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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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What does Benjamin’s political philosophy of history involve? Benjamin’s game of hide-and-seek is well known in his philosophical texts. Yet we shall try to explain what is hidden behind the veil of Benjamin’s historico-philosophical language, that is, its political content. But the answer to the question might be two-fold: One side of the answer concerns an epistemological key, that the true knowledge of history becomes self-knowledge of the historical subject, and the other side, concerns an ethical key:

History is […] a form of remembrance (Eingedenken). What science has “determined,” remembrance can modify. Such mindfulness can make the incomplete (happiness) into something complete, and the complete (suffering) into something incomplete.[1]


First, the core of Benjamin’s political philosophy is the transformation of the present, and the end of it is the historical subject’s “awareness.” For Benjamin, unlike Marx’s subject of revolution, the subject of history is the “struggling class.” The oppressed class becomes itself a subject of history, not by taking up arms, but by putting the stress on historical knowledge and itself. The subject of history is not given; on the contrary, it has to constitute itself as “the depository of historical knowledge.” This process of constitution is nourished not from utopias—“the image of liberated grandchildren”—but from remembrances and experiences—“the image of enslaved ancestors.”[2]

The “struggling class” does not become a subject of history because of its place in the productive process, as Marx maintained, but rather passing “through what has been, in order to experience the present,”[3] to wit, through the actualization (remembering) of the past. It is a learning process where historical knowledge, as object, simultaneously produces a new knowledge of itself, as subject. Historical knowledge is a meeting between a subject that does not resign himself to the given as real—“timeless truth”—and the past as not “actual”—“a not-yet-conscious knowledge of what has been”[4]—a meeting between an unsatisfied subject and an unknown object. The concept of necessity refers to a dissociation between the subject and his circumstance. Well, then, the answer to that necessity is the actualization of the past that has not been realized. In other words, by the apprehension of that forgotten past, the subject grasps his historical consciousness, a new consciousness of himself, for till today the subject has experienced necessity as a mere privation, not as a necessity for “a revolutionary […] fight for the oppressed past.”[5] This is because historical “truth is not […] a merely contingent function of knowing, but is bound to a nucleus of time lying hidden within the knower and the known alike.”[6] But this is not any knower and known but an unsatisfied knower and an unknown known.

Once the “struggling class” has grasped this knowledge and recognizes the sign of “a revolutionary chance,” then it could change its present circumstance. However, its action would never be the same as Marx’s revolutionary class—the working class—which constitutes its real power from its position in the productive system, but it would be its weakness, that is, its necessity. This necessity is double: on the one hand, the necessity of happiness—“the image of redemption”—which it lacks, and on the other hand, the consciousness that the power to fulfill it comes from the past—“the past carries with it […] a weak Messianic power.”[7]

For Benjamin, there is only a subject of history if the candidate to accomplish the role is invested by a knowledge that is received from the past. This mediation of knowledge in the constitution of the subject of history seems to paralyze the subject’s action, but it does not because the motives for action—necessities and values—are never given before the constitution of the subject, who then—not before—assumes them for political action. In short, Benjamin conceives political action as “the adequate form of morally and philosophically decisive action.”[8]

Second, Benjamin’s political route seeks for something that is not given at the beginning of the process, but finds the impulse—“remembrance”—that leads to the end. Benjamin understands politics as the route from the beginning to the end thanks to ethics, that is, the impulse that drives the process. In sum, the task of politics is to take to its end, as much as possible, “what is good for men in general.”[9]

Can we talk of the universality of history without the past that is not present? Can we talk of the universality of the present without “the oppressed past,” without the past of the vanquished? With the notion of “remembrance” Benjamin reconciles ethics and politics in an original relationship: “remembrance […] can make the incomplete (happiness) into something complete, and the complete (suffering) into something incomplete.” According to Benjamin, ethics’ principle of universality is the un-subject that in the “awakening” discovers himself as a needed and unsatisfied man: “the moment of awakening would be […] the ‘now of recognizability,’ in which things put on their true […] face.”[10] This is the “impulse” that drives the un-subject to abandon (as negation) his inhumane condition. This impulse charges itself with reason (rationality) when it discovers the non-identity with the present, that is, the present privation of the subject’s dignity.

Benjamin’s ethics turns into politics beginning with the critical moment of the poor man, that is, when the un-subject is in tension to be a subject. This tension necessarily leads to a material confrontation with the situation of injustice, oppression and suffering. This un-subject is called by Benjamin the subject of history, but not in the same sense as Marx. In Marxism, the working class is the subject of history not because of its in-humanity, but for its power in the productive process; that is why it is called to dominate social relations. But in Benjamin the approach is different: The un-subject is the subject. Un-subjectivity is the notion that defines the human condition. And it is by assuming that condition that we obtain our human condition. But in Benjamin, how is that access to the subject’s condition produced? The answer is found starting from the recognition of the human condition, that is, in the recognition of the other as our own condition.

Since Benjamin claims the universality of the subject in its whole radicalness, it is possible to speak of political ethics. His approach takes account of the history of the vanquished and oppressed—“history of suffering”—and questions inequality. Only then ethics can be politics. Benjamin’s ethics questions real inequality. That is why it is politics. In other words, ethics as politics is not valued for its own cause, but only insofar as it is relevant for questioning inequality, past and present. Only if ethics is reflected upon the task of politics can mankind hope to settle up suffering, inequality and injustice.

[1] The Arcades Project, 471 [N8,1]. 

[2] Theses, thesis XII, 260. 

[3] The Arcades Project, 838, [F°,6]. 

[4] Ibid., 458, [N1,9]. 

[5] Theses, thesis XVII, 263. 

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

[7] Theses, thesis II, 254. 

[8] Sandor Radnoti, “Benjamin’s Politics,” cited in Richard Wolin, Walter Benjamin: An Aesthetic of Redemption (Berkeley: University of California, 1994), 115. 

[9] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, in The Complete Works of Aristotle, ed. Jonathan Barnes, vol. 2, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 1140b.

[10] The Arcades Project, 463-4 [N3a,3].

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