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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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In contrast to those philosophies of history that usurp and devour the concept of utopia by reducing it to a mere continuity of the present, Benjamin suggests the image of his Angel of History “who preferred to free men by taking from them, rather than make them happy by giving to them.”[1] The nature of these theses on history forces us to assess all the details, for all of them are loaded with meaning. The story goes like this:


A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.[2]


Two details call our attention: the eyes and the wings.

The angel has his gaze turned back, toward the past. It is a gaze of horror, shaken, frightened by what it sees. What does he see? It is pertinent to stress that the angel does not see in history what we see. While he sees the catastrophe, a pile of debris that grows incessantly, what we see is a chain of events, with its logic and its explanation. The angel is set to fly for he has his wings opened. But here it is the significant, that he would like to stop but can’t. In front of such misery, he would like to help; moreover, he would like to resuscitate the dead and to rebuild the many ruins. But he can’t. The power of a stormy wind, which comes from Paradise, does not let him close his wings but propels him forward, toward the future, a future that the angel turns his back on. Well, then, “this storm is what we call progress.”

If we go from the description to the interpretation, we have, in first place, a double vision of history, the angel’s and ours: What seems for us to be the logic of events is for the angel pure catastrophe. Benjamin wants to establish the existence of two conflicting philosophies of history: the one, symbolized by the angel, and the other, symbolized by the storm.

The storm, which is wind and spirit, refers to a conception of history as a dynamics of power and dominion. Thus enlightened man—the one fallen and expelled from Paradise—has hoped to gain with his own forces the happiness that he had once in Paradise—by means of progress.

The angel of history, as the good angel that he is, refers us to the Bible to unveil his significance. But in the Bible we do not find a concept of modern progress. According to the Bible, there is only the past that paradoxically is also what is before me (the present), and the future as what we are turned away from, what is hidden behind our back. Nevertheless, Benjamin does not want to take comfort from this theological interpretation of history; and that is why his angel cannot find consolation by raising men from dead or repairing the existent ruins. He also does not find consolation in the philosophy of history we view, because he understands that so many sacrifices, past and present, cannot be understood as the price of the future. For the angel of history, the future is other, namely, the hopes brought from Paradise and maintained by tradition. But Benjamin does not think that an apparent tradition, which establishes continuity (historicism), can fulfill those unsatisfied hopes.


It may be that the continuity of tradition is mere semblance. But then precisely the persistence of this semblance provides it with continuity.[3]


          Benjamin claims for an authentic tradition, for he believes that all those hopes of happiness must pass on to philosophy—an irruptive philosophy. In this respect he writes: “It is the inherent tendency of dialectical experience to dissipate the semblance of eternal sameness, and even of repetition in history.”[4] If philosophy takes charge, it is not to mechanically reproduce the same old answers, but to actualize and illuminate new questions.

Benjamin’s specific point of view is to seek the future in the past. But, what is meant when he puts the hope in the past? Maybe the key is in Benjamin’s claim about the angel of history “who preferred to free men by taking from them.”[5] Opposite to the philosophies of history whose abstract issues promise the happiness of men, Benjamin stresses the power of liberation of those who can have reasons for hope. The reasons of the vanquished who claimed their rights not settled and those who have received the hope that the given—the present suffering—is not the last word. In this Benjaminan circle, the possibility of history is at stake.

Opposite to the Kantian picture of a political-prophet that rationally determines the course of history is that other picture of man that relates liberation to meet to those voices of the past who claim justice. For Benjamin, liberation lies in receiving a gift—anamnesis—from those of the past to the ones of the present that have nothing.

However, if happiness is the liberation of chains, can we be happy remembering the chains of our ancestors? Can we be happy remembering the frustrated hopes of our ancestors? Is not this a condemnation to unhappiness? No. Hope does not arise from satisfied men but from unsatisfied ones. Here Benjamin’s belief is that “only because of the ones without hope we have received hope.”[6] In other words, “There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present. Our coming was expected on earth.”[7] Only if the present generation makes the hopes of the past generations its own hopes, can it break—interrupt—the present and hope something different from what it already is. In Tiedemann’s explanation: “Succeeding generations cannot simply ratify the fact that […] the loser’s own praxis has been lost for all time, and that the dead have no more access to any praxis, for another praxis is within reach,”[8] that is, our own praxis “to which the past has a claim.”[9]

Benjamin, like his Angelus Novus, does not forget the face of the past. It is true that the angel’s face seems terrified by what he sees, but at the same time he is trying to say that today those who lightheartedly speak of happiness do so because they do not dare to see the past. The modern victors see the past with horror and flee from it; the angel of history sees with horror the cost of history, but wants to take charge of it. That is the difference.

