As we know, Walter Benjamin died in Port-Bou 80 years ago, in September 1940, after an attempt to flee from Vichy France to Spain. Like thousands of other Jewish and/or anti-fascist German refugees, he was interned in a camp in the summer of 1939, at the beginning of World War II, as a “national of an enemy country.” It was one of the most infamous chapters in the unglamorous history of the Third Republic. Freed from the camp thanks to the intervention of French writers and intellectuals, he tried to “disappear” in Marseilles. But after the armistice, and the establishment of the “French State” of Vichy, he felt caught in a mousetrap: the roundups of “undesirable foreigners” were frequent, and the Gestapo, under the sweet title of “Armistice Commission” lurked everywhere. It was at this moment that he knocked on the door of Lisa Fittko, an anti-fascist German (Jewish) refugee, who was organizing an exit route to Spain for those who were the most threatened, through the “Lister Road”, a narrow trail in the Pyrenees. With Fittko’s help, Benjamin reached the border and the Spanish village of Port-Bou, with great difficulty because of his state of health.
Arrested in Port-Bou by the (Francoist) police, who, under the pretext of the absence of a French exit visa, decided to hand him over to the Vichy police – i.e. to the Gestapo – he chose suicide. It was “midnight in the century” and Hitler’s Third Reich had occupied half of Europe, with the complicity of the Stalinist Soviet Union. As much as an act of despair, it was a last act of protest and of anti-fascist resistance.
In the brief theses that follow, some notes on Walter Benjamin’s contribution to Marxist Critical Theory.
I – Walter Benjamin belongs to Critical Theory in the broadest sense, that is, the current of thought inspired by Marx that, from or around the Frankfurt School, calls into question not only the power of the bourgeoisie, but also the foundations of Western rationality and civilization. A close friend of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, he undoubtedly influenced their writings, and especially the vital work that is the Dialectic of the Enlightenment, where we find many of his ideas and even, sometimes, “quotes” without reference to the source. He, in turn, was also sensitive to the main themes of the Frankfurt School, but he is distinguished from them by certain traits which are singular, and which constitute his specific contribution to Critical Theory.
Benjamin was never able to find a university position; the refusal of his authorization – the thesis on German baroque drama – condemned him to a precarious existence as essayist, “man of letters” and maverick journalist, which, of course, deteriorated considerably during the years of his Parisian exile (1933-40). An ideal-typical example of the freischwebende Intelligenz, which Mannheim spoke of, he was, to a very great extent, an Aussenseiter, an outsider, a marginal. This existential situation may have contributed to the subversive acuity of his perception.
II – Benjamin was, in this group of thinkers, the first to question the ideology of progress, this philosophy “incoherent, imprecise, without rigour”, which perceives in the historical process only “the more or less rapid pace by which men and eras advance on the path of progress” (The Life of Students, 1915). He went further than the others in the attempt to rid Marxism, once and for all, of the influence of “progressive” bourgeois doctrines; thus, in the Book of Passages, he gave himself the following objective: “The possibility of a historical materialism which has annihilated in itself the idea of progress can also be considered as a methodologically pursued goal in this work. It is precisely by opposing the habits of bourgeois thought that historical materialism finds its sources.” Benjamin was convinced that “progressive” illusions, in particular the belief of “swimming with the flow of history,” and an acritical view of the existing technical and productive system, had contributed to the defeat of the German labour movement in the face of fascism. Among these harmful illusions was the astonishment that fascism could exist in our time, in such a modern Europe, the product of two centuries of “process of civilization” (in the sense that Norbert Elias gave to this term): as if the Third Reich were not, precisely, a pathological manifestation of that same civilized modernity.
III – While most of the thinkers of Critical Theory shared Adorno’s goal of putting conservative romantic criticism of bourgeois civilization at the service of the emancipatory goals of the Enlightenment, Benjamin is perhaps the one who showed the greatest interest in critical appropriation of the themes and ideas of anti-capitalist romanticism. In the Book of Passages he takes Korsch as a reference in order to highlight Marx’s debt, via Hegel, to the German and French romantics, even the most counter-revolutionary. He did not hesitate to use arguments by Johannes von Baader, Bachofen or Nietzsche to demolish the myths of capitalist civilization. In him, as with all the revolutionary romantics, there is an astonishing dialectic between the most distant past and the emancipated future; hence the interest for Bachofen’s thesis – inspired by both Engels and the anarchist geographer Elisée Réclus – on the existence of a society without classes, without authoritarian power and without patriarchy at the dawn of history.
This sensitivity also allowed Benjamin to understand, much better than his friends of the Frankfurt School, the meaning and scope of a romantic/libertarian movement such as surrealism, to which he assigned, in his 1929 article, the task of capturing the forces of drunkenness (Rausch) for the cause of the revolution. Marcuse, too, realized the importance of surrealism as an attempt to combine art and revolution, but that was forty years later.
