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Alfredo Lucero-Montaño

Walter Benjamin's Political Philosophy of History

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We have hitherto analyzed some aspects of Benjamin’s political philosophy of history, but now we will try to show its political reception. This we cannot do in an analytical sense, but we can, rather, do this by means of analogy. Could Benjamin’s political thought be adopted or adapted by current liberation movements? We can document a unique convergence between Benjamin’s political philosophy and a sui generis Mexican liberation movement, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN by its initials in Spanish). Even though it is almost impossible to prove any direct influence, there are certain issues in the EZLN’s political discourse that show a striking resemblance to Benjamin’s thought. I will attempt to show the affinities concerning historical consciousness-raising and politics between Benjamin and the EZLN.

When all Mexico awoke, on New Year’s Day of 1994, it discovered a ragged congregation of peasants calling themselves the Zapatista National Liberation Army marching through the streets of San Cristóbal de Las Casas in the state of Chiapas and declaring war on the corrupt and slothful government. They claimed respect and dignity for the indigenous people of Mexico, democracy, liberty and justice for all Mexicans, political conditions for the transition of democracy in Mexico, and a free and democratic space of political struggle. This ragtag army of Indian peasants was led by the incognito Subcomandante Marcos, the dashing leader of the revolt, who would become the hero of a thousand fervent letters addressed to the Mexican nation; he would become the postmodern revolutionary who would contribute mightily to what, in Mexicos’s turbulent year, with its collapsing economy and political murder scandals, looked like the steady crumbling of the old regime. The military offensive of the Zapatistas ended barely twelve days after the New Year’s rebellion, but the so-called “semantic phase”[1] of the war had yet to be started. Here our concern is to show the remarkable parallel between the “semantic phase” of the Indian rebellion and Benjamin’s political semantics of history.

The arrival at an alternative political praxis is Benjamin’s latent intention for a new concept of history. He is concerned for the developing of an interrelationship between history itself and politics. Benjamin conceives, thereby, another kind of history as interruption by virtue of which historical thinking suddenly irrupts in a configuration pregnant with tensions, past and present, and it gives that configuration a shock, which transforms it into a dialectical image, with the power of political “awakening.” It is the momentum where the past and the present are related, in tension, in order to deliver the great energies that history contains. This idea has an extraordinary parallel with an allegorical image of the EZLN:[2]


Everyone is dreaming in this country. Now it is time to wake up…


The storm is here. From the clash of these two winds the storm will be born, its time has arrived. Now the wind from the above [the present] rules, but the wind from the below [the past] is coming.


The prophecy is here. When the storm calms, when rain and fire again leave the country in peace, the world will no longer be the world but something better.[3]


From this sudden clash between the past and the present appears a new meaning of history, where the present enriches the past and awakes the reified meaning within it, as past recovers, in the very core of the present, a new possibility. But the historical articulation of these two moments takes place at a moment of danger. This danger, writes Benjamin, affects the tradition of the oppressed, those who suddenly acquired a historical consciousness of their own tradition, namely, the meaning of their hope, which is in danger of being forgotten. Thus we find the same idea in the EZLN:


Our word, our song and our cry, is so that the most dead will no longer die. So that we may live fighting, we may live singing.


Long live the word. Long live Enough is Enough! [The word] which becomes a soldier in order not to die in oblivion. […] Only those who give up their history are consigned to oblivion.[4]


This consciousness-raising of the Zapatistas is linked to action, and it drives to blast open the continuum of history at the moment of their action.


It has arrived the waited time, the hour has arrived of breaking the silence, of breaking the walls and the chains of injustice.[5]


By virtue of the “shock,” the historical subject recognizes the sign of “a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past.”[6] This idea deals with the “chance” to transform the present. In the same way, the indigenous Zapatistas claim:

We are the roots of the Nation […] its struggling present.

