Issue #134 Alexandre Kojève: Production of the Spirit

Alexandre Kojève: Production of the Spirit

Boris Groys

Detail from fresco by František Gajdoš, Untitled, 1960. License: CC BY-SA 4.0.

Issue #134
March 2023


Let us ask: Why do people work?

In his Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, Alexandre Kojève explains the origin of work by referring to the initial battle scene in Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Mind. According to Hegel’s description, two self-consciousnesses fight each other—and one of them wins. The other self-consciousness then has two choices: (1) to die, or (2) to work to satisfy the winner’s desires.1 Thus, we see two types of humans emerge: masters and slaves. Hegel’s masters would rather die than work for others, while slaves accept their fate and work for others until death. If we follow Hegel down this path, it means none of us ever work to satisfy our own desires. Our desires and needs are satisfied by aggression, violence, and dominance—not by work. Workers—slaves in Hegel’s dichotomy—suppress their own desires to satisfy those of the masters.

That is why, in Kojève’s reading of Hegel, only the workers are truly human. The masters remain animals; their behavior is determined by “natural” desires such as hunger or sexual desire. By contrast, workers are denaturalized, alienated. Kojève writes:

Therefore, it is by work, and only by work, that man realizes himself objectively as man. Only after producing an artificial object is man himself really and objectively more than and different from a natural being … Therefore, it is only by work that man is a supernatural being that is conscious of its reality; by working, he is “incarnated spirit,” he is “historical” World, he is the “objectivized” History. Work then is what “forms-or-educates” man beyond animal. The formed or educated man is the completed man.2

Work, as well as education, are specific, secular forms of ascesis. Through work, the slave/worker suppresses their own nature—and, thus, forms it. One ceases to be an animal by suspending one’s own natural desires. This reduction of animal desires, Kojève explains, makes humans “supranatural,” “spiritual” beings. In the “natural” world, humans are subjected to their base instincts. But workers become masters over nature, including their own nature, in the new, technical world transformed by their work.

Wassily Kandinsky, Three Elements, 1925. The painting belonged to Kojève and later to his widow Nina. License: Public Domain.

The embodied “spirit” of which Kojève speaks should not be confused with the soul, with identity, self, subjectivity, and so on. In other words, spirit is not something that precedes incarnation. Incarnation is not an act of creativity that makes visible something previously “hidden” inside the human body. For Kojève, the driving forces inside the human body are always the same natural needs and desires that operate within all other animal bodies. A specifically human body is artificially produced by means of some external pressure—be it work or education—that suppresses innate needs and desires. Throughout history and the present, when confronted with an ascetic body—with an ascetic lifestyle—we often speak about a manifestation of the spirit. In this sense, the production of spiritualized bodies through ascetic practice precedes the phenomenology of the spirit. Christian and Buddhist monks turn their bodies into spiritualized bodies through ascetic practices. They suppress their animal desires by working in the service of a particular divine principle. Since modernity, the working class has practiced secular ascesis. Even if this ascesis is a result of external social and political oppression and exploitation, it turns the working class into a spiritualized, “chosen,” universal class. Under the conditions of modernity, this spiritualized dimension of the working class manifests itself as art. Art demonstrates that the utilitarian function of every kind of work, including industrial work, is merely accidental. The essential function of work is the production of the ascetic, spiritualized bodies of the working class.


For Kojève, an artist is a worker who produces autonomous, artificial objects. To become truly autonomous, an artwork must radically reduce any desire for representation that connects art to all other animal, natural desires and needs. In his 1936 essay “The Concrete Paintings of Kandinsky,” Kojève claims that (his uncle) Kandinsky’s artworks operate by ascesis and the reduction of everything natural. Kandinsky’s works are not abstract, but concrete—as autonomous and concrete as any other natural thing. However, these artworks are not products of “natural creativity,” but rather of an unnatural “spiritual negativity.” They reduce all representation and, thus, all objects of natural desire. The bodies of these artworks are spiritualized bodies. Or, if you will, Kandinsky’s works are negativity incarnate, spirit incarnate.

 Wassily Kandinsky, Yellow-Red-Blue, oil on canvas, 1925. License: Public Domain.

