Although Walter Benjamin possessed a profound knowledge of classical German literature, his preoccupation with modernism usually led him to explore more obscure or neglected traditions. Thus he ignored mainstream German drama in favour of Baroque tragedy, because of the relevance of allegory to Expressionism; and his writings on Romanticism pursued a similar strategy. For this reason alone the essay printed here holds special interest, as one of the few exceptions to Benjamin’s evasion of the classical tradition.

It was not, however, Benjamin’s first study of Goethe. In 1922 he had written an essay on Elective Affinities, publishing it two years later in a review conducted by the poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the Neue Deutsche Beitrage. But the contrast between the two compositions could not be more vivid. Where the earlier was arcane and metaphysical, the later was direct and materialist in manner—a tour de force of critical compression. The ‘succession’ from the first to the second dramatized the profound change that occurred in Benjamin’s cultural outlook in the mid twenties—the moment of One-Way Street. Their different publishing histories were equally eloquent. Benjamin’s study of Elective Affinities appeared in a little-frequented periodical of pronounced conservative and religious bent; his ‘Reluctant Bourgeois’ was commissioned for the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia.

Benjamin travelled to the Soviet Union in the winter of 1926/27 in the company of his close friend Asja Lacis and her companion, Bernhard Reich, the theatrical producer. On arriving in Moscow he went with Reich to the offices of the Encyclopaedia and was met by ‘a very agreeable young man to whom Reich introduced me and commended my expertise. But when I began to explain my plan for the article, his intellectual insecurity became immediately evident. Much of what I had to say intimidated him and he finally came out with the idea that what he wanted was an account of Goethe’s life with a sociological emphasis. At bottom, however, it is only the history of a poet’s influence that can be portrayed in terms of materialism, and not his life. For it you abstract from his poetic afterlife, the mere existence of an artist and even his oeuvre, provides nothing for a materialist analysis to bite on.’ Despite this inauspicious start, Benjamin was confident that he would receive a series of commissions from the Encyclopaedia. A few weeks later, however, these hopes were dashed when Reich happened to meet Karl Radek in the office of the Encyclopaedia. Radek had been casually looking through Benjamin’s text and dismissed it because ‘the words “class struggle” occurred ten times on every page’. Reich tried to prove to him that this was not so, but from then on the project was doomed. Benjamin’s own final analysis was set out in a letter to Gershon Scholem: ‘The abstract of the article which I submitted turned out to be too radical for them. When faced with the world of European scholarship they are overcome with pity and fear in the classic Aristotelian manner; they want to produce a standard work of Marxist scholarship, but at the same time it has to be something that Europe will wholeheartedly admire.’ And in another letter, to Hofmannsthal, he wrote: ‘The literary enterprise that I was contemplating on my trip to Moscow has fallen through. The board of the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia is a hierarchy with five levels; it contains very few competent scholars and is not remotely capable of carrying out its gigantic programme. I have personally witnessed the ignorance and opportunism with which they oscillate between a Marxist programme of knowledge and the attempt to secure European prestige.’

Benjamin submitted the present essay when it finally appeared in 1929 ‘in a heavily cut, largely rewritten and mutilated version’ that was followed by the names of five co-authors in addition to this it has been estimated that only about 12% of the original text survived. The Soviet authors treated Benjamin’s text as merely another secondary source and plundered it for its factual information from which they concocted a more conventional encyclopaedia article. More importantly, they changed its ideological direction. Thus, to take but a few instances, they omitted the passages in which Benjamin analyses the relationship between Goethe and his home town of Frankfurt as well as his social origins. Similarly, the sociological discussion of his marriage to Christiane disappeared, as did the central account of Goethe’s science. His subtle and original analyses of works such as Götz, Werther and Faust were either grossly simplified or omitted altogether.

Despite Benjamin’s scepticism about the possibility of a materialist criticism, it is clear that the question concerned him deeply. The essay attempted no explicit theorization, but its direction is not in doubt. In a brief review in 1932 Benjamin indicated that he saw himself as a successor to Franz Mehring, who had maintained that cultural heritage, ‘the noblest possessions of the nation’, should be preserved for the proletariat, but in a form purified of bourgeois mystification. But he evidently took a much less adulatory and conservative view of the tradition. Asja Lacis argued that his approach was insufficiently respectful and wanted him to make concessions. Benjamin dismissed this as cowardice and opportunism, and defined his aims in a way that highlighted his debt to Lukács. ‘I talked to her about what was for me the really fascinating thing about the topic of Goethe. It is how a man whose life has been so full of compromise as Goethe’s could nevertheless have such extraordinary achievements to his credit. I said that I thought this would be quite unthinkable with a proletarian writer. In this respect the class struggle of the bourgeoisie was fundamentally different from that of the proletariat. “Disloyalty” and “compromise” did not automatically mean the same thing in the two movements.’ It is this exploration of the tensions in Goethe’s life and work that above all distinguishes Benjamin’s approach both from Mehring’s and from that of the main line of bourgeois scholarship in his day.