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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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Benjamin’s texts contain many passages concerning politics and ethics, but one searches in vain for a completed elaborated political ethics. The rudiments of these passages could be summarized, but this would not thereby adequately elucidate this ethics. If the matter were to remain with the mere reproduction of these passages, one would inevitably stagnate the potential of Benjamin’s ethico-political thought. Any attempt to read Benjamin in such a way that the relevant passages open one’s understanding to an implicit political ethics must rely upon other approaches. For my own part, I choose to start with Max Horkheimer’s ethical notions and, at the same time, follow Manuel Reyes-Mate’s hermeneutical paths, even if I might finish elsewhere.

The starting point is Horkheimer’s materialistic ethics, which rests not on “an eternal principle,” or a “supernatural justification,”[1] but on the claim that “man’s striving for happiness is to be recognized as a natural fact requiring no justification.”[2]

In the same way, Benjamin also based the radical universality of human action on a verifiable fact. This factum is the experience of feelings such as rebelliousness, compassion or solidarity—the ethico-political dimension of experience. In Horkheimer’s words:

The life of most people is so wretched, the deprivations and humiliations are so many, and their efforts and success are for the most part so disproportionate, that we can easily understand the hope that the earthly order of things may not be the only real one.[3]


Benjamin understands the concept of experience as solidarity[4] as the attitude that looks toward the other not because the power he holds—that feature admirable and admired by bourgeoisie society—but for his potentiality to develop happiness—happiness as “the free development of [his] creative powers.”[5] Experience as solidarity is directed to the other’s neediness and powers. That is, the subject of experience sets his sights on the necessities and demands of the present whose overcoming opens the way to hope (redemption), which is directed to happiness—“our image of happiness is indissolubly bound up with the image of redemption.”[6] We cannot understand that experience without the orientation toward the realization of mankind; this orientation rises from the privation of the present, from the misery and suffering that predominates in history. The experience of suffering is translated into a gesture of solidarity to the other that is not resigned to his luck. This experience as solidarity is given as a vital necessity—no one questions its foundations or legitimacy: “All living beings have a claim to happiness for which it would not in the least ask any justification or grounds.”[7] Solidarity with the man forced to suffering and death is called compassion, a feeling that is congenital to man.

But experience as solidarity is rationally mediated; the other is worthy of compassion. We view the other not as a mere suffering object of a blind historical situation, but as a subject with his dignity hurt, offended and frustrated. That is, he is recognized as an end in itself and not as a mere means. That dignity through which the other reveals himself is the dignity that he justly demands. Therefore, compassion is the mediation between the particularity of that experience and the universality of human dignity.

Compassion is the “moral sentiment” of an inter-subjective relationship, not a symmetrical one, but is rather in accordance with a real asymmetry. If we view this relationship as ideally symmetrical, the question is just to determine the object of compassion, the recipient of our compassion. Here it is assumed that the ethical subject is already constituted. But the dignity that the other has, as the object of compassion, he really does not have. What he has is a demand, a necessity—a negation—as the subject of compassion. Here the emphasis is not put on the object, but on the subject. Thus the constitution of the ethical subject cannot be understood as a mere emanation of the self, but as an answer—an action—to the necessity of the other—a negation of the negation. The answer is directed toward the subject. In this manner, the action is not dissociated from the constitution (recognition) of the ethical subject. Therefore, any universality that deals with the other as if he had dignity would just leave the other plunged in his disgrace, and the self that gets acquainted with the other could only abandon itself to the solace of ethical possession.

In Benjamin, how is the ethical subject and his action constituted? According to Benjamin, the starting point of the constitution of man as an ethical subject is the needed man, one making his cause our own, as an ethical impulse; and the answer to the necessity of the other is a political action. The cry of the needed one—expression of suffering and injustice—is the universality of the answer to the actual misery. There is no ethical subject except as an impulse and answer to that demand. In the history of mankind, in which unhappiness constitutes a fundamental feature, a certain human reaction has become apparent: the experience of its negativity.

