Walter Benjamin

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By MICHAEL LÖWY*

Nine theses on his contribution to Critical Theory

Permanent exile, dissident Marxist, lucid anti-fascist, Walter Benjamin died in Port-Bou 80 years ago, in September 1940, after an attempt to escape from Vichy France through Spain. Like thousands of other Jewish and/or anti-fascist German refugees, he was interned in a camp in the summer of 1939, at the start of World War II, as a “national of an enemy country”. This was one of the most infamous chapters in the less than glorious history of the Third Republic.

Freed from the countryside thanks to the intervention of French writers and intellectuals, he will try to “disappear” in Marseille. But, after the armistice, and the establishment of the “French State” of Vichy, he feels trapped: the raids against “undesirable foreigners” follow one after another, and the Gestapo, under the sweet title of “Armistice Commission” , roam everywhere. It is at this moment that he goes to knock on the door of Lisa Fittko, an anti-fascist German (Jewish) refugee, who was organizing an exit route through Spain for the most threatened people, through the “Lister route”, a narrow path in the Pyrenees. With Fittko's help, Benjamin will reach, with great difficulty, due to his health condition, the border and the Spanish village of Port-Bou.

Arrested in Port-Bou by the (Franco) police, who, under the pretext of not having a French exit visa, decided to hand him over to the Vichy police – that is, to the Gestapo –, he chose suicide. It was “midnight in the century”, the Hitlerite Third Reich had occupied half of Europe, with the complicity of the Stalinist Soviet Union. As much as an act of desperation, it was a final act of anti-fascist protest and resistance.

In the brief notes that follow, in honor of his memory, some reflections on Walter Benjamin's contribution to Marxist Critical Theory.

1.

Walter Benjamin belongs to Critical Theory in the broadest sense, that is, this current of thought inspired by Marx that, starting from or around the Frankfurt School, questions not only the power of the bourgeoisie, but also the foundations of Western rationality and civilization. . A close friend of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, he undoubtedly influenced their writings, especially the main work which is Dialectic of Enlightenment, where we find several of his ideas and even, sometimes, “quotations” without reference to the source. He was also, in turn, sensitive to the main themes of the Frankfurt School, but he is distinguished from it by certain treatments that are unique to him, and that constitute his specific contribution to Critical Theory.

Benjamin never obtained a university post; the refusal of his habilitation – the thesis on German baroque drama – condemned him to a precarious existence as an essayist, “man of letters” and sniper journalist, which, of course, worsened considerably during the years of Parisian exile ( 1933-40). Ideal-typical example of the freischwebende Intelligenz of which Mannheim spoke, he was, in the highest degree, a AussenseiterTo outsider, a marginal. This existential situation perhaps contributed to the subversive acuity of his gaze.

2.

Benjamin is, in this group of thinkers, the first to question the ideology of progress, this “incoherent, imprecise, lacking rigor” philosophy, which perceives in the historical process only “the more or less rapid pace according to which men and epochs advance over history. path of progress” (students' lives, 1915). He also went further than others in trying to rid Marxism, once and for all, of the influence of “progressive” bourgeois doctrines; so in the book of Flights, he set himself the following objective: “We can also consider as a methodologically pursued objective in this work the possibility of a historical materialism that has annulled the idea of ​​progress in itself. It is precisely by opposing the habits of bourgeois thought that historical materialism finds its sources.

Benjamin was convinced that “progressive” illusions, especially the conviction of “swimming in the current of history”, and an uncritical view of the existing technique and productive system, contributed to the defeat of the German labor movement in the face of fascism. He listed among these disastrous illusions the astonishment that fascism could exist in our time, in such a modern Europe, the product of two centuries of “civilizing process” (in the sense that Norbert Elias gave to this term): as if the Third Reich had not was precisely a pathological manifestation of this same civilized modernity.

3.

If most Critical Theory thinkers shared Adorno's aim of placing the conservative romantic critique of bourgeois civilization at the service of the emancipatory aims of the Enlightenment, Benjamin is perhaps the one who showed the greatest interest in the critical appropriation of the themes and ideas of anti-capitalist romanticism. . In the Flights he refers to Korsch for highlighting Marx's debt, via Hegel, to the German and French romantics, even the most counterrevolutionary ones. He did not hesitate to use the arguments of Johannes von Baader, Bachofen or Nietzsche to demolish the myths of capitalist civilization. We find in him, as in all revolutionary romantics, a surprising dialectic between the most distant past and the emancipated future; hence his interest in Bachofen's thesis – on which both Engels and the anarchist geographer Elisée Réclus were inspired – on the existence of a society without classes, without authoritarian powers and without patriarchy at the dawn of history.

This sensitivity also allowed Benjamin to understand, much better than his friends from the Frankfurt School, the meaning and scope of a romantic/libertarian movement such as surrealism, to which he assigned, in his 1929 article, the task of capturing the forces from drunkenness (Rausch) for the cause of the revolution. Marcuse will also realize the importance of surrealism as an attempt to associate art and revolution, but that will be forty years later.

4.

Like his Frankfurt friends, Benjamin was in favor of a kind of “critical pessimism”, which took on a revolutionary form in him. In his 1929 article on surrealism, he even states that to be revolutionary is to act to “organize pessimism”. He expresses his distrust of the fate of freedom in Europe and adds, in an ironic conclusion: "Unlimited trust only in IG Farben and the peaceful improvement of the Luftwaffe." Of course, even he, the pessimist par excellence, could not foresee the atrocities that the Luftwaffe would inflict on European cities and civilian populations; or that IG Farben would stand out, years later, for the manufacture of Ziklon B gas, used to “rationalize” the genocide of Jews and gypsies. However, he was the only Marxist thinker of those years to have an intuition of the monstrous disasters that a bourgeois civilization in crisis could provoke.

