Walter Benjamin and Marxism

By Lowy, Michael | Monthly Review, February 1995 | Go to article overview

Walter Benjamin and Marxism


Lowy, Michael, Monthly Review


Walter Benjamin, born in a bourgeois Berlin Jewish family in 1892, was not only a brilliant literary critic and sociologist of culture, but also one of the most creative modem Marxist thinkers. A friend of Bertolt Brecht, Theodor Adomo, and Gershom Scholem (the well known historian of Jewish mysticism), he wrote his first books on the concept of art criticism in German romanticism and on German baroque drama. A sympathizer of the communist movement, he visited the Soviet Union in 1 92 7 and 1 928 but never joined the German Communist Party. Forced into exile by the Nazis in 1933, he lived precariously in France with a stipend from the Frankfurt School, which published in its Journal for Social Research some of his most important essays (on Baudelaire and on the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction). Trying to escape the Nazi occupation of France by crossing the Pyrenees in September 1940, he was arrested by the Spanish (Franco) police. Threatened with being turned over to the Gestapo, he preferred to commit suicide. His last writing, the Theses On the Concept of History, is one of the most important documents Of revolutionary theory in our times. Known only to a small circle of people during his life, he became, after the 1960s, an increasingly influential thinker for a new generation of radical students and intellectuals in Europe and America.

Benjamin was first introduced to the English speaking public with a collection of essays, Illuminations (1968), selected and edited by the cold war publicist Hannah Arendt. In a lengthy introduction, Arendt minimized Benjamin's commitment to Marxism. Arendt claimed that "without realizing it" Benjamin had more in common with the Nazi Martin Heidegger than "with the dialectical subtleties of his Marxist friends." Since then, Benjamin's work (and Heidegger's hidden past) have become widely known and Arendt's project of falsification can now truly be said to have failed. Like that of his contemporaries Gramsci and Lukacs, Benjamin's Marxist thought permits in its subtlety a variety of interpretations and applications to today's world. The following essay focuses on an aspect of Benjamin's scorching critique of positivist, inevitablist vulgar Marxism. --The Editors

Walter Benjamin occupies a unique place in the history of modern Marxist thought. He is the first partisan of historical materialism to break radically with the ideology of progress. His Marxism, therefore, has a distinct critical quality, which sets it apart from the dominant and "official" forms and gives him a formidable methodological superiority.

This peculiarity has to do with Benjamin's ability to incorporate into the body of Marxist revolutionary theory insights from the Romantic critique of civilization and from the Jewish Messianic tradition. Both elements are present in his early writings, particularly The Life of the Students (1915), where he had already rejected "a conception of history which, confident in the infinity of time, distinguishes only the speed at which humanity and epochs roll, quicker or slower, along the tracks of progress"--a conception characterized by "an inability to see the connections between things, a lack of recognition for the precise and forceful demands that the past makes on the present" as opposed to the utopian images such as The Messianic Kingdom or The French Revolution.(1)

Benjamin's first reference to communism appears in 1921 in his Critique of Violence, where he celebrates the "devastating and on the whole justified" critique of parliaments by the Bolsheviks and the Anarcho-Syndicalists.(2) This link between communism and anarchism will be an important aspect of his political evolution: his Marxism will to a large extent take on a libertarian coloring.

But it is only after 1924, when he reads Lukacs's History and Class Consciousness (1923) and discovers practical communism through the eyes of Asja Lacis, a Soviet artist and political activist he met in Capri, that Marxism becomes a key component of his world view. …

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