The relationship between Benjamin and Brecht has often been assessed, including, most notoriously, the charge from both Adorno and Scholem that Brecht’s »exotic« influence was »disastrous« or »catastrophic« for Benjamin’s theorizing. Somewhat more rarely have Trotsky and Benjamin been brought together. Victor Serge in ‘Memoirs of a Revolutionary’, written in Mexico in 1942-1943, brings the two names into a constellation, suggesting the connection between Trotsky and Benjamin to be something more than coincidence, and rather more epochal: »… the poets Walter Hasenclever and Walter Benjamin commit suicide. Rudolf Hilferding and Breitscheid are carried off out of our midst and handed to the Nazis. … In the newspapers: suicide or murder of Krivitsky in Washington. Trotsky murdered in Mexico. Yes this is just the moment for the Old Man to die, the blackest hour for the working classes: just as their keenest hour saw his highest ascendency.« In a modern context, Terry Eagleton’s ‘Walter Benjamin or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism’ draws some analogies between the two men’s theoretical literary and historiographical method. Similarly Cliff Slaughter contends that of all the major writers on literature and art who have adhered to Marxism, only Walter Benjamin and Leon Trotsky have remained true to the fundamental legacy of Marx. Over the last decade European Trotskyists – Daniel Bensaïd, Enzo Traverso, Michael Löwy – have published work on Benjamin, excavating an alternative Marxist tradition that disentangles Marxism from the atrocities of Stalinism. Some of these political excavations of Benjamin’s ideas formed a response to developments in Benjamin-studies. In their bibliographic survey of Benjamin scholarship, Reinhard Markner and Thomas Weber argue that a »depoliticization« of Benjamin’s work took place in the 1980s. Depoliticization is a troublesome concept, but it is evident that there has been a powerful wave in Benjamin-studies that detracts from his interest in Marxism and radical politics – substituting instead a dalliance with Judaic motifs or a fusion of the very different projects of Heidegger and Benjamin. Such studies refuse to place Benjamin’s work historically, and filch motives from here, there and everywhere, in order to derive a philosophy, while sidestepping the task of situating Benjamin’s writing within the context of his dialogue with left politics. The large corpus of work written by post-structuralists treats the political as a black hole at the centre of Benjamin’s work, in which can be found only contending, conflicting and contradictory energies. In a backlash against these developments it is necessary to roll backwards in time, so as to witness affinities between Benjamin and Trotsky. That black-hole may be illuminated with the glare of political and historical light. Taking authority for its practice from the importance of the motif of constellation in Benjamin’s own theory, the following words consider some constellations of biography and thought between Benjamin and Trotsky. Brecht too is called upon. To rip things from thier resting place, bring them together, match this one up against that one, notes Benjamin, is the method of the allegorist. Out of this practice dialectical syntheses may be fashioned. What follows is an allegory of a dangerous political history of the first half of the twentieth century.
Origin of a German and Russian tragedy: to begin at the end -1940
It is certainly victims that move humanity forwards.
Within a month of each other two exiled Jewish revolutionaries meet their death in Spanish-speaking lands. On 21st August 1940, Leon Trotsky was murdered by Stalinist agents while halfway through the book ‘Hitler Speaks’. Benjamin died in the shadow of fascism, commiting suicide on the Franco-Spanish border on September 26th 1940. He was in the process of escaping from Vichy France and nazi-occupied France, through Spain, to America. He was refused right of passage and threatened with deliverance to the Gestapo. The Gestapo had his number, for his German nationality already revoked. It appears that suicide was preferable to certain murder by the enemy.
Contrary to an oft-voiced view that sees Benjamin as embracing death willingly, a tragic figure, an ill-fated man of letters, whose oeuvre’s very meaningfulness occurs only in the act of the author’s self-termination, Benjamin’s suicide has to be brought into constellation with the historical defeat of progressive revolutionary forces. His fate was not the unique destiny of an ill-fated saturnine incompetent. It was arguably the typical fate of certain groups of people at a definite period of history. Indeed, the factors mobilised in Benjamin’s death are not disconnected from factors that played a role in Trotsky’s death. The double death of Benjamin and Trotsky stands as a marker of the lethal complicity between their murderers. This complicity was the odd affinity of interests underwritten in the Ribbentrop-Molotov non-aggression pact of 1939 that bonded Germany and the Soviet Union.
Trotsky was a Marxist, a non-practising Jew, a brilliant writer, a perceptive critic of the two murderous ideologies of the twentieth century: Stalinism and fascism. He was a victim of Stalinism. Benjamin was a Marxist, a non-practising Jew, a brilliant writer, if at times somewhat gnomic, a perceptive critic of Stalinism and fascism, and a victim of fascism. Actual connections between the two men run, of course, down a one way street. I do not know whether Trotsky read Benjamin – he may have done, for Benjamin did publish articles in some communist journals. But certainly Benjamin read Trotsky. His bibliographies record several books by Trotsky. After his visit to Moscow in 1927, Benjamin wrote a series of literary-political articles on the situation in post-revolutionary Soviet Union. His essay, ‘New Poetry in Russia’, contains a concise depiction of Trotsky’s literary pronouncements. In 1933 Benjamin read ‘The Fourth International and the USSR’. He read Trotsky eagerly. He thought highly of ‘Where is Britain going’. He »breathlessly« devoured ‘My Life’ and ‘The History of the Russian Revolution’. Lukács, regarded by many as one of the greatest Marxist cultural critics, rarely, and only disfavourably, refers to Trotsky’s literary studies. Lukács’ preferred literary-critical mentors are Plekhanov and Mehring. Unlike Benjamin and Trotsky, he had no time whatsoever for avant-gardist experiments with art. Benjamin, however, was one of the few leftists who continues to reference Trotsky through the 1920s and 1930s, in both literary-critical contexts and in political discussions. Benjamin continues to make reference to Trotsky because his detachment from the Communist Party allows him to avoid the Diktat that stated that Trotsky was politically suspect, petty-bourgeois and faschoid.
