Aristides Baltas | History, historiography and political practice

By Aristides Baltas

Translated by Chloe Howe Haralambous



What follows does not aspire at anything but a summary of a reading or, perhaps more accurately, an extended commentary on Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History”. This reading or commentary seeks to remain as close as possible to the letter of the text at hand.[1] Uber den Begriff der Geschichte (verbatim: On the Meaning of History) condenses a perception of history in the form of positions and aphorisms articulated during the first months of the Second World War and under extremely adverse conditions. The unassuming and elliptical character of the text are offset by the penetrating critical eye and the impressive range of subjects and theoretical approaches that it encompasses and succeeds in bringing together.

Since the combination of fragmentation and critical rigor which shape the stylistic character of the text, allow for diverse interpretations, we must, as an introduction, specify the axis along which we develop our own approach. What prompted us to undertake this reading of the “Theses” relates to the very frequent appearance, therein, of the figure of the “historical materialist” under two distinct guises: that of the student of history, in other words, the historian or historiographer, and that of the politically active revolutionary. Benjamin sketches the outline of these two figures implicitly, without clarifying the relationship between them. The work of clarifying that relationship yields an extraordinarily interesting reversal of the established perceptions of the relationship between history itself, scientifically-oriented historiography and political practice.



In order to appreciate the “Copernican Revolution”[2] that Benjamin proposes, it is helpful to specify from the offset what we consider the “traditional” perception of the relationship between history, historiography and political practice.

We understand that relation as follows: first of all, the subject of historiography is the past of societies, that is, their completed history. Its “material” is comprised of the events, facts, relationships, ideas, mentalities, mechanisms, norms of the past of a society. Its object is the knowledge of that past as it can be derived from these elements and their reconstruction.  Such a study is considered scientifically-oriented when it seeks and, at least seems partially to succeed, in distinguishing and restoring the individual elements exactly as they were.[3]  That is its constitutive objective. In order to reach it, such a study must, to the degree possible, rely on irrefutable evidence. It must examine the sources and monuments of the past without introducing elements of the present, protect itself from the threat of anachronisms, remain neutral in the face of ideological conflicts raging around it. Furthermore, it applies these methods because as the only means of achieving its objective: the revival of the past through language, exactly as it was or happened, free from contamination by the historiographer’s present.

Given the above, then, the relationship between historiography and political practice relates to limits and possibilities. The objective of political practice is to alter current circumstances or to prevent such change. Political practice addresses the present. And since the present results from the past, knowledge of the past, as it is restored by scientifically-oriented historiography, can disclose not only the spectrum of possibilities provided for political practice, but also the limits that curtail such possibilities. In other words, the knowledge of the past can reveal the range of what is feasible within which political practice can pursue its own objectives. It follows that the past places insurmountable barriers to political practice. In other words, political practice cannot exceed the opportunities provided by its particular moment in time as that moment has been shaped by the past. On the other hand, however, since knowledge of what is feasible at any given time, renders political practice more effective, there is great value to scientifically-oriented historiography. In short, the relation between historiography and political practice is perceived as monotropic (historiography defines political practice but not vice versa); the one is external to the other.



Benjamin considers this perception positivist or historicist and is violently opposed to it. And this on a number of grounds.

First of all, historical time is not a passive receptacle as historicism implies. It is not a shapeless vacuum that simply fills up with a causally linked “sequence of events like beads strung on a rosary” (Thesis 1). The relationships among events are far more complex, because the likelihood of an event emerging as an authentic, historical fact depends, in surprising ways, on the future and the material of subsequent history. In Benjamin’s terms, an event “becomes historical ‘after death’, due to events that may have occurred a thousand years apart” (Thesis 1). It is obvious, for instance, that what we take as the causes for the Russian Revolution and of the Revolution’s aftermath in the Soviet Union change radically after the collapse of the latter. In order to explain that major and totally unexpected event historically, we are obliged to move backwards in order to reveal the events, mechanisms, facts, ideas, mentalities pushed into historical obscurity after 1917 and until 1989. Thus, because the past may depend on future events, it has no stable features of its own. Moreover, we cannot ignore the likelihood that some past event, however limited in scale and reach, is completely lost to us.[4]