In other words, in Benjamin, ethics is politics. The ethical impulse is the content of the political ideals and values—freedom, equality and solidarity. Ideals and values are nothing but the necessary orientations, “the rational designs that take account of the happiness of individuals in equal measure,”[8] of a rational society. In other words, Benjamin’s concern is to bring compassion and politics into a dialectical relationship that manifests itself in transformations of one into the other and vice versa—a theological relationship in Benjamin’s language.

Benjamin’s political ethics starts not from a matter of reason but from the “history of suffering” and its negativity. That fact is that the man of flesh and blood suffers, is hungry, suffers from injustice; man is not seen as a subject deprived of his dignity, which belongs to him, but as an object of a blind historical situation. Because the other one does not yet have dignity, there can only be a relationship of solidarity, whose sense is not other but to actualize the demand of dignity. This sense of solidarity that necessarily goes with experience makes Benjamin’s philosophy an ethical politics. This experience as solidarity is not merely satisfied with the Kantian imperative—which says just not to obstruct the other as an end in itself—but rather constrains us to remove the obstacles that limit the other so as to recover his dignity. That active attitude is what Benjamin understands as political action, that is, historical praxis.

The experience as solidarity is an intersubjective relationship: a) the other is not seen as a mere object worthy of compassion, but as a subject deprived of a dignity which belongs to him; and b) the self that discovers itself deprived of dignity and dependent on the other, that is, the self seeks the recognition from the other.[9] Here appears the principle of recognition, a very important aspect of political ethics.

Here we clearly understand the recognition of the other by me, but what does it mean that the other recognizes me? Benjamin understands the relation between ethical subjects as an expression of a situation of injustice and misery that the other suffers, situation to which we are indissolubly bound up: “our coming was expected on earth.”[10] There is, then, an ethical relationship, where an ethical impulse occurs only when man professes his commitment to “feelings of indignation, compassion, love, [and] solidarity.”[11] This means that we belong to a tradition, and we burden the history that the present displays.


But somebody is “expecting us”[and] has been previous to us, but he not only stayed behind but has moved forwards. Who is that? The victims, the army of losers, all those that cannot have peaceful rest because they have been deprived of their dignity. If they wait for us is because they expect something in return, they have some pending rights that we must settle.[12]


In other words, Benjamin’s conception of experience as solidarity is what gives ethical substance to politics; it is a political temporalization of experience,[13] where the character of the present—its political “action-generating”—is determined by its relation to a specific past—its ethical impulse. Hence, a certain idea of the past is the cause of the experience as solidarity: A certain “view of the past [as] the concern of history.”[14] This is the trick that redefines political experience as solidarity, solidarity as politics. In sum, political praxis as ethical actualization, ethical actualization as praxis.

[1] Max Horkheimer, “Materialism and Metaphysics,” in Critical Theory, trans. Matthew J. O’Connell et al. (New York: Continuum,1992), 22. 

[2] Ibid., 44.

[3] Ibid., 23. 

[4] For Horkheimer, the “moral sentiment” is active today in a twofold manner: first, as compassion, which would correspond to Benjamin’s concept of experience as solidarity, and second, as politics. 

[5] Max Horkheimer, “Materialism and Morality,” in Between Philosophy and Social Science, trans. G: Frederick Hunter, Matthew S. Kramer, and John Torpey (Cambridge: MIT, 1995), 34. 

[6] Theses, thesis II, 254. 

[7] Horkheimer, “Materialism and Morality,” 34-35.

[8] Ibid., 29.

[9] See Reyes-Mate, La Razón de los Vencidos, 153. 

[10] Theses, thesis II, 254. 

[11] Horkheimer, “Materialism and Metaphysics,” 23. 

[12] Reyes-Mate, La Razón de los Vencidos, 154. (My translation.) 

[13] See Peter Osborne, “Small-scale Victories, Large-scale Defeats: Walter Benjamin’s Politics of Time,” in Walter Benjamin’s Philosophy: Destruction and Experience, ed. Andrew Benjamin and Peter Osborne (Manchester: Clinamen, 2000), 59. 

[14] Theses, thesis II, 254.

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