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“Walter Benjamin and the Classical Marxist Tradition”: Neil Davidson

Neil Davidson, in an excerpt from his new book, defends Walter Benjamin from sectarian dismissals and academic obscurantism.

Editors’ note: An earlier version of this article by Neil Davidson appeared in International Socialism 121. An updated version appears in Davidson’s new book Holding Fast to an Image of the Past: Explorations in the Marxist Tradition (Haymarket Books, 2014). While Davidson’s article is part of debate with British socialist Chris Nineham we feel it offers an excellent introduction and method by which to approach the work of Walter Benjamin. Benjamin is arguably the most important Marxist cultural critic of the 20th century. His legacy, however, has long been distorted by sectarian dismissiveness on the one hand and academic obscurantism on the other. We hope Davidson’s nuanced but rooted Marxist approach will help to reclaim Benjamin from the academic swamp and help inoculate practical socialists from a vulgar approach to art and culture. Most importantly we hope this article contributes to a discussion that reconciles the best of so-called “Western Marxism” and the Frankfurt School with the actuality of revolution and immediacy of the class struggle.

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Chris Nineham’s article, “Benjamin’s Emergency Marxism,” is less concerned with assessing the work under review, Esther Leslie’s book Walter Benjamin, than with assessing the work’s other subject, Benjamin himself. Given how little Chris says about Leslie’s biography, readers of International Socialism should be aware that it is an impressive achievement in its own right, as the work of one Marxist considering the life of another. It is a sustained attempt to reconstruct Benjamin’s inner life from the “remnants” he left behind; both his literary output—most of which has been available in the German Collected Works since 1991—and what Leslie calls “more intimate materials,” the photographs, drawings, and objects of all sorts which Benjamin collected throughout his life, some of which appear as illustrations in the book. Leslie maintains an absolutely consistent focus on Benjamin’s perspective, never breaking off to contextualise or deliver primers in the period of Central European history during which he lived. Nor are we given the subject’s life here, and his work there, for separate consideration: Leslie affords the same status to Benjamin’s theoretical writings as to the more conventional biographical sources in diary entries and letters for insights into his consciousness: One of the many pleasures of this book is the way we learn how specific passages in Benjamin’s work began in biographical episodes, his response to which he then incorporated into his writing. For example, in his last and greatest essay, “On the Concept of History,” Benjamin writes that reformists do not see the working class as “the avenger that completes the task of liberation in the name of generations of the down trodden”. Instead: “The Social Democrats preferred to cast the working class in the role of a redeemer of future generations, in this way cutting the sinews of its greatest strength. This indoctrination made the working class forget both its hatred and its spirit of sacrifice, for both are nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than by the ideal of liberated grandchildren.” We now learn that the origin of this celebrated passage lie in a 10-day conference at Potnigny in France, during May 1940, which Benjamin attended while waiting for the outcome of his ultimately fruitless attempts to secure a passage to the USA: “Benjamin witnessed a dreadful lecture by Emilie Lefranc of the Confederation Generale du Travail, an example of vulgar Marxism effortlessly serving counter-revolutionary ends. The main theme of the lecture was that workers should not nourish their spirit of revenge, but rather simply be inspired by the struggle for social justice.” Leslie does not always draw out these linkages and making them depends on the reader knowing Benjamin’s work as much as the history against which it was written. It is not A Rebel’s Guide to Benjamin then; but it is the best place to start for anyone wanting to deepen their understanding of his achievements.

Reading Chris’s review, however, those unfamiliar with Benjamin’s work might wonder whether he had any achievements to his credit. His deeply misleading critique judges Benjamin, a philosopher and cultural critic, as if he were a political theorist, then compounds this error by ascribing to him views which, in any case, he did not hold. Chris implies that, while Benjamin may have coined a few memorable aphorisms or apercus, there is nothing in his work that requires us to undertake any reconsideration of how Marxists might respond to artistic or cultural production. Where Benjamin sounds a fire alarm for his readers, Chris extends them a comfort blanket. And even where Chris concedes that Benjamin might have insights to offer, he contrives either to reduce them to commonplaces or to give the impression that they are responsible for leading people in wrong directions. The following example shows how this method of criticism works.

​First, Chris quotes a passage where Benjamin discusses the possibility that “technological reproducibility” in cinema might allow mass audiences to appreciate new approaches to realism in art, approaches which they would have rejected when presented to them in classic bourgeois forms such as easel painting. (“The reactionary attitude towards a Picasso painting changes into a progressive attitude towards a Chaplin movie”.) Chris then claims that time has demonstrated Benjamin’s error: “In the era of Celebrity Big Brother such enthusiasm sounds naive.” Given that Benjamin was discussing Chaplin, one of the great cinematic artists of the twentieth century, it is not entirely clear what the reference to reality TV is doing here. Chris then reveals that, in any case, Benjamin was, after all, quite aware of the dangers of media technology being applied for reactionary ends: “In the essay’s epilogue he argues that in the hands of the Nazis the same technology which can politicize culture can also glamorize and corrupt mass politics.” Despite this concession, the effect, within the overall context of Chris’s piece, is to give the impression that Benjamin’s position is questionable in some way, and may even be a precursor to that of the contemporary fantasists of “cultural resistance,” for whom watching Celebrity Big Brother is an insurrectionary act. In fact, Benjamin’s concern about the reactionary use of new technologies was as much inspired by Hollywood as by Nazi propaganda, as can be seen from his response to one of Frank Capra’s films, You Can’t Take It with You. Considered populist and “against plutocracy” at the time, Benjamin complained that the film embodied “inoffensiveness” or “harmlessness” to the point where its supposedly “heart-warming” qualities actually rendered it a new opium of the people and, indeed, complicit with fascism. This may be an exaggerated verdict on Capra’s Popular-Frontism lite, but it scarcely indicates an uncritical attitude to mass-produced culture. Nevertheless, it is his comments on Nazism which perhaps can be applied to Big Brother and to reality TV more generally: “[Fascism] sees its salvation in granting expression to the masses–but on no account granting them rights. Mass reproduction is especially favoured by the reproduction of the masses. In great ceremonial processions, giant rallies, and mass sporting events, and in war, all of which are now fed into the camera, the masses come face to face with themselves.” And what they come face–to–face with, of course, is their own alienated selves under capitalism.