Secondly, historical time does not form the continuum evoked by the image of beads on a rosary. It is not homogeneous; it is not filled with the aggregate facts of historicism. It is shattered violently by ruptures caused by the uprising of the oppressed, by revolutions which momentarily immobilize it, while simultaneously instating their own regime of time, their own calendar (Thesis 15). What appears as historical continuum is the product of a systematic effort to obscure every such dis-continuity.[5]

Thirdly, the past can never be retrieved exactly as it was. Every effort at such retrieval is shaped by the point of view of the historiographer who attempts it and thus by his own present. Furthermore, retrieval depends on the constellation of relative interests, self-interests, ideas and ideologies. No evidence, no historical source, no event or fact can be chosen for study and examined neutrally and impartially. Moreover, since even the greatest monuments of the past do not “owe their existence solely to the toil of the geniuses who created them, but also to the toil of their anonymous contemporaries” (Thesis 7), their historical reading and their valuation cannot be unilateral, as is the practice of historicism. For historicism is, in substance, indifferent to the fact that there is no cultural monument, which “is not, at the same time, a monument to barbarism” (Thesis 7). It follows that neutrality and impartiality, the banners of every positivism, do not exist; historicism’s purported reliance on them amounts to hypocrisy.

Benjamin’s critique of positivism and historicism is not a simple methodological disagreement with the established view of historiography.  His critique aims at a total political and ideological reversal of historicism and positivism. To that end, it centers on the two philosophical principles upon which these rely. The first is the perception of historical time which provides the basis of the entire historicist approach. The second is neutrality, which both positivism and historicism claim as their foundational principle.



Against historicism and positivism, Benjamin adopts Marx’s approach to historiography, that is “historical materialism” –or “materialist historiography”, a term Benjamin uses to represent his own approach.  Of course, the adoption of Marx’s approach is, inevitably, informed by Benjamin’s own particular interpretation of it.[6] What are the elements of that interpretation?  What did historical materialism mean for Benjamin?

To begin with, Benjamin accepts, without reservations, Marx’s fundamental position that the history of societies is the history of class struggle – a struggle which permeates and colors everything, leaving nothing untouched. This position definitively refutes the hypocritical impartiality of positivism, since it excludes any possibility of a neutral position outside or above the struggling classes. If the class struggle permeates everything, then no such neutral point exists. On the contrary, following Marx, Benjamin explicitly expresses his own position on the side of the “struggling, oppressed class” (Thesis 12), thus admitting that his own partiality or bias.

With such a starting point and the same partiality, Benjamin takes a bold and path breaking step: the bearer of “historical knowledge” is not one or many individuals, but “the very battling and oppressed class” (Thesis 12, our italics).[7] Consequently, since he cannot produce knowledge per se, the role of the historiographer,  who integrates his work with the casuse, is demoted; its value becomes relative. His task is limited to simply highlighting and, perhaps even, systematizing, in a manner that is consonant with the philosophical lines of the direction he serves, the historical knowledge which, nevertheless, pre-exists his work. Admittedly, in the text we are examining here, Benjamin does not deal with such a historiographic task. This he reserves for other works, notably the Arcades Project and his studies on Baudelaire.  Here he is concerned with the interpretation and elaboration of the philosophical basis that can support the historical orientation of the oppressed class; the text consists of theses on philosophy, more precisely, on the philosophy of history.

Benjamin embarks onto such an undertaking not only because he considers the adversary philosophical position unsubstantiated and weak both in terms of knowledge and theoretical rigor, but also because he detects that the ideologies and perceptions of that adversary vision are gaining the upper hand, penetrating, at the time he is writing the “Theses”, even the innermost world of the “battling, oppressed class”. Those adversary ideologies blunt the struggle, because they distort and falsify its spirit. He, himself, identifies two such basic ideologies. Both refer to the perception of historical time. The first regards the idea of progress; the second the “path” followed by the oppressed class at a given time, which, since history is identified with the class struggle,  is the very path of history itself.