There is a difficulty in comparing Benjamin, the cultural critic, with an engaged revolutionary. Though they shared the same historical space, Trotsky had been centrally active in a revolution and he lived in the shadow of that event, as it was slowly receding in time and as its gains were set in reverse by the Stalinist bureaucracy. By the time of Benjamin’s concrete political formation, the German workers’ movement had already suffered major defeats and nazism was increasingly crowding out the political centre-stage. Benjamin is, in some ways, the embodiment of »pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will« or, in his own words, an adherent of the concept of »organisation of pessimism«, in what Brecht calls »darkened times«. However, theoretical affinities are plenty, and to uncover them is to lay bare aspects of the politics and aesthetics of a »productivist« modernism.
Benjamin and Trotsky were both critically opposed to Reformism. Both suspected Stalinism. Both formulated versions of historical materialism that resisted seeing human activity as an inert reflection of the economy, or an embodiment of the will of the Party, or the inevitable and natural by-product of mechanistic developments. For both, historical development is not a one way street of progressive linear evolution but the succession of disparate epochs. In ‘The History of the Russian Revolution’, Trotsky’s account of this world-historical event placed massive emphasis on subjective as well as objective factors. Benjamin’s Korsch-influenced epistemology revolves around the composition of consciousness in capitalism. He focuses on moments of change and potential change in consciousness, through activity. A phrase from one of Benjamin’s final pieces of writing, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, with an emphasis on the self-activity of the proletariat, finds echo in Trotsky: »The subject of historical knowledge is the struggling, oppressed class itself.« Both Benjamin and Trotsky coincide, in many senses, in their critique of Popular Frontism, as well as in their cautioning analyses of Stalinism. Both men were interested in Freud. Both investigated the relationship of Marxism to psychoanalysis. And both had dealings with the Surrealists. Benjamin saw Surrealism as a practical critique of official Marxism and of »metaphysical materialism«, which, he argues, has consistently neglected the unconscious and libidinal side of human experience. Trotsky formed a literary alliance with the surrealists Breton and Rivera in 1938. The three collaborated in the autumn of 1938 on ‘Towards a Free Revolutionary Art’, a manifesto that called on artists and writers to turn to »those who with unshaken fidelity bear witness to the revolution … [and] who, for this reason, are alone able to bring it to fruition, and along with it the ultimate free expression of all forms of human genius.« They insisted on one condition. There must be complete opposition to any restriction on artistic creation, let alone commands from above, whether from the Communist Party or from capital. In their discussions of art both Trotsky and Benjamin salvage elements of traditional inherited culture while remaining open to avant-garde movements. In the preface to ‘Literature and Revolution’ Trotsky evinces a sort of art-into-life stance, close to Benjamin’s productivism. Trotsky elides art and social life, evoking an activistic appropriation of culture – and calls for a self-conscious art that is »active, vitally collectivist, and filled with limitless creative faith in the Future.« Culture forms an essential part of political debate for these men. Both scrutinized the connection betwen intellectual culture and the development of the productive forces. Both were interested in the affinities between art’s own laws of development and the incitements and demands of the class struggle.
The two men lived through turbulent times. Rapid industrialization in Germany, culminating in the imperialist First World War, shattered relations between capitalism, culture and morality. This splintering demanded analysis and reaction and it politicised a whole layer of German intellectuals. The October Revolution gave further cause to question these relationships, both for intellectuals and activists within the Soviet Union and outside of it. And the attempted and yet failed German Revolution had an impact on questions of culture and on intellectual formations in the Weimar Republic, having created an immensely politicized situation in which revolutionary and reformist politicians battled seriously against each other – and the right – for hegemony. Benjamin followed events in the Soviet Union closely. Trotsky was no less alert to German developments.
In order to view these matters in close-up, it is appropriate to review Benjamin’s journey to Moscow in December 1926. Trotsky is still there, but clinging on by the skin of his teeth.
1926-1927: left wing melancholy; the new angel in the land of the bolsheviks
In 1926 Trotsky and the Left Opposition were expelled from the Politburo. At the end of this year Benjamin travels to Moscow. It is the year following Stalin’s final consolidation of the doctrine of »Socialism in One Country«, first formulated in November 1924. The programme of »Socialism in One Country« announced nine months after Lenin’s death and four months after the appearance of ‘Literature and Revolution’, was a terse expression of the political outlook of the bureaucracy. Bolshevik revolutionaries had upheld the necessity of internationalism. A revolution, especially one which had broken out in an economically underdeveloped country, could be nothing more than a holding operation. Its success was tied up with the stimulation of revolutions in other countries. Lenin stated the case precisely in his »World Revolution or Perish« argument at the Third Congress of the Comintern in 1921. The programme of »Socialism in One Country« ignored Lenin’s argument and set about consolidating a political-national order. Arriving at the end of 1926, Benjamin stays in Moscow into February 1927. 1927 saw the beginning of the period of Thermidor, according to Trotsky’s analysis from the late 1920s. Trotsky defines Thermidor as the first stage of the counter-revolution. It represents bourgeois restoration, »the direct transfer of power from the hands of one class into the hands of another«. 1926 and 1927 were years in which Benjamin first began to seriously consider whether or not to join the Communist Party. The visit to Moscow was to be a testing out of the Party, and an experiment in life under the Party’s control. Benjamin’s toying with the idea of entering the Party was not entirely new. He had been considering it since the mid-1920s, when he read Lukács’ ‘History and Class Consciousness’. At