in front of the border

Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, Untitled, circa 1955.


Considerations about the theses “On the concept of history”, by Walter Benjamin

If we manage to survive and remember the dead, 2020 will be a monster year. In Brazil, the physical confinement caused by isolation against the Covid-19 virus has resulted in a psychic enclosure; it was difficult not to give in to an indignation, all the more verbose and impotent, when realizing the deadly effects of the insults and profanities vociferated by the president. As “intellectuals”, that is, as very privileged citizens, even if most of the time poorly paid, we realized both our fragility and the absolute need for resistance.

Fragility and resistance that gave an unusual intensity to the various celebrations of the eightieth anniversary of the death of Walter Benjamin: his suicide on the Franco-Spanish border in Port Bou, generally remembered as the desperate gesture of a melancholic “man of letters” (an expression that Hannah Arendt chose to designate her friend), acquired another connotation. I hear the provocation. At least in that gesture, Benjamin showed a practical understanding that he didn't usually show in life: if he hadn't killed himself, he would have been handed back to the Vichy French police and by the latter to the Nazi police, to the Gestapo, ending his days in a death camp. concentration – as was, incidentally, the case of his younger brother, Georg Benjamin, a communist doctor from Wedding, a proletarian district of Berlin. He died at KZ Mathausen in 1942 when, according to Nazi archives, he tried to flee and was electrocuted on the camp fence.

Walter Benjamin's death on the frontier recalls, so to speak in advance, the countless deaths – future and present – ​​of other exiles and fugitives who, like him, never had all the necessary documents to gain access to more privileged lands. This death can be recalled as a tragic outcome that ended the life of an intellectual who was always “displaced”, an intellectual whose critical thinking actually consisted of several displacements. At the same time, it is an exemplary death for so many others, anonymous, that continue to happen in the same beautiful Mediterranean landscape, in the snow or in the deserts. A death without a tomb like that of Moses, but also like that of so many contemporary missing persons.

When we reread, once again, the theses “On the Concept of History”, a manuscript that Benjamin probably carried with him in the Pyrenees in his mysterious leather suitcase, we must, first of all, pay attention to two characteristics of this text: its historical context and the literary genre of this obscure but brilliant writing.[I] If we do not, we run the risk of immobilizing the so-called “theses” in a dogmatic interpretation as if it were a finished text on the theory of history, which it definitely is not.

Benjamin himself drew attention to the provisional and essayistic character of these observations when he wrote to Gretel Adorno, at the beginning of May 1940, that he had put down on paper several reflections that had worried him for a long time, perhaps even against his knowledge, but that he had not he thought of publishing them as they were because they would provoke, in this form, “the most enthusiastic of misunderstandings” (2005, 410).

We know that Benjamin began to write these “theses” after the non-aggression pact between the governments of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in August 1939, that is, when the last hopes that the Jewish, communist, Austrian or German exiles, could have in relation to the resistance of the Soviet Union against the rise of fascism in Germany. The German anti-fascist militants, refugees in Paris, found themselves stripped of their nationality by the authorities of their country of origin, but, at the same time, treated as potential enemies by the French government.

Thus, Benjamin and several of his companions in exile were transferred to a “work camp”, near Nevers, in a large manor house, cold and without any comfort. Thanks to the intervention of French friends, in particular Adrienne Monnier, owner of Librairie de l'Odéon, Benjamin was released from this camp in November 1939 and was able to return to Paris and his studies at Bibliotheque Nationale – instead of focusing your efforts on obtaining an exit visa to the United States.

If I recall this context of danger and persecution, of war and the imminent invasion of France by German troops, it is to insist on the historical moment of the writing of these theses. Tense moment in which the author, stateless and refugee, lives the end of political hopes in the fight against fascism and the closure in an increasingly precarious exile. Moment of threat, moment of danger, as thesis VI says, moment of confrontation with their personal and collective hopes of resistance. Benjamin does not write in the calm of a study, but in a temporary room (he has moved many times in recent months in Paris), on the verge of escaping. And he writes, as he told Gretel Adorno, not at the request of a scientific or literary magazine, but for himself, to clarify the impasse, to confront the political and theological reflections that occupied him throughout his life – because both, theology and politics, concern the transformation of the world.