In the overall conceptualization of his Arcades Project, Benjamin had given special emphasis to the examination of the process through which the Enlightenment’s demand for progress, was transformed during the 19th century, into a certainty of its inevitability – in other words, into an unshakeable confidence in the ever-unfolding improvements in social conditions[8]— , with significant political implications. Thus, the uncritical acceptance of that ideology, which is put forth everywhere, not only simply as a “regulatory ideal” (Thesis11), but also as a permanent and unstoppable evolutionary process, has corrupted in depth “the German working class” (Thesis 11) – the “battling oppressed class” contemporary with Benjamin. That pernicious impact on the working class undermines its struggle and subjugates it to the illusion that technological progress will, by itself, lead to its imminent emancipation. At the same time, since technological progress is directly linked with labor’s increase in productivity, work is considered the only source of social wealth.

In the same Thesis 11, Benjamin expressly addresses the Marx’s important critique of the Gotha Program. There, Marx points out that similar perceptions “were displayed by the champions of the reigning social regime at all times”[9].  Moreover, against the Program’s claim that “work is the source of all wealth and all culture,” Marx argues that work conceals the necessary contribution of nature as a “source of use-value”, that is, raw materials and tools. In addition, the claim that work is the source of all wealth and all culture erases from view the property relations which are necessary to transform human labor into a source of use-value. In other words, productive forces are limited to human labor while relations of production are totally obscured.

Benjamin stresses that the above notion not only ignores nature and the destruction that an unchecked  development of technology could bring about (the latest developments, in this regard, fully confirm, as we know, this early “ecological” stand),  but also the fact that, as long as the working class does not have access to the products of its own labor, technological developments will increasingly and steadily alienate it from the wealth it produces and further enslave it to the master. For Benjamin, what we call progress does not lead to social emancipation. Rather, it creates ever greater social catastrophies. Humanity was geared to experience many of them: from the technological innovations of Auschwitz and the atomic bomb of Hiroshima to the genetically modified organisms and the widely spread hunger of the so-called Third World —  piling “ruins on top of ruins” (Thesis 9).[10]    With his eyes steadily fixed on the past, the “angel of history” stares with horror  at the ever growing heap of rubble while “he is propelled towards the future by the storm we call progress” (Thesis 9).



The idea of progress is relates to the notion that the “battling oppressed class” must leave the past behind and gaze towards the future with optimism. In other words, it must gaze towards that idyllic time when technological progress and labor productivity will have led to the emancipation, if not of its children, at least of its grandchildren. For Benjamin, however, “the angel of history”, he who heralds historical knowledge, is turned towards the past, and not only because that is, necessarily, the vantage point of every historiographer. Since the “depository of historical knowledge is the very battling oppressed class”, it is the very same class, which, while it  conducts its battle and in order to conduct it, turns towards the past. Either way, this is its only option, since the future is a shapeless vacuum, while the past is full of events. However, since the history of the past is the history of its own struggle, that past is its own wealth. It follows that only from the past can the struggling oppressed class draw its strength and its weapons. Those weapons are “belief, courage, humor, cunning and fortitude” (Thesis 4) – weapons which can be galvanized into a “hatred” of oppression and the “spirit of sacrifice” that distinguishes it (Thesis 12). These weapons, unfortunately rust, strength weakens and the struggle is enervated when this class resigns itself to “conformism” (Thesis 11), which simply looks forward to the future, because hatred and the spirit of sacrifice “are nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than the ideal of emancipated heirs” (Thesis 12).

In this context, since the “battling oppressed class” is turned towards the past and while the history of societies is the history of class struggle, not only historiography, but the very movement of history, is obliged to turn its back to the future.  This also explains what Lotze observed in his study of the human psyche: “the general lack of envy of every present in relation to the future” (Thesis 2). It follows that historical time does not lead unilaterally to the future, as the idea of progress suggests and historicism implies.



For Benjamin, historical time is not an empty and passive vessel which fills up with chains of events; nor does it constitute a continuum of a unilateral pull towards the future. On the contrary, it “is filled with the presence, the time of now [Jetztzeit]” (Thesis 14).