5.

More than the other thinkers of Critical Theory, Benjamin knew how to mobilize, in a productive way, the themes of Jewish messianism for the revolutionary fight of the oppressed. Messianic motifs are not absent from certain Adorno texts – especially Minima Moralia – or Horkheimer, but it is in Benjamin, and mainly in his Theses “On the concept of history”, that messianism becomes a central vector of a refoundation of historical materialism, to avoid the fate of an automaton puppet, such as it had become at the hands of vulgar Marxism (social-democratic or Stalinist). In Benjamin, there is a kind of correspondence (in the Baudelairean sense of the word) between the messianic irruption and the revolution as an interruption of historical continuity – the continuity of domination.

For messianism, as it understands it – or rather, invents it –, it is not a question of expecting salvation from an exceptional individual, from a prophet sent by the gods: the “Messiah” is collective, since, for each generation, it was given “ a weak messianic force”, which it is a matter of exercising, in the best possible way.

6.

Of all the authors of Critical Theory, Benjamin was the one most connected to the class struggle as a principle for understanding history and transforming the world. As he wrote in the Theses of 1940, the class struggle “is constantly present for the historian formed by the thought of Marx”; indeed, it never ceases to be present in his writings, as an essential place between the past, the present and the future, and as the place of the dialectical unity between theory and practice. History does not appear, for Benjamin, as a process of development of productive forces, but as a fight to the death between oppressors and oppressed; rejecting the evolutionist view of vulgar Marxism, which perceives the movement of history as an accumulation of “acquisitions”, he insists on the catastrophic victories of the ruling classes.

Contrary to most other members of the Frankfurt School, Benjamin believed, until his last breath, in the oppressed classes as an emancipatory force for humanity. Deeply pessimistic, but never resigned, he never stopped seeing in the “last subjugated class” – the proletariat – the one that “carries out the work of liberation in the name of the defeated generations” (Thesis XII). If he does not in any way share the myopic optimism of the labor movement parties regarding their “mass base”, he does not fail to see in the dominated classes the only force capable of inverting the system of domination.

Benjamin was also the most stubbornly faithful to the Marxian idea of ​​revolution. It is true that, contrary to Marx, he does not define it as the “locomotive of history”, but as an interruption of its catastrophic course, as a saving action for humanity that activates the urgent brakes. But the social revolution remains his horizon of reflection, the messianic vanishing point of his philosophy of history, the backbone of his reinterpretation of historical materialism.

Despite the failures of the past - from the slave revolt led by Spartacus in ancient Rome, to the insurrection of the Spartakusbund of Rosa Luxemburgo in January 1919 –, “the revolution as conceived by Marx”, this “dialectical leap”, remains always possible (Thesis XIV). His dialectic consists in operating, thanks to “a tiger's leap towards the past”, an irruption in the present, in “today's time” (Jetztzeit).

7.

Unlike his friends from the Frankfurt School, jealous of their independence, Benjamin tried to approach the communist movement. His love for the Latvian Bolshevik artist Asja Lacis undoubtedly played a role in this attempt… At one point, around 1926, he even considered, as he wrote to his friend Gershom Scholem, joining the German Communist Party – which he would not do… In 1928 -29, he visits the Soviet Union: in his daily from this stay, we find critical observations, which suggest a certain sympathy for the left-wing opposition. If, in the course of the years 1933-1935, he seems, in some of his writings, to approach Soviet Marxism, from 1936 onwards he begins to distance himself; for example, in a March 1938 letter, he denounced “the compromise, in Spain, of the revolutionary idea with the Machiavellianism of the Russian leaders”. However, he still believes, as his correspondence testifies, that the USSR, despite its despotic character, is the only ally of the anti-fascists. This belief collapses in 1939, with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact: in his Theses About the concept of history (1940), he denounces the “betrayal in their own cause” of the Stalinist communists.

8.

Walter Benjamin was not a “Trotskyist”, but he showed, on numerous occasions, a great interest in the ideas of the founder of the Red Army. In a letter to Gretel Adorno from the spring of 1932 – when Trotsky was denounced as a “traitor” by the Stalinists – he writes: “I have read The History of the February Revolution of Trotsky and I am almost done with his Autobiography. For years I have not assimilated anything with such tension, breathtaking. You should read both books without hesitation.” And in another letter to a friend dated May 1, 1933, he is looking forward to reading the second volume of History of the Russian Revolution from Trotsky. These two letters were sent from the island of Ibiza (Balearic Islands), where Benjamin was at that time. The writer and art critic Jean Selz, who visited him in Ibiza in 1932-33, describes him, in a later testimony, as a partisan "of an openly anti-Stalinist Marxism: he manifested a great admiration for Trotsky". This judgment may seem a bit far-fetched, but it is in line with what these two letters suggest.

9.

Benjamin's thought is deeply rooted in the German Romantic tradition and in central European Jewish culture; he responds to a precise historical conjuncture, which is that of the era of wars and revolutions, between 1914 and 1940. And yet, the main themes of his reflection, and in particular his theses “On the concept of history”, are of an impressive universality: they give us the tools to understand cultural realities, historical phenomena, social movements in other contexts, other periods, other continents.

*Michael Lowy is director of research at the Center National de la Recherche Scientifique (France). Author, among other books by Walter Benjamin: fire warning (Boitempo),

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves

 

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