Walter Benjamin and the classical Marxist tradition

Issue: 121

Neil Davidson

Chris Nineham’s article on “Benjamin’s Emergency Marxism” was less concerned with assessing the work under review, Esther Leslie’s book Walter Benjamin, than with assessing the work of her subject, Benjamin himself.1 My purpose here is not to re-review the book, or to challenge all of the claims made by Chris, but Benjamin is a writer who has not been considered by International Socialism until now and it might therefore be worth discussing two further issues which seem to me to be of central importance. One is the question of how we read Benjamin, of 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 make 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 other point concerns the meaning of “On the Concept of History” and, in particular, whether Benjamin is guilty of the charge of “voluntarism” which Chris levels at this essay.

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.2 In fact, the peak of his fashionability has long since passed, as Leslie noted in an earlier book, Walter Benjamin: Overpowering Conformism. Much of the criticism now aimed at Benjamin is precisely because of his Marxism. But as Leslie also points out, hostility to Benjamin’s historical materialism 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 such as Theodore Adorno, Max Horkheimer or Gershom Scholem.3 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, Khrushchevites and their like”.4 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”.5

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, arguing that Benjamin shares their 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”.6 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 labour; 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.7 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. 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 such as 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 counter-revolutionary 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 labour, the “freelance” writer must also disappear.8

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.9 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 1930s and 1940s. There are many differences, of course. Their idiom was much clearer and more direct. And while many were, like him, Jewish, even prior to their radicalisation in the 1930s they tended to be secular and humanist. 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.10 Similarly, although Benjamin was also interested in Trotsky’s work and there are several aspects of their writing that overlap, the New Yorkers tended to be closer to actual Trotskyist organisations.11 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.12

Second, and partly because of his position outside the academy, Benjamin developed a literary style that 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.13 Naturally these also inform his literary style, which can be an obstacle to understanding for contemporary readers familiar only with the last. Chris quotes Hannah Arendt and Theodore Adorno’s criticism of Benjamin for adopting the cinematic technique of montage (“an artistic method”) in The Arcades Project because “it does not add up to a method of analysing how society works or the role of culture within it”.14 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”. Why should criticism confine itself to these enormous themes in any case? Benjamin’s concern was more specific: to capture 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 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. 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”.15 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 TS Eliot’s The Waste Land or William Burroughs’s The Naked Lunch, rather than as a failed attempt to write something comparable to Georg 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.16 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 that emerged after the ascendance of the bourgeoisie and that 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.17

Of his contemporaries only Antonio Gramsci among the classical Marxists and George Orwell among the wider socialist movement had comparable interests in wider culture issues. In this respect Benjamin took positions which were distinct from 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. Benjamin is pessimistic 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 won 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. He is hostile to “kitsch”, which he describes as “nothing more than art with a 100 percent, absolute and instantaneous availability for consumption. Precisely within the consecrated forms of expression, therefore, kitsch and art stand irreconcilably opposed.” But he also 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”.18 The final point in this passage is part of his wider argument about new forms which could be used for both avant-garde and 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”. We can judge whether an apparatus has been improved by “the more consumers it is able to turn into producers—that is, readers or spectators into collaborators”.19 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.

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”.20 It can also be interpreted as a final act of self-determination, by actively choosing death rather than surrender and so denying 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, is 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 the outright renegacy of Horkheimer or even the evasiveness of Adorno could not be starker.

Revolution, history and tradition

Chris sees Benjamin as 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. 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 $8_$_human material$9_$ _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.21

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 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 the reality of imperialism.

A superficially more plausible accusation is that of voluntarism. Chris writes, “Sometimes [Benjamin] 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 break.’ This is characteristically thought provoking, but it is also voluntaristic”.22 Unfortunately, if Chris’s claim can be sustained, it is not just Benjamin who stands condemned but a large part of the Marxist tradition. We are in any case 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 brake” is a not a political programme for how the socialist revolution will be achieved, but 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 gives this passage an even greater resonance now than when it was written. And many people, including myself, have found it invaluable in helping us conceptualise the meaning, rather than the mechanics of the socialist revolution.23

What then was Benjamin actually trying to convey in “On the Concept of History” and its preparatory materials?24 It certainly 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 and 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 Catholic philosopher Blaise Pascal during the 17th 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 wager on his existence. Pascal argues that we have everything to gain from wagering on the existence of God, but everything to lose—ie eternal life—from wagering the other way.25 The argument was secularised by Lucien Goldmann in his classic study of Pascal and Racine, The Hidden God (1964), in relation to the wager which Marxists make on the working class remaking the world: it is possible; it is not inevitable.26 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”.27 The notion may not immediately appear compatible with classical Marxism, but 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 resurfaces in Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks in the passages where he discusses the extent to which revolutionaries can “foresee” the consequence of their actions.28 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”.29 And like any wager, it is possible to lose. Trotsky was one of the very few Marxists prepared to look into the abyss which opens up once we acknowledge that socialism is not inevitable, which he did in relation to the fate of the Russian Revolution.30 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” is that of the “actuality of the revolution”. This first appears in Lukács’s 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 principle 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 is “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”.31 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 secularised form of “messianism”:

In reality, there is not a moment that would not carry 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.32

What both Lukacs 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.