In a reflection of history it is inevitable to pose the question of the notion of “time,” for it is the mirror of history and culture. Benjamin has an original treatment of time, and he explains it as a Copernican turn.


Formerly it was thought that a fixed point had been found in “what has been,” and one saw the present engaged in tentatively concentrating the forces of knowledge on this ground. Now this relation is to be overturned, and what has been is to acquire its dialectical fixation through the synthesis which awakening achieves with the opposing dream images. Politics attains primacy over history. Indeed, historical “facts” become something that just now happened to us, just now struck us: to establish them is the affair of memory. And awakening is the great exemplar of memory—that occasion on which we succeed in remembering what is nearest, most obvious (in the “I”). What Proust intends with the experimental rearrangement of furniture, what Bloch recognizes as the darkness of the lived moment, is nothing other than what here is secured on the level of the historical, and collectively. There is a not-yet-conscious knowledge of what has been: its advancement has the structure of awakening.[10]


Here Benjamin points out three characteristic features of his concept of history: a) The autonomy of the past. The past is not a fixed point at the disposal of rigorous historical knowledge that wants to analyze ‘what has been,’ but on the contrary the past has its own life and could awaken present consciousness—seizing it. b) Memory—and not science—grasps that past. There is a science capable of reconstructing a whole civilization from the ruins of the past, but there is also a past of which we cannot find any material trace, and only through ‘remembering’ could it be present. c) The primacy of politics over mere historical interpretation. The past, the historical, is not interesting as reconstruction, but as construction, that is, according to the transformation of the present—that is why it is political.[11]

For Benjamin, the past that really matters—the interesting past—is the one that is not present. For the theories of progress, the past assumes the cost of the future; for historicism, the past is the substance of ideology that legitimates the present and facilitates the reproduction of the past—that is, the relations of domination and power. But Benjamin grants the past a new meaning. He seeks for that past capable of shaking the actual structures, capable of stopping the trade of present happiness for past suffering, capable of stopping the reproduction of past misery. It is a special past, which must reveal a new dimension of history. He describes the nature of this past as follows:


The past has left images of itself in literary texts, images comparable to those which are imprinted by light on a photosensitive plate. The future alone possesses developers active enough to scan such surfaces perfectly. Many pages in Marivaux or Rousseau contain a mysterious meaning which the first readers of these texts could not fully have deciphered.[12]


The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again. […] For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably.[13]


The past that Benjamin is interested in is that hitherto unknown side of reality that could arise in the light of the present. We can discover this hidden past in the debris of history. Benjamin is not searching for what is most valuable: his gaze is settled on the debris, on the unimportant. The pay off is an unknown light to discover the present. Here we must assume a secret link between the historical subject—who seeks to know the past—and the object of his attention—which tries to make itself present: “knowledge comes only in lightning flashes.”[14] There is a coincidence—“lightning flashes”— between the moment of the knowledge of the past and the moment of self-knowledge of the subject. In order to avoid mere tautology—mere reconstruction—and to have the possibility to reach the unknown, the subject must be an unsatisfied man needing knowledge, a subject unsatisfied with what he knows of the present, because it throws him into a loss of subjectivity.

The relation established between the past—the object of knowledge—and the present—the subject of knowledge—is really original. For instance, if historicism goes from the present to the past, Benjamin comes to the present from the past. The change of direction is dialectical.


For while the relation of the present to the past is a purely temporal, continuous one, the relation of what-has-been to the now is dialectical: is not progression but image, suddenly emergent. —Only dialectical images are genuine images.[15]


The dialectical image is an image that emerges suddenly, in a flash. What has been is to be held fast—as an image flashing up in the now of its recognizability.[16]


The past makes its present appearance as an assault, interrupting the present days. Time is stopped, as the French revolutionaries wanted to stop it on the first day of the Revolution by shooting the clock towers which strike the time that was not their time. The revolution occurred in the relationship in which subject and object, present and past, meet in historical perception:


Formerly it was thought that a fixed point had been found in ‘what has been,’ and one saw the present engaged in tentatively concentrating the forces of knowledge on this ground. Now this relation is to be overturned, and what has been is to become the dialectical reversal—the flash of awakened consciousness.[17]


For Benjamin, the historical consciousness must start with an awakening. This image of awakening is an inversion.