I insist on this character of writing because nowadays, in our competitive and bureaucratic university life, in which “productions” count points and points count career advancement, we write to publish in prestigious magazines or to put another book on the market. The exercise (askesis) of interrogation and meditation, characteristic of philosophy from Plato to Foucault, of interlocution with oneself, whose configuration writing allows, gave way to the production of papers that they should offer coherence and results instead of trying to better elaborate doubts and questions.

Now, in this framework of administrative and administered thought, we have difficulties in allowing a text such as the theses “On the concept of history” to resound, which does not propose any “solution”, which uses metaphors and allegories, which resorts, at the same time, to Nietzsche , Brecht and the Jewish mystique, in short, which does not intend to be systematic or applicable, but which launches hypotheses about our insufficiencies of thought and action in facing fascism(s). I propose, below, some elements that should help to better hear how these questions, formulated in such a dark moment in the history of the last century, can have repercussions on the current helplessness and, equally, encourage our resistance and inventiveness.

We must first observe that, according to the title in Benjamin's own handwriting, these "theses" are not about history or about historical evolution, but about the concept of history. In this sense, they are indeed a philosophical and theoretical reflection, even if unconventional. The first title that the editors of the issue Zeitschrift for Social Forschung, in homage to Benjamin, gave this posthumous text, “Geschichts philosophische Thesen” (ie, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”) is misleading. It was corrected in later critical editions, even though the nickname "theses" continues to be used, perhaps to emphasize a certain affiliation to Marx's "Theses against Feuerbach", that is, an affiliation with a combative tradition of philosophy. Also to highlight the literary genre of the text that does not consist of any deductive argumentation, but rather a series of critical statements.

Benjamin does not trace any outline of a “philosophy of history”, but dwells on the concept. However, this concept is ambiguous because History can be used both for a sequence of temporal events and for the historical discipline (History) that tries to study and portray this sequence and, finally, also as a narrative (narrative), literary or not, in particular as a fictional narrative, as a novel, novel, short story, plot, the word being, in this acceptance, often used in the plural. We can say that all of Benjamin's philosophy dwells on this rich plurality of meanings that emphasizes the interweaving between the so-called “real” events and the narration that gives them life and thickness. For without narrative there is no articulated recollection of what happened. Perhaps there may be traces, ruins, clues, but there is no story.

The theses return to this question: how is the history of the past narrated? And, as a result of these various ways of narrating, how do we apprehend our present relationship to the past and, equally, our relationship to the future? The present moment, the time of now (Jetztzeit), moment of danger and decision, can only be defined as an easing (according to the expression of Saint Augustine in Book XI of the Confessions) between the image of the past and the image of the future, images that are not replicas of facts, but narratives that we weave, that we can undo and undo, fill in or, on the contrary, empty, highlighting gaps, pointing to uncertainties.

Thus, the theses “On the concept of history” are first and foremost theses on the various possible forms of historiography and on the political consequences of historiographical decisions. They are not epistemological observations. Benjamin does not seek a fair definition of historical knowledge, a problem he leaves for theorists of “historical science”. This does not mean that all versions of the past are equivalent, that is, that general relativism reigns. However, one cannot share the – positivist – certainty that we can know the past “as it properly was” (an expression by the historian Leopold von Ranke) because the past is always transmitted, there are no “brute facts” when we speak of it, but events that have been related and transmitted and that we narrate again.

Therefore, Benjamin writes much more, as thesis VI says, about the articulation of the past to the present, from the present to the past: “To articulate the past historically does not mean to know it 'as it properly was'. It means taking hold of a memory as it flashes in an instant of danger. It is important for historical materialism to capture an image of the past as it unexpectedly appears for the historical subject at the moment of danger” (Benjamin apoud Löwy 2005, 65).

The key metaphor of the articulation highlights the dynamics that imprint a movement both on the image of the past and on the perception of the present, a movement that reaches both, in the same effort, and allows a reciprocal transformation. Benjamin's political (not only hermeneutical) hypothesis consists of analyzing how certain ways of telling the story(s) not only reproduce class domination, but also prevent us from fighting, paralyze us, make us impotent. As a literary critic and as a philologist, the philosopher insists on the political and practical relevance of the various forms of narration. We can have a historical theory of the different literary narrative forms, as proposed by Györy Lukács in The Theory of Romance or Benjamin himself in the essay on “The narrator”, and we can also analyze the various so-called historical narratives and show their implications. Many contemporary authors – such as Reinhardt Koselleck, Paul Ricoeur or even Michel Foucault – resume this line of critical reflection on historiography, following the trail opened by Benjamin or as a result of other hypotheses. And the reflection opened by psychoanalysis also insists on the practical relevance of the various ways of reporting one's own story, trying to encourage the subject to leave his closure in the same narrative, self-constructed or imposed, to dare to invent another story.