The “time of now”, that “now”, if it emerges from the tensions of the never ending class struggle, is “an immobilization of historical becoming” (Thesis 17), a moment when “time stands still and has come to a stop” (Thesis 16). This arrest or immobility when the struggle of the oppressed class blasts the historical continuum, at a moment when history itself might radically change its course. According to Benjamin’s theological terminology, the fulfillment of historical time by “the time of now” points to the uninterrupted presence of the messianic element in historical time itself (Thesis 17), that is, the dim but constant possibility of transition to messianic time or, equally, the historically continuous potential for revolution. This implies that revolution can break out at any moment, since every conjunction or circumstance, every present is “shot through with chips of Messianic time” (Thesis A), while the revolution itself can break out for any reason, since any event “can become the opening through which the Messiah might enter” (Thesis B).


It follows that the main preoccupation of any oppressor, at every moment, can be nothing but the avoidance of the possibility of revolution. This, in turn, implies that “the state of emergency”, which was prevailing at the time Benjamin was writing, “is not the exception, but the rule” (Thesis 8).[11] Consequently, the task of materialist historiography is to confront every conjuncture, every present, precisely as a “a state of emergency” where the revolution is at stake, but, even beyond that, to contribute to the creation of those conditions that can “bring about a real state of emergency” (Thesis 8). Every present does not, therefore, constitute the fleeting point of transition from the past to the future desired by historicism. Every present “filled with the time of now”, “shot through with chips of Messianic time” is pregnant with the “now” of the cessation of becoming, with the now of revolution. One spark can, at any moment, set fire to the whole valley.



Benjamin describes the revolution in messianic terms because, according to Jewish thought as he understands it, it is the Messiah who calls forth all generations on the Day of Judgment in order to redeem the suffering and sacrifices of those whose oppression dates to the beginning of human history. In other words, the revolution does not happen in order for the oppressed class to win its future, but to vindicate the suffering of fathers and grandmothers. Revolution redeems the past of the oppressed classes. It is precisely for this reason that the proletariat “appears to Marx as the final enslaved class, as the avenging class that completes the work of emancipation in the name of all defeated generations” (Thesis 12). If the proletariat is the last “enslaved class”, the revolution cannot come about except by means of its own struggle. And the completion of the work of emancipation: the classless society, is identified with the coming of the Messiah. Then and only then, after this coming, can “each of humanity’s lived moments” become “a citation a l’ordre du jour” (Thesis 3).

Given materialist historiography, as historiography, cannot but aspire at retrieving “each of humanity’s lived moments” and given, moreover, that “only for a redeemed humanity would the past, in each of its moments, be citable” (Thesis 3, my italics), materialist historiography must itself, of necessity, look to the coming of the Messiah. Because this coming alone completes it as historiography, i.e. as the total redemption of the whole of the past. In other words, it is only as part of the struggle of the oppressed class that that the concern for the past can acquire meaning and redeem itself. This struggle for the retrieval of the past is as urgent today as in the past because materialist historiography has also realized that “not even the dead will be safe from the enemy, if he wins” (Thesis 6).



According to Benjamin, the “materialist writing of history is based on a constructive principle” (Thesis 17). This means that the historiographer that joins in its prospect, the historical materialist, has a particular way of constructing the present’s relationship with the past. Specifically, his thought is always focused on a historical subject that is “wrought with tensions” (Thesis 17) which he confronts – he “violently shakes[sprengt]” in order to “crystallize it into a monad” (Thesis 17). The term “monad” here alludes to Leibnitz.[12] For him, “monads” are the ultimate compounds. While they have no structure of their own, or ability to reduce themselves to their constituent elements, they nevertheless contain and represent all possible other units within themselves. In this sense the “monad” constructed by the historical materialist by “violently shaking” his historical object carries all of human history within it.

The choice of historical object does not depend on the historical materialist’s preference, nor is it determined exclusively by the object itself. Having honed his instincts through the class struggle, the historical materialist turns spontaneously to a historical object, whose profound tensions could be linked to the present of his writing, constituting “a messianic zero-hour of becoming”, a revolutionary rupture “for the struggle of an oppressed past” (Thesis 17). Knowing that only such a relationship with the historical object can produce knowledge, the historical materialist does not hesitate to “blast a specific era out of the homogenous course of history—blasting a specific life out of the era or a specific work out of the lifework” (Thesis 17) and constituting it as a monad.[13] Whether “large” or “small”, the object as monad contains the whole of human history.