This is the hour of the struggle for the rights of the indigenous peoples as a step towards democracy, liberty and justice for all.[7]


Thereby, the recognition of the “danger” and its political “chance” is assumed for those who can still fan “the spark of hope”—“In our heart also lives hope.”[8] That idea is also assumed by the EZLN:


Our blood and our word have lit a small fire in the mountain […]. The powerful came to extinguish us with its violent wind, but our light grew in other lights. The rich dream still about extinguishing the first light. It is useless […]. The rebellion which now has a dark face and an indigenous language was not born today. It spoke before with other languages and in other lands. This rebellion against injustice spoke in many mountains and many histories.[9]


In this sense, the “spark of hope” is the possibility of a new beginning and the chance to do justice to the vanquished, both in the past and the present. In the same order of ideas, the Zapatistas proclaim:


[This struggle is for] freedom and justice for everyone, not for one or for a few ones, but for everyone, all the dead of before and tomorrow, the living ones of today and always.[10]


For Benjamin, history as politics seeks “to liberate the enormous energies of history that are bound up in [the continuum of history].”[11] Politics is the critical element of history with the power to explode its continuum. The past and the present are linked by political action; its overlapping is a political possibility. In short, the revolutionary change is historically achievable.

Benjamin breaks, then, with the philosophy of history’s idea of progress, progress understood as a unilinear, homogeneous, abstract time. In consonance, the indigenous notion of time is subjective and moves in circles or, rather, in spirals:


When your gaze can see your back. It is just that you walk in circles until you can turn around your step and that you catch up yourselves […] to walk in circles until you could see your back.[12]


Benjamin rejects then a profane temporality, which is experienced as a form without a content; every moment is as empty and meaningless as the previous or following one. Thus the Zapatistas continue their reflection:


The times repeated in themselves, without way out, without any doorway, without tomorrow.[13]


What Benjamin rejects is the logic of progress as an irresistible, automatic, continuous process capable of self-fulfillment, for this immanent progress is nothing more than a tedious repetition of constant sameness, which usurps and devours the concept of utopia by reducing it to a mere continuum in history. That is why the true revolution cannot be seen as the final moment in a constantly progressive evolution, but only as a sudden emergence of a higher and deeper form of life, which explodes the continuity of history and brings a radical upheaval of reality—“Chiapas blasted in our consciousness.”[14]

Benjamin has his gaze turned back toward the past. His gaze is shaken by what he sees: misery, suffering, and injustice. For Benjamin, the only meaningful past is the one that paradoxically is what is before us but is veiled by history. Thus, he wants to unveil history’s significance.

Benjamin, then, does not find any consolation in a conventional interpretation of history, because he understands that so many sacrifices—past and present—cannot be admitted as the price of the future. In the same sense, the Zapatistas do not want, in the future, to pay the bill that the history of the powerful so regularly charges:


We have walked hundreds of years asking and believing in promises that never have been kept […] they promise us that the future would be different. And we already saw that is not, everything is all the same or worse than our grandparents and parents lived it. Our people continue dying of hunger and curable diseases, plunged in ignorance, in illiteracy, without culture. And we have understood that if we do not struggle, our children will go through the same thing.[15]


Benjamin glimpses another future, namely, the one that fulfills the hopes brought and maintained by tradition. He seeks the future in the past, stressing the power of liberation of those men who can have reasons for hope. The reasons of the vanquished demanding for their rights not yet settled and claiming that the given—the present misery, suffering, and injustice—is not the last word. In the same frame of mind, the indigenous Zapatistas write:


We are a product of 500 years of struggle […]. But today, we say ENOUGH IS ENOUGH.[16]


Benjamin believes, like his angel “who preferred to free men by taking from them,”[17] that liberation lies in meeting those voices of the past who claim justice and in receiving from them a gift of hope. For Benjamin, hope does not arise from satisfied men but rather from needed men “because of the ones without hope we have received hope.”[18] Only if the present generation makes the hopes of the past generations its own hopes, it can break the continuum in history and make possible a new beginning, and it has the chance of doing justice to those who had been inflicted by injustice, both in the past and the present.