In the specific case of Benjamin's theses, critical analysis faces two dominant narratives: a so-called progressive historiography and another so-called bourgeois, which Benjamin assimilates to "historicism", resuming many of the criticisms directed by Nietzsche, in his "Second untimely consideration", to his erudite – and deeply boring Basel colleagues. At first glance, these two lineages are opposed as they are today, in fact, militant professors called Marxists and traditional professors called specialists and erudites continue to oppose each other. The difficulties in understanding Benjamin's theses arise, among other things, from this double confrontation because Benjamin criticizes both the “ideology of progress” and the empty and cumulative erudition of historicism.

On the one hand, he accuses German Social Democracy of thinking that it “swims with the current” (see in particular theses XI and XIII), that is, that there is a predetermined historical direction, that the flow of historical events necessarily flows into the ocean of history. of social and socialist justice; Simultaneously, Benjamin clearly supports the class struggle of the German proletariat and its revolutionary attempts, in particular the workers' councils, the strikes of 1918/1919, attempts by the Spartakist movement, which were brutally defeated by the police and ended with the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, whose bodies were thrown into the Spree (Berlin river) by the police on the orders of the Social Democrat Noske. It is, therefore, a question of thinking about a policy of the left, of class struggle and revolution, but without the “faith” in progress at the end of history – a faith that is perhaps a replacement of moribund religious faith – without the “ideology of progress” as Benjamin calls it.

There is also – and this goes back to our current attempts at rewriting history, feminist, decolonial and other attempts – a clear critique on Benjamin's part of the “epic” side, as he calls it, of historical narratives, both from the ruling class and from its battles and its victorious heroes, as well as the subjects buried by domination. Adopting a heroic tone is always dangerous because, if we have admirable examples to be remembered and celebrated, “it is to the memory of the nameless that historical construction is consecrated” as Benjamin writes.

As Brecht also says in the poem entitled “Questions of a worker who reads”, the true materialist historiography must remember Caesar's cook and the slaves who raised the triumphal arches of Rome:

Every page is a victory.
Who cooked the feast?
Every ten years a great man.
Who paid the bill?
So many stories.
So many questions.

That is: we must and can revere Zumbi dos Palmares and Nelson Mandela, yes, but also honor the memory of the nameless who died with them; respect and study the work of Simone de Beauvoir, yes, but also honor the memory of so many silenced women, killed without having spoken aloud or written. In short, not falling into a new glorious historiography, because it is not about glory and heroes, but about justice and shared happiness, which is much more radical.[ii]

If Benjamin rejects, on the other hand, the accumulative narrative of historicism – which rests, like the ideology of progress, on an apprehension of history “travelling through homogeneous and empty time” – its endless and tiresome erudition, its hoarding of “cultural assets” , his mania for commemorating important national dates, as Pierre Nora also denounced in recent French historiographical debates, he does not do so because the “details” would be superfluous.

On the contrary, the praise of the “chronicler” in thesis III emphasizes the decisive importance of the “small”; the criticism is aimed at a hoarding practice that only desires the increase of private ownership, a private and ostentatious “culture”, basically the replica at the individual level of capitalist accumulation. The famous image of the procession of triumph (thesis VII) that displays its prey, under the name of “cultural assets”, is eloquent. It denounces a notion of culture that serves as an ornament and support for domination instead of being a sign of questioning the “status quo” and emancipation.

We must read theses VII and IV together, which do not contradict each other, but attribute to works and cultural practices an active role in the class struggle: not to allow themselves to be transformed into “goods” that belong to the winners, but, on the contrary, to put “ incessantly questioning every victory that falls to the dominant”, and this with “courage, humour, cunning, tenacity” says thesis IV. Note here that Benjamin does not speak of the political position of the author or the artist. It is not enough for a writer to be a communist to have a remarkable work, in fact, many times he can even be bad, dogmatic and retrograde! Often, on the contrary, it is the so-called bourgeois artists who, due to their unique radicalism, point to the need for transformation.

