Benjamin’s emergency Marxism

Issue: 119

Chris Nineham

A review of Esther Leslie, Walter Benjamin (Reaktion, 2007), £10.95

There has been a growing fascination on the left for the often cryptic work of Walter Benjamin ever since he was first widely published in the 1960s. In 1968 Berlin students took him up as a libertarian Marxist likely to have approved of direct action, non-violent or otherwise. In the 1970s and 1980s he became a muse for Marxists taking the “cultural turn”. In the 21st century his philosophy of history has been proposed as a guide for revolutionaries in a world facing environmental catastrophe.

When Benjamin died in 1940 his essays, notebooks and reviews lay scattered across Europe in the homes of correspondents and comrades. Now every scrap of his huge output has been lovingly deciphered, pieced together and reproduced, and there is an accompanying boom in Benjamin commentary.

His post-1968 popularity is partly a result of the New Left’s interest in all things cultural. Benjamin was, among many other things, a brilliant cultural critic, one of the pioneers of the Marxist study of mass culture and the avant garde. Unlike some who have followed in his wake he was driven by a sense of emergency—”that things are status quo is the catastrophe”.1 Benjamin was, in Esther Leslie’s words, an “active symptom” of desperate times. Even the manner of his death symbolised the tragedy of his generation. He almost certainly committed suicide after being captured by General Franco’s police at Portbou on the French-Spanish border while he was fleeing the Gestapo.

But he also has lasting appeal because of the way he responded to the failure of both the social democrats and stalinised Communist Parties to confront the Nazis in the 1930s. He publicly defied the Nazis even as he fled across Europe days ahead of their secret police. At the same time he berated the left for its passivity and tried to develop a Marxist method that could guarantee against the fatalism that crippled the socialist movement of his time.

Esther Leslie has done a great service in this and her previous book on Benjamin2 in helping to rescue his life and work from the obscurity of academic writers of many different stripes. Here, using new archive material, she presents for the first time a coherent narrative of Benjamin’s extraordinary life and his complicated intellectual development. She explains how and why this supremely cultured German Jewish intellectual came to denounce European bourgeois culture from the top of the “crumbling mast” of the shipwreck “from where he can at least signal and have a chance of being rescued”.3 She gives a careful account of his move towards Marxism in the mid-1920s and of his strange, disjointed life afterwards, in penury and on the hoof, collaborating with leading left wing intellectuals trying to fight an “intellectual civil war” against the gathering forces of reaction.

In the process she rescues Benjamin the revolutionary from many who have tried to tame him. The liberal critic George Steiner claimed Benjamin knew that humane and critical intelligence “resides in the always threatened keeping of the few”.4 Sociologist Jurgen Habermas insisted his criticism was aimed at personal redemption rather than “consciousness raising”.5 Lifelong friend and religious scholar Gershom Sholem described him as “a theologian marooned in the realm of the profane”.6 Leslie shows that despite his many influences the direction of his development was from idealism and romanticism towards a close engagement with historical materialism.

Benjamin is best known for a few essays about the opportunities and the threats to human culture presented by technological change. His most famous essay, “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, celebrates the democratic possibilities of new technologies. In it he argues that mass reproduction strips artworks of the aura of originality and uniqueness that mystify them.

To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility…the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice—politics.7

Put more bluntly, “mechanical reproduction of art changes the reaction of the masses towards art. The reactionary attitude towards a Picasso painting changes into a progressive attitude towards a Chaplin movie”.8

In the era of Celebrity Big Brother such enthusiasm sounds naive. In his defence, in this essay Benjamin was characteristically investigating different possibilities or choices available for humanity. In the essay’s epilogue he argues that in the hands of the Nazis the same technology which can politicise culture can also glamorise and corrupt mass politics. “Self alienation has reached such a degree that it (mankind) can experience its own destruction as a pleasure of the first order”.9

Benjamin was preoccupied with these two possibilities for the rest of his life. He argued that all culture carries a promise of liberation, but also the scars of the suffering that was part and parcel of its making:

It owes its existence not just to the efforts of the great geniuses who fashioned it, but also in greater or lesser degree to the anonymous drudgery of their contemporaries. There is no cultural document that is not at the same time a record of barbarism.10

It was the job of the critic to uncover these contradictions and all they tell us about human possibilities. Any cultural history that discussed the development of art separate from the tensions of the wider world was reactionary: “It may well increase the burden of the treasures that are piled up on humanity’s back. But it does not give mankind the strength to shake them off, so as to get its hands on them”.11

Many of Benjamin’s colleagues in the 1930s and 1940s were overawed by the conformist aspects of mass culture and developed a very pessimistic approach. In the 1970s and 1980s left wing intellectuals often stressed the positive value of “working class culture” without putting it in context or exploring the ambiguities of the concept. Benjamin’s activist approach to culture, his concern for context and the contradictory nature of all culture under capitalism are vital legacies for anyone trying to develop a Marxist understanding of culture.