Celebrity Big Brother, Chaplin, Picasso, Capra

There are a number of other things which could be said in response to Chris; but I want to focus on two. The first is the question of how we read Benjamin, what we read him as. There is no point in approaching his work, even his most political work, as if it was the Collected Speeches and Resolutions of the First Four Congresses of the Third International. To do so is to commit what philosophers call a category-mistake, leading to Benjamin being criticised on the basis of what he did not write rather than assessed on the basis of what he did write. The second is to focus on the meaning of “On the Concept of History,” specifically to answer the charges of “voluntarism,” supposedly exemplified by the famous “emergency break” metaphor which gives Chris the title of his review, and of placing too great a weight upon history as a motivation for revolutionary action.

Was Benjamin a “Western Marxist”?

Chris claims that there is a “growing fascination” with Benjamin’s work, as part of which, “the far left are making great claims” for him. Well, apart from Esther Leslie, some other Marxists like Michael Löwy and Alex Callinicos still take Benjamin seriously; but any objective survey would have to conclude that the peak of his fashionability has long since passed. As Leslie noted in an earlier book, Walter Benjamin, Overpowering Conformism:

A conference held in London to mark Benjamin’s hundredth birthday in July 1992 saw intellectual after intellectual testify to Benjamin’s failure, when measured against contemporary ambitions: his failure to understand the meaning of law, his failure to comprehend the compassionate stance of modern Judaism and his consequent failure to mourn properly (Gillian Rose); his failure to derive an ethics (Alex Honneth); his failure as a feminist, his failure at (academic) success, due to his outsider status, and his failure to move beyond the autobiographical and micrological (Janett Wolff); his failure to find out what he should have been seeking all along but did not: a notion of experience without a subject (Martin Jay); his failure as the modus operandi of the intellectual (Zygmunt Bauman); his theoretical failure which goes hand in hand with the failure of Marxism, and the resulting failure of contemporary Marxian-Benjaninians to neutralise historical distance and contingency and recognise the superiority of social democracy (Irving Wohlfahrt). In as much as Benjamin was a Marxist he failed.

Leslie continues this catalogue of rejection for several more paragraphs, yet as she points out, hostility to Benjamin’s Marxism is not a new phenomenon, reflecting the retreat from socialist commitment attendant on the fall of the Stalinist regimes; it merely brought into sharper focus the distrust that had always been shown towards it, even by erstwhile supporters like Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer or Gershom Scholem. This in turn suggests why we should be interested in him. What kind of Marxist was he?

Isaac Deutscher distinguished between what he called the “classical Marxist” tradition, “the body of thought developed by Marx, Engels, their contemporaries, and after them by Kautsky, Plekhanov, Lenin, Trotsky [and] Rosa Luxemburg,” and that of “vulgar Marxism,” “the pseudo-Marxism of the different varieties of European social-democrats, reformists, Stalinists. Krushchevites, and their like”. Perry Anderson later added a third variant, which he called “Western Marxism,” to signal the shifting geographical axis of Marxist thought, from Eastern and Central Europe to Western Europe, after the rise of Hitler and consolidation of Stalinism. This tradition, according to Anderson, was “a product of defeat,” it represented a version of Marxist theory which was divorced from the working class and had “migrated virtually completely into the universities”; the work of Western Marxism moved in the opposite direction to the Classical tradition, “from economics and politics towards philosophy,” took the form of a “second-order…discourse” or “esoteric discipline,” and was characterised by “extreme difficulty of language.” Western Marxism is the category to which Benjamin’s work has the most obvious affinities and Anderson certainly regards him as one of its representative figures, in his case the characteristic obscurity of language involving “a gnomic brevity and indirection”—indeed, Anderson says that the famous passage from “On the Concept of History” invoking the Angel of History is expressed in language which would have been “virtually incomprehensible to Marx and Engels.” Anderson is simply wrong on the last point. If anything, it was Marx’s own use of ‘sociological poetics” which may have provided Benjamin with one of the sources for his own style. When we consider some of the images which Marx employs—history as a theatrical performance, first tragic then comic; capital as a vampire, sucking the blood of living Labor; the capitalist as a sorcerer, conjuring up forces from the nether world which then escape his control—the Angel of History does not seem so outlandish a concept as to present him with difficulties of comprehension. As this suggests, Benjamin does not quite fit the mould of Western Marxism, for four reasons.

