[4] Benjamin’s Theories and Thought Processes


Divine or human absolute idea is the basis of reality, knowledge and morality- and also history. The physical world exists only in human consciousness. [Friedrich Hegel]
Marx: Hegel
turned on
his head
Dialectic Materialism:
Objective reality can be explained by its material existence and its development. The material world and the contradictions within it are the driving force of world history. Social conditions determine consciousness.
[Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels]
Man as a
Historical Materialism:
The economic production and social stratification of a historical epoch form the basis of the political history of this epoch. The history of society until now is the history of class struggles.
[Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels]
Where does
Benjamin between Marxism-Leninism (dictatorship of the proletariat), Critical Theory (practical philosophy with the goal of the self-determination of humankind) and Jewish Messianism.

Representative of Critical Theory?

Max Horkheimer (left) and Theodor Adorno (right) in 1964 in Heidelberg
Literary scholar and Director of the Walter-Benjamin-Archive in Berlin, Prof. Dr. Erdmut Wizisla
Politically Benjamin is close to the Critical Theory or Frankfurt School (1➘) of the 1930s and 1940s: The central focus of this Marxist school of thought is the academic analysis of bourgeois- capitalist society and its power mechanisms. Benjamin is often described as representative and outsider of critical theory (2➘). Literary scholar and Director of the Walter-Benjamin-Archive in Berlin, Prof. Dr. Erdmut Wizisla:

Close Benjamin belongs to a circle from the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research: Adorno, Horkheimer, Pollock, Erich Fromm and Günther Anders. First and foremost he is convinced that change in social conditions should be reflected in each and every research paper. This is a materialistic, Marxist approach from the 1920s, a complete break with traditional bourgeois research. Secondly it is important for there to be interaction between various disciplines, for instance, sociology, philosophy and politics and also literature, art and music.

Religion and Revolution

Atheism in Europe
The Jewish, religious historian and close friend of Benjamin, Gershom Scholem (1935).
From a Marxist point of view religiosity and belief obstruct a clear view of social conditions, for Marx religion is the opium of the people. Not so for Benjamin, he combines religious and political Messianism with revolutionary concepts for the present day. (3➘) A thematic controversy, which accompanies Benjamin throughout his life, not least as an ongoing dispute in his close friendship with the Jewish scholar, Gersholm Scholem. Erdmut Wizisla:

Close Benjamin has a great interest in mystical traditions. He has a strong affinity to the messianic. Neither of these topics have a place in classic, critical theory. At least not at its centre. In this respect Benjamin is an outsider.
Benjamin warns against underestimating those in power.
Rulers want to maintain their position with blood (police), with distraction (fashion), with fascination (ostentation).
To gain strength he combines elements of the ecstatic and the dream world, without turning his back on historic materialism:
In 1852 ... if one was a Bonapartist, one had access to all worldly pleasures. From a human standpoint, Bonapartists were those most hungry for life: that is why they were victorious.

Interest in Communism

Comintern Soviet Poster 1922
From very early on Benjamin is interested in the communist idea, analyses the developments after the Russian revolution in 1917, travels to Moscow in 1926/27 to be with his lover and colleague, Acis Lacis and reflects critically on the emerging socialist one party system. Erdmut Wizisla:

Close Benjamin had been interested in communist politics and writings even before he met Asja Lacis on Capri in 1924. Very early on he read Marx, for example, his “Essay on the Jewish Question”. The combination of politics and his love affair with Lacis to some extent made him more receptive or perhaps even radical. His relationship to communism first becomes more difficult when he is in Moscow for the New Year in 1926/27: Here he has to accept that while the communist idea continues to seem plausible to him, current practice and inflexibility frighten him. He recognises the beginnings of Stalinisation. He considers extremely dispassionately joining the party (for a just cause) and the loss of freedom.
Comrades! I wholeheartedly welcome these theses of Bolshevisation. Comrade Zinoviev is absolutely correct. Unfortunately! At the moment the objective international situation is not actually revolutionary. I, therefore, consider the Communist Party’s theses of Bolshevisation to be absolutely necessary. [Clara Zetkin 1925]

Studies on the Philosophy of History

Paul Klee: Angelus novus (1920)
Central to the works of Walter Benjamin are his studies on the philosophy of history of the 1930s, which under the title, The Arcades Project, can certainly be considered a fundamental critique of what is, even today, the prevailing historiography. Erdmut Wizisla describes three central points in Benjamin’s philosophy of history:

Coloured publishers’ marks for transferring texts to the 'Arcades Project' and to the 'Studies of Baudelaire', 1928-1940, © Akademie der Künste, Berlin, Walter Benjamin Archive

1. Historiography is always determined by individual interests:

Close We only ever see what we need at the time, this is interest-based. Benjamin affirms this: There are historic moments which suddenly materialise and demonstrate their topicality.

2. Histiography is always the histiography of those in power:

Close History is always written by those in power- and therefore to be distrusted. The oppressed have no historian, they cannot record their misery.

3. History is a series of catastrophes, revolution the application of the emergency brake:

Close History is a series of catastrophes. This process must be halted. Benjamin: 'Revolution is mankind stepping on the emergency brake.'

Sources and External Links

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  1. Wolfgang Schirmacher - Die Frankfurter Schule [DE] , Wolfgang Schirmacher - The Frankfurt School [EN]
  2. Prof. Dr. Jörg Zimmer, Stiftungslehrstuhl Walter Benjamin an der Universität Girona, skizziert, in welchem Verhältnis Benjamin zur Kritischen Theorie zu sehen ist [DE, long version] :
  3. Benjamin zu Religion und Revolution: Gesammelte Schriften [DE]