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The Young Benjamin

Walter Benjamin's Marxism owed much to his early engagement with anarchism and surrealism.

Discussion of Walter Benjamin’s work traditionally focused on his cultural criticism, sidestepping his Marxist political commitments. Yet in recent years a substantial body of Marxist discussion of Benjamin’s writings has emerged, focusing mainly on his more “materialist” work from the 1930s. Benjamin’s early Marxist writings however — which represent a quite heterodox, unusual, and topical attempt to bring together anarchism and communism — deserve greater attention.

Before 1924, anarchism seems to be the main political inspiration of the young Benjamin. In his conference on The Life of the Students (1915), he pays homage to the “Tolstoyan Spirit” of service to the poor, which has grown “in the ideas of the deepest Anarchists and in the Christian monastic communities.” More significantly, in his 1921 essay, Critique of Violence, one can find reflections directly inspired by Georges Sorel and the anarcho-syndicalist movement.

Benjamin does not hide his total disdain for the state institutions, such as the police (“the most degenerate form of violence that one can conceive”), or the parliament (“a deplorable spectacle”), and approves without reservation of the anti-parliamentarian critique of Bolsheviks and anarcho-syndicalists — two currents that he considers here as belonging to the same camp.

He also celebrates the Sorelian proposal of a general strike as a collective action, which “assigns itself as its sole and unique task the destruction of the State violence.” Sorel’s strategy, which Benjamin designates by the word “anarchist,” seems to him the most appropriate, being “profound, ethical and authentically revolutionary.”

In a document from the same period (which remained unpublished during his lifetime), “The right to the use of violence. Pages for a religious socialism” (1920–21), Benjamin explicitly describes his own thinking as anarchist: “The presentation of this viewpoint is one of the tasks of my moral philosophy, for which the term Anarchism can certainly be used. It is a theory that does not reject the moral right to violence as such, but rather refuses it to any institution, community or individual which attributes to himself the monopoly of violence.”

It is therefore evident, from these early documents, that Benjamin’s first ethical-political choice was anarchism — the radical and categorical rejection of all established institutions and, in particular, of the state. It was only a few years later — strangely enough, after the end of the great European revolutionary upsurge of 1917–1923 — that Benjamin discovered Marxism.

The revolutionary wave probably made him more receptive to communist ideas, but it was only belatedly, in 1924, by reading Georg Lukacs’ History and Class Consciousness, and by meeting Bolshevik teacher and activist Asja Lacis — with whom he fell in love — that he really become drawn to Marxism, a way of thinking that would soon become a key component of his political and theoretical reflections.

In a letter to Gershom Scholem in September 1924, Benjamin acknowledges the tensions between what he calls “the foundations of my nihilism” and the dialectics of Lukacs; what he most admired in History and Class Consciousness was the articulation between theory and practice that makes up “the hard philosophical kernel” of the book and gives Lukacs such a superiority that “any other approach is nothing but bourgeois and demagogic phraseology.”

Two years later, in another letter to Scholem, Benjamin writes that he was considering joining the German Communist Party, but insists that this doesn’t mean he intended to “abjure” (abzuschwören) his “ancient Anarchism.”

Ultimately, after much hesitation, Benjamin decided not to join the Communist Party. He remained a close sympathizer, but not without a critical distance. One example of this support can be found in his Moscow Diary (1926–27), where he expresses a negative view of the Soviet government’s attempt to “arrest the dynamics of the revolutionary process” — an argument that has obvious affinities with the critical views developed at that moment by the Soviet Communist Party’s Left Opposition (Trotsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev).

Benjamin didn’t give up his “ancient anarchism,” as he explained to Scholem, so how did he proceed in binding it with the communist project? His most important anarcho-Marxist document is, without a doubt, his 1929 essay “Surrealism, the last snapshot of the European intelligentsia.”

In the first paragraphs of the article, Benjamin describes himself as a “German observer” situated in a “highly exposed position between an Anarchist Fronde and a revolutionary discipline.” Are these two compatible? In 1927, in the streets of Paris, communists and anarchists marched together in demonstration and riot, against the condemnation of the US anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti; the surrealists were present, and Benjamin celebrates the “excellent passage” in André Breton’s novel Nadja (1928) that refers to the “delightful days spent looting Paris under the sign of Sacco and Vanzetti.”