In fact, Kojève goes further than Kandinsky toward reduction and negation. To illustrate the status of an artwork as an autonomous thing, Kojève uses the example of monochrome painting. He writes:

A museum consisting exclusively of sheets covered in different uniform colors would be, without a doubt, a museum of paintings: and each of these paintings would be beautiful—and even absolutely beautiful—independent of whether or not it was “pretty,” which is to say, “pleasing” to some and “displeasing” to others, would be beautiful—and even absolutely beautiful.3

Here “beautiful” means autonomous, not referring to anything outside of itself, including the “natural,” “animal” predispositions of the spectators.

In fact, monochrome paintings were very rarely produced, exhibited, and discussed at the time Kojève wrote this essay. The exceptions are few: three monochrome paintings by Alexander Rodchenko—blue, yellow, and red—presented at the exhibition “5×5=25” (Moscow, 1921) and discussed by Nikolai Tarabukin in his book From the Easel to the Machine (1923), one of the key texts of Russian constructivism, which was most probably known to Kojève. Tarabukin proclaimed Rodchenko’s monochrome works to be the “last paintings.” They ended the history of painting, Tarabukin argued, by turning an individual painting into an object.4 In his essay, Kojève stresses that the monochrome painting is manmade and cannot be produced by nature. But the same can be said for all technically or industrially produced objects. Placing any industrially produced thing inside a museum as a ready-made—alongside a monochrome painting—reveals that thing’s pure, autonomous form. In theory, the difference between the artist and the industrial worker thus disappears. And the modern museum becomes a place for epiphany of ​modern secular working ascesis.

Aleksandr Rodchenko, Pure Red Colour, Pure Yellow Colour, Pure Blue Colour, 1921.


According to Kojève’s analysis of the master-worker dialectic, the worker suppresses all animal desires except the most important one—the desire for self-preservation. One works because one has a master. And one has a master because one fears death. To become completely free and autonomous, workers also have to suppress their fear of death; they have to, that is, make a revolution. But what do humans do after a successful revolution? The traditional answer is: they become the new masters and begin to impose their will on the losers. Indeed, such is the usual historical dynamic. However, Kojève believed that the working spirit—or rather the spiritualized working body—could be victorious over the animal human body. In other words: he believed that after the proletarian revolution succeeds, proletarians will continue working. But they will not work merely to live or satisfy their desires; they will work to maintain the spiritualized life-form their revolution achieved.

In his Sophia (1939–40), Kojève describes the postrevolutionary, post-historical state as a communist state.5 And he takes as a starting point for this state the main principle of communism: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” He interprets this principle as dissociating the recognition of a particular individual from their contribution to the collective economy. Bourgeois society values individuals according to the degree of their participation in the economy. And it also recognizes and satisfies a specific individual’s needs according to their economic contribution. Under communism, the needs of an individual and the contribution of this individual to the economy are separated. In this sense communism can be seen as a return to the aristocratic definition of individuals as masters who possess unalienable, sovereign rights to satisfy their needs. Of course, there is a key difference: the historical master did not work, and the communist citizen works. But communist citizens do not work for an income; their living is—at least theoretically—guaranteed by the communist state according to their individual needs. They work only to acquire and keep their autonomous life-form. For Kojève, the communist citizen is a combination of an aristocrat, who gets their living for “free,” and a worker, who works for the purpose of producing oneself as a spiritualized body. Thus, communist citizens live in a double ascesis: being masters they are ready to give up their lives in defense of the communist revolution; being workers they are ready to deny their “natural” needs and desires. The main principle of communism is con-formism: everyone lives not according to their desires, but according to their life-form produced through working ascesis.

Only relatively late in his life did Kojève became aware of the danger of losing the difference between achieving a post-historical state of con-formism, and the return to a prehistorical state of nature. In his famous footnote to the first edition of his Introduction (1947), Kojève refers to Marx’s prediction that the historical Realm of Necessity, which placed humanity in opposition to Nature and one class in opposition to another, would be replaced by the Realm of Freedom, which would open to humanity the possibility of enjoying art, love, play, and so on in harmony with Nature.6 Here, communist society (much like the earlier Christian notion of paradise) presents itself as a collective version of retirement benefits—as a time and space that allows for the delayed realization of desires frustrated by the historical process.