Thus Benjamin reads in The elective affinities Goethe's work is not a defense of marriage, but much more a diagnosis of its lack of authenticity – and that perhaps in spite of Goethe himself, but thanks to his artistic honesty. In a similar way, Baudelaire celebrates in his verses the longing for classical beauty and, simultaneously, its impossibility – if the poem does not want to be just an illusory false consolation. The famous sentence of thesis VII, “There is never a document of culture that is not, at the same time, a document of barbarism” (Benjamin apoud Lowy 2005, 70), does not imply the destruction of monuments, but its precise analysis as “documents” precisely, whose construction presupposes both the artist’s “genius” and the “nameless corvee of his contemporaries”.

Such an exercise of deconstruction emphasizes in materialist historiography a dimension that is often forgotten, that of transmission, a word synonymous with tradition, but less solemn, more material and demarcated. In his various texts on Baudelaire and in his essay on Eduard Fuchs, the word Lore, transmission, acquires more and more methodological weight. the radical deliver designates the concrete action of “delivering”, such as delivering a package or a letter, and the prefix and the movement that goes from a precise point to another determined, crossing measurable distances[iii].

Benjamin writes in the notes to the critical edition of the various essays on Baudelaire: “What speaks against the attempt to simply confront the poet Baudelaire with today's society and to answer the question, at the basis of his work, what he still has to say to its advanced cadres; well understood without forgetting the question, if he really has something to say to them. What speaks against this is [that] we were instructed precisely by bourgeois society to read Baudelaire, during a historical apprenticeship. This learning can never be ignored. A critical reading of Baudelaire and a critical review of that learning are very much one and the same. For it is an illusion of vulgar Marxism to think that it can determine the social function of either a material product or a spiritual one, making abstraction of the circumstances and the carriers of its transmission (Lore)”. (BENJAMIN 2013, 1160/1161)

In this observation, Benjamin refuses without naming the debate on inheritance (Debate über das Erbe) of the bourgeois culture that opposed Marxist thinkers such as Brecht and Lukács. In the essay on “Eduard Fuchs, the Collector and the Historian” that the Institute of Social Research commissioned him, Benjamin implicitly criticizes these discussions and proposes a reflection on the process of conservation and transmission of the past, works and events of the past, not an innocent process, but itself profoundly changing and historical.

In the straight line of the “theses”, he states: “If, for historical materialism, the concept of culture is a problematic concept, its decomposition into a set of goods that would be the object of property for humanity, this is a representation that he cannot assume. In his eyes, the work of the past is not finished. (...). As a set of formations considered independently, if not of the production process, from which they were born, but at least of the process, in which they endure, the concept of culture has a fetishistic aspect. Culture appears there reified”. (Benjamin 1991, 477)

Thesis VII concludes: “There is never a document of culture that is not, at the same time, a document of barbarism. And just as he is not free from barbarism, neither is the process of his transmission, the transmission in which he passed from one victor to another. Therefore, the historical materialist, as far as possible, distances himself from this transmission. He sees it as his task to brush history against the grain.”

Works of culture and historical events are, therefore, transmitted to our present, or left aside and forgotten in a process – not always conscious – of formation and acceptance of a historical tradition, a far from smooth process of transmission linked to historical-historical strategies and struggles. policies that lead to the constitution of a canon, that is, to the exclusion of several works and to the forgetting of events deemed unimportant. This critical hermeneutics of Benjamin emphasizes the historical distance, the stage of struggles and decision-making that a conventional concept of tradition tends to cover up in favor of an immediate adherence to established “values”. We can observe that Paul Ricoeur, in his texts critical of HG Gadamer's hermeneutics, also emphasizes the “fonction heméneutique de la distancing” (Ricoeur 1986, 101).

Since his youth text about The elective affinities of Goethe, the theme of historical distance is opposed, in Benjamin's analyses, to the ideal of understanding that defended Dilthey's hermeneutics, to the immediate apprehension by Einfühlung. We can translate this concept as “affective identification”, literally a “feeling in”, an “empathy” of the subject with his object according to the model of individual dialogue that Dilthey defines as a privileged form of understanding.

Now, such an ideal, according to Benjamin, is still an illusion of communication and consensus that rests on an individualist psychological paradigm and that disguises, under enthusiastic affections, an assumption of power by the subject over the other, minimizing his essential otherness. Moreover, in relation to historical knowledge, it minimizes precisely what separates the historian from his object, namely their temporal differences, in favor of the historical and limited conception of the researcher's current situation, erected as a criterion of validity.

