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Alfredo Lucero-Montaño

Walter Benjamin's Political Philosophy of History

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Walter Benjamin's Political Philosophy of History
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Many of the philosophical writings that belong to Benjamin’s so called Marxist period, that is, those following his turn to historical materialism, deserve to be reinterpreted in light of an aspect of his philosophy of history, namely, the ethico-political call for a new kind of history as interruption. To trace these paths in Benjamin’s thought, this work deals with his political paradigm of history whose most clear formulation is found in the Theses on the Philosophy of History and in The Arcades Project.

This study reconsiders Benjamin’s philosophy of history by pursuing the ethico-political dimension of his thought, which counts as a radically new antisystemic discourse signifying a disruptive philosophy of history. Benjamin’s theoretical concerns were often shaped by questions concerning ethics and politics; these questions also articulated a call for new forms of ethical responsibility and political action that need to be placed in the context of a distinct and original philosophical tradition. In charting this ethico-political pattern through Benjamin’s work, we have to start with the philosophical and epistemological questions regarding Benjamin’s attempt to rethink the status of history.

This study also attempts to read Benjamin against the grain. Here we have in mind a couple of the most politically engaging essays to have been dedicated to Benjamin, and these set the tone for a critical reception: Jürgen Habermas’s “Walter Benjamin: Consciousness-Raising or Rescuing Critique,” and Rolf Tiedemann’s “Historical Materialism or Political Messianism? An Interpretation of the Theses ‘On the Concept of History.’” On the one hand,

Habermas charges that Benjamin’s interpretation of the past in terms of Jetztzeit[1] favored a “conservative-revolutionary hermeneutics,” which had a “highly mediated position relative to political praxis.”[2] On the other hand, Tiedemann points out that Benjamin’s idea of political praxis “becomes a cloudy mixture of aspects of utopian socialism” and anarchism, “producing a political Messianism which can neither take Messianism really seriously nor be seriously transposed into politics.”[3] The present study nevertheless attempts to recover the revolutionary ethico-political potential of Benjamin’s concept of history and to decipher the radical significance of some of his ideas.

Benjamin’s political philosophy of history is a two-fold issue: on the one hand, it deals with the question how history is referred to politics, and on the other hand, how ethics is related with politics. Although these questions are closely entangled, we must distinguish them. Thus, the purpose of this study is, first, to show how Benjamin’s concept of history as interruption is addressed to politics, and second, how politics is constituted by ethics. Due Benjamin’s figurative language, he did not explicitly explain how history and politics, nor how ethics and politics, were to be negotiated; nevertheless we hope to shed light on the political-disruptive and ethical-raising dimensions of Benjamin’s concept of history. Finally, his touchstone notion of remembrance—and its correlative notion of awakening—becomes the conducting thread of our study and the relevant medium to succeed in showing the features of Benjamin’s thought.

[1] Jetztzeit literally means “now-time,” but when Benjamin says Jetztzeit he is thinking of the mystical nunc stans, to wit, “the now-being of the present time.”


[2] Jürgen Habermas, “Walter Benjamin: Consciousness-Raising or Rescuing Critique,” in On Walter Benjamin: Critical Essays and Recollections, Gary Smith, ed., (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991), 124 and 118.


[3] Rolf Tiedemann, “Historical Materialism or Political Messianism? An Interpretation of the Theses ‘On the Concept of History,’” The Philosophical Forum (1983-1984) 15, 1-2: 95.

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