However, for the second edition of the Introduction, Kojève added a second part to this footnote. There he writes that in 1958 he realized that “the Hegelian-Marxist end of history was not yet to come, but was already a present, here and now.”7 According to Kojève, (especially) the American way of life allows and even induces ordinary people to consume and, thus, turns them into “satisfied animals.” And, Kojève remarks, the Soviet and Chinese citizens of his time also want to consume, to become like Americans. If this happens, he insists, it will mean that the human being who, as we know, is defined by the spirit of ascesis, will disappear. What remains will be human animals. Kojève writes:

After the end of Man, human beings begin building their houses as beavers, making music as cicadas and frogs, playing as young mammals, and making love as adult beasts. This means one cannot say that these human animals will be happy—they will merely be content. The discourse, the Logos will disappear—human language will be like the language of bees. Not only philosophy but also Wisdom will disappear. For in these post-historical animals, there will no longer be any understanding of the World and of the self.8

Wilhelm von Kaulbach, Reynard the Fox, 1846. Source: Art and Picture Collection / The New York Public Library.

Thus, the philosophical project of achieving wisdom at the end of history could collapse. The post-historical state could lose its language, its Logos, and risk falling back into the prehistorical state of nature. And Kojève writes further: “To remain human, Man has to remain ‘a subject opposed to the object.’” Thus, even if “action negating the given and the Error disappears,” humans must also remain opposed to nature beyond the end of the Hegelian-Marxist dialectical process. According to Kojève, the opposition between form and content will lead humanity further than historical battles for mastery: “Post-historical Man must continue to detach form from content, doing so no longer in order to actively transform the latter, but so that he may oppose himself as a pure ‘form’ to himself and to others taken as ‘content’ of any sort.”9 Here the communist state is understood not as a happy return to nature, but rather as a museum in which ascetic, spiritualized human bodies can manifest themselves beyond any utilitarian function.

An artist or a philosopher can practice working ascesis and suppress their natural, animal desires in the name of pure form. But what about the masses—do they have the same ability to choose con-formism over the satisfaction of their natural desires and needs? The answer is: probably yes. While workers traditionally used “free time” after working hours as a period of rest, today one might use this free time to go to “work” at the gym. This example may seem trivial, but it indicates the readiness of the masses to embody a particular “pure” form that in earlier eras was only characteristic of the aristocracy. And in a society in which everybody cares for their own form, the state also keeps its form. The whole state becomes an aesthetic object—a pure form that is opposed to nature, to animality, and to all attempts to return to the world of natural needs and desires. In other words, the post-historical state is still opposed to “corruption”—if by “corruption” one means a loss of form under the influence of different “human, all too human” factors. It remains necessary to protect this form from corruption by time—from the danger of slipping back into a “state of nature” and then maybe also into the history of bloody struggles, wars, and revolutions. If the post-historical state is able to keep its form, the citizens of this state will be perfect con-formists—working not for recognition and reward but in the name of pure, uncorrupted form.


Alexandre Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel (Cornell University Press, 1980), 8–9.


Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, 25.


Alexandre Kojève, “The Concrete Paintings of Kandinsky,” Appendix in Lisa Florman, Concerning the Spiritual and the Concrete in Kandinsky’s Art (Stanford University Press, 2014), 154.


Nikolai Tarabukin, From the Easel to the Machine, in Modern Art and Modernism: An Anthology of Critical Texts, ed. Francis Frascina and Charles Harrison (Harper & Row, 1983).


Alexandre Kojève, Sofia, filo-sofia i fenomeno-logiya, manuscript, Bibliotheque National de France, 934 pages.


Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, 158–59.


Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, 159–62.


Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, 159–62.


Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, 159–62.

Marxism, Philosophy, Labor & Work
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Boris Groys is a philosopher, essayist, art critic, media theorist, and an internationally renowned expert on Soviet-era art and literature, especially the Russian avant-garde.


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