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Walter Benjamin

Michael Löwy

Platypus Review 5 | May—July 2008


Walter Benjamin occupies a unique place in the history of modern revolutionary thought: he is the first Marxist to break radically with the ideology of progress. His thinking has therefore a distinct critical quality, which sets him apart from the dominant and “official” forms of historical materialism, and gives him a formidable methodological superiority.

This peculiarity has to do with his ability to incorporate into the body of Marxist revolutionary theory insights from the Romantic critique of civilization and from the Jewish messianic tradition. Both elements are present in his early writings, particularly in “The Life of the Students” (1915), where he already rejects “a conception of history, whose confidence in the infinity of time only distinguishes the speed by which men and epochs roll, quicker or slower, along the track of progress”—a conception characterized by the “inconsistency, the lack of precision and force of the demands it addresses at the present”—opposing it to utopian images such as the messianic Kingdom or the French Revolution.

Benjamin’s first reference to Communism appears in 1921, in his “Critique of Violence,” where he celebrates the “devastating and on the whole justified” critique of the Parliament by the Bolsheviks and the Anarcho-syndicalists. This link between Communism and Anarchism will be an important aspect of his political evolution: his Marxism will to a large extent take a libertarian colour.

But it is only after 1924, when he reads Lukács’s “History and Class Consciousness” (1923), and discovers practical Communism through the beautiful eyes of Asja Lacis—a Soviet artist and political activist he met in Capri—that Marxism will become a key component of his world-view. In 1929 Benjamin still refers to Lukacs’s opus as one of the few books which remain lively and topical: “the most achieved philosophical work of the Marxist literature. Its uniqueness lies in the assurance with which it grasps in the critical situation of philosophy the critical situation of class struggle, and in the coming concrete revolution the absolute presupposition, and even the absolute implementation and the last word of theoretical knowledge. The polemic against it by the hierarchy of the Communist Party under the leadership of Deborin confirms, in its way, the scope of the book.” This commentary illustrates Benjamin’s independence of mind towards the official doctrine of Soviet Marxism—in spite of his sympathies for the USSR.

The first work where the influence of Marxism can be felt is One-way Street, written from 1923 until 1925, published in 1928. Benjamin’s former neo-romantic criticism of progress is now charged with a revolutionary Marxist tension: “if the abolition of the bourgeoisie is not completed before an almost calculable moment in economic and technical development (a moment signaled by inflation and poison-gas warfare) all is lost. Before the spark reaches the dynamite, the lighted fuse must be cut”. Will the proletariat be able to fulfill this historical task? The survival or destruction of “three thousand years of cultural development” depends on the answer. In opposition to the vulgar evolutionist brand of Marxism, Benjamin does not conceive the proletarian revolution as the natural or inevitable result of economic and technical progress, but as the critical interruption of an evolution leading to catastrophe.

This critical standpoint explains why his Marxism has a peculiarly pessimistic spirit—a revolutionary pessimism which has nothing to do with resigned fatalism. In his article on Surrealism from 1929—where he again tries to reconcile Anarchism and Marxism—he defines Communism as the organization of pessimism, adding ironically: “unlimited confidence only in the IG Farben and the peaceful perfectioning of the Luftwaffe.” Both institutions were soon (but after his death) to show, beyond his most pessimistic forecasts, the sinister usage which could be made of modern technology.

In 1933, as Adolf Hitler seized power, like many other Jews and antifascists, Benjamin had to leave Germany. Exiled in Paris, he survived precariously with a small stipendium from the Institute of Social Research in New York, where the Frankfurt School was exiled. During those years he worked on his unfinished project on the Parisian Arcades, while producing some remarkable Marxist essays on Baudelaire and on the “Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproduction” (1935).

Benjamin’s Marxism was a new and original re-interpretation of historical materialism (nourished by Romantic culture and Jewish theology) radically different from the orthodoxy of the 2nd and 3rd Internationals. It should be considered as an attempt to deepen and radicalize the opposition between Marxism and bourgeois ideology, to heighten its revolutionary potential and to sharpen its critical content. This was also the aim of the Arcades project (Passagenwerk): “One can perceive as one of the methodological aims of this work to demonstrate the possibility of a historical materialism, that has annihilated in itself the idea of progress. Here is precisely where historical materialism has to dissociate itself from the bourgeois habits of thought.” Such a program did not aim at some sort of "revision" but rather, as Korsch tried to do in his own book (Karl Marx [1936], one of Benjamin’s major sources) a return to Marx himself.

In 1939, as the war began, Benjamin was interned as an “enemy alien” by the French government. He managed to escape the internment camp, but after the German victory and occupation of France in 1940, he had to leave Paris for Marseille. In these dramatic circumstances, he wrote his last piece, the Theses on the concept of history, perhaps the most important document in revolutionary theory since Marx’s celebrated “Theses on Feuerbach” (1845).

In these few but extraordinarily dense pages, the ideology of progress—also inside the Communist movement—is criticized in its philosophical foundations, the linear and empty time, with the help of a “theological” Messianic conception of time.

A few decades after Benjamin’s death, the idea of a theology at the service of the poor in the struggle for their self-liberation, a theology intimately linked with Marxism, comes to life again, but this time in a very different cultural and historical context: the liberationist Christianity of Latin America. But there is a secret affinity between Walter Benjamin and liberation theology…

In August 1940 Benjamin tried, with a group of German antifascist refugees, to cross the French border at the Pyrenées Mountains; they were arrested by the (Franco) Spanish police, taken to the village of Port-Bou, and told they would be delivered to the French and/or German police. Benjamin preferred to commit suicide. It was his last act of protest. |P