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;footnote1 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.footnote2 Karplus and Adorno collected and edited a two-volume edition of Benjamin’s essays for posthumous publication in the 1950s.footnote3 An edition of Benjamin’s complete works is now in process,footnote4 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 In 1982 will appear the fifth, the unpublished manuscript of the Passagenarbeit (Arcades project), a historical materialist study of nineteenth-century Paris which was to have been Benjamin’s major work.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.

The first volume of Benjamin’s complete works was published in 1972. The editors’ work has been laborious and meticulous. It has become a life task—their legacy to the next generation. Volumes I and II run well over a thousand pages, more than a third of which are editorial notes. The editing has involved a refunctioning of the traditional philological apparatus. It is based on a method in which philological and political interests converge. Instead of presenting the historical coming-to-be of texts as a teleological process, where the finished product appears as an immortal monument sealed off from history, the editors open up the texts, allowing history to enter into them. Through copious quotations from Benjamin’s correspondence the editorial notes make visible the historical and economic context, both personal and social, in which the texts were written. The philological presentation of earlier typescripts, manuscripts, drafts and related fragments are presented as laminations, none of which has greater authority, so that the texts become visible as a three-dimensional figure. It allows the student of Benjamin to cut through this figure at any point and to read the exposed interior like a technical diagram. It encourages independence of interpretation and mitigates against the fetishism of ‘Great Books’. Ironically, while the innovativeness of this editing is inherently democratic, it has lengthened the volumes so that they have become a luxury: each three-part volume runs well over 100 dm. The spiralling costs of book production have prevented the editorial notes from reaching English readers in a series of otherwise excellent—indeed, strikingly excellent—translations of Benjamin’s works.footnote5

The burgeoning secondary literature on Benjamin,footnote6 generated by and for the academic establishment which rejected him in the 1920s, demonstrates that his work has now become respectable. While social scientists have not found him very useful, he has become a favourite in the field of literary criticism. His cryptic, image-filled writings lend themselves with particular facility to post-structuralist methods of reading, where the texts, uprooted from the concrete history of their origins, appear to allow a limitless series of interpretive glosses, the choice of which depends on what is most ‘interesting,’ given the present academic climate. It is striking that the revolutionary impulse of Benjamin’s work has aroused such little interest in these circles.footnote7 That impulse seems to survive as an anachronism; it almost appears quaint. If in the 1960s, the controversies were over his politics,footnote8 now they are concerned with how he connects to other ‘great’ figures in literature and philosophy. Benjamin would not have been surprised.

If I have spoken in detail of the way in which Benjamin’s works have been transmitted, it is because the mode of inheritance of cultural objects is not a matter of indifference. Instead, it is the central problem pertaining to those works and their interpretation. Looking to the past from 1981, one’s gaze falls first on the last of Benjamin’s writings, ‘On the Concept of History.’ Written in the form of philosophical theses (and known as the ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’) it was intended as a methodological introduction to the ‘Arcades’ project, which was, in turn, Benjamin’s backward gaze to a previous historical era. Now it instructs the reading of his own work. The cognitive problem is clear in the theses, and it is expressly political. If, as Marx argued, the ruling ideas have always been those of the ruling class and hence conspire against the oppressed as ideology, what must be the position of the historical materialist in evaluating and interpreting the cultural ‘treasures’ which make up the intellectual inheritance? ‘For without exception the cultural treasures he surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents of those who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from owner to owner.’footnote9

The bourgeois conception of the history of culture made the process of transmission, in which the present rulers ‘step over those who are lying prostrate,’ appear as a ‘triumphal procession.’footnote10 Benjamin concludes: ‘A historical materialist therefore dissociates himself from it as far as possible. He regards it as his task to brush history against the grain.’footnote11 This is vivid imagery. But how precisely does it illuminate and guide the practice of cultural history? Many of the arguments in the theses were stated in more mundane, more historically concrete language in an important article, ‘Eduard Fuchs: Collector and Historian,’ written for the Frankfurt Institute journal in 1937, and held to be ‘without question one of the most significant works of Benjamin’s later years.’footnote12 Here Benjamin wrote that the Social Democrats made a serious theoretical mistake before World War I, which was largely responsible for the co-option of the working-class movement and the failure of the German revolution of 1918. The Social Democrats had a slogan: ‘Knowledge is Power.’ ‘But the party failed to perceive its double meaning. It thought the same knowledge that secured the rule of the bourgeoisie over the proletariat would enable the proletariat to free itself from that rule. In reality, knowledge with no outlet in praxis, knowledge that could teach the proletariat nothing about its situation as a class, was no danger to its oppressors. This was especially true of knowledge relating to the humanities. It lagged far behind economics, remaining untouched by the revolution in economic theory.’footnote13