In Benjamin’s view, surrealism is anything but the work of “yet another clique of literati” — an opinion he attributes to mediocre and philistine “experts.” Surrealism is much more than an “artistic movement”: it is an attempt to explode the sphere of poetry from within, thanks to a set of magical experiments with revolutionary implications. More specifically, it is a “visionary” movement that is both profoundly libertarian (anti-authoritarian) and in search of a possible convergence with communism.

How does Benjamin define the anarchist dimension of surrealism? Trying to grasp the Northern Pole of the surrealist magnetic field, he writes: “Since Bakunin, Europe has lacked a radical concept of freedom. The Surrealists have one.”

It’s hard to imagine a better formulation — in a few simple and trenchant words — of the unbreakable kernel of darkness of the movement founded by André Breton. According to Benjamin, it was “the hostility of the bourgeoisie toward every manifestation of radical intellectual freedom that pushed surrealism to the left, towards revolution and, after the Rif war, towards Communism.” Indeed, soon after the colonial French war in North Africa, Breton and other surrealists joined, in 1927, the French Communist Party.

For Benjamin, the figure that prepared and induced the surrealist’s “move to the left” was Pierre Naville, former editor of the journal La Revolution Surrealiste and the author of The Revolution and the Intellectuals (1926) — a text in which Naville proposed that his surrealist friends participate in the Communist movement. From Naville Benjamin borrowed the definition of the truly revolutionary attitude as “the organization of pessimism.”

This tendency toward politicization and growing commitment did not, in Benjamin’s view, mean that surrealism had to abandon its magical and libertarian qualities. On the contrary, Benjamin believed those qualities allowed it to play a unique and irreplaceable role in the revolutionary movement: “to win the energies of intoxication for the revolution — this is the project about which surrealism circles in all its books and enterprises. This it may call its most particular task. If it is to accomplish this task, Surrealism must, however, abandon its unilateral stance and accept an alliance with Communism.”

What kind of communism had Benjamin’s sympathies? Apparently not the official one: in the surrealism essay, Bukharin — who was, at the time the article was written, the main ideologist of Soviet Marxism after Stalin — is rejected (together with the nineteenth-century vulgar materialist Carl Vogt) as a “metaphysical materialist” and Trotsky is favorably quoted though he had already been expelled from the party and exiled.

In a 1973 letter to Soma Morgenstern, Gershom Scholem writes the following about Walter Benjamin’s politics: in spite of his decision not to join the party in 1926, “there is no doubt that he continued to relate with sympathy to Communism. . . . He was, if one could say so, what one would call today a Trotskyst.”

This seems to me somewhat exaggerated. It is true that the main representative of the coming together of surrealism and Communism in the essay, Pierre Naville, had just been expelled, in February 1928, from the French Communist Party for his support of the Trotskyist opposition. But unlike Naville, Benjamin did not think that the surrealists should give up their anarchist leanings. He simply insisted on the need to blend anarchist “intoxication” with organization and discipline:

For them it is not enough that, as we know, an ecstatic component lives in every revolutionary act. This component is identical with the anarchic. But to place the accent exclusively on it would be to subordinate the methodical and disciplinary preparation for revolution entirely to a praxis oscillating between fitness exercises and celebration in advance.

What is this “intoxication,” this Rausch whose energies Benjamin is so anxious to win for the revolution? In One-Way Street, Benjamin refers to intoxication as an expression of the magical relationship between the ancients and the cosmos, but he implies that the experience (Erfahrung) and the Rausch that once characterized that ritual relationship with the world disappear in modern society. In the Literarische Welt article, he seems to rediscover that relationship, in a new form, in surrealism.

Benjamin’s article contains several criticisms of the surrealists, but the conclusion is a fairly unconditional celebration of Breton and his friends: “For the moment, only the Surrealists have understood the present command [of The Communist Manifesto]. They exchange, to a man, the play of human features for the face of an alarm clock that in each minute rings for sixty seconds.”

