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
Walter Benjamin is related to this pattern not only by his personal links with most of the members of this complex network, but also because he concentrates in his life and thought all the contradictions, tensions and oppositions which divided this neo-Romantic Jewish–German culture: between Jewish theology and Marxist materialism, assimilation and Zionism, communism and anarchism, conservative Romanticism and nihilist revolution, mystical Messianism and profane utopia.
The intimate association of Messianic and anarchist-utopian themes (against a background of neo-Romantic criticism of ‘progress’) is one of the central features of Benjamin’s political philosophy. If we examine one of his first works, the speech ‘On Student Life’ (1914), we can already find the seeds of his whole social-religious Weltanschauung. Against the ‘formless’ idea of progress he celebrates the critical power of utopian images, such as those of the French Revolution and of the Messianic Kingdom; the real issues for society are not those of technology and science, but the metaphysical problems raised by Plato, Spinoza, the Romantics and Nietzsche, under whose inspiration the student community should become the harbinger of a ‘permanent spiritual revolution’. The anarchist dimension is already suggested by the statement that truly free art and knowledge are ‘alien to the state, frequently hostile to the state’. But it is also present in a more explicit way, in the reference to the Tolstoyan spirit of serving the poor, whose most authentic expressions were ‘the ideas of the most profound Anarchists and the Christian monastic communities’. footnote2 Utopia, Anarchism, Revolution and Messianism are alchemically combined and linked to a neo-Romantic cultural criticism of ‘progress’ and merely technicalscientific knowledge; the past (the monastic communities) and the future (the Anarchist utopia) are directly associated in a characteristically Romantic-revolutionary short-cut. This document contains in nuce many of Benjamin’s future preoccupations and one can rigorously show its similarity with his last writings. It suggests certain themes and motives that will recur during his life work, sometimes openly, sometimes as a hidden undercurrent. We can see a basic continuity in his spiritual trajectory from 1914 to 1940—which does not mean that there were no changes or transmutations: after 1924 Marxism becomes an increasingly essential ingredient of his world-view. Communism and historical materialism did not replace his former spiritualist and libertarian convictions, but amalgamated with them, forming a distinctive pattern of thought.
For Benjamin—as for many young Jewish intellectuals at the beginning of the century—Romanticism was the starting point, the decisive cultural climate, the basic source of values and feelings. It is important to
In one of his first publications (under the pseudonym ‘J. Ardor’), the short notice ‘Romantik’ (1913), Benjamin criticizes the ‘false Romanticism’ taught in school and calls for the birth of a ‘new Romanticism’, stressing that ‘the Romantic will to beauty, the Romantic will to truth, the Romantic will to action’ are ‘insuperable’ (unüberwindlich) acquisitions of modern culture. footnote3 In a little-noticed but highly significant essay in the form of a dialogue, also from 1913 (‘Dialog über die Religiosität der Gegenwart’) he writes that ‘we all still live very deeply immersed in the discoveries of Romanticism’ and that we have to thank Romanticism for the most powerful insights on ‘the nocturnal side of the natural’. Sharply criticizing the reduction of men to working machines and the debasement of all work to the technical, he insists, in opposition to the illusions of progress and evolution, on the need for a new religion (whose prophets would be Tolstoy, Nietzsche and Strindberg—i.e. cultural critics of modern civilization) and for a new, ‘sincere’ (ehrlichen) socialism, very different from the conventional one. footnote4