First, although he had ambitions to become an academic, he was never successful in obtaining a permanent post, with the result that he was forced to make a living through reviewing, public lecturing, translating and other forms of intellectual odd-jobbery. In any case there is reason to believe that he would have found the false impartiality and narrow specialisation of academic life intolerable. At one point he endorsed the early educational policies of the Russian Revolution: “Only if man experiences changes of milieu in all their variety, and can mobilise his energies in the service of the working class again and again in every new context, will he be capable of that universal readiness for action which the Communist program opposes to what Lenin called ‘the most repulsive feature of the old bourgeois society’: its separation of theory and practice.” Benjamin did publish in scholarly journals when he could, of course, but his non-academic status meant he was always more of a classical “man of letters” than, for example, the German Western Marxists with whom he is most often associated like Adorno, Horkheimer or Marcuse. Isaac Deutscher was another Marxist who had to survive in similar ways outside the academy, although his style could scarcely have been more different from that of Benjamin. Their type barely survived the Second World War, and hardly exists today. Benjamin foresaw his own demise as a function of the heightening of class conflict in which unattached intellectuals would increasingly have to take sides:

Today it is official doctrine that subject matter, not form, decides the revolutionary or counterrevolutionary attitude of a work. Such doctrines cut the ground from under the writer’s feet just as irrevocably as the economy has done on the material plane. In this, Russia is ahead of Western developments–but not as far ahead as is believed. For sooner or later, with the middle classes who are being ground to pieces by the struggle between capital and Labor, the “freelance” writer must also disappear.

In fact the decline of the man of letters took place for quite different reasons. As Russell Jacoby tells the story for the US, the assimilation of the wider category of intellectual until it was virtually synonymous with that of the university-based academic was one of the main factors that destroyed this type of writer, along with the end of bohemia and the concomitant rise of the suburbs, which deprived them of a cultural environment, and the disappearance of the type of general publication in which they could publish, which deprived them of an audience.

Partisan Review (1938) and Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus (1920)

Reference to the US example suggests the group to which I believe Benjamin has the greatest affinities: the left-wing New York intellectuals of the Thirties and Forties. There are many differences, of course. Their idiom was much clearer and more direct. And while many were also Jewish, even prior to their radicalisation in the 1930s they tended to be secular, humanist and, in so far as they were concerned with Judaism, it was mainly with defending distinctive aspects of the culture from assimilation. In other respects their outlook was cosmopolitan and the doctrines of Jewish mysticism, which play such a central role in Benjamin’s work, were always alien to them. Similarly, although Benjamin was also interested in Trotsky’s work and there are several aspects of their writing which overlap, the New Yorkers tended to be closer in organisational terms to actual Trotskyist organisations. Nevertheless, when allowances are made for their respective cultural particularities, it is clear that Benjamin and his New York contemporaries were the same type of intellectuals and that consideration of these affinities might be at least as productive as the attention which is endlessly paid to Benjamin’s links with the Frankfurt School.

Second, and partly because of his position outside the academy, Benjamin developed a literary style which was quite distinct from the clotted, constipated prose of the professors. It is not without its difficulties, of course. Michael Löwy notes that Benjamin’s thought had three main sources: Jewish mysticism, German Romanticism and historical materialism. Naturally these also inform his prose, which can be an obstacle to understanding for contemporary readers familiar only with the last. Authors with similar interests to those of Benjamin, such as John Berger or Hans Magnus Enzensberger, have drawn on his fragmented, allusive literary style to good effect; but when writers with quite different cultural formations attempt to adopt Benjamin’s for the purposes of political or historical rather than cultural analysis, it can lead to work which is unfocussed or incoherent: Whatever its other virtues, Benedict Anderson’s celebrated book, Imagined Communities, suffers from precisely these defects. The question, however, is whether or not the style is adequate or appropriate for Benjamin’s purposes, not those who have followed him. Chris quotes Hannah Arendt and Theodor Adorno’s criticism of Benjamin for adopting the cinematic technique of montage in the Passangen-Werk, now available in English as The Arcades Project: “The problem is that montage is an artistic method. It can be effective in the hands of someone sensitive to the half hidden, symbolic significance of appearances, but it does not add up to a method of analyzing how society works or the role of culture within it. At times this was the weight Benjamin tried to place on it.” But there is a false assumption here. Benjamin was not concerned with anything so general as “analysing how society works or the role of culture within it”—and why should criticism confine itself to these enormous themes in any case?—but with something much more specific: capturing an aspect of the experience of capitalist modernity, in microcosm, through a multiple-perspective view on commodity culture in the city where it was most advanced. He evidently believed that that the task of revealing the nature of an environment structured by the sale of commodities could not be undertaken in the same way as the task of critically assessing a novel, a poem or a film—although., as the Selected Works demonstrate, he was perfectly capable of doing so in relatively conventional ways when required. Instead he employs the techniques of Modernist novels, poems and films: “This work has to develop to the highest degree the art of citing without quotation marks. Its theory is intimately related to that of montage.” Or again: “Method of this project: literary montage. I needn’t say anything. Merely show.” What this suggests to me, at any rate, is that we should treat The Arcades Project as Benjamin intended, as a work of art in its own right. That, in turn, suggests that we should read it as we would Elliot’s The Waste Land or Burrough’s The Naked Lunch, rather than as a failed attempt to write something comparable to Lukács’s The Historical Novel or Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution.


