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Walter Benjamin, the Marxist.

We hope Davidson’s nuanced but rooted Marxist approach will help to reclaim Benjamin from the academic swamp and help inoculate practical socialists from a vulgar approach to art and culture.


Walter Benjamin and the Classical Marxist Tradition

Neil Davidson, in an excerpt from his new book, defends Walter Benjamin from sectarian dismissals and academic obscurantism.

Neil Davidson — July 8, 2014
“On the Concept of History,” Benjamin writes that reformists do not see the working class as “the avenger that completes the task of liberation in the name of generations of the down trodden”. Instead: “The Social Democrats preferred to cast the working class in the role of a redeemer of future generations, in this way cutting the sinews of its greatest strength. This indoctrination made the working class forget both its hatred and its spirit of sacrifice, for both are nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than by the ideal of liberated grandchildren.” We now learn that the origin of this celebrated passage lie in a 10-day conference at Potnigny in France, during May 1940, which Benjamin attended while waiting for the outcome of his ultimately fruitless attempts to secure a passage to the USA
“Benjamin witnessed a dreadful lecture by Emilie Lefranc of the Confederation Generale du Travail, an example of vulgar Marxism effortlessly serving counter-revolutionary ends. The main theme of the lecture was that workers should not nourish their spirit of revenge, but rather simply be inspired by the struggle for social justice.”
Mass reproduction is especially favoured by the reproduction of the masses. In great ceremonial processions, giant rallies, and mass sporting events, and in war, all of which are now fed into the camera, the masses come face to face with themselves.” And what they come face–to–face with, of course, is their own alienated selves under capitalism.
Isaac Deutscher distinguished between what he called the “classical Marxist” tradition, “the body of thought developed by Marx, Engels, their contemporaries, and after them by Kautsky, Plekhanov, Lenin, Trotsky [and] Rosa Luxemburg,” and that of “vulgar Marxism,” “the pseudo-Marxism of the different varieties of European social-democrats, reformists, Stalinists. Krushchevites, and their like”. Perry Anderson later added a third variant, which he called “Western Marxism,” to signal the shifting geographical axis of Marxist thought, from Eastern and Central Europe to Western Europe, after the rise of Hitler and consolidation of Stalinism. This tradition, according to Anderson, was “a product of defeat,” it represented a version of Marxist theory which was divorced from the working class and had “migrated virtually completely into the universities”; the work of Western Marxism moved in the opposite direction to the Classical tradition, “from economics and politics towards philosophy,” took the form of a “second-order…discourse” or “esoteric discipline,” and was characterised by “extreme difficulty of language.”
the famous passage from “On the Concept of History” invoking the Angel of History is expressed in language which would have been “virtually incomprehensible to Marx and Engels.” Anderson is simply wrong on the last point. If anything, it was Marx’s own use of ‘sociological poetics” which may have provided Benjamin with one of the sources for his own style. When we consider some of the images which Marx employs—history as a theatrical performance, first tragic then comic; capital as a vampire, sucking the blood of living Labor; the capitalist as a sorcerer, conjuring up forces from the nether world which then escape his control—the Angel of History does not seem so outlandish a concept as to present him with difficulties of comprehension.
Benjamin does not quite fit the mould of Western Marxism, for four reasons.
intellectual odd-jobbery.
Second, and partly because of his position outside the academy, Benjamin developed a literary style which was quite distinct from the clotted, constipated prose of the professors.
Third, although Benjamin was interested in what we now regard as high culture–above all in his obsessive, life-long engagement with the poet Charles Baudelaire–he also opened up entirely new areas for Marxist analysis in relation to folk, popular and mass cultures. Because the babble about culture is now never-ending, and usually utterly valueless, it is important to understand both how innovative Benjamin’s work was and how it differed from what followed. Although Benjamin was a modernist, his central emphasis was on the importance of new cultural forms which emerged after the ascendance of the bourgeoisie
At no point in time, no matter how utopian, will anyone win the masses over to a higher art; they can be one over only by finding one nearer to them. And the difficulty consists precisely in finding a form for art, such that, with the best conscience in the world, one could hold that it is a higher art. This will never happen with what is propagated by the avant-garde of the bourgeoisie. … The masses positively require from a work of art (which, for them, has its place in the circle of consumer items) something that is warming. Here the flame that is most readily kindled is hatred.
his commitment to the socialist revolution. For, unlike all Western Marxists, Benjamin never adapted to social democracy, Stalinism or any variation of socialism from above, nor did he lapse into political pessimism or despair. It is possible to interpret his suicide at the Franco-Spanish border in 1940 as an act of personal despair; but as Paul Wood writes, “it was undoubtedly an act of great courage.” It can also be interpreted as a final act of self-determination, by actively choosing death rather than surrender and so deny the Gestapo their victim.

But what Benjamin means is rather that, in societies dominated by capitalist relations of production, where technology is not used to meet human need but for accumulation, the conflicts which that society generates will lead to technology being used for destructive purposes, in ever more complex and inventive ways, as an obscene parody of the creativity which socialism would bring. As a contemporary illustration, we only need to contrast the extraordinary achievement of the US military in constructing a city in the desert from nothing, prior to the opening of the Third Gulf War, with the lack of resources subsequently made available to the Iraqis for reconstruction following the occupation. In short, there is nothing remotely determinist about Benjamin’s attitude to technology; it simply describes reality of imperialism.


Benjamin certainly makes a number of apparently cryptic utterances about history: “The only historian capable of fanning the spark of hope in the past is the one who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he is victorious. And this enemy has never ceased to be victorious.”​This passage reads like poetry, and like poetry, it is not meant to be taken literally. What Benjamin seems to mean is something closer to the party slogan George Orwell has O’Brien make Winston Smith repeat in Nineteen Eighty-Four: “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” The past can be changed to suit the needs of the ruling class and only the victory of socialism will ensure that it remains safe. But where should we look for “the spark of hope” in it? Benjamin’s approach involves considerably more than simply referring to a tradition of “past struggles” to inspire contemporary socialists: it is to question the very nature of that tradition.

With whom does the historian actually sympathise? The answer is inevitable: with the victors.





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This entry was posted on July 24, 2014 by in 【Essence of Cosmos】, 【Social Theory】.
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