The new, dialectical method of doing history presents itself as the art of experiencing the present as waking world, a world to which that dream we name the past refers in truth […]. Awakening is namely the dialectical, Copernican turn of remembrance.[18]


The image of awakening, then, refers to a dialectical inversion, a qualitative metamorphosis of consciousness: in the extreme limits of sleep, what seemed to belong to the realm of dreams is transformed into the real, while what we have taken as reality retrospectively turns out to be merely dream-like imagery. This is an essential moment of consciousness: What has been lived as reality loses its veil and reveals itself as an illusion—awakening is a metaphor for demystification. For Benjamin, the consciousness knowledge of what-has-been “has the structure of awakening.”[19]

These metaphors, these “dialectical images” are the elements of the writing of history. The object of history is not a given object, but a construction of historical discourse. And these “dialectical images” are precisely the features of which “primal history” is made.

In Benjamin’s thought, the conception of the “dialectical image” is overdetermined, and it has a rich logic in philosophical implications as the Hegelian dialectic. What is the logic of the “dialectical image” in Benjamin’s political paradigm of history? This logic does not form a discursive system, but an instantaneous flash where the past is illuminated precisely at the moment of its disappearance into the present.

Every present day is determined by the images that are synchronic with it: each “now” is the now of a particular recognizability. In it, truth is charged to the bursting point with time. (This point of explosion, and nothing else, is the death of the intentio, which thus coincides with the birth of authentic historical time, the time of truth.) It is not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation.[20]


This fleeting image “is not a process of exposure which destroys the secret, but a revelation which does justice to it.”[21] The dialectical image illuminates truth as historically fleeting. Benjamin here rejects the concept of “timeless truth.” “Truth […] is bound to a nucleus of time lying hidden within the knower and the known alike.”[22] In a tension-filled constellation with the present, this “nucleus of time” becomes politically charged, polarized dialectically as a force field.


Every dialectically presented historical circumstance polarizes itself and becomes a force field in which the confrontation between its fore-history and after-history is played out.[23]


Thus, “the dialectical image is an image that emerges suddenly, in a flash. What has been is to be held fast.”[24] The presentation of the dialectical image within a charged force field of past and present, which produces political electricity in  “lightning flashes” of truth, is the “dialectical image.” Unlike Hegel’s logic, it is “dialectics at a standstill.”[25]

Hence, truth is not a philosophical construction but an immediate apprehension of the dialectical image. The cognitive experience provided by it is a simple and pure intuition. Here, what appears to be a paradox in Benjamin’s thought is the source of a dilemma in interpretation. How are we to understand the “dialectical image” as a form of philosophical representation? Is not the “dialectical image” too subjective in its formulation?

Benjamin understands historical intelligibility not as the establishment of a causal connection between two events, but as the clash of a moment of the past and a moment of the present, where precisely the subject of knowledge stands still. From this sudden clash arises a new kind of historical intelligibility, not based on a new scientific paradigm of knowledge committed to discover the laws of history but one based on a hermeneutic model which offers an interpretation of events, that is, enlightens its meaning. From the clash between these events—not in a continuous sequence—arises a new figure of thought, where the present enriches past and awakes the forgotten or repressed meaning within it, as past recovers, in the very core of the present, a new actuality (Aktualität). This clash of present and past functions according to the metaphor model, where the coincidence of two signifiers belonging to different semantic frameworks arouses an absolutely new third signifier. Here present and past are not absorbed in a common concept; on the contrary, from their conjunction arises a new reality. This new reality takes the form—or we might say the metaphor—of a “dialectical image.” The articulation of these two moments is clearly stated in thesis VI:


To articulate the past historically […] means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.[26]


This danger, writes Benjamin, “affects both the content of the tradition and its receivers. The same threat hangs over both: that of becoming a tool of the ruling classes. In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.”[27] Benjamin understands by “receivers” the oppressed of history, those that are suddenly aware—through historical consciousness-raising—of their “tradition,” the meaning of their hope, which is in danger of being forgotten. Nevertheless, here the awareness of danger has an ambiguous meaning: either to extinguish “the spark of hope” or “to make the continuum of history explode […] at the moment of their action.”[28]