​Third, although Benjamin was interested in what we now regard as high culture–above all in his obsessive, life-long engagement with the poet Charles Baudelaire–he also opened up entirely new areas for Marxist analysis in relation to folk, popular and mass cultures. Because the babble about culture is now never-ending, and usually utterly valueless, it is important to understand both how innovative Benjamin’s work was and how it differed from what followed. Although Benjamin was a modernist, his central emphasis was on the importance of new cultural forms which emerged after the ascendance of the bourgeoisie and which bore limited resemblance to the historical novel or the classical symphony. In particular he stressed the need to

 …rethink conceptions of literary forms or genres, in view of the technical factors affecting our present situation, if we are to identify the forms of expression that channel the literary energies of the present. There were not always novels in the past, and there will not always have to be; there have not always been tragedies and great epics. Not always were the forms of commentary, translation, indeed even so-called plagiarism, playthings in the margins of literature; they had a place in the literary writings of Arabia and China.

Of his contemporaries, only Gramsci among the classical Marxists and Orwell among the wider socialist movement had comparable interests in wider culture issues. In this respect, Benjamin took positions which were distinct from both the Frankfurt School and the New York intellectuals, both of whom had considerably more pessimistic attitudes to contemporary culture. Benjamin shares some of these perspectives, albeit with interesting differences in emphasis, but his operational conclusions are quite different.

​In “The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire,” Benjamin focuses on literature rather than, as in Greenberg, on the arts in general, but the origins of the avant-garde are presented in very similar terms:

Actually, the theory of l’art pour l’art assumed decisive importance around 1852, at a time when the bourgeoisie sought to wrest its “cause” from the hands of the writers and poets. … At the end of this development, we find Mallarme and the theory of la poesie pure. Here we find the poet has become so far removed from the cause of his own class that the problem of literature without a subject becomes the centre of discussion. This discussion is evident in Mallarme’s poems, which revolve around blanc, absence, silence, vide. This to be sure–particularly in Mallarme–is the face of a coin whose obverse is by no means insignificant. It shows that the poet no longer supports any of the causes pursued by the class to which he belongs. To found a production process on such a basis renunciation of all the manifest experiences of this class engenders specific and considerable difficulties–difficulties that make this poetry highly esoteric.

Benjamin differs from Greenberg, however, over the possibilities of the avant-garde being harnessed to a revolutionary project, mainly because of the immense difficulties it posed for the working class–or indeed anyone outside of the cultured elites of bourgeois society:

At no point in time, no matter how utopian, will anyone win the masses over to a higher art; they can be one over only by finding one nearer to them. And the difficulty consists precisely in finding a form for art, such that, with the best conscience in the world, one could hold that it is a higher art. This will never happen with what is propagated by the avant-garde of the bourgeoisie. … The masses positively require from a work of art (which, for them, has its place in the circle of consumer items) something that is warming. Here the flame that is most readily kindled is hatred.

The “avant-garde of the bourgeoisie” that Benjamin has in mind here either makes no concessions to the sensibilities of the audience or consciously intends to shock them. He is not, however, suggesting that art should not be challenging or require effort; simply that it cannot be deliberately inaccessible or repulsive. As a result, although his definition of kitsch is similar to that of Greenberg—“Kitsch…is nothing more than art with a 100 per cent, absolute and instantaneous availability for consumption. Precisely within the consecrated forms of expression, therefore, kitsch and art stand irreconcilably opposed.” – he sees it as containing possibilities: “But for developing, living forms, what matters is that they have within them something stirring, useful, ultimately heartening–that they take ‘kitsch’ dialectically up into themselves, and hence bring themselves nearer to the masses while yet surmounting the kitsch.” The final point in this passage returns us to the argument about new forms which could be used for both avant-garde or kitsch purposes, but which also had the potential to transcend the obscurity of the former and the vulgarity of the latter; the cinema and, to a lesser extent, photography, were the most important for Benjamin, but the argument also applies to popular music from jazz onwards. What is crucial about these forms for Benjamin is that they involve “alienating the productive apparatus from the ruling class by improving it in ways serving the interests of socialism”. Authors, or artists more generally have two functions in their role as producer, “first, to induce other producers to produce, and, second, to put an improved apparatus [of production] at their disposal”. How can we judge whether an apparatus has been improved? “And this apparatus is better, the more consumers it is able to turn into producers–that is, readers or spectators into collaborators.” The possibilities of participation in, rather than passive consumption of culture have yet to be fully absorbed by the Marxist tradition, let alone put into practice, although it is possible to identify works which embody the principles which Benjamin endorsed in artistic production.

Jackson Pollock, the former Marxist art critic Clement Greenberg, Helen Frankenthaler and Lee Krasner, Long Island Beach, 1952

​The fourth area of difference with Western Marxism places him closest to the classical tradition: his commitment to the socialist revolution. For, unlike all Western Marxists, Benjamin never adapted to social democracy, Stalinism or any variation of socialism from above, nor did he lapse into political pessimism or despair. It is possible to interpret his suicide at the Franco-Spanish border in 1940 as an act of personal despair; but as Paul Wood writes, “it was undoubtedly an act of great courage.” It can also be interpreted as a final act of self-determination, by actively choosing death rather than surrender and so deny the Gestapo their victim. In any event, Benjamin retained to the end his belief in the possibility of socialist revolution on the basis of working-class self-activity. His final substantial work before his suicide, “On the Concept of History” and its preparatory notes, are the greatest theoretical affirmation, in the face of inconceivable adversity, of the actuality of the revolution in the entire Marxist canon. The difference between this work and outright renegacy of Horkheimer or even the evasiveness of Adorno could not be starker. Chris claims that this was voluntarism, an act of faith for which Benjamin provides no grounds. I will argue below that this is a misunderstanding; but even to the extent that it does involve an act of faith, Benjamin is far closer to classical Marxism than Chris supposes.