What is the meaning of this enigmatic allegory? Perhaps Benjamin is suggesting that the unique value of surrealism resides in its ability to see every second as the narrow door that allows the revolution to enter — to paraphrase an image that he would not use until much later (in the last Thesis On the Concept of History).

There are almost no explicit references to anarchism in Benjamin’s last writings. However, for an acute observer such as Rolf Tiedemann — the editor of the first German edition of his complete works — Benjamin’s Theses On the Concept of History (1940) “can be read as a palimpsest: under the explicit Marxism the old nihilism becomes visible, which risks to lead to the abstraction of Anarchist practice.”

The comment is interesting, but the word “palimpsest” is not the most appropriate: the relation between both components, for Benjamin, is not a mechanical one of superposition, but rather an alchemic combination of substances previously distilled.

Developing his argument, Tiedemann states, again in reference to the Theses of 1940, “the representation of political praxis in Benjamin is rather the enthusiast one of Anarchism than the more sober one of Marxism.” The problem with this comment is that it opposes as mutually exclusive the attitudes that Benjamin tried precisely to associate, because they seem to him complementary and equally necessary for revolutionary action: libertarian “enthusiasm” and Marxist “soberness.”

In a more systematic way than Tiedemann, Jürgen Habermas analyzed the anarchist dimension of Benjamin’s last reflections, in order to submit them to a radical criticism from his own evolutionist and “modernist” historical perspective. In a well-known article on Benjamin from the 1970s, Habermas rejects Benjamin’s attempt to radicalize historical materialism with the help of messianic and libertarian elements:

This attempt must fail because the materialist theory of social development cannot be simply fitted into the Anarchist conception of Jetztzeiten [now-times] which intermittently come crashing through fate as if from above. An anti-evolutionary conception of history cannot be tacked onto historical materialism as if it were a monk’s cowl — tacked onto a historical materialism, which takes account of progress not only in the dimension of the forces of production, but in that of domination too.

What Habermas considers a mistake is precisely, in my view, one of the great qualities of Benjamin’s Marxism, and his superiority over all forms of “progressist evolutionism”: his capacity to understand a century characterized by the direct interconnection between barbarism and modernity — an interconnection which would take, a few years after his death, the catastrophic figure of Auschwitz and Hiroshima.

An evolutionist conception of history, which believes in the necessary progress in the forms of domination, can hardly give an account of fascism — except as an unexplainable parenthesis, an incomprehensible regression “in the middle of the 20th Century.” Now, as Benjamin wrote in his Theses, one cannot understand the meaning of fascism if one considers it just an exception to the historical norm which would be progress.

A few years later, Habermas renewed his polemical discussion with Benjamin in his 1985 book The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. He now opposed those that hold a non-continuist view of history, such as Karl Korsch, Benjamin, “and the Ultra leftists,” to the thinkers, like Karl Kautsky and the protagonists of the Second International, “who saw in the unfolding of the forces of production a guarantee for the evolutionary transition from bourgeois society to socialism.”

Benjamin and the “Ultra leftists,” according to Habermas, “could only imagine the revolution as a leap out of the eternally recurring barbarism of prehistory, as an exploding of the continuity of all history.” This attitude, argues Habermas, “inspired by the surrealist consciousness of time, has something in common with the Anarchism of those who following Nietzsche, oppose the universal nexus of power and delusion by appealing to ecstatic sovereignty . . . local resistance, and the involuntary revolts of a deprived subjective nature.”

Habermas’ interpretation has many problems. First of all, his concept of “prehistorical barbarism” is utterly inadequate: all of Benjamin’s effort aimed precisely to show that modern barbarism was not the “recurring” of a “prehistorical” savagery, but a specifically modern phenomena — an idea which can hardly be accepted by such a staunch defender of modernity as Habermas.

However, he grasped with great acumen all that Benjamin’s final reflections on history owe to surrealism and anarchism: revolution is not the crowning of historical evolution — “progress” — but the radical interruption of the historical continuity of domination.