Benjamin also tried to overcome the elitism implied by the idea of liberation through cultural practice. He championed the work of his close friend the communist playwright Bertolt Brecht because Brecht was trying to bridge the gap between the stage and the auditorium, between art and politics. Brecht’s theatre did not just expose the contradictions of modern life but sought to turn the audience into active participants. Brecht was looking for the moment:

when the mass begins to differentiate itself in discussion and responsible decisions or in attempts to discover well founded attitudes of its own, the moment when the false and deceptive totality called “audience” begins to disintegrate and there is new space for the formation of separate parties within it—separate parties corresponding to conditions as they really are.12

Benjamin’s championing of radical modernism was complemented by a preoccupation with history, memory and time. He argued that capitalism had transformed time in a way that turned quality into quantity, smoothing historical development into a linear process that encouraged forgetting. Partly this was a product of the process of commodification itself. In his unfinished “Arcades Project”, Benjamin used a montage of documents and observations of 19th century French life to try to uncover hidden history. According to Leslie’s description:

An awakened consciousness scrutinised “the residues of a dream world” in the form of arcades and interiors, exhibition halls and panoramas… The utopias of a classless society, traces of which were stored in the unconscious of the collective, in memories of a primal past, left deposits “in a thousand configurations of life, from enduring edifices to passing fashions”.13

But the reduction of history to a linear process was also reinforced by the dominant theoretical approaches to history. Benjamin attacked the way social democrats had accepted bourgeois ideas of inevitable human progress based on the gradual development of technology. In different ways, Benjamin argued, the Communist Party during its “third period” and its “popular front period” also put its faith in the forward march of history.14 For him, this “historicism” was the secret of the left’s passivity in the face of the rise of the fascists.

He wrote his “Theses on the Concept of History”, one of his last works, to challenge this approach:

The conformism which has been part and parcel of social democracy from the beginning attaches not only to its political tactics but to its economic views as well. It is one reason for its later breakdown. Nothing has corrupted the German working class so much as the notion that it was moving with the current.15

Real, effective class consciousness meant understanding the need to break the flow of history:

The awareness that they are about to make the continuum of history explode is characteristic of the revolutionary classes at the moment of their action. The great revolution introduced a new calendar.16

Elsewhere he wrote, “What our generation has learnt is that capitalism will not die a natural death”.17

The final chapter of Leslie’s biography celebrates the breadth and insight of Benjamin’s criticism. He predicted earlier than many the rise of authoritarianism in Germany, partly because he saw the growing militarisation of culture. He warned of the suspension of “militant communism” in Stalin’s Soviet Union, and in general “he detailed the flaws and contradictions of cultural life in ways that demanded awareness of the conditions of the dispossessed”.18 And, despite living in the “midnight of the century”, he consistently pointed up hidden human potential that could be unlocked by breaking open conformism.

Benjamin’s sense of urgency, and his insistence on the need for the left to actively break with capitalist logic are important in today’s unstable world in which so much of the mainstream left has capitulated to neoliberalism. But in her enthusiasm to place Benjamin in the Marxist tradition and to promote the subversive strengths of his approach to culture, Leslie tends to overlook the problems in his method. This matters because some on the far left are making great claims for Benjamin. Michael Löwy has recently said that Benjamin’s work is central to enabling us to “conceive of a revolutionary project with a general mission to emancipate”.19

As the American critic Hannah Arendt pointed out in the 1960s, Benjamin’s intellectual method echoes the techniques of contemporary artists. In the “Arcades Project” in particular, as Leslie notes, he “followed the surrealist procedure to the letter, montaging disparate industrially produced fragments, trash and parodies of natural form”.20 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 analysing how society works or the role of culture within it. At times this was the weight Benjamin tried to place on it.

The Marxist writer Theodor Adorno made this point in a criticism of an essay that was to introduce the “Arcades Project”. Leslie summarises Adorno’s analysis:

Motifs were assembled not developed. There was no theoretical interpretation of various motifs of trace, flaneur, panorama, arcades, modernity and the ever-same. Ideas were “blockaded” behind “impenetrable walls of material”. It lacked “mediation”.21

Benjamin never wrote the great theoretical work that Adorno and others were hoping for, so theoretical assessments are difficult. But when he does discuss his own method he sometimes suggests that being open to raw experience is the key to breaking through illusion. At other times he comes close to a technological determinism which became more and more pessimistic as reaction gained ground:

The questions which mankind asks of nature are determined amongst other things by its level of production. This is the point where positivism breaks down. In the development of technology it saw only the progress of science, not the retrogression of society. It overlooked the fact that capitalism has decisively conditioned that development. It also escaped the positivists among the theoreticians of social democracy that the development of technology made it more and more difficult for the proletariat to take possession of it—an act that was seen to be more and more necessary.