Revolution, history and tradition

Chris accuses Benjamin of alternating between determinism and voluntarism, particularly towards the end of his life. But this determinism is of a particularly pessimistic sort, the obverse of the optimistic determinism of Social Democracy, in which the development of the forces of production will inevitably deliver socialism without conscious human effort. Instead it points towards the termination of human culture. Indeed, Chris suggests that, for Benjamin, it is not simply the forces of production, but technology more narrowly which is leading towards war. Yet Chris doesn’t actually argue the point, he simply offers two quotes from One-Way Street and Other Writings, which bear a somewhat tangential relationship the point he is trying to make. Here is the passage in which Benjamin sets out the most developed version of his argument about technology.

…if the natural use of productive forces is impeded by the property system, then the increase in technological means, in speed, in sources of energy will press towards an unnatural use. This is found in war, and the destruction caused by war furnishes proof that society was not mature enough to make technology its organ, that technology was not sufficiently developed to master the elemental forces of society. The most horrifying features of imperialist war are determined by the discrepancy between the enormous means of production and their inadequate use in the process of production (in other words, by unemployment and the lack of markets). Imperialist war is an uprising on the part of technology, which demands payment in “human material” for the natural material society has denied it. Instead of draining rivers, society directs a human stream into a bed of trenches; instead of dropping seeds from airplanes, it drops incendiary bombs over cities; and in gas warfare it has found a new means of abolishing the aura.

If we were to take this literally, it might appear that Benjamin did not merely ascribe a logic of warfare to technology, but imagined that the technology itself was turning on us, in the manner of Terminator 3: the Rise of the Machines. But what Benjamin means is rather that, in societies dominated by capitalist relations of production, where technology is not used to meet human need but for accumulation, the conflicts which that society generates will lead to technology being used for destructive purposes, in ever more complex and inventive ways, as an obscene parody of the creativity which socialism would bring. As a contemporary illustration, we only need to contrast the extraordinary achievement of the US military in constructing a city in the desert from nothing, prior to the opening of the Third Gulf War, with the lack of resources subsequently made available to the Iraqis for reconstruction following the occupation. In short, there is nothing remotely determinist about Benjamin’s attitude to technology; it simply describes reality of imperialism.

​A superficially more plausible accusation is that of voluntarism. Unfortunately, if this can be sustained, it is not just Benjamin that stands condemned, but a large part of the Marxist tradition. Here is Chris’s charge-sheet in full:

The truth is that Benjamin never completely solved the problem that haunted him. He correctly warned against blind faith in progress. He knew the potential of the explosive struggles capitalism stores up, but he never arrived at a rounded explanation of how those struggles could develop and mature. Sometimes he fell back on a catastrophe theory of consciousness: “Marx says that revolutions are the locomotives of history. But perhaps it is quite otherwise, perhaps revolutions are an attempt by passengers on this train—namely the human race—to activate the brake.” This is characteristically thought provoking, but it is also voluntaristic. It is not clear where the action arises from. Revolutions are always partly a response to a sense of emergency, but Benjamin’s own epoch demonstrates all too vividly that impending catastrophe does not automatically mean the brake will be applied. Revolutionary consciousness is made possible by the everyday contradictions of capitalism, and active intervention in them, not just a sense of the horror of its ultimate destination. What we do now to develop it will effect what happens when the train approaches the bumpers.

Chris is perhaps expecting too much from what is, after all, an author’s note to himself from a set of preparatory materials. Even so, it should be obvious that “humanity reaching for the emergency break” is anot a political programme for how the socialist revolution will be achieved, it is a metaphor for what the socialist revolution will be–the means of averting the disasters which capitalism is preparing for us and which will otherwise occur. Our recently acquired knowledge of the dangers and implications of environmental collapse means gives this passage an even greater resonance now than when it was written. And many people, including the present writer, have found it invaluable in helping us conceptualise the meaning, rather than the mechanics of the socialist revolution. What then was Benjamin actually trying to convey in “On the Concept of History” and its preparatory materials? Despite the great beauty of the language, there is no doubt that it contains several very difficult passages and many academic careers have been built, not on clarifying its meaning for readers, but in rendering it even more obscure. At the risk of bending the stick too far in the other direction and oversimplifying, what Benjamin seems to be doing–among other things–is proposing three notions, two of which have been expressed elsewhere in the classical Marxist tradition, the third of which is an original contribution to that tradition.

The first is that of a “wager” on the possibility of revolution. The concept of the wager was first introduced into western culture by the Roman Catholic philosopher, Blaise Pascal, during the seventeenth century. Pascal’s argument was that, since we cannot know for certain whether God exists or not by way of our reason, we have to gamble, to wager, on his existence. Pascal argues that we have everything to gain and nothing to lose from wagering on the existence of God, but everything to lose–i.e. eternal life–from wagering the other way.The argument was secularised by Lucien Goldmann in his classic study of Pascal and Racine, The Hidden God (1964):“Marxist faith is faith in the future which men make for themselves in and through history. Or more accurately, in the future that we must make for ourselves by what we do, so that this faith becomes a “wager” which we make that our actions will, in fact, be successful. The transcendental element present in this faith is not supernatural and does not take us outside or beyond history; it merely takes us beyond the individual.” The theme was further developed in a discussion of Goldmann by Alasdair MacIntyre:

But if tragic thought and dialectical thought differ in…crucial respects, they also resemble each other at key points. Both know that one cannot first understand the world and only then act in it. How one understands the world will depend in part on the decision implicit in one’s already taken actions. The wager of action is unavoidable. … Not eternity but the future provides a context which gives meaning to individual parts in the present. The future which does this is as yet unmade; we wager on it not as spectators, but as actors pledged to bring it into being.