The most old of the old of our people spoke to us words that came from very far […]. And the truth walked in the words of the most old of the old of our people […]. But the truth that followed the words of the most old of the old of our people was not just grief and death. In their word of the most old of the old also came the hope for our history […]. And on it we saw the place where our steps must walk to be true, and to our blood came back our history of struggle, and our hands got full of the cries of our people, and to our mouths came again the dignity, and in our eyes we saw a new world.[19]


For Benjamin, the unfulfilled potential for happiness of our own recollected past—“happiness […] founded on the very despair and desolation which were ours”[20]—gives us insight into the possibility of the present. In the Zapatistas’ words:


In our voice will go the voice of the many, of those that do not have anything, of those damned to silence and ignorance, of those expelled from their land and history […] of all the good men and women that walk these worlds of grief and anger, of the children and the elderly dead of solitude and abandonment, of the women humiliated, of the small men. By our voice will speak the dead, our dead, so lonely and forgotten, so dead and, nevertheless, so alive in our voice and our steps.[21]


Remembrance and experience is the condition of our insight that our present time does not exhaust the potential of reality. For “nothing […] should be regarded as lost for history.”[22] The sole hope that remains for us today exists in the past. Liberation can come only when we dare suddenly to awaken the endlessly deep and rich experience of the past and experience it in the present as new. This interruption of the past in the course of the present dialectically charges the consciousness of the historical subject with political power to surmount “that-which-merely-is in the direction of what has never-yet-been.”[23]

Benjamin understands, then, history as a form of remembrance which can transform “the incomplete (happiness) into something complete, and the complete (suffering) into something incomplete.”[24] This tension incompleteness/completeness is the key is Benjamin’s political core, namely, the completion (transformation) of the present; if the past is the image of injustice and unhappiness, the present is the time of doing the past justice. And committed to this political task is the “struggling class.” The struggling class becomes itself a subject of history through a process nourished from remembrance and experience—“the image of enslaved ancestors”—from passing “through what has been.” The true way is to grasp the past that has not been fulfilled, in order to experience dialectically the present as necessity, a necessity to do justice to the victims of history, past and present. If there is any opportunity to fulfill that necessity of justice, it consists in the redemption of the past through the present—“a redeemed mankind receives the fullness of its past.”[25] But this present assumes a strange force, for it is endowed with the characteristic of fulfillment—the necessity of justice, dignity and freedom. And that fulfillment, in Benjamin’s thought, is represented by the idea of revolution. Thus, the present is the time for revolution, and hence, the time of revolutionary action. Benjamin says, “[P]erhaps revolutions are when the human

race riding in this train reaches for the emergency brake.”[26] But for the Zapatistas, this reaching-action means:


[It] will not be a […] one direction action. To wit, it will not be, in strict sense, an armed revolution or a peaceful revolution. It will fundamentally be a revolution as a result of the struggle on diverse social fronts, with many methods, under different social forms, with various grades of commitment and participation. And the outcome will be […] a sort of democratic settlement space of the confrontation between various political proposals. This democratic settlement space will fundamentally have three premises that are just historically inseparable: democracy […], freedom […] and justice.[27]


According to Benjamin, the historical subject capable to accomplish the revolutionary role is the one invested by a power that is received from the past—“the past carries with it a temporal index by which is referred to [liberation]”[28]—a power that enables it to carry the revolution. However, this political route is not given unwarranted, but it is led by the ethico-political impulse that seeks to restore what belongs to man—justice, dignity, freedom.

Thus the historical subject discovers himself as a needed man “through the awakening of […the] knowledge of the [past.]” And this critical moment drives the needed man to overcome the present negation of his identity and dignity, and also leads him to a material confrontation with the situation of injustice, oppression and suffering. Thus, the indigenous Zapatistas also claim:


The voice of those that do not have nothing and deserve everything had to follow the paths of their most small men, the most humiliated, the most persecuted, the most forgotten. In the voice of the true men spoke the voice of the […] dispossessed of their land, their dignity and their history.[29]


In this sense, the needed man assumes the universality of his human condition as he recognizes the other man in his own condition, that is, when he questions inequality, the “history of suffering.”

