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New Left Review I/128, July-August 1981


Susan Buck-Morss

Walter Benjamin—Revolutionary Writer (I)

Walter Benjamin’s works have survived in opposition to the intellectual mainstream in which history has swept forward: the racism which forced him into exile in the thirties, the fascism resulting in world war, in the midst of which he took his own life, and, since then, the democratic liberalism which, by legitimating capitalism, prevents democracy’s realization, and the bureaucratized Marxism which has so often deserted the goal of a humane society. Benjamin was a revolutionary writer in the Messianic-utopian sense, an oddity in Western culture at a time when the West has been persistently hostile to revolutionary movements, both foreign and domestic. The fact that his works survived was due first to the efforts of friends to whom Benjamin entrusted manuscripts for safe-keeping, particularly Gershom Scholem, Kabbalist scholar and close friend, whose several decades of correspondence with Benjamin provided the documentation for his recent biographical study; [1] Gershom Scholem, Walter Benjamin: Die Geschichte einer Freundschaft, Frankfurt am Main 1975. See also the newly published Walter Benjamin Gershom Scholem Briefwechsel, 1933–40, Frankfurt am Main 1980. Gretel Karplus, who was close to Benjamin in the early pre-exile years in Berlin; and her husband, Theodor W. Adorno, whose own work was strongly influenced by Benjamin. [2] See Susan Buck-Morss, The Origin of Negative Dialectics: Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and the Frankfurt Institute, New York 1977. Karplus and Adorno collected and edited a two-volume edition of Benjamin’s essays for posthumous publication in the 1950s. [3] Walter Benjamin, Schriften, two volumes, ed. Theodor W. Adorno and Gretel Adorno, Frankfurt am Main 1955. An edition of Benjamin’s complete works is now in process, [4] Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, six volumes, ed. Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhäuser, Frank am Main 1972—hereafter gs. a project instigated by Scholem and Adorno (before his death in 1969), but carried out by Adorno’s students: Rolf Tiedemann and Herman Schweppenhäuser as general editors; Hella Tiedemann-Bartels and Tillman Rexroth as editors of particular volumes. Four out of the planned six volumes have appeared. In 1982 will appear the fifth, the unpublished manuscript of the Passagenarbeit (Arcades project), a historical materialist study of nineteenth-century Paris which was to have been Benjamin’s major work. The current editors, now in their forties, were children when Benjamin died. They were born citizens of the Nazi state. Their childhood world was a world at war, and their intellectual socialization was in a context of cultural rupture. Heirs to fascism, they rejected this intellectual descent and became students of those who had been exiled as pariahs and traitors. Their first exposure to Benjamin took place in this light. By the late 1960s, the light which illuminated Benjamin’s texts fell from a different source: an international revolutionary student movement which seemed to bathe the whole world in clarity. It was an uncanny, Koda-colour brilliance, livid and unblinking, but it was only a matter of time before the fuse blew out. In the intellectual gloom since then, no owl of Minerva has appeared as a sign that the world spirit has grown wiser.

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