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.