For Benjamin, a dialectical image is an expression of historical truth—it has an objective meaning. From this point on, “historical objects” are constructed in a politically explosive “constellation of past and present” as a “lightning flash” of truth. Hope is now historically “actual” in the sense that it is realizable—“time filled by the presence of the now (Jetztzeit).”[29] Past and present do not follow one another sequentially; they overlap in a political possibility. They remain disconnected until political action explodes the continuum of history and blasts humanity out of it in a “leap in the open air of history […] which is how Marx understood the revolution.”[30] Political action is the link between the past and the present. This link is possible because the history of the individual recapitulates that of mankind, as “the present, which, as a model of Messianic time, comprises the entire history of mankind in an enormous abridgment.”[31] The truth of history is verified by the historical subject’s experience. It is the unfulfilled potential for happiness of our own recollected past that give us insight into the possibility of the present. In other words, our experience of the past is the condition of our insight into the present historical time as one that does not exhaust the potential of reality.


Happiness for us is thinkable only in the air that we have breathed, among the people who have lived with us. In other words, there vibrates in the idea of happiness […] the idea of salvation. This happiness is founded on the very despair and desolation, which were ours. Our life […] is a muscle strong enough to contract the whole of historical time. Or […] the genuine conception of historical time rests entirely upon the image of redemption.[32]


Our image of happiness is indissolubly bound up with the image of redemption. The same applies to our view of the past, which is the concern of history. The past carries with it a temporal index by which it is referred to redemption. There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim.[33]


The substance of the relation between past and present is established by the subject of knowledge “as the ‘time of the now’ which is shot through with chips of Messianic time […] through which the Messiah might enter.”[34] The irruption of the Messiah does not take place at the end of time but at the “time of the now,” disrupting time. The Messianic time must be understood as a break in the course of history and not its culmination, as a potential present that charges dialectical images in the consciousness of man with explosive power—in the political sense. At this point, Benjamin’s project coordinates both ethico-theological and political paradigms of history, and the outcome is his political philosophy of history.

[1] Walter Benjamin, “Karl Kraus,” in Reflections, ed. Peter Demetz, trans. Edmund Jephcott (New York: Schocken, 1986), 273. 

[2] Theses, thesis IX, 257-258.

[3] The Arcades Project, 486, [N19,1]. 

[4] Ibid., 473, [N9,5]. 

[5] “Karl Kraus,” 273.

[6] Benjamin, cited in Reyes-Mate, La razón de los vencidos (Barcelona: Anthropos, 1991), 207. (My translation.) 

[7] Theses, thesis II, 254. 

[8] Tiedemann, “Historical Materialism or Political Messianism?,” 79. 

[9] Theses, thesis II, 254. 

[10] The Arcades Project, 883 [hº,2]. 

[11] See Reyes Mate, “La Historia como Interrupción del Tiempo,” in Filosofía de la Historia, Reyes Mate, ed., (Madrid: Trotta, 1993), 271-272. 

[12] The Arcades Project, 482 [N15a,1]. 

[13] Theses, thesis V, 255. 

[14] The Arcades Project, 456 [N1,1]. 

[15] Ibid., 462 [N2a,3]. 

[16] Ibid., 473 [N9,7]. 

[17] Ibid., 388 [K1,2]. 

[18] Ibid., 389 [K1,3]. 

[19] Ibid., [K1,2].

[20] Ibid., 462-463 [N3,1]. 

[21] Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne (New York: Verso, 1998), 31. 

[22] The Arcades Project, 463 [N3,2]. 

[23] Ibid., 470 [N7a,1]. 

[24] Ibid., 473 [N9,7]. 

[25] Ibid., 463 [N3,1]. 

[26] Theses, thesis VI, 255.

[27] Ibid. 

[28] Ibid., thesis XV, 261. 

[29] Ibid., thesis XIV, 261. 

[30] Ibid. 

[31] Ibid., thesis XVIII, 263.

[32] The Arcades Project, 479 [N13a,1]. 

[33] Theses, thesis II, 254. 

[34] Ibid., thesis XVIII, 263.

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