognition: “man is only human … insofar as he is ‘recognised'”. Moreover, this recognition is methodologically analytically prior to production, for it is the “struggle to the death for pure prestige” which the master and the slave enter freely, while work is imposed on the slave as a consequence of the slave’s defeat. “Nothing,” Kojève urges “pre-disposes the future conqueror to victory, as nothing pre-disposes the future vanquished to his defeat. It is by an absolute act of liberty that the adversaries create each other, in and through the struggle for prestige, freely entered into”. For Kojève, it is recognition which lifts humanity from the animal world; for Marx, it is production.

Similarly, for Marx the socialist revolution means the end of the history of class struggle – which for Marx is the end of pre-history. Kojève, by contrast, emphasises revolution itself as the end of history. “Marx,” Kojève maintains, “takes up … this Hegelian theme” in Capital Vol. III Chapter 48. “History properly speaking, where men (‘classes’) struggle between themselves for recognition and struggle against Nature through work,” is for Marx “called the realm of necessity by Marx; beyond is situated the realm of freedom where men, recognising eachother mutually without reserve, no longer struggle and work as little as possible (nature being definitively subjugated)”. Kojève, unsurprisingly, mentions recognition first and foremost – but what does Marx actually say?

In fact, the realm of freedom actually begins only where labour which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases; thus, in the very nature of things it lies beyond the sphere of actual material production. … Beyond [necessity] begins that development of human energy which is an end in itself, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can blossom forth only with this realm of necessity as its basis. The shortening of the working day is its basic prerequisite.

Far from ‘recognition’ being the ‘key idea’ of this summary, and prior to work, Marx flatly says that the “realm of freedom” begins only where “labour which is determined by necessity … ceases”. Freedom, for Marx, begins not simply with the suppression of the master, but with going beyond work determined by material necessity. But if work is determined by necessity, it is not something simply imposed by the master as an objectification of recognition. For Marx, production is primary; for Kojève it is secondary. Hyppolite (a left Hegelian with marxisant tendencies): “the struggle for life and death … is the root of history for Hegel, while the exploitation of man by man is only a consequence of it, this consequence serving on the other hand as Marx’s point of departure.”

This can be demonstrated by reference to the epigram Kojève cites as his introduction to his own Introduction. (“Hegel … grasps labour as the essence of man”.) In Marx’s text, however, the ‘dot dot dot’ is filled by a crucial qualification: “Hegel’s standpoint is that of modern political economy. He grasps labour as the essence of man – man’s essence in the act of proving itself: he sees only the positive, not the negative side of labour … The only labour which Hegel knows and recognises is abstractly mental labour … he is therefore able to present his philosophy as the philosophy”. Hegel, then, not only draws on political economy – and does not simply “grasp labour as the essence of man” – but one-sidedly understands this by reducing labour to thought. This flatly contradicts Kojève’s assertion that the “recognition” arising from the “master-slave” dialectic is the “key idea” in Hegel, and that this (materialist) side “determines the whole of Marx’s thought”.