Benjamin: Thesis on the Philosophy of History No 1

Gary MacLennan g.maclennan at
Tue Aug 10 23:46:59 MDT 1999

I have been reading or rather studying Walter Benjamin's Theses on the
Philosophy of History. I am not a Benjaminian scholar so I am not competent
to fit the theses into the totality of his work.  Nevertheless they are
suggestive on their own and are certainly repay careful reading.  Benjamin
is famous for the dualistic aspect of his thought.  He was both drawn
towards Jewish mysticism and Marxism. Various interpreters have tried to
emphasise one or other aspects of his thoughts.  Thus for his friend
Gershon Scholem, Benjamin was a great mystic who had been spoiled by his
contact with Marxists, above all the playwright Bertolt Brecht.
Understandably Marxist commentators such as Malcolm Lowy have tried to
rescue Benjamin for Marxism and to down play the mysticism.  It is of
course more interesting if one keeps both tensions in play and attempts to
read Benjamin both as a mystic and as a Marxist.

To understand how this might be done let us turn to the first thesis.

'1. The story is told of an automaton constructed in such a way that it
could play a winning game of chess, answering each move of an opponent with
a countermove.  A puppet in Turkish attire and with a hookah in its mouth
sat before a chessboard placed on a large table.  A system of mirrors
crated the illusion that this table was transparent from all sides.
Actually a little hunchback who was an expert chess player sat inside and
guided the puppet's hand by means of strings.  One can imagine a
philosophical counterpart to this device.  The puppet called "historical
materialism" is to win all the time.  It can easily be a match for anyone
if it enlists the service of theology, which today, as we know, is wizened
and has to keep out of sight.' (Benjamin, 1977: 255)

There are two elements here, the puppet and the dwarf. These are linked to
historical materialism (Marxism) and theology respectively.  The puppet
appears to win everything.  In reality the victories are achieved by the
dwarf. How relevant is the notion of a triumphant Marxism in today's world
which has seen the eclipse of Marxist thought? Well I would still answer
'Very'.  As long as capitalism endures there will be no rival to Marxism in
 terms of its capacity to articulate a critique of the dominant social form.

But what of the philosophical import of the fable?  It points not only to
the successes of Marxism but also its limitations.  It says in effect that
its successes are due to the theological element. I read this as being the
famous missing ethical dimension in Marxist thought. The original  Research
Program as formulated by Marx  refused to articulate a  Marxist ethics.
This of course is not to say that Marx was unethical. On the contrary his
writing is full of moral outrage and indignation.  He was one of the great
denouncers of all times. But a clearly articulated Marxist ethics does not
exist. In the recent documentary _John Berger at 70_, Berger drew attention
to this 'lacuna' in Marxism. He added interestingly that without an ethics
an aesthetics was impossible.

However I do not read Benjamin as saying that Marxism totally lacks an
aesthetics.  I interpret him as saying that there is a theological, ethical
and even mystical substratum that at times Marxism enters into an illicit
partnership with and manages to achieve great things because of this.

In the late and unlamented Marxism list out of Spoons I once said that the
core program of Marxism was human emancipation.  This was denounced as a
'canard' by the neo-Nietzschean Louis Godena.  The latter admired Stalin as
the 'supermensch' of history, the living embodiment of the will to power, a
reading incidentally that Isaac Deutscher also articulates in his book on
Stalin.   Something of this controversy has resurfaced on this list, and I
have had my say about it all.  However I would like to add that without an
ethical and aesthetic dimension, that is, a notion what Bhaskar terms t
humanity as 'living well', then Marxism is reduced to being the cheerleader
of modernity (Living Marxism tendency). It can also turn into a form of
nostalgia for the days of emergency, when cruelty and harsh measures were
needed to save the Russian Revolution (neo-Zinovievism).

A final thought on the wizened nature of theology as symbolised by the
figure of the dwarf is necessary. For me this is Religion, of all
varieties, which has turned away from building the kingdom of god on earth
and instead collaborates with the powerful.  Religion as we know it serves
Mammon, the capitalist class.  It represents the forces of conservatism
which went to the aid of the capitalist class in its struggle with
communism and the colonial independence movements. It has forfeited all
pretension to protect the people from the ravages of the capitalist class.
Isstead it concentrates on providing the people with distractions - the
heaven to come.  Instead of fear and hatred of the rich it preaches fear
and hatred of single mothers and gays. Its reward has been a crisis in the
organised churches which is of epochal dimensions.

Within Catholicism we have witnessed the collapse of vital church groups
such as nuns and religious brothers.  Now too the priesthood is
increasingly unable to reproduce itself.  The pope has responded to this
crisis not by renewing the Church and turning it into a means of protecting
the poor.  Instead he has attempted to revive medievalism by consecrating
more saints than any previous pontiff. He has also visited more countries
and kissed more earth than any previous Vicar of Rome, but it is all in
vain.  The figure of Canute bidding the tide to halt seems to encapsulate
the essence of his reign very well indeed. The dialectic is truly remorseless.

But if we can gain some comfort over the antinomies of the papal triumphs
there is no reason for complacency.  For instance the moral decay of the
Chinese Communist Party has been exposed all too clearly by the revival of
mysticism in the qi gong cult. The message of Benjamin's First Thesis is
then still relevant today.  We need an ethical Marxism for only that can
secure the final victory over the old enemy - capitalism.


Benjamin, W. Illuminations, Fontana: London, 1977

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