IV – Like his Frankfurtian friends, Benjamin was a proponent of a kind of “critical pessimism” that took on a revolutionary form with him. In his 1929 article on surrealism, he even asserted that to be revolutionary was to act to “organize pessimism”. He expresses his distrust as to the fate of freedom in Europe and adds, in an ironic conclusion: “Unlimited trust only in IG Farben and the peaceful development of the Luftwaffe.” Of course, even he, the pessimist par excellence, could not foresee the atrocities that the Luftwaffe would inflict on European cities and civilian populations; or that IG Farben would, barely a dozen years later, be illustrated by the manufacture of Zyklon B gas, used to “rationalize” the genocide of Jews and Gypsies. However, he was the only Marxist thinker of those years to have the intuition of the monstrous disasters to which bourgeois civilization in crisis could give birth.
V – More than the other thinkers of Critical Theory, Benjamin was able to mobilize in productive form the themes of Jewish messianism for the revolutionary struggle of the oppressed. Messianic motifs are not absent from some of Adorno’s texts – notably Minima Moralia – or Horkheimer’s, but it is in Benjamin’s Theses on the concept of history that messianism becomes a central vector of a refoundation of historical materialism, to avoid the fate of an automaton doll, as it had become at the hands of vulgar (social-democratic or Stalinist) Marxism. There is in Benjamin a kind of correspondence (in the Baudelairian sense of the word) between messianic irruption and revolution as an interruption of historical continuity – the continuity of domination. For messianism as he understands it – or rather, invents it – it is not a question of waiting for salvation from an exceptional individual, from a prophet sent by the gods: the “Messiah” is collective, since each generation has been given “a weak messianic force”, which it is a question of exercising, in the best possible way.
VI – Of all the authors of Critical Theory, Benjamin was most attached to class struggle as a principle of understanding history and the transformation of the world. As he wrote in the 1940 Theses, class struggle “continues to be present to the historian formed by Marx’s thought”; indeed, it is constantly present in his writings, as an essential link between the past, the present and the future, and as a place of dialectical unity between theory and practice. For Benjamin, history does not appear as a process of the unwinding of productive forces, but rather as a fight to the death between oppressors and oppressed; rejecting the evolutionary vision of vulgar Marxism, which perceives the movement of history as an accumulation of “gains”, he insists instead on the catastrophic victories of the ruling classes.
Unlike most other members of the Frankfurt School, Benjamin based himself, until his last breath, on the oppressed classes as an emancipatory force of humanity. Deeply pessimistic, but never resigned, he never ceases to see in “the last enslaved class” – the proletariat – the one which, “in the name of the vanquished generations, brings to an end the work of liberation.” (Thesis XII). Although he does not share the myopic optimism of the workers’ parties about their “mass base”, he nonetheless sees no in the dominated classes the only force capable of overthrowing the system of domination.
VII – Benjamin was also the most stubbornly faithful to the Marxian idea of revolution. Certainly, against Marx, he defines it not as the “motor of history” but as an interruption of its catastrophic course, as the saving action of humanity that pulls the emergency brakes. But the social revolution remains the horizon of his reflection, the messianic escape point of his philosophy of history, the keystone of his reinterpretation of historical materialism. Despite the defeats of the past – from the slave revolt led by Spartacus in ancient Rome, to the uprising of the Spartakusbund of Rosa Luxemburg in January 1919 – “the revolution as conceived by Marx”, this “dialectical leap”, is still possible (Thesis XIV). Its dialectic consists of operating, through “a tiger’s leap in the past”, an irruption into the present, in the “time of today”(Jetztzeit).
VIII – Unlike his friends of the Frankfurt School, jealous of their independence, Benjamin tried to get closer to the communist movement. His love for the Latvian Bolshevik artist Asja Lacis no doubt played a role in this attempt… At one point, around 1926, he even considered, as he wrote to his friend Gershom Scholem, joining the German Communist Party – which he did not do… In 1928-29 he visited the Soviet Union: in his Diary of his visit, there were critical observations, which suggested some sympathy for the Left Opposition. However, during the 1930s – especially between 1933 and 1935 – he seemed to rally to Soviet Marxism, but it would be a short-lived parenthesis. From 1936 he began to distance himself, even though he still believed, as his correspondence points out, that the USSR, despite its despotic nature, was the only ally of anti-fascists. This belief collapsed in 1939, with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact: in his Theses on the concept of history (1940), he denounced the “betrayal of their own cause” by the Stalinist communists.
IX – Walter Benjamin was not a Trotskyist, but he repeatedly expressed a great interest in the ideas of the founder of the Red Army.
X – Benjamin’s thought is deeply rooted in the German Romantic tradition and in the Jewish culture of Central Europe; it responds to a specific historical context, which is that of the time of wars and revolutions, between 1914 and 1940. And yet, the main themes of his reflection, and in particular his Theses on the concept of history, are surprisingly universal: they give us tools to understand cultural realities, historical phenomena and social movements in other contexts, other periods, other continents.