For the reasons mentioned above, the historical materialist knows that he cannot represent the past exactly as it was. He can tether himself to the historical object and conceive of its once living body, its flesh and nerves, its ideas, its passions and the emotions it contained only as a “fleeting image which, at the moment at which it is recognized, flies away never to return” (Thesis 5). He also knows that such an image appears only when it can be recognized,[14] appearing unexpectedly as though chosen by history “in a moment of danger” (Thesis 6), that is, when the possibility of revolution is at stake. In consequence, his work is to try to “capture the image of the past” (Thesis 6) as it reveals itself to him; he “recognizes himself as the object of that past” (Thesis 5). The relationship between the image from the past and its reception in the present constitutes precisely the monad of the historical materialist’s work.

The resulting connection between the past and the present is “a tiger’s leap into the past” (Thesis 14), a violent, confident leap. And it is a leap because this connection, as it is forced suddenly in the moment of danger, remains oblivious to everything that has happened in between; it obeys no principle of causal succession. Rather, with the intensity of an explosion, it breaks apart the continuity of history. Given “the consciousness of exploding the continuum of history is specific to the revolutionary classes at the moment of their action” (Thesis 15), said leap must be the authentic “dialectical leap”, as it is called “under the sky of history, that is, the ways in which Marx imagined revolution” (Thesis 14).

On the other hand, that same past is, in a sense, already ready to wrest that leap from the future. “Just as some flowers turn their heads towards the sun, so too does the past turn with a secret kind of heliotropism” (Thesis 4) towards the future that will redeem it. It follows that the present has inherited the past’s claim to redemption and has been endowed with a “weak messianic force” (Thesis 2). In other words, “past generations have already secretly determined their meeting with ours” (Thesis 2). There is already an affinity or association between the two that removes any suspicion of relativism or arbitrary authority from the historical materialist’s construction. His relationship to his object might be unequivocally biased, but that does not force the object in question to be bend to the historian’s subjectivity.



If the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle, then the knowledge of history cannot but be the knowledge of the struggle: the knowledge of oppression. It is clear that the oppressor cannot have profound access to this knowledge, but only the “struggling oppressed class itself”. It is precisely for this reason that the bearer or subject of historical knowledge is the oppressed class itself (Thesis 12). It follows that, as we have said, materialist historiography does nothing more than demonstrate and systematize in its own way this pre-existing knowledge; the historiographical approach is the only objective approach to that history, the only authentically scientific historiography. And this is so, not in spite of its bias, but precisely because of it. In other words, bias and scientific objectivity are not necessarily in contradiction.[15] It follows that the epistemological supremacy of historical materialism is such that, in its struggle against other theories of history and especially against historicism, the former “always wins,” provided he “employs the services of theology” (Thesis 1).



The role of theology in Benjamin’s thought[16] relates directly to the two philosophical foundations of materialist historiography I have identified. On the one hand, as we have seen, theology concerns the perception of historical time – that is, the relationship between present and past, the persistent potential for revolution, the identification between revolution and redemption. On the other hand, theology also concerns the inherent bias of this historiographical approach because historiography is motivated by theology. We have seen that materialist historiography is a weapon in the struggle for the redemption of the past – that is, of the revolution – and that it commits its entire work to the possibility of revolution that might arise at any moment, because every conjuncture, ever present, constitutes a situation of emergency. In other words, the motive of materialist historiography is primarily political and revolutionary; knowledge is secondary and that knowledge is not authoritative, even if it is the knowledge of the whole of history (Thesis 3), because it subordinates itself explicitly to the political goal. Benjamin’s messianic theology breathes life into historical materialism – which, without it, is simply a lifeless “dummy” or “automaton” (Thesis 1) – giving it its soul: historical materialism “conquers all” in the struggle for knowledge as long as it maintains its relation to revolution.



