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New Left Review I/152, July-August 1985


Michael Löwy

Revolution Against ‘Progress’: Walter Benjamin’s Romantic Anarchism

Walter Benjamin’s style of thinking is unique and resists classification, but it can be better understood and explained if related to the cultural atmosphere of Mittel-Europa at the beginning of the century, and to certain religiouspolitical undercurrents among German-speaking Jewish intellectuals of this period. Neo-romanticism, as a moral and social critique of ‘progress’ and of modern Zivilisation—in the name of a nostalgic loyalty to the traditional Kultur—became the dominant trend among the German intelligentsia from the end of the nineteenth century to the rise of fascism. It was mainly a reaction to the very forceful, brutal and rapid process of industrialization of the country during this time, which threatened to dissolve all ancient values and beliefs and replace them with the cold and rational calculations of commodity production. Several German-speaking Jewish writers and philosophers were attracted by this Weltanschauung and developed (in a relationship of elective affinity) a Romantic version of Jewish Messianism and a Romantic version of revolutionary (libertarian) Utopia. One of the central elements in this affinity was the restorative-utopian character of both spiritual configurations, which can be found in the works of several well-known figures of the Central European Jewish intelligentsia: Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem, Gustav Landauer, Ernst Bloch, Georg Lukács, and so on. [1] We have developed these ideas in the essay ‘Jewish Messianism and Libertarian Utopia in Central Europe’, New German Critique 20, Spring/Summer 1980.

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