As in the case of the theory of culture shared by the Frankfurt School and the New York intellectuals, we appear to be witnessing a parallel intellectual development, where an idea is arrived at independently by different individuals within a shared tradition. Although Benjamin makes several passing references to Pascal in his work, he does not explicitly discuss the wager. Nevertheless, Michael Löwy has plausibly suggested that “On the Concept of History” is also infused with the belief that “the Marxist utopia of an authentic human community is of the order of a Pascalian wager”:

 …it is the engagement of individuals–or social groups–in an action that involves risk, the danger of failure, the hope of success, but to which one commits one’s life. Any wager of this type is motivated by trans-individual values, whether these are immanent and secular, as in the Marxist wager on the achievement of the socialist community, or transcendent and sacred, as in the Pascal’s wager on the existence of God, and is not susceptible of scientific proof or factual demonstration.

The notion of the wager may not immediately appear to be compatible with classical Marxism, and the authors cited here, marginal to it. Nevertheless, it has had a subterranean existence in the work of more central figures. It is surely embodied in Lenin’s practice between his arrival at the Finland Station and the fall of the Winter Palace in 1917. It surfaces in Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, particularly in the following passage: “In reality one can ‘foresee’ to the extent that one acts, to the extent that one applies a voluntary effort and therefore contributes concretely to creating the result “foreseen”. Prediction reveals itself thus not as a scientific act of knowledge, but as the abstract expression of the effort made, the practical way of creating a collective will.”But perhaps it is best and most briefly summed up in a famous aphorism by James Connolly: “For the only true prophets are they who carve out the future which they announce.” The central point is that it is possible to lose this wager. After the history of the twentieth century, only the very stupid, the very naive or those possessed of a religious cast of mind quite alien to Marxism could possibly believe that socialism was inevitable. Trotsky was one of the very few Marxists prepared to look into the abyss which opens up once this is acknowledged, which he did in relation to the fate of the Russian Revolution:

The historic alternative, carried to the end, is as follows: either the Stalin regime is an abhorrent relapse in the process of transforming bourgeois society into a socialist society, or the Stalin regime is the first stage of a new exploiting society. If the second prognosis proves to be correct, then, of course, the bureaucracy will become a new ruling class. However onerous the second perspective may be, if the world proletariat should actually prove incapable of fulfilling the mission placed on it by the course of development, nothing else would remain except only to recognise that the socialist programme, based on the internal contradictions of capitalist society, ended as a utopia. It is self evident that a new “minimum” programme would be required – for the defence of the interests of the slaves of the totalitarian bureaucratic society.

Gramsci, the storming of the Winter Palace (1917), Lenin

MacIntyre, subsequently abandoned Marxism, but continued to endorse Trotsky’s rejection of any alternatives to the working class as the agent of revolutionary change, his understanding that no-one else would come to the rescue if the working class failed to play its historic role: “One of the most admirable aspects of Trotsky’s cold resolution was his refusal of all such fantasies.” But the force of Trotsky’s argument today is in no way reliant on claims about the inability of the working class to take and retain power. We know that the working class has the innate structural capacity to achieve the socialist revolution, but whether it can be realised is another issue altogether, which involves questions of consciousness, leadership, strategy and the extent to which our enemies possess the same qualities. There is also the question of time: the working class may simply continue to be defeated, as it has been until now, until it is too late to prevent the planet becoming uninhabitable.

​The second notion which haunts “On the Concept of History,” and to which I have already alluded, is that of the “actuality of the revolution”. This first appears in Lukas’ Lenin: a Study in the Unity of his Thought (1924), where he writes that, to the vulgar Marxist, “the fighters on the barricades are madmen, the defeated revolution is a mistake, and the builders of socialism…are outright criminals”. Against this, revolutionaries, of whom Lenin was pre-eminent, work from the principal that “the actuality of the proletarian revolution is no longer only a world historical horizon arching above the working class, but that the revolution is already on the agenda”. It is not of course that the revolution “is readily realisable at any given moment,” but its actuality was “a touchstone for evaluating all the questions of the day”: “Individual actions can only be considered revolutionary or counter-revolutionary when related to the central issue of revolution, which is only discovered by an accurate analysis of the socio-historic whole.” The crucial passages on this theme in Benjamin are those which precede the famous metaphor of the emergency brake, in which Benjamin claims that Marxism is a form of “messianism”:

In the idea of classless society, Marx secularised the idea of messianic time. … Once the classless society had been defined as an infinite task, the empty and homogenous time was transformed into an anteroom, so to speak, in which one could wait for the emergence of the revolutionary situation with more or less equanimity. In reality, there is not a moment that would not carry its own with it its revolutionary chance — provided only that it is defined in a specific way, namely as the chance for a completely new resolution of a completely new problem. For the revolutionary thinker, the peculiar revolutionary chance offered by every historical moment gets its warrant from the political situation. But it is equally grounded, for this thinker, in the right of entry which the historical moment enjoys vis– a–vis a quite distinct chamber of the past, one which up to that point has been closed and locked. The entrance into this chamber coincides in a strict sense with political action, and it is by means of such entry that political action, however destructive, reveals itself as messianic. … Whoever wishes to know what the situation of a “redeemed humanity” might actually be, what conditions are required for the development of such a situation, and when this development can be expected to occur, poses questions to which there are no answers. … But classless society is not to be conceived as the endpoint of historical development. From this erroneous conception Marx’s epigones have derived (among other things) the notion of the “revolutionary situation”which, as we know, has always refused to arrive. A genuinely messianic face must be restored to the concept of classless society and, to be sure, in the interest of furthering the revolutionary politics of the proletariat itself.