For Benjamin, the meaningful past is that relegated and unknown past whose precarious existence is enlightened by remembrance. Benjamin’s concern is to recover the potentiality of that past—“[the past] is to become […] the flash of awakened consciousness.”[30] But to maintain alive the unknown past, Benjamin stresses a new temporal relationship, it is not the present that determines the past, but the past that comes toward the present—“[to enlighten the] the past is the affair of memory.”[31]

Consequently, memory can understand a past event as a pending matter “to which the past has a claim.”[32] Only memory can recognize that there are pending rights and that those rights can and must be settled. Thus, Benjamin warns us about the solidarity between the past generations and the present one. In the same sense, the Zapatistas claim:


Facing the mountain we speak with our dead so that they will reveal to us in their word the path down which our veiled faces should turn. The drums rang out and in the voice of the earth our pain spoke and our history spoke.[33]


Only one who can understand “the spark of hope in the past,” which is capable of illuminating the whole history, understands “that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins.”[34] This is the Zapatistas’ view of the past:


We saw that our dead could no longer remain silent. From the dead spoke our dead, the dead accused, the dead cried, and in death they lived again. Our dead will die no more. These dead of ours, always ours, and of all those who struggle.[35]


If in the present time the unfulfilled rights of the victims of history are not demanded and settled, the enemy will win again; the dead would have given their life in vain. In consequence, the traces of the utopian potential of the past would irretrievably be forgotten.

Benjamin bases the radical universality of human action on feelings as rebelliousness, compassion or solidarity. He understands those feelings as the ethical dimension of experience. His concept of experience as solidarity might be defined as the attitude that looks toward the other because his potential to develop happiness, that is, the experience as solidarity is addressed to the other’s needs and powers. The subject of solidarity sets his sights on the necessities and demands of the present whose overcoming opens the way to liberation. We cannot understand that experience without the orientation toward the realization of mankind, an orientation that rises from the privation of the present, from the misery and suffering that predominates in history. That experience of suffering is translated into a gesture of solidarity; it is like a dialectical “leap in the open air of history.”[36] The structure of the subject of solidarity is filled with “the presence of the now,” namely, the experience-raising of the present as the time of restoring justice to the past.

The experience as solidarity is rationally mediated by the other who is not considered as a mere suffering object of a blind historical circumstance but as subject whose dignity has been negated. This is the dignity through which the needed man reveals himself and justly demands. Therefore, solidarity is the mediation between the particularity of the needed man and the universality of human dignity.

According to Benjamin, the starting point of politics is the needed man, the man of flesh and blood who suffers, is hungry, suffers from injustice, the one who is deprived of his dignity, who demands justice, dignity and freedom. In the same meaning, the indigenous Zapatistas maintain:


[In] our indigenous brothers […] that come from all the history of oppression, death and misery […] there was so much pain, […] so much death and grief […]. So big were the pain and the grief that they just did not fit in the hearts of a few, and they started overwhelming and other hearts started to fill with pain and grief […]. Then that pain, which united us, made us talk […]. We spoke to ourselves, looked inwards and looked to our history: We saw our great-grandparents suffer and struggle, we saw our grandparents struggle, we saw our parents with anger in their hands, we saw that not everything was taken from us, that we had the most worth […], and we saw […] that it was DIGNITY.


And then our heart was not just full of grief and pain, the courage arrived […]. Then our hands looked for freedom and justice, then our empty hands of hope were filled with fire to ask and to cry out our longings, our struggle […]. Nothing for ourselves, for everyone, everything.[37]


In this sense, the constitution of the political subject cannot be understood but as an answer (action) to the needs of the other. In other words, the assumption of these needs constitutes the ethical impulse of the political answer to the current injustice and suffering in history. In Benjamin, the ethical impulse is the content of the political action. Hence, ethics is not dissociated from politics; ethics is politics. Thus Benjamin’s concern is to bring ethics and politics into a dialectical relationship that manifests itself in the transformation of reality.

The concept of experience as solidarity seeks, then, the fulfillment of the demand of justice, dignity and freedom. In this sense, Benjamin understands solidarity as an active attitude, as a political action. But the key feature that mediates between the ethical impulse and the political action is the recognition of the asymmetrical relationships in history. These asymmetrical relationships must be surmounted thanks to a revolutionary political action.

Benjamin understands those relationships as the outcome of a situation of injustice and misery in history. This situation to which we are dialectically bound up in the sense that there is an ethico-political tradition to which we belong is referred to as liberation. Tradition becomes historical praxis. The Subcomandante Marcos writes concerning this final issue:


Up there on the sky, a star certainly fed up of being fixed to the black ceiling, managed to detached itself and, falling, sketched on the night slate a brief and fleeting stroke. “That is what we are—I said to myself—fallen stars that just scratch the sky of history like a scribble.”


