Besides studying Soviet history, reading Walter Benjamin was what got me hooked on all this commie crap. It was probably “On the Concept of History” that first did it. Enigmatic, baffling, simple yet sophisticated — these were my initial impressions of it. The rest is history, or a storm blowing in from the Absolute.
Of course, I was fortunate to be introduced to Benjamin the way I did. Following a few of his texts in Illuminations, I started in on Adorno and read Gershom Scholem’s Story of a Friendship. At least to some extent this immunized me to the different “readings” offered over the years by postmodernists, poststructuralists, hermeneuticists, and beyond. No one can pretend to be surprised that the secondary literature on Benjamin has become so voluminous, or all the uses to which his thought has been put. Because the Marxist component of his writing is muted, or methodologically opaque, theorists have been able to sidestep or otherwise evade critical engagement with Benjamin’s Marxism.
He was not a political writer. And many of his references are esoteric or willfully obscure. From this derives the denseness of so many of his texts. Jewish mysticism certainly figures into Benjamin’s conceptual and theoretical apparatus, largely nourished by his friendship with Scholem. Still, I despise nothing more than interpretations which seek to make Benjamin into some sort of communist rabbi, à la Moses Hess (Marx used to disparagingly refer to the proto-Zionist Hegelian in this manner, before Engels cuckolded the man’s wife). Reading his notes and correspondence it is clear that the allusions to Jewish mysticism in his writings are metaphorical or allegorical, and possess no religious content.
You can download all of Benjamin’s work in German and in English below, along with some biographies and introductions to his work. Beneath the picture gallery I’ve reposted an article Michael Löwy wrote for the Platypus Review ages ago. Enjoy.
- Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften I
- Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften II
- Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften III
- Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften IV
- Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften V
- Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften VI
- Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften VII
- Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Briefe, 6 Bände
- Walter Benjamin, Early Writings, 1910-1917
- Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 1: 1913-1926
- Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 2: Part 1, 1927-1930
- Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 2: Part 2, 1931-1934
- Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 3: 1935-1938
- Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Volume 4: 1938-1940
- Walter Benjamin, Correspondence, 1910-1940
- Walter Benjamin, Correspondence with Gershom Scholem, 1932-1940
- Walter Benjamin, Understanding Brecht
- Walter Benjamin, The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire
- Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media
- Walter Benjamin, Radio Benjamin
- Walter Benjamin, Moscow Diary
- Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street and Other Writings
- Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project
- Esther Leslie, Walter Benjamin
- Howard Eiland, Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life
- Esther Leslie, Walter Benjamin: Overpowering Conformism
- Uwe Steiner, Walter Benjamin: An Introduction to His Work
- György Markus, “Walter Benjamin, or, The Commodity as Phantasmagoria”
- Fredric Jameson, “Walter Benjamin, or Nostalgia”
- Georg Lukács, “On Walter Benjamin”
- Eli Friedlander, Walter Benjamin: A Philosophical Portrait
- Ferenc Feher, “Lukács and Benjamin: Parallels and Contrasts”
- Howard Caygill, Walter Benjamin: The Color of Experience
- Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project
Platypus Review 5
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 color.
But it is only after 1924, when he reads Lukács’ 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 worldview. In 1929 Benjamin still refers to Lukacs’ 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 perfection of the Luftwaffe.” Both institutions were soon to show — after his death, and 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 stipend 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 reinterpretation of historical materialism, nourished by Romantic culture and Jewish theology, 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. 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 Marseilles. 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, linear and empty time, with the help of a “theological” messianic conception of time.
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 Franco’s 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