We see, then, Benjamin’s complete reversal of the established relationship between historiography and political practice. Not only is materialist historiography not a separate activity that simply serves political practice, quietly demonstrating its limits, but it actively identifies its own aspirations and demands with the aspirations and demands of a particular kind of political practice: a revolutionary political practice that aspires at the redemption of the past. In other words, while political practice always maintains priority,[17] historiography does not simply submit to it as though executing orders issued from an outside. Its philosophical bases, its origins and principles, its internal articulation and its methods, its very reason for existing, are fully synchronized with revolutionary political practice, are defined and rendered meaning exclusively by it and can be translated into its basic components.

The necessary interrelation of the two – given revolutionary political practice must demonstrate historical consistency, but also adjust its tactics on the basis of historical research – is not sufficient to prove historiography the regulator of their relation. However, the bias that accompanies this programmatic subordination (of historiography to political practice) does not yield its own scientific knowledge to its adversary. On the contrary, it is this subordination itself that constitutes materialist historiography as the only scientifically objective approach to history itself.

At the same time, materialist historiography discovers the political secrets of its adversaries: historicism and positivism. As we stated at the beginning, the established perception of the relationship between historiography and political practice sees the first as useful to the second because it reveals limits and possibilities, marking out the terrain of what is politically feasible. On the other hand, materialist historiography does not limit its vision to the feasible, but on the contrary, struggles to reveal the revolutionary potential of every and any present. Of course the distinction is a purely political distinction; its existence itself demonstrates that historicism and positivism are not themselves ideologically impartial or politically neutral approaches, as its exponents would like. In fact, their interest in limiting their relationship with political practice as much as possible inevitably betrays their own political motive which is, if not outright conservative, then incorrigibly reformist. If those supporters of historicism and positivism feel the ideological and political weight of this criticism and wish to respond by suggesting that materialist historiography has no real basis given the revolution it invokes has never happened, or if it did happen, it failed miserably, the historical materialist can respond to them with irony, from above, with Lenin’s aphorism “Pessimists are of course always right. Except for the final time”.



The above observations show that the historical materialist is both a historian and a revolutionary; the two cannot be disarticulated. The historical materialist writes “the history of the present” (Thesis 16) both in terms of revolutionary political practice and in terms of the study of the past. More precisely, he is a historian only insofar as he is already a revolutionary, given it is the demands of revolutionary political practice that determine the ways in which materialist historiography sees history itself, forcing the historiographer to confront the past in terms of political practice. For precisely this reason, the distinction between the historical materialist and the historicist is a violent one: “it leaves [the historicist] to rot in the brothel” of fairytales and historical narrative, in the world of “once upon a time” (Thesis 16) that makes no urgent demands, while the historical materialist remains “the master of his powers: man enough to explode the continuum of history”. The complete reversal of the established perception of the relationship between historiography and political practice is thus complete.



The text we have been commenting on is itself a monad. Its exceptional density, its complex and multi-faceted style, its historical allusion to all epochs, its clear or arcane references to elements of Benjamin’s entire oeuvre, the images that “fly and sparkle” unexpectedly, without respect for any rigid line of thought or causal relation, the allegories and metaphors Benjamin employs and which obey no linguistic “laws” weave together to make their own monad that seeks in its own way to encompass the entire history of the oppressed. In other words, Benjamin does not merely articulate the philosophical basis of revolutionary thought, as we have tried to show above. In the same move, he harnesses that thought, concentrates it, holds it in his grip. The reader either accepts to be joined with it as part of his body or struggles to resist it. That is the dilemma that confronts every reader of the “Theses on the Philosophy of History”.



[1] The above-mentioned reading was undertaken and developed into a seminar on the topic of Benjamin’s approach to historiography. Said undertaking was embarked upon by the authors of the present paper during the summer semester of the academic year 2003-2004 and in the framework of the Interdisciplinary Post-Graduate Program “History and Philosophy of Science and Technology” organized by the School of Methodology, History and Theory of  Science of Athens University in collaboration with the Department of Humanistic and Social Sciences and  Law of the Faculty of Applied Mathematics and Natural Sciences of the National Metsovio Polytechnic.