Benjamin explains the drive to war as a product of uncontrollable technology:

The energies that technology develops beyond their threshold are destructive. They serve primarily to foster the technology of warfare, and the means to prepare public opinion for war.22

The danger of letting determinism in via the back door is averted by Benjamin’s consistent commitment to class struggle. But the problem is that he never grounds class struggle in any social or historical process. It is longed for, it is remembered, but remembrance itself is suggested as the most likely source of renewal: “The materialist presentation of history leads the past to bring the present into a critical state”.23

Of course, consciousness of history is an important factor in current struggles. An unresolved history of repression and resistance can help stir up contemporary battles. All kinds of resistance movements call on historical precedents to lend weight to their cause. And, of course, it is also true, in the words of historian Eduardo Galleano, that “the past says things that concern the future”.24 A correct interpretation of the past is a key element in shaping consciousness and is crucial in orientating workers in present and future struggles. 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.

When Benjamin says, in his sixth thesis on the concept of history, “Every age must strive anew to wrest tradition away from the conformism that threatens to overpower it,” we can follow him.25 But, when he suggests that “historical materialism wishes to hold fast that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to the subject of history in a moment of danger”, he is asking too much of history.26 By itself, or even with the help of the best historians, history cannot make people struggle.

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.

No doubt anticipating such criticisms, Leslie complains that “few take the time to reconstruct the political context or possibility, or to carefully set Benjamin’s action and thinking within the realm of such context and possibility”.27 This is fair comment. Benjamin’s lingering mysticism is not just a result of eclectic thinking. His approach was shaped by the desperate situation that emerged soon after he became a Marxist. It would have been very hard to elaborate a coherent theory of developing class consciousness faced with the growing threat of fascism and a demoralised, misled working class. George Lukács, the Marxist who most successfully theorised the way revolutionary working class consciousness can develop, formed his politics during the high point of revolutionary struggle in the years immediately after the Russian Revolution. He was an active participant in the Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1918. By the time Benjamin came to Marxism, the great wave of struggle was declining. In the years that followed, the policy of Communist Parties became more and more distorted by the priorities of the Stalinist bureaucracy. In the mid-1920s Lukács himself succumbed to Stalinist revisionism.

In these circumstances it is easy to see how history itself must have seemed the only source of revolutionary inspiration at a time when such inspiration was needed more than ever. Benjamin’s defiance is exemplary. His cultural criticism remains a rich resource. But we owe it to his memory, and the memory of the millions of others who died alongside him, to analyse both the strengths and weaknesses of his theoretical legacy. If the moment of danger proves to be the moment at which the authentic image and understanding of the past emerge it will probably be too late.


1: Benjamin, 2002,p184.

2: Leslie, 2000.

3: Leslie, 2007, p117.

4: Cited in Eagleton, 1981, pii.

5: Cited in Leslie, 2007, p228.

6: Cited in Leslie, 2007, p229.

7: Benjamin, 1978, p224.

8: Benjamin, 1978, p223.

9: Benjamin, 1978, p242.

10: Benjamin, 2000, p359.

11: Benjamin, 2000, p361.

12: Benjamin, 1977, p10.

13: Leslie, 2007, p155.

14: The “third period” (1928-1934), saw Communist Parties adopt an “ultra-left” rhetoric, equating social democratic parties with rising fascist organisations, rather than uniting workers against the far right. Subsequently, the “popular front” period saw the same Communist Parties seeking to form very broad alliances including even mainstream pro-capitalist parties.

15: Benjamin, 1978, p258.

16: Benjamin, 1978, p260.

17: Cited in Löwy, 2007, p86.

18: Leslie, 2007, p231.

19: Löwy, 2007, p112.

20: Leslie, 2007, p85.

21: Leslie, 2007, p191.

22: Benjamin, 2000, pp357, 358.

23: Cited in Leslie, 2007, p213.

24: Cited in Löwy, 2007, p57.

25: Benjamin, 1978, p255.

26: Benjamin, 1978, p255.

27: Leslie, 2007, p231.


Benjamin, Walter, 1978, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (Schocken).

Benjamin, Walter, 1977, Understanding Brecht (Verso).

Benjamin, Walter, 2000, One Way Street and Other Writings (Verso).

Benjamin, Walter, 2002, Selected Writings, volume four (Belknap).

Eagleton, Terry, 1981, Walter Benjamin, or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism (Verso).

Leslie, Esther, 2000, Walter Benjamin: Overpowering Conformism (Pluto).

Leslie, Esther, 2007, Walter Benjamin (Reaktion).

Löwy, Michael, 2007, Fire Alarm (Verso).