What both Lukács and Benjamin are saying, in different ways, is not that revolutionaries should be declaring a state of permanent insurrection–which would indeed be voluntarism–but that they should behave in the knowledge that we are in the period where revolution is historically possible and necessary. Benjamin was hostile to the idea of “progress,” where this is understood as an inevitable upwards movement through successive modes of production, each one involving growth in the productive forces, until the point is reached where socialism becomes possible. Leaving aside the caricature of human social development that this involves, it also plays an important ideological role for the social democratic and Stalinist bureaucracies, in that the moment when sufficient progress has taken place for socialism to be on the agenda always seems to be beyond the next horizon, the productive forces never quite developed enough (Kautsky), the “democratic stage” still to be achieved (Stalin), and so on. This underlies Benjamin’s hostility to the Popular Front. In a recently translated piece from the closing months of his life, Benjamin notes how “the Hitler-Stalin entente has knocked away the whole scaffolding of the Popular Front” and refers to “the latter’s intrinsic weaknesses”. It is also why he has such a heightened awareness of the need to seize the moment. “Definition of basic historical concepts: Catastrophe–to have missed the opportunity.” It is worth pausing at this stage to remember that Benjamin was a German Jew–that is, a member of a group on the verge of genocidal oppression from a country had had missed two “opportunities,” in 1918-1923 and 1929-1933. It should be obvious that the very concept of an “opportunity” is incompatible with a voluntarist conception of revolution being possible any time, any place, anywhere.

The third notion is the distinctiveness of the Marx attitude towards history. This is the one most original to Benjamin and also the difficult to grasp, as Chris inadvertently demonstrates. “Of course, consciousness of history is an important factor in current struggles,” he reminds us: “One of the most important roles of the revolutionary party is to keep alive the memory of past struggles that the ruling class want to suppress, and to fight for their revolutionary interpretation.” But Benjamin “is asking too much of history”: “By itself, or even with the help of the finest historians, history cannot make people struggle.” Benjamin certainly makes a number of apparently cryptic utterances about history: “The only historian capable of fanning the spark of hope in the past is the one who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he is victorious. And this enemy has never ceased to be victorious.”​This passage reads like poetry, and like poetry, it is not meant to be taken literally. What Benjamin seems to mean is something closer to the party slogan George Orwell has O’Brien make Winston Smith repeat in Nineteen Eighty-Four: “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” The past can be changed to suit the needs of the ruling class and only the victory of socialism will ensure that it remains safe. But where should we look for “the spark of hope” in it? Benjamin’s approach involves considerably more than simply referring to a tradition of “past struggles” to inspire contemporary socialists: it is to question the very nature of that tradition.

​One aspect of the theory of progress discussed above is an un-dialectical attitude towards the development of class society, in which those social forces which brought the capitalist world into being, and the culture they created, are treated to uncritical celebration. As Benjamin points out, in one of the greatest passages in all of Marxism, this has certain ideological consequences:

With whom does the historian actually sympathise? The answer is inevitable: with the victors. And all rulers are the heirs of prior conquerors. Hence, empathising with the victor invariably benefits the current rulers. The historical materialist knows what this means. Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which the current rulers step over those who are lying prostrate. According to traditional practice, the spoils are carried in the procession. They are called“cultural treasures,” and a historical materialist views them with cautious detachment. For in every case these treasures have a lineage which he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great geniuses who created them, but also to the anonymous toil of others who lived in the same period. There is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is never free of barbarism, so barbarism taints the manner in which it was transmitted from one hand to another.

To simply remember the achievements of the bourgeois revolution and bourgeois culture — Cromwell on the one hand, Milton on the other — without also holding in our minds the contradictions of the progress they represent is to forget the“anonymous toil” that made it possible: “It is more difficult to honour the memory of the anonymous than it is to honour the memory of the famous, the celebrated, not excluding poets and thinkers.” To put this in concrete terms: the peasants who revolted against the English monarchy in 1381 and their yeoman descendants of the New Model Army who overthrew it in 1649 are not part of our tradition; they are the ancestors–in some cases quite distant ancestors–of the present capitalist class, of “the current rulers”. Benjamin was of course perfectly aware that the ruling classes suppress aspects of their rise to power which have become inconvenient to them. Thus in The Arcades Project he writes: “The enshrinement or apologia is meant to cover up the revolutionary moments in the occurrence of history. At heart, it seeks the establishment of a continuity. … The parts where tradition breaks off–hence its peaks and crags, which offer footing to one who would cross over them — it misses.” But the answer to this is not to “claim” bourgeois revolutionaries for the socialist tradition: it is still possible to understand and celebrate their achievements and, in some cases, their heroism and self-sacrifice, without superimposing their struggles onto our own. Our tradition is what Benjamin calls “the tradition of the oppressed,” the tradition of those who did not benefit from the victories over the pre-capitalist order, even though they participated in the struggle against it, and who could not have benefited from it, given the impossibility of establishing the socialist order much earlier than Benjamin’s own lifetime. I have elsewhere tried to show this distinction between the “tradition of the oppressed” and what we might call “the tradition of the victors” by distinguishing between our bourgeois “equivalents” (Luther, Cromwell, Robespierre) and our plebeian “forerunners” (Munzer, Winstanley, Babeuf). In some cases the distinction is less easy to draw, but without it, celebration of what we might call “the tradition of the victors” simply becomes celebration of the established fact, of where history has temporarily come to rest. It is only after the socialist revolution that we will able to embrace this tradition without “cautious detachment”: “only a redeemed mankind is granted the fullness of its past–which is to say, for only a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments”. If it is only the actual achievement of the socialist revolution will finally allow us to incorporate previous revolutions into our tradition, is only the struggle to achieve it which allows us to fully understand them. Outside of the future goal of a redeemed humanity the history of which they are part will remain a heap of fragments, the pile of rubbish against which the Angel of History turns its wings: “Without some kind of assay of the classless society, there only a historical accumulation of the past.”