To conclude, I would like to return to this critique of the Einfühlung. Indeed, it seems precious to me for our clumsy attempts to fight today against the process of growth and exacerbation of indifference in relation to the pain, illness and even death of others. Monstrous indifference that the pandemic has revealed and that many rulers encourage as if it were a sign of virility and a realistic choice in favor of national survival, that is, of the neoliberal economy.

In this context of monstrous indifference, the word “empathy” gained a renewed aura. It seems that the solution would consist in appealing to that vague feeling of sympathy with the other in which we can recognize ourselves, in whose suffering we can participate. Such appeals to personal compassion suffer, however, from the inadequacy of the individual and individualistic origin of this feeling: appeal is made to the goodwill of each person, an appeal that is far too derisory in opposition to the forces of crushing and destruction at play.

In a recent article, Vladimir Safatle opposes exhortations (most often in vain) to empathy to the construction of a collective feeling of solidarity, which recognizes that all of us (even those with whom I do not identify and for whom I have no sympathy) are part of of the same social body: in political terms we are mutually committed to the solidity (same etymology as solidarity) and perseverance of this social bond, broader than personal relationships of family, friendship, alliance, "goof".

I quote Safatle: “Solidarity, since Roman law, is a type of obligation contracted with several in which one can settle the debt of all. It is a system of obligation in which the action of one has the effect of the action of all, which explains its radically implicative nature. In this sense, it brings the idea of ​​a social body that is organized under the foundations of mutualism. A mutualism that has transformative power because it is about understanding how I depend on people who don't look like me, who don't have my identity, who are not part of my place”. (Safatle 2020).

Now, since these private relationships have always prevailed in Brazil, since the country's predatory colonization until its current destruction, as Indigenous and Black people have always been hunted and killed mercilessly until today for not being considered equal members of the dominant "elite", the the nation as a whole seems doomed to self-destruction; not only for lack of “good feelings”, but for lack of lucidity about the need for reciprocity and mutuality among all citizens, as if the banking avenues of São Paulo could form an opulent island of neoliberalism to survive alone in the middle of a desert without inhabitants – and without forest.

The critique of empathy in Benjamin requires a solidary narrative with those excluded from the dominant history, singularly, with the dead – “even the dead are not safe in the face of the enemy” –, states thesis VI. A sentence that the military dictatorship's rehabilitation policy made cruelly true in Bolsonaro's Brazil. Only the daily and attentive construction of political solidarity makes it possible to resist fascism. And invent other forms of life, fairer, happier.

*Jeanne Marie Gagnebin is a professor of philosophy at Unicamp. Author, among other books, of History and narration in Walter Benjamin (Perspective).

Originally published on Journal of Theory of History, flight. 24, no 2.



BENJAMIN, Walter. Baudelaire. Paris: La Fabrique, 2013.

BENJAMIN, Walter. Gesammelete Schriften II-2. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1991.

BENJAMIN, Walter. "About the concept of history". In: LÖWY, Michael. Fire warning. A reading of the theses “On the concept of history”. São Paulo: Boitime, 2005.

BENJAMIN, Walter; ADORNO, Gretel. Briefwechsel, 1930-1940. Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2005.

BIRNBAUM, Antonia. Bonheur Justice Walter Benjamin, Payot, 2008.

BRECHT, Bertold. Poems 1913 – 1956. Sao Paulo: Ed. 34, 2000.

LINDNER, B. (org). Benjamin-Handbuch. Stuttgart: MetzlerVerlag, 2006.

LOWY, Michael. Fire Warning. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2005.

RICOEUR, Paul. Du texte à l'action, Ed. Seuil, 1986.

SAFATLE, Vladimir. Brazil and its Engineering of Indifference. El País, July 2, 2020. Available at:

BOUTON, Christophe; STIEGLER, Barbara. (Org). L'experience du passé, Paris: Ed. de l'éclat, 2018.



[I] I take the liberty of referring, for a more complete analysis of this text, to the entry I wrote about it in (Lindner 2006). A French version of this text was published in the collective book (Bouton; Stiegler 2018).

[ii] I remember the beautiful title of Antonia Birnbaum (2008). The theme of happiness in Benjamin deserves a separate study.

[iii] Not by chance, this prefix today designates a transport application!

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