The third notion is the distinctiveness of the Marxist attitude towards history. This is the one most original to Benjamin and also the most difficult to grasp. “Of course, consciousness of history is an important factor in current struggles,” Chris 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”.33 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”.34 This 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 Winston Smith is forced to repeat in George Orwell’s Nineteen EightyFour: “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past”.35 But where should we look for “the spark of hope”? Benjamin’s approach involves more than simply referring to a tradition of “past struggles” to inspire contemporary socialists: it questions the very nature of that tradition.

One aspect of the assumption of inevitable “progress” through successive modes of production, common to both social democracy and Stalinism, is an undialectical attitude towards the development of class society. According to this view, 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.36

To simply remember the achievements of the bourgeois revolution and bourgeois culture—Oliver Cromwell on the one hand, John 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”.37 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. 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. Only the achievement of the socialist revolution will finally allow us to incorporate previous revolutions into our tradition, but only the struggle to achieve this allows us to fully understand them. Outside of the future goal of a redeemed humanity the history of which they are part remains 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 is only a historical accumulation of the past”.38

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. 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 how the French revolutionaries of 1789, 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”.39 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 bygone 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.40

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.

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.41 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 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 miners’ 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. It is true that Benjamin did not set himself the task of explaining, for example, how revolutionary class consciousness would be obtained. But then, why should he? 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 of 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.


1: Nineham, 2008. Thanks to Alex Law for discussion of several of the points developed here.

2: Nineham, 2008, pp111, 116.

3: Leslie, 2000, pp225-227.

4: Deutscher, 1971, p18.

5: Anderson, 1976, pp42, 49-50.

6: Anderson, 1976, pp54, 89-90.

7: Marx, 1973a, p72; Marx, 1973b, pp147-149; Marx, 1976, p342.

8: Benjamin, 1999a, p38.

9: Jacoby, 1987. For a summary of his argument, see pp3-27.

10: See Wald 1987, pp27-31, 42-45.

11: For more on the affinities between Benjamin and Trotsky, see Eagleton, 1981, pp173_179, and Leslie, 2000, pp228-234.

12: Balibar is right to say that, despite some formal similarities in approach, in relation to Adorno et al, Benjamin “was merely a reticent, little understood ‘fellow traveller’.” See Balibar, 2007, p86.

13: Löwy, 2005, p4.

14: Nineham, 2008, p116.

15: Benjamin, 1999d, pp458, 460.

16: For the benefit of any readers on “proletarian culture” lookout duty, it should be noted that Benjamin specifically endorsed the position taken by Trotsky on this question in Literature and Revolution. See Benjamin 1999b, p217.

17: Benjamin, 1999c, p771.

18: Benjamin, 1999d, p395.

19: Benjamin, 1999c: pp774, 777.

20: Wood, 1992, p124.

21: Benjamin, 2003a, p270. Benjamin’s italics.

22: Nineham, 2008, p118; Benjamin, 2003a, p402.

23: Davidson, 2007, p118.

24: In addition to the “Paralipomena”, many of the themes of “On the Concept of History” appear in “Convolute N” in The Arcades Project. See Benjamin, 1999d, pp456-488.

25: Pascal 1966, pp121-126

26: Goldmann, 1964, p90. For brilliant discussion and extension of the argument, see MacIntyre, 2008, p314.

27: Löwy, 2005, p114.

28: Gramsci, 1971, p438.

29: Connolly, 1987, p263.

30: Trotsky, 1971, p11.

31: Lukács, 1970, pp12-13.

32: Benjamin, 2003c, pp401-403.

33: Nineham, 2008, pp117-118.

34: Benjamin, 2003b, p391.

35: Orwell, 1954, p199.

36: Benjamin, 2003b, p392.

37: Benjamin, 2003c, p406.

38: Benjamin, 2003c, p407.

39: Marx, 1973b, pp147, 148.

40: Benjamin, 2003b, p395.

41: Davidson, 2005, pp38-47.


Anderson, Perry, 1976, Considerations on Western Marxism (New Left Books).

Balibar, Etienne, 2007 [1995], The Philosophy of Marx (Verso).

Benjamin, Walter, 1999, Selected Writings, volume 2, part 1, 1927-1930, edited by Michael W Jennings, Howard Eiland and Gary Smith (Belknap).

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