​But if one aspect of Benjamin’s approach is to narrow down the range of our tradition, another is to blow it wide open, to explode the conception of what he calls “empty, homogenous time” and replace it with “messianic, now-time,” so that every moment in history is potentially of use to revolutionaries. Benjamin says that “nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost to history”. Let me try to illustrate what he means with an example from the bourgeois revolution. In a classic passage from “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” Marx describes the ideology of the French Revolutionaries of 1789: “Camille Desmoulins, Danton, Robespierre, Saint-Just and Napoleon, the heroes of the old French Revolution, as well as its parties and masses, accomplished the tasks of their epoch, which was the emancipation and establishment of modern bourgeois society, in Roman costume and with Roman slogans.” Marx argues that the “gladiators” of the bourgeois revolution “found in the stern classical traditions of the Roman republic the ideals, art forms and self-deception they needed in order to hide from themselves the limited bourgeois content of their struggles and maintain the enthusiasm at the high level appropriate to great historical tragedy”. This assessment is not in dispute, but Benjamin argues that something else is also going on, in addition to the heroic “self-deception” of which Marx writes:

To Robespierre ancient Rome was a past charged with now-time, a past which he blasted out of the continuum of history. The French Revolution viewed itself as Rome reincarnate. It cited ancient Rome the way a fashion cites a by-gone mode of dress. Fashion has a nose for the topical, no matter where it stirs in the thickets of long ago; it is the tiger’s leap into the past.

In other words, the characteristically austere qualities of Republican Rome — civic patriotism, “republican virtue,” self-sacrifice, and so on — were actually relevant to the French Revolutionaries in their struggle with the absolutist regime and were not — or were not only — a rhetorical ploy with which they sought to disguise their real objectives.

David’s drawing of the “Tennis Court Oath,” Desmoulins, Danton, Robespierre, Saint-Just, Napoleon

There are major structural differences between the bourgeois and socialist revolutions; above all in the fact that, unlike the bourgeoisie, the working class has to be fully conscious of what it is trying to achieve. Does this mean that Benjamin’s demand that we ransack the whole of history for pasts “charged with now-time” is no longer relevant? I believe that it is still relevant, but in a different way. In the context of socialist politics, what Benjamin seems to be saying is that we do not and cannot know which aspects of our tradition or history more widely will be of most use to us in coming struggles. We inherit some general, historically demonstrable conclusions about the limits of reformism, the dynamics of revolution, the role of the revolutionary party, and so on; but although every new situation is in some senses unique, for each there will be a moment or moments in history which help to illuminate them. The point is these moments will not always be the ones we want or expect or have learned to give meetings on. Before the campaign against the Poll Tax began, I doubt that anyone thought the Glasgow Rent strikes during the First World War or the squatters’ campaigns after the Second would become models for action; but they, and not the struggle against the Industrial Relations Act or the Miner’s Strike proved to be the more relevant. This is not simply a plea for a more comprehensive knowledge of our history, useful though that might be; it is for socialists to make the necessary leaps of the imagination to see what parts of the tradition are genuinely relevant to our current situation. If there is a “Benjaminian” contribution to socialist politics, rather than to cultural theory, this may be what it involves.


Benjamin’s central focus on culture and his absence from direct political engagement tend to exclude him from the front rank of the classical Marxist tradition, as is suggested by a comparison with the career of Gramsci, the classical figure with whom he shares the most interests. As we have seen, however, this does not mean that classical themes are completely absent from his work. In addition to those I have already discussed he was also aware of the importance of revolutionary consciousness, writing “without confidence no class could, in the long run, hope to enter the political sphere with any success. But it makes a difference whether this optimism centres on the active strength of the class or under the conditions under which the class operates”. In other words, there is more than one type of “confidence”: the objective strength of the working class (numbers, industrial organisation) while important, will not lead to improvements in its condition if the class does not have the necessary level of consciousness which can ensure these strengths are effectively used–an observation which still has some relevance today. It is true that Benjamin did not set himself the task of explaining precisely how such consciousness would be obtained. But then, why should he have done? There are texts which do so with which he was quite familiar; one is called What is to be Done? and another, History and Class Consciousness. On the other hand, despite the very great achievements classical Marxism, there are areas which the key figures did not discuss, or to which they devoted less attention than was necessary. Later figures, of which Benjamin was one of the first and most important, may not have had their universal range of interests and insights, but they can still add to our understanding of the world. In other words, we need to see Benjamin’s work, not in opposition to the classical tradition, but as a contribution which enriches it, by deepening our understanding of some key themes and addressing others which had hitherto been absent.


Neil Davidson lectures in Sociology in the School of Political and Social Science at the University of Glasgow, Scotland. He is the author of Discovering the Scottish Revolution (2003), for which he was awarded the Deutscher Prize, and How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? (2012). 

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