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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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Reflection on history seems a constant theme in Benjamin’s thought. From his early works to his last texts, this concern constitutes a continuous thread, which grants to his diverse work a secret unity. For Benjamin, the principal question seems to be how to interweave “the theory of historiography with the theory of the real course of history in the same way in which history itself is referred to its ‘making’—political praxis.”[1] In Benjamin’s terms, the question is how to “generate” an “interrelationship between historiography and politics.”[2] This question refers us not to the nature of the historical process but to the way we acquired historical knowledge, not to historiography but to philosophy of history. Here the implicit matter is the construction of a new concept of history.

Benjamin discovers the idea that in history the past is transformed according to the present of the subject of historical knowledge, to the time and space where his discourse is produced. He was more concerned with the interpretation (construction) of the past than the reconstruction of it; moreover, he always claimed that our representation of the past is only comprehensible through the narration we make starting from our present. Benjamin’s intention to have a certain conception of the present is to allow the subject of historical knowledge to develop the concept of an alternate political praxis and to improve his position in the political struggle.

When Benjamin stresses the role of the subject of knowledge in the constitution of history, and understands the latter not as a basic element, but as the product of a heuristic activity, that is, as a function of the “the present instant,” he is moved to posit the question of the categories of historical knowledge. This question is not in the methodological point of view, but in the metaphysical sense. Benjamin draws, through the evolution of his thought, three differentiated answers: On a first phase, the two texts, On Language as Such and on the Language of Man (1916) and The Task of the Translator (1923), propound a ethico-theological paradigm of history. Later, in The Origin of German Tragic Drama (1928), he develops, concerning history, an aesthetics paradigm. And finally, starting from 1925-1926, Benjamin steadily develops a political paradigm of history.[3]

Nevertheless, we cannot understand these three phases as radically separated one from the other. For Benjamin, the formulation of another paradigm does not mean to reject the fundamental categories of the last paradigm but to maintain them in a subordinate role with regards to the new categories. If we want to measure the importance of these three paradigms in Benjamin’s thought, we could say that the ethico-theological paradigm is the most stable since it is present—explicit or implicitly—in the three phases. However, the political paradigm is the most complex in the sense that it provides the synthesis of his conception of history.

Benjamin’s conception of history, focusing on the articulation of the ethico-theological and political paradigms, is clearly illustrated in two dialectical images: the automaton that plays chess and the Angelus Novus. For Benjamin, these are the thesis and antithesis—the clash of two conceptions of history—, which provide a synthesis—a new concept of history. These dialectical images represent Benjamin’s intention to radicalize dialectic,[4] in such a way that it would sharpen his concept of history toward the linkage between philosophy and theology, and to express his political views. The general aspects of these two elements—philosophy and theology—can be qualified. Benjamin’s theological assumptions have to be referred to his Jewish background. For philosophy, Benjamin is referring to historical materialism, especially in its Marxist view version, free of any imposition or dogmatism.

Benjamin, in thesis XVII of the Theses, distinguishes between a philosophy of history, which in “its method is additive; it musters a mass of data to fill the homogeneous, empty time,” and another by virtue of which “thinking suddenly stops in a configuration pregnant with tensions, it gives that configuration a shock, by which it crystallizes into a monad.”[5]

In thesis I, Benjamin illustrates the relation between these two models of philosophy of history with a chess game between an automaton perfectly programmed to win (progress) and a Turkish puppet moved by a little hunchback, cleverly camouflaged, which is an expert chess player (ethos-theologia).[6] The puppet can win the chess game provided that it can make use of something underestimated by enlightened reason, that is, an ethical and theological reason. That is why Benjamin represents this image by a little hidden hunchback clown hidden so as to avoid hurting the sensitivity of his contemporary fellowmen. Here is Benjamin’s account of the two models of philosophy of history: on the one hand, there is a philosophy of history that refers to historicism (the Enlightenment’s idea of progress), and on the other hand, there is an “irruptive” philosophy of history (messianic or apocalyptic).

According to Benjamin, the notion of the past turns into the keystone of all conception of history. We could think that the future might dissolve the priority of the present.[7] But the future is really a new radical possibility, when it becomes something else than just the continuity of the present. The future then assumes the breakdown of the present, but the breakdown of the present is only a matter between the present and the past. “In order for […] the past to be touched by the present […] there must be no continuity between them.”[8] Here Benjamin’s concern is to dissipate the illusion of continuity in history, and that it is possible only if the past and the present are polarized, or in other words, if the past puts in critical condition the present. This is Benjamin’s view of history as interruption. He breaks, then, with the classical model of the philosophy of history, with its central issue, the theory of progress. Philosophy of history’s idea of progress is a unilinear, continuous process capable of self-fulfillment. The telos of history is precisely this self-fulfillment. This immanent progress might be called by Kant, mankind, by Hegel, absolute spirit, by Marx, classless society. But all these abstractions reveal that what really counts for all modern philosophies of history is not the details of everyday life, but the history of events, not the individual destiny, but mankind.[9] In other words, what constitutes the heart of these philosophies is not the historical subject, but the subject of history—the ultima ratio of history. Everyday life and the transient, the grief and the misery, are just temporary elements—all this material has no historical interest.

Consequently, Benjamin does not stop with an ideal model of progress that would identify the historical process with the endless process of history leading to self-realization. Moreover, Benjamin breaks from this kind of history.

Nothing has corrupted the German working class so much as the notion that it was moving with the current. It regarded technological developments as the fall of the stream with which it thought it was moving. From there it was but a step to the illusion that the factory work which was supposed to tend toward technological progress constituted…[an] achievement.[10]


           What Benjamin does not accept is the belief in progress, in a kind of indefinite self-realization that determines almost naturally the evolution of mankind. According to Benjamin, in light of the experience of the twentieth century, we have forgotten that progress in terms of proficiency and information does not necessarily mean progress for mankind itself, and that progress in the domination of nature corresponds to social regression.


The concept of the historical progress of mankind cannot be sundered from the concept of its progression through a homogeneous, empty time. A critique of the concept of such a progression must be the basis of any criticism of the concept of progress itself.[11]


Consequently, Benjamin demanded “a philosophy of history that at all points has overcome the ideology of progress.”[12]

[1] Tiedemann, “Historical Materialism or Political Messianism?,” 91. 

[2] Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften I, 1248, cited in Tiedemann.

[3] See Stéphane Mosès, El Ángel de la Historia, trans. Alicia Martorell (Madrid: Cátedra, 1997), 85-86.

[4] Adorno in a famous letter to Benjamin, August 2, 1935, asks him to “restore theology” and “radicalize dialectic,” in Theodor W. Adorno and Walter Benjamin, Correspondencia: 1928-1940, ed. Henri Lonitz, trans. Jacobo Muñoz Veiga and Vicente Gómez Ibáñez (Madrid: Trotta, 1998), 116. (My translation.) 

[5] Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History, in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Shoken, 1969), 262-263. 

[6] Maybe we can make another analogy between the automaton and the hunchback as the subject of history and the historical subject respectively.

[7] What we have here in mind is Enlightenment’s “ontologization” of the present. 

[8] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 470 [N7,7].

[9] Here the question is if it is legitimate—ontologically and epistemologically—to reduce the history of men to a history of the species. I think that this is one of Benjamin’s main concerns. 

[10] Theses, thesis XI, 258. 

[11] Ibid., thesis XIII, 261. 

[12] The Arcades Project, 857 [O°,5].

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