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
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
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
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
Working-class history, then, had demonstrated that the political criteria of ‘knowledge’ (i.e. knowledge that could be dangerous to the oppressor) were two-fold. On one hand, it must instruct the proletariat ‘about its situation as a class,’ and, on the other hand, possess a motivational connection to political action, an ‘outlet in praxis.’ Are these criteria actually fulfilled by Marx’s own theoretical writings on history and economics? Was it enough that workers read the Communist Mani-festo and Wages, Price and Profit? The problem raised by Benjamin was that Marx’s own writings were not immune from the distortions of cultural inheritance. Educating the workers about the source of profits in the surplus value of their own productivity could produce class consciousness without revolutionary consciousness, trade-union
In short, one could (and at the turn of the century both orthodox and revisionist Marxists did) describe reality with Marx’s theory without being motivated to revolutionary action in order to change that reality. When Benjamin (sounding very much like Gramsci) commented: ‘Few recognized at the time how much in reality depended on the work of materialist education,’footnote16 it was precisely to criticise the neo-Kantian, positivist separation of theoretical knowledge and political praxis which characterized much of the Marxist intellectual tradition. (Nor, it might be added, did Lukács’ Hegelianized version of Marx provide what was called for: the knowledge that one was the ‘subject-object of history’footnote17 wasn’t likely to inspire resistance on the barricades. It is not for philosophical slogans that people sacrifice their lives.)