Some scratched history and, knowing it, started to call many others so that, by means of big strokes, small strokes and strokes, the veil of history ended up breaking and the light could at last be seen, that is, and no other thing, our struggle. “To open a crack on history.”[38]


We might conclude that there is a great political affinity between Benjamin and the EZLN, and this lies in the awareness that liberation is a question of historical praxis or, to put it Benjamin’s terms, the key of this affinity lies in the meaning of the notion of remembrance, and its correlative notion of awakening, in relationship to past and present historical suffering and injustice, and how this linkage reflects upon the consciousness and action of man.

[1] This fortunate term is on account of Jaime Avilés, a journalist of Mexico City’s newspaper La Jornada. 

[2] There is an analogy between EZLN’s allegorical discourse and Benjamin’s concept of allegory as a radically new antisystematic figure signifying the disruptive force of history. 

[3] “Chiapas: El Sureste en Dos Vientos, una Tormenta y una Profecía,” in EZLN: Documentos y Comunicados, 1 de enero/8 de agosto de 1994 (México: Era, 1994), 66. (My translation.) 

[4] EZLN: Fourth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, 7. Retrieved September 24, 2001 from the World Wide Web: 

[5] La Marcha del Color de la Tierra. Comunicados, cartas y mensajes del Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, 2 de diciembre del 2000/2 de abril del 2001 (México, Rizoma, 2001), 381. (My translation.) 

[6] Theses, thesis XVII, 263. 

[7] EZLN: Fifth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, 9 and 10. Retrieved September 24, 2001 from the World Wide Web: 

[8] EZLN: Documentos y Comunicados, 82. (My translation.) 

[9] EZLN: Fourth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, 2. 

[10] EZLN: Documentos y Comunicados, 192. (My translation.) 

[11] The Arcades Project, 463, [N3,4]. 

[12] Subcomandante Marcos, “La Historia del Principio y del Fin,” in Desde las Montañas del Sureste Mexicano (México: Plaza y Janés, 1999), 20. (My translation.) 

[13] EZLN: Documentos y Comunicados, 175. (My translation.) 

[14] “Chiapas: El Sureste en Dos Vientos, una Tormenta y una Profecía,” in EZLN: Documentos y Comunicados, 49. (My translation.) 

[15] Ibid., 36. (My translation.) 

[16] EZLN: First Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, 1. Retrieved September 24, 2001 from the World Wide Web: 

[17] “Karl Kraus,” 273.

[18] Benjamin, cited in Reyes-Mate, La razón de los vencidos, 207. (My translation.) 

[19] EZLN: Documentos y Comunicados, 146. (My translation.) 

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

[21] EZLN: Documentos y Comunicados, 156. (My translation.) 

[22] Theses, thesis III, 254. 

[23] Richard Wolin, “Experience and Materialism in Benjamin’s Passagenwerk,” in Benjamin: Philosophy, Aesthetics, History, ed. Gary Smith (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 225. 

[24] The Arcades Project, 471, [N8,1]. 

[25] Theses, thesis III, 254. 

[26] Benjamin, cited in Tiedemann, “Historical Materialism or Political Messianism?,” 95. 

[27] EZLN: Documentos y Comunicados, 97-98. (My translation.) 

[28] Theses, thesis II, 254. 

[29] EZLN: Documentos y Comunicados, 209. (My translation.) 

[30] The Arcades Project, 388 [K1,2]. 

[31] Ibid., 389 [K1,2]. 

[32] Theses, thesis II, 254. 

[33] EZLN: Second Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, 6. Retrieved September 24, 2001 from the World Wide Web: 

[34] Theses, thesis VI, 255. 

[35] EZLN: Fifth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, 3. 

[36] Theses, thesis XIV, 261. 

[37] EZLN: Documentos y Comunicados, 118-120. (My translation.)

[38] Subcomandante Marcos, letter to La Jornada (México) September 24, 1999, 6. (My translation.)

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