[2] Arcades Project in Walter Benjamin, Collected Writings, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt 1982, volume V, Entry K 1,2 (V, p. 490)

[3] Criticizing precisely this conception, Benjamin sums it up as follows: “The past [is the] steady point” and the established perception of historiography “attempts to lead the knowledge to that solid ground.”

[4] For a discussion between Benjamin and Horkheimer as to the unfinished or unaccomplished in history, see entry N 8,1, in Arcades Project pp.588-589

[5] The established view of history “attempts to cover up the revolutionary instances of historical succession. What it demands is mainly the creation of a continuum. It attributes meaning only to those elements of a work which have already contributed to the construction of that work. It overlooks those instances where tradition is ruptured, the craggy rocks and slopes that offer support to whoever wants to go further.” Arcades Project, entry N 9a,5, p. 592. Regarding the characteristics of historical time, see the present text B.1.

[6] Marxism was not present in Benjamin’s theoretical toolbox until the middle of the 1920s. Before studying Capital, “he was familiar with commodity fetishism only through Lukacs’ version of it; like many leftist intellectuals of his generation, Benjamin formed, to a great extent, his Marxist views from the chapter on reification in Lukacs’ History and Class Consciousness”. See Rolf Tiedemann, “Einleitung des Herausgebers”, in Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, …….. p.26. Tiedemann suggests that the convergence of theology and communism in Benjamin’s thought increased towards the end of that decade and through the prompting of Horkheimer and Adorno – during their meetings in the fall of 1929 – to take Marx’s analysis of capital into consideration in his own Arcades Project.. “It is very likely that Benjamin, who at that time had read almost nothing by Marx, was indeed influenced by such prompting”. (idem). After that point, Benjamin undertook a systematic and rigorous reformulation of his older ideas, mainly of a metaphysical origin, in order to render them compatible with a Marxist system. After a decade spent focusing on Marxism, Benjamin seems to settle, with the “Theses”, in 1940, on a unique fusion of historical materialism and Jewish Messianism.     

[7] That step is not arbitrary. It is founded in the epistemology of history Benjamin is working on. In the process of systematization, knowledge always emerges in the form of an image, while, simultaneously, “the true image of the past is fleeting. The past can be captured only as an image, which, at exactly the moment that it can be recognized, immediately disappears never to return” (Thesis 5). The mechanism of emergence of such images, which Benjamin calls “dialectical”, is not subjected to any control and obeys no intention. In his words, “the point where truth explodes. . . . is the death of intentio” Arcades Project ,No 3,1 (V. p. 578). However, “the image which is intelligible, that is the image in the Now of its recognizability, carries the imprint of the critical moment of danger, the moment when every reading is founded” (Idem). Consequently, it is “the battling oppressed class”, which constitutes the privileged “subject” that captures the dialectical images — the images which contain the authentic knowledge of the past. For, it is that battling oppressed class that becomes the “subject” par excellence that takes up the class struggle and, in so doing, constitutes at the end the “subject” of history. The term “subject” is here given in quotation marks, because the classes, in general, are not endowed with the qualities of the subject. Nevertheless, the “battling oppressed class” that is a class in movement comprised of “members” who are moved by the same ideas and follow the same will. In this context, it can be said that a class as a whole can constitute a subject.

[8] The section [Konvolut] of the Arcades Project, entitled “Epistemology, theory of progress”, contained the materials (notes, aphorisms, commentaries), which would provide the theoretical foundation for Benjamin’s historiographic approach to the 19th century, which also became the object of the Arcades Project. Many contents of the above-mentioned section found their final place in the “Theses” either unchanged or slightly paraphrased. The fact that the tracing of the evolution of the idea of progress is found in the same section of Arcades Project which provides Benjamin’s theoretical inquiries, demonstrate, in itself, the important that he attributes to this idea.

[9] Marx-Engels, Critique des programmes de Gotha et d’Erfurt, Editions Sociales, Paris 1966, pp. 24-25. The emblem of Auschwitz “Work will set you free” reveals the prophetic dimension of Marx’s wording.

[10] We should note here that technological developments do not only signify sources of suffering. In his 1936 essay on “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, Benjamin focuses his interest on the changes that such developments bring about in art and, more generally, in aesthetics. In this essay, it is clear that he does not attribute to the scientific and technological developments a totally positive or a totally negative significance; rather, he examines them under the prism of the social and political stakes at hand. Thus scientific and technological developments can acquire either an emancipatory or a myth-making content, depending on the way they link with social reality. Consequently, the phenomenon of alienation does not derive directly from technological developments as such. Rather, it derives from the divergent capacities such developments generate, on the one hand, and the  continuation of the unequal distribution of the means of production and related property relations on the other – a continuity to which  said scientific and technological developments themselves contribute as well.

[11] Although such an assertion can be justified by the conditions in Germany during the last years of the Weimar Republic, its literal inclusion in the philosophical foundation of historiography may lead to important theoretical misinterpretations and political variations. Richard Wolin writes: “If today ‘the state of emergency’ is understood literally and not metaphorically, we risk undervaluing the existing possibilities for political interference and criticism. The result can be – and often is —  the paralysis and marginalization of the practice of  leftist opposition. A position based in the fact that the capitalist regime is inherently fascist and totalitarian is condemned to yield no results. Additionally, it commits the error of  generalizing these concepts until it renders them trivial and meaningless.—a result which is the exact opposite of that which attempts to understand the forms of totalitarian politics”. Richard Wolin, An Aesthetic of Redemption, University of California Press, Berkley1994, p. xxiii.


We must add that when trying to place emphasis on his pronouncements in order to nudge his reader, Benjamin frequently uses hyperbole (for example in his suggestion to universalize the use of montage in Arcades Work). Resisting a facile interpretations of the phrase as a remnant of Benjamin’s premature pessimism, we should see it as the expression of his refusal to passively accept the stripping of  historical time of  its  messianic content – that is, of the uninterrupted possibility of revolution. The absence of an elaborated political theory leaves space for such misinterpretations.

[12] For a comprehensive analysis of the meaning of “monad” in context, see Dionysios A. Anapolitanos, Leibniz: Representation, Continuity and the Spatiotemporal, Kluwer, Dordrecht, 1999.

[13] Benjamin himself uses this method, responding to the obligations of his collaboration with the Institute for Social Research: First he announces his interest in reconstituted the history of the 19th century on historical materialist terms. Then he choses Paris (the “capital of the 19th century) as his site. Finally, he focuses on the work of Baudelaire. The book was intended to have three chapters. Benjamin only completed the middle (second) section of the middle (second) chapter, entitled “Some Motifs in Baudelaire”.

[14] “In the Now of Recognizability” («im Jetzt der Erkennbarkeit»), Arcades Project.

[15] If I may change our theoretical context for a moment: we argue that it is possible to demonstrate that a “paradigm” can objectively exceed its competitor even though the position that determines this superiority is already embodied in the superior paradigm and can therefore be considered biased. This is shown in the case of physics in Aristidis Baltas, “Rationalism, changing theories and ideology”, Theory and Soceity, 5, 1991, p. 193-217 [Αριστείδης Μπαλτάς, “Ορθολογικότητα, αλλαγή θεωριών και ιδεολογία, Θεωρία και Κοινωνία, 5, 1991, σ. 193-217] and in Aristides Baltas, «On the Grammatical Aspects of Radical Scientific Discovery», Philosophia Scientiae, 8, 1, 2004, σ. 169-202. The concept has not explicitly been applied to the “paradigm” of historical materialism in ters of its relation with opposing “paradigms”. However, I argue that it could be.

[16] i.e. in his rendition of Jewish Messianism, which was heavily influenced by the mystical current of Kabbalah.

[17] In Benjamin’s own words, “The Copernican revolution in historical thought is this: We used to think of the “past” as a fixed point to which the present struggled to guide its knowledge. Now the relationship must be reversed and the past must undergo a dialectical transformation – to become a flash [Einfall] of awakened consciousness. Politics takes the leading role in history. Arcades Project pp. 490-491.