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date: 04 December 2020

Walter Benjamin and Jewish Radical Culturefree

  • Michael LöwyMichael LöwyInstitut des sciences humaines et sociales, Centre national de la recherche scientifique


Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) was situated among a constellation of early-20th-century radical Jewish thinkers delving into questions of German culture and philosophy in Mitteleuropa. Within this Jewish Central European radical culture, a complex network of links, of “elective affinities,” as Johann Wolfgang Goethe called them, brought together romanticism, Jewish messianism, anti-bourgeois cultural rebellion, and revolutionary (socialist and anarchist) utopias. This messianism is not the one of Jewish orthodoxy but a new, highly political version, seen through the lens of German romanticism. Benjamin should thus be viewed as a religious atheist with anarchist leanings, who only discovers Marxism in the mid-1920s, following the lectures of Georg Lukacs’s that were published as History and Class Consciousness in 1923. He became the first Marxist to break radically with the ideology of progress. Benjamin’s thinking has a distinct critical quality that sets his apart from the dominant and official forms of historical materialism and gives him a formidable political and intellectual superiority as a Marxist critic. This philosophical peculiarity comes from his ability to incorporate into the body of Marxist revolutionary theory insights from Jewish messianism and from the German Romantic critique of modern civilization.

Jewish Thinkers as a Constellation in the Early 20th Century

Walter Benjamin was among a constellation of early-20th-century radical Jewish thinkers delving into German culture in Mitteleuropa. Within this Jewish Central European radical culture, a complex network of links, of “elective affinities,” in Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s words, brought together romanticism, Jewish messianism, anti-bourgeois cultural rebellion, and revolutionary (socialist and anarchist) utopias. This messianism was not the one of Jewish orthodoxy but a new, highly political version, seen through the lens of German romanticism. Romanticism must be understood as a worldview, present in all spheres of culture—poetry, literature, art, philosophy, political theory, theology, anthropology, and so on; it represented essentially a socio-cultural protest against modern (capitalist) industrial civilization, in the name of past (pre-modern, pre-capitalist) values. Emerging in the second half of the 18th century, Romanticism thus is not a period but rather one of the main currents in modern culture; it continued to develop into the next three centuries. It can take regressive, conservative, and reactionary forms, as well as utopian and revolutionary ones; in Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the early 20th century, the left-radical version of romanticism was represented mainly by Jewish intellectuals.

One can distinguish two poles in this vast Romantic and messianic galaxy of the German radical Jewish literature and culture. The first is composed of religious Jews with radical and utopian leanings: Rudolf Kayser, Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem, Hans Kohn, and the young Leo Löwenthal. The rejection of assimilation, and the assertion of a religious and cultural Jewish identity, was the dominant aspect of their thought. Most of them were Zionists but soon left the movement (Kohn, Löwenthal), or if they remained they were marginalized because of their anti-nationalist stance (Buber, Scholem). All shared, to varying degrees, a universal utopian perspective, a sort of libertarian (anarchist) socialism, which they articulate with their messianic religious faith.

The other pole is made of the assimilated, religious-atheist Jews, with anarchist and Marxist sympathies: Gustav Landauer, Ernst Bloch, Erich Fromm, the young Georg Lukács, Manès Sperber, and Walter Benjamin. The phrase “religious atheism”—used by Lukács in reference to Feodor Dostoievski—is relevant to understand this paradoxical spiritual figure, which seems to search, with the energy of despair, for the point of messianic convergence between the sacred and the profane. Unlike the others, these Jewish thinkers distanced themselves from Judaism, without breaking all the links, specifically with its messianic tradition. Some of them, in their youth, received a religious Jewish education (Fromm, Sperber), but most discovered Judaism later in their life. Separately from their individual trajectories, they have in common this strange and contradictory attitude, combining the rejections of traditional religious beliefs with a passionate interest in the mystical, heretical, and messianic Jewish currents. They shared a messianic and revolutionary spirituality that weaves, in an inextricable way, the threads of religion and those of radical utopias. Sympathetic to anarchist ideals—a radical idea of freedom, a rejection of the state—during the years 1914–1923, most were progressively drawn to Marxism in subsequent years.

Walter Benjamin (1892–1940) occupies a unique place in the history of modern revolutionary thought: he was the first Marxist to break radically with the ideology of progress. He was also one of the few Marxists in the years before 1945 to propose a radical critique of the concept of the exploitation of nature and of the capitalist destructive—“murderous” is his term—relationship with nature. His thinking has therefore a distinct critical quality that sets his philosophy apart from the dominant and official forms of historical materialism and gave him a formidable political and intellectual superiority. This peculiar vision emerged out of his ability to incorporate into the body of Marxist revolutionary theory insights from the Romantic critique of modern civilization. Benjamin’s work is thus not a closed system but expresses thinking in movement.

Romantic Zivilisationskritik and the Discovery of Marxism, 1913–1930

One of Benjamin’s first articles (published in 1913) was quite simply called “Romantik.” It pleaded for the birth of a “new Romanticism” and offered a homage to the “romantic desire for beauty, truth and action” as insuperable moments of modern culture. This inaugural text documents both Benjamin’s deep affinity with the Romantic tradition—conceived as being simultaneously art, knowledge, and praxis—and an aspiration to renew it.1

Another essay from this same period—“Dialogue on the Religiosity of the Present” (1913)—also bears witness to his fascination for the Romantic worldview and the Romantic philosophy of nature, with its “powerful insights into the nocturnal side of nature.” The friend who dialogues with the author in this essay refers to “neo-Romanticism” and mentions “sympathetic but dangerous writers” such as Arthur Schnitzler, Hugo von Hoffmannsthal, and Thomas Mann. But for the author (“Ich” in the dialogue) the crucial issues of the epoch are elsewhere: in the possibility of a new religion and of a new socialism, whose prophets are called Lev Tolstoi, Friedrich Nietzsche, and August Strindberg.2

This “social religion” is radically opposed to the present conception of the social that reduces it to “a mere thing of Civilization, such as electric light.” In this context, Benjamin takes up several classical topoi of the Romantic Zivilisationskritik: the transformation of human beings into “work-machines”; the degradation of labor into mere technology; the hopeless submission of the individuals to the social mechanics; and above all, the replacement of the “heroic-revolutionary efforts” of the past by the pitiful march of progress, the “crab-like walk of evolution.”3

The last remark is most revealing of the twist that Benjamin gives to the Romantic tradition: the deconstruction of the ideology of progress made not in the name of conservatism or restauration but of revolution. This subversive shift is also the leading motif of “The Life of Students” (1915), an astonishing document, which seems to collect in a single beam of light all the ideas that would haunt him during his life. For Benjamin, the true questions that should be raised in the present are not the “problems of a limited and specialized philosophical science” but rather the “metaphysical questions of Plato, Baruch Spinoza, the Romantics, and Nietzsche.” Among these “metaphysical” problems, historical temporality is prominent: against the “formless progressive tendency” with its linear conception of time, Benjamin praises the critical power of utopian images, like the French revolutionary idea of 1789 and the Messianic Kingdom. Another sort of utopian moment is to be found in the “Tolstoïan Spirit” of service to the poor, which has grown “in the ideas of the deepest anarchists and in the Christian monastic communities.” In a typically Romantic and revolutionary shortcut, the religious past and the utopian future are associated, under the common inspiration of the Russian libertarian socialist and Christian writer.4

Several other of Benjamin’s early writings bear witness to his interest in 19th-century German Romantic literature: the essay on Friedrich Hölderlin (1914–1915) and of course his doctoral thesis, “The Concept of Art Criticism in German Romanticism” (1919). But his attraction to the subject was much more than an academic affair. As he explained in a June 1917 letter to Gerhard Scholem, he not only loved the “infinite deepness and beauty” of the early Romantics but also considered Romanticism as, without any doubt, the last movement that “saved tradition for us.”5

But there exists another aspect of Romanticism that interested him particularly, even if he could only marginally refer to it in his thesis: messianism. He believed that the essence of Romanticism “should be looked for in Romantic Messianism.” He quotes among others a most extraordinary statement from the young Friedrich Schlegel: “the revolutionary desire to accomplish the Kingdom of God is . . . the beginning of modern history.”6 In this context, he again raised the “metaphysical” issue of historical temporality; rejecting the infinitely empty time characteristic of the modern ideology of progress, he celebrated the qualitative conception of infinite time (qualitative zeitliche Unendlichkeit), which follows from Romantic messianism.7 There is a striking similarity between this passage and the critique of “progress” in the 1940 theses “On the Concept of History.” What Benjamin proposed might be seen as a Jewish interpretation of Romanticism, introducing the unusual concept of “Romantic messianism”—but also its inverse, a Romantic reading of the Jewish tradition.8

What is the relationship between the two “utopian images,” the Messianic Kingdom and revolution, mentioned in the 1915 essay on student life? In 1921, Benjamin wrote a strange and enigmatic piece, Theological-Political Fragment, which addresses the issue without directly answering the question. This draft was written soon after his discovery of Franz Rosenzweig’s opus major, The Star of Redemption. Like Rosenzweig, Benjamin set the sphere of historical events completely apart from that of the messianic; but, at the same time, he built over this seemingly infinite abyss a dialectical bridge, a subtle passageway, a strange route, that also seems directly inspired by some passages from Rosenzweig. The dynamis of the profane, or, to be more precise, the “profane order of the profane”—a phrase that probably refers to the historical process—points toward “the quest of free humanity for happiness,” similar to Rosenzweig’s “great works of liberation.” This profane process, this search for happiness, can promote “the coming of the messianic Kingdom,” not directly but as a force moving in one direction that can help foster another force going the opposite way—an obscure metaphor that tries to connect the profane and the messianic.9

Benjamin’s political views in those first years were close to anarchism. There is a whole group of anarchist/Romantic writers that enters a constellation with Benjamin’s social philosophy at this period, a group including not only figures such as Tolstoï and Strindberg (quoted in 1915) but also Charles Péguy—of whom he said in a letter to Scholem written September 15, 1919, that nothing written had ever touched him with so much nearness and community—Georges Sorel (highly praised in the essay on violence from 1921), and Landauer.

Only later did he discover Marxism and the Communist movement. His first reference to Communism appeared in 1921, in his Sorelian essay “Critique of Violence,” where he celebrated the “devastating and on the whole justified” critique of the parliament by the Bolsheviks and the anarcho-syndicalists.10 This link between Communism and anarchism became an important aspect of his political evolution: his Marxism took on a libertarian cast.

But it is after 1924, when he read Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness (1923) and discovered practical Communism through the eyes of Asja Lacis—a Soviet artist and political activist he met (and fell in love with) in Capri, Italy—that Marxism became a key component of his worldview. In 1929, Benjamin still referred to Lukács’s opus from 1923 as one of the few books that remained lively and topical: “the most accomplished 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 [Abram] Deborin confirms in its way the scope of the book.”11 This commentary illustrates Benjamin’s independence of mind—in spite of his sympathies for the Soviet Union—toward the official doctrine of Soviet Marxism, whose representatives had denounced Lukacs’s History and Class Consciousness as an “idealist” piece.

The first work where the influence of Marxism can be felt is One-Way Street, written from 1923 to 1925 and published in 1928. Benjamin’s former neo-Romantic criticism of progress is now charged with a revolutionary Marxist tension, as in the section called “Fire Alarm”: “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? Either the survival or destruction of “three thousand years of cultural development” depend on the answer.12 Benjamin was wrong about inflation (a bitter experience in Germany at the early 1920s) as the cause of future catastrophe but not about the war, although he could not foresee that the lethal gas would be used not on the battlefields, as in World War I, but in the Nazis’ industrial extermination of Jews and Roma.

In opposition to the vulgar evolutionist brand of Marxism, Benjamin did 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 that has nothing to do with resigned fatalism. In his 1920 article “Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia,” he again tried to reconcile anarchism and Marxism. Moreover, he defined Communism as the organization of pessimism, which means “mistrust in the fate of freedom, mistrust in the fate of European humanity.” He then added this ironical conclusion: “one can have “unlimited confidence only in the IG Farben and the peaceful perfectionism of the Luftwaffe.”13

Benjamin’s critical vision allowed him to perceive—intuitively but with surprising acuity—the catastrophes in store for Europe as results of the crisis of industrial/capitalist civilization. But not even Benjamin, the most pessimistic of his time, could have foreseen the destruction the Luftwaffe was to rain down on the civilian populations of Europe’s towns and cities, much less imagine that IG Farben, the great German chemical corporation, just twelve years later, would set up plants within the concentration camps to exploit the prisoners as forced labor.

The 1929 article attests to Benjamin’s interest in Surrealism, which he saw as a modern manifestation of revolutionary Romanticism. The approach common to Benjamin and André Breton might be defined as a kind of Gothic Marxism, distinct from the dominant version that was metaphysically materialistic in tendency and contaminated by the evolutionary ideology of progress. The adjective Gothic has to be understood in its Romantic sense: fascination with the marvelous and also with the enchanted aspects of pre-modern societies and cultures. The English Gothic novel of the 18th century and some of the German Romantics of the 19th century are Gothic references one finds at the heart of the work of both thinkers. The Gothic Marxism common to them could be seen, then, to be a historical materialism sensitive to the magical dimension of past cultures, to the dark moment of revolt, and to the lightning flash that illuminates the sky of revolutionary action.14

Benjamin’s adoption of Marxism does not at all mean that he lost interest in the Romantic protest against bourgeois civilization—or the Romantic nostalgia for an idealized past. On the contrary, he integrated both in his sui generis Marxist criticism of the capitalist forms of alienation. For instance, in a piece from 1930, he referred to E. T. A. Hoffmann as a Romantic follower of the “oldest cultural heritage of humanity,” who believed in an active link with the most ancient times (der fernsten Urzeit). This reference to a primeval, archaic, or ancestral era became central in Benjamin’s later writings, in contrast to the usual Romantic nostalgia for the Middle Ages. Moreover, he was fascinated by what he called, in this essay from 1930, the “most decidedly religious dualism” between life and automaton, which can be found in the fantastic tales from Hoffmann, Edgar Allan Poe, Alfred Kubin, and Oskar Panizza. Hoffmann’s Erzählungen—and here Benjamin probably thought of the famous tale of the mechanical doll Olympia—are inspired by the religious feeling of a secret identity between the automat and the satanic and by the perception of daily human life in modern society as “the product of an infamous artificial mechanism, whose core is regulated by Satan.”15 This characteristically Romantic terror of the mechanization of life, Benjamin reformulated in modern terms in his essays from the 1930s on Charles Baudelaire, by referring to the transformation of the proletarians into automatons.

The Arcades Project: Marxist Critique of Progress, 1935–1939

In his writings from the 1920s, there are very few references to Karl Marx himself (or Friedrich Engels). At this point, Benjamin does not seem to have a real knowledge of Marx’s writings, and his appropriation of historical materialism is based on contemporary Marxist literature, not on the texts of the Founding Fathers. The effective study of Marx and Engels’s writings seems to take place in the 1930s, during his years of exile in Paris (1933–1940) as a refugee from Nazi Germany, while he was at work on the Arcades Project (Passagen-Werk).16 The exact nature of this project remains unclear: was this to be a new form of book, composed as a montage, a huge assembly of quotations, peppered with comments? Or, was this collection of files just the rough material, to be used for writing a book that never came into being? In any case, it documents Benjamin’s intensive study of Marx’s and Engels’s writings after 1934, as well as his highly selective and idiosyncratic approach as a critical theorist.

For a brief experimental period between 1933 and 1935, during the years of the Second Five-Year Plan, some of Benjamin’s Marxist texts seem close to Soviet productivism, following it with an uncritical adherence to the promises of technological progress. These include “Experience and Poverty” (1933), “The Author as Producer” (1934) and, though only to a certain degree, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1935).17 However, even during these years, he had not quite lost his interest in the Romantic problematic, as his 1935 article on Johann Jakob Bachofen documents. In fact, Benjamin’s thinking then was quite contradictory: occasionally he shifted very quickly from one extreme to the other—even in a single text, as in the famous 1935 essay on the work of art. These writings are suffused with both a permanent aspect of his Marxist thinking—the materialist preoccupation—and an experimental tendency to push certain arguments to their ultimate consequences. He seems tempted by a Soviet variant of the ideology of progress, though reinterpreted in his own way. Some later Marxist readings of Benjamin’s works foreground just these texts that seem closer to a classical, if not orthodox, historical materialism. After 1936 this kind of progressive parenthesis closes, and Benjamin increasingly reintegrates the Romantic moment into his sui generis Marxist critique of the capitalist forms of alienation.

The aim of the Arcades Project is defined by Benjamin in the following terms: “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.”18 Such a program did not aim at some sort of revision but rather—as Karl Korsch tried to do in his own book, Karl Marx, published in 1938—a return to Marx himself.19

One of the aspects of this annihilation is a new interpretation of Marx’s intellectual sources, emphasizing his relationship to the Romantic critique of civilization. Benjamin approvingly mentions Korsch in this respect: “Very correctly says Korsch—and one could think here of [Jospeh] de Maistre and [Louis Gabril Ambrosie, Vicompt] de Bonald: ‘Therefore, in the theory of the modern labor movement entered also . . . a part of that . . . “disillusion” which followed the great French Revolution, immediately proclaimed by the first French theoreticians of the counter-revolution, and then by the German Romantics, which exerted a powerful influence, specially though Hegel, on Marx.’”20 One can doubt that de Maistre—who is quoted extensively in the Arcades Project section on Baudelaire—was of any interest to Marx, who probably never read him. But the general hypothesis that Romantic anti-bourgeois currents were relevant for Marx is quite appropriate, and of course corresponds to Benjamin’s own attempt to reformulate historical materialism.

Another argument in Benjamin’s attempt to emancipate Marxism from the illusions of progress is his critique of the idealization of industrial labor. Several quotations from Marx or Engels in the Arcades Project are linked to this criticism, for instance, when in The Condition of the Working-Class in England (1845), Engels compares the “infinite torture of labor, where the same mechanical process is again and again repeated” with the infernal labors of Sisyphus: “the weight of labor, like the rock, falls again and again on the backs of the exhausted worker.”21 Moreover, in the Arcades Project and in his 1936–1938 writings on Baudelaire, Benjamin again took up the typically Romantic idea—discussed by him in a 1930 essay on E.T.A. Hoffmann—of the radical opposition between life and the automaton, in the context of a Marxist-inspired analysis of the transformation of the proletarian into an automaton. The repetitive, meaningless, mechanical gestures of the worker grappling with the machine—Benjamin refers here to certain passages from Marx’s Capital—are similar to the automaton-like gestures of passersby in the crowd, as described by Poe and Hoffmann. Both groups of people, as victims of urban, industrial civilization, no longer know authentic experience (Erfahrung)—based on the memory of a historical, cultural tradition—but only immediate life (Erlebnis), and in particular the Chockerlebnis that produces in them a reactive behavior, akin to that of automata “who have completely liquidated their memory.”22

Benjamin’s Marxism, as developed in the Arcades Project and in his last writings, is a new and original reinterpretation of historical materialism, radically different from the orthodoxy of the Second and Third 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. Politically, during the second half of the 1920s and the 1930s, Benjamin was an idiosyncratic sympathizer of the Communist movement. However, he had strong sympathies for Leon Trotsky, and, particularly after 1937, increasingly distanced himself from Soviet (Stalinist) Marxism. From this linksradikal (left-radical) commitment follows quite logically a critical assessment of social democracy and its blinkers compared to the powerful insights of Marx and Engels. For instance, his article from 1937 on “Edward Fuchs, Collector and Historian” contains a severe attack on social-democratic ideology, which he argued combined Marxism with positivism, Darwinist evolutionism, and the cult of progress. Its greatest mistake is that it saw in the development of technology only the progress of natural sciences, not the social regression it contributed to under capitalism. It never perceived the danger that the innovations produced by technology could (and would) serve above all for the technical perfection of war. Against the shallow optimism of the social-democratic pseudo-Marxists, Benjamin opposed his pessimistic-revolutionary perspective, referring to “the perspective on the early barbarism which illuminates Engels’ Condition of the Working-Class in England and Marx’s own prognosis on the development of capitalism.”23

If Benjamin rejected the doctrines of progress, this did not prevent him from positing a radical alternative to the impending disaster: revolutionary utopia. In “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century” (1935), he argues that “utopias—dreams born of a different future—are closely associated with elements coming from prehistory (Urgeschichte), that is, a primitive and classless society. Stored in the collective unconscious, these experiences of the past interact with the new to give birth to . . . utopias.”24 The Romantic protest against capitalist modernity is always formulated in the name of an idealized past—real or mythical. But, which “past” serves as a paradigm to the Marxist Walter Benjamin in his critique of bourgeois civilization and his deconstruction of the illusions of progress? While in his early theological writings there are often references to a lost paradise, in the 1930s primitive communism plays this role, as it did for Marx and Engels, who borrowed this idea from the Romantic anthropology of Lewis Henry Morgan and Bachofen.

Benjamin’s review of Bachofen, written in 1935, is one of the most important keys to understand his method of weaving a new philosophy of history with the threads of Marxism and Romanticism. Rejecting the conservative (Ludwig Klages) and fascist (Alfred Bäumler) interpretations of Bachofen, Benjamin claimed that Bachofen’s work on matriarchy, “inspired by romantic sources,” attracted the interest of both Marxist and anarchist thinkers because of his “evocation of a communist society at the dawn of history.” The anarchist geographer Elisée Réclus found in Bachofen’s books the ancient sources of his libertarian ideal, while Engels and Paul Lafargue were interested in his presentation of matriarchal communities as social organizations in which a high degree of democracy and civil equality existed, along with forms of primitive communism that subverted the concept of authority.25

The Thesis “On the Concept of History,” 1940: A Marxist Messianism

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 was forced to leave Paris for Marseille. During this dramatic circumstance, he wrote his last piece, the “Theses on the Concept of History,” a very short draft not intended for publication and communicated only to a small circle of friends (Hannah Arendt, Theodor W. Adorno, Bertolt Brecht).26 A few months later, in September 1940, after a failed attempt to escape through Spain, he chose suicide.

Benjamin’s “Theses” from 1940 are perhaps the most important document in revolutionary theory since Marx’s celebrated “Theses on Feuerbach” (1845).27 There have been three schools of interpretation of this document:


The materialist school (Brecht and his followers): Benjamin is a Marxist and a materialist. His theological formulations should be seen as metaphors.


The theological school (Scholem et al.): Benjamin is first and foremost a Jewish theologian, a messianic thinker. His Marxism is merely a terminology.


The school of contradiction (Jurgen Habermas): Benjamin tries to reconcile Marxism with Jewish theology, materialism with messianism. As everyone knows, these are incompatible. Hence the failure of his attempt.

These three schools of thought are at once right and wrong, calling for a fourth approach: Benjamin was a Marxist and a Jewish radical theologian. It is true that these two conceptions are usually contradictory. But Benjamin was not a typical thinker; he reinterpreted these secular and religious conceptions in a process of mutual illumination that enables them to be articulated together in a coherent way, a unique dialectical movement between the secular and the religious utopias: the classless society and the messianic era.

Benjamin liked to compare himself to a Janus figure, one of whose faces was turned toward Moscow and the other toward Jerusalem. The Roman god had two faces but a single head. Marxism and messianism, the secular and the religious utopia, are simply two expressions—Ausdrücke, one of Benjamin’s favorite terms—of a single thought. The better way to grasp the complex and subtle relationship between redemption and revolution in his philosophy of history is through the concept of correspondence, in the Baudelairian meaning of the word, between secular and religious utopias. Another idea is of an elective affinity, that is, a mutual attraction and reciprocal reinforcement of the two dimensions, on the basis of certain structural analogies, leading to a kind of alchemical union—much like the amorous encounter between two souls in Goethe’s novel, Die Wahlverwandschaften, to which Benjamin devoted one of the most important of his youthful essays.28 Thesis One includes the famous image of the automaton chess player, called “historical materialism,” that can win the game only with the help of a hidden player, theology: it is an allegory of the dialectical relationship between Marxism and messianism, the necessary association between both to defeat the enemy, fascism. The term theology refers to some key moments of the Jewish tradition: the remembrance of the past—the religious imperative Zakhor discussed by Yossef Hayim Yerushalmi in 1982—the nostalgia for the Lost Paradise (Gan Eden), and the hope for a Messianic Age. The figure of the Messiah himself is absent in Benjamin.

In these few but extraordinarily dense pages, Marx is often quoted, once more as the thinker of class struggle and of revolution. However, the ideology of progress—also a tenet within the Communist movement—is criticized for its philosophical foundations, the linear and empty time, “homogenous empty time,” with the help of a messianic conception of time. For Benjamin, secularization, as practiced by Marx, is both legitimate and necessary—on condition that the subversive energy of the messianic remains present, even if as an occult force (like theology in the materialist chess player). What is to be rejected, insisted Benjamin, is not secularization as such but a specific form, that of social democratic neo-Kantianism, which turned the messianic idea into an ideal, an “infinite task.” Those chiefly implicated in this were the Marburg University group of philosophers to which Alfred Stadler and Paul Natorp—two of the authors mentioned in the thesis—belonged, together with Hermann Cohen. Benjamin reproached neo-Kantian-inspired social democracy, above all, for its attentisme, the Olympian calm with which it awaits, comfortably installed in “empty and homogeneous time” like a courtier in the anteroom, the inescapable advent of the revolutionary situation—that, of course, will never come. The alternative he proposed is both historical and political, and it is both of these things inseparably. It starts out from the hypothesis that each moment has its revolutionary potentialities. And in it an open conception of history as human praxis, rich in unexpected possibilities and able to produce something new, stands opposed to any kind of teleological doctrine that trusts in the laws of history or in the gradual accumulation of reforms on the safe and sure path of infinite progress.

The best-known passage from the “Theses on the Concept of History” is from Thesis Nine, on Paul Klee’s painting, Angelus Novus (Angel of history). This enigmatic and fascinating text presents itself as an allegory where each sacred image has a profane “correspondent” (in the Baudelairian meaning): history is represented by a powerless angel, inexorably projected into the future by a storm that blows from paradise, while on his feet ruins and wreckage accumulate: “What we call progress is this storm.”29

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the paradise from which we are being blown away by the catastrophic progress has its profane equivalent—or rather, its “correspondence”—in the egalitarian pre-historic society, the primitive community dreamed not only by the historian of matriarchy (Bachofen) but also the poète maudit (Baudelaire) and the founders of socialism. There is also an equivalence between the messianic age of the future and the new classless society of socialism. But the ongoing catastrophe, the accumulation of debris that grows skyward, the result of so-called “progress” needs further interpretation. As always in the “Theses” of 1940, Benjamin’s answer was both religious and secular. In the theological sphere, it is the task of the Messiah, while the secular equivalent or correspondence to messianic intervention is the revolution. The messianic/revolutionary interruption of progress was, therefore, Benjamin’s response to the threats posed by the human species to itself by the continuation of evil and impending storm of new catastrophes. He wrote in 1940, only months away from the start of the Final Solution.

Benjamin’s “Theses on the Concept of History” stand explicitly on the ground of the Marxist tradition—historical materialism—that Benjamin wished to wrench from the bureaucratic conformism that threatened it as much as, if not more than, its enemy. His heretical interpretation of Marxism remained to the end illuminated by the Romantic night-star. His relation to the Marxian heritage was highly selective. It involved his abandonment of—rather than the explicit critique of, or a direct settling of accounts with—all the moments in the works of Marx and Engels that have served as references for the positivistic/evolutionary readings of Marxism in terms of irresistible progress, the laws of history and natural necessity, and so on. Benjamin’s reading stands in direct contradiction to this idea of inevitability, which from the Communist Manifesto onward haunts certain texts by Marx and Engels.

Undoubtedly, the work of Marx and Engels has unresolved tensions running through it between a certain fascination with the natural scientific model and a dialectical-critical approach, between faith in the organic and quasi-natural maturation of the social process and the strategic vision of revolutionary action that seizes an exceptional moment. These tensions explain the diversity of Marxisms that were to dispute the Marxian heritage after the deaths of its founders.30 In the “Theses” of 1940, Benjamin ignored ideas derived from the natural scientific model and took his inspiration and method from its dialectical critique. Benjamin preferred to attack social democratic epigones rather than contest certain of the writings of Marx and Engels themselves that made possible their interpretations. There were several—not necessarily contradictory—reasons for this attitude: the conviction that the real Marx lies elsewhere and the positivist moments are secondary; the political option of setting Marx himself against his epigones, who had in any case diluted or traduced his message; and the desire, following the example of his masters Lukács and Korsch, to interpret historical materialism in his own way, rather than critically review the writings of the founders.

The recasting of historical materialism in the “Theses” involved a selective—and heterodox—reappropriation of the Marxian themes that seemed to him essential to his undertaking: the state as class domination, the class struggle, and the social revolution and utopia of a classless society. Materialism itself, revised by theology, was incorporated into his theoretical system. The result is a reworking, a critical reformulation of Marxism, integrating messianic, Romantic, Blanquist, anarchist, and Fourierist splinters into the body of historical materialism—the fabrication, using all these materials, of a new and heretical Marxism, radically different from all the other—orthodox or dissident—variants of his time.

There are few direct criticisms of Marx and Engels in the “Theses” themselves, but they do figure here and there in the associated notes. At one important point, Benjamin adopts a critical distance from the author of Capital on the issue of progress: “Critique of the theory of progress in Marx. Progress is here defined as the development of productive forces. But the human being, e.g., the proletariat belongs to them. In this way, the question of the criteria is only pushed back.”31 This point is significant because the uncritical view of the development of the productive forces largely fueled the economistic interpretations of the Second International and Stalinist productivism. But the comment remains at the level of a programmatic proposal and Benjamin did not go into it more deeply.

Another critical comment is essential to understand Benjamin’s conception of revolution: “Marx said that revolutions are the locomotive of world history. But perhaps things are very different. It may be that revolutions are the act by which the human race travelling in the train applies the emergency brake.”32 Implicitly, the image suggests that if humanity allows the train to follow its course, already laid down by the steel structure of the rails, and nothing stops its breathtaking race, we shall be hurled into catastrophe, the crash or the abyss. This passage, one of the preparatory notes to On the Concept of History, does not appear in the final versions of the document. It derives from Marx’s The Civil War in France: “Die Revolutionen sind die Lokomotiven der Geschichte” (the word “world” does not appear in Marx).33 Will humanity apply the revolutionary brakes? Every generation, Benjamin wrote in Thesis Two, has been endowed with a “weak Messianic power.” If not exercised “by the time an almost predictable moment of economic and technological development has been reached . . . then all is lost,” as Benjamin wrote in 1928.

Benjamin was a prophet; not someone who sees the future, like a Greek oracle, but in the Old Testament sense: that is, one who calls the people’s attention to future dangers. His predictions were conditional: “see what will happen, unless . . .”; “if we do not . . .” The future is still open. Every second, he noted in Thesis Seventeen B, is the “small gateway in time through which the Messiah may come.”

Discussion of the Literature

The critical commentary on Benjamin’s work is vast, but connections between his Marxism and messianism can be gleaned from a few key studies. Margaret Cohen’s Profane Illumination: Walter Benjamin and the Paris of Surrealist Revolution provides an original and suggestive attempt to interpret Benjamin’s writings from the late 1920s and the Arcades Project from the 1930s in connection with the French Surrealist movement. The Benjaminian concept of “profane illumination” is essential to understand the elective affinities between them. Karl Korsch’s Karl Marx helps situate Benjamin’s critique within Marxian traditions. Karl Korsch’s opus is a rather heterodox attempt to interpret Marx’s writings, emphasizing its Romantic sources. It was extensively used by Benjamin, who had access to the German original, while writing the Arcades Project. Esther Leslie’s Walter Benjamin: Overpowering Conformism offers one of the best intellectual biographies of Benjamin, emphasizing his radical political commitment and the novelty of his theoretical propositions.34

Further Reading

  • Benjamin, Walter. Briefe. Edited by Gershom Scholem and Theodor W. Adorno. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1966.
  • Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Translated by H. Zohn. New York: Schocken, 1969.
  • Benjamin, Walter. Gesammelte Schriften. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1974.
  • Benjamin, Walter. Reflections: Aphorisms; Essays and Autobiographical Writings. Translated by E. Jephcott. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1978.
  • Benjamin, Walter. “Johann Jakob Bachofen,” 1980.
  • Benjamin, Walter. Passagen-Werk. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1983.
  • Benjamin, Walter. Nachtrage. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1991.
  • Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.
  • Benjamin, Walter. One-Way Street and Other Writings. Translated by J. A. Underwood. London: Penguin, 2008.
  • Benjamin, Walter. Über den Begriff der Geschichte. Edited by Gerard Raulet. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2010.
  • Bensaïd, Daniel. Marx for Our Times: Adventures and Misadventures of a Critique. Translated by Gregory Elliott. London: Verso, 2002.
  • Cohen, Margaret. Profane Illumination: Walter Benjamin and the Paris of Surrealist Revolution. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.
  • Korsch, Karl. Karl Marx. New York: Russel & Russel, 1963.
  • Leslie, Esther. Walter Benjamin: Overpowering Conformism. London: Pluto Press, 2000.
  • Löwy, Michael. Fire Alarm: Reading Walter Benjamin’s “On the concept of History.” London: Verso, 2005.
  • Löwy, Michael. Morning Star: Surrealism, Marxism, Anarchism, Situationism, Utopia. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009.
  • Marx, Karl. Das Kapital I, Werke, 23. Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1968.
  • Marx, Karl. Capital. New York: Vintage, 1970.
  • Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. “Manifesto of the Communist Party.” In The Revolutions of 1848. Edited by D. Fernbach. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1973.
  • Yerushalmi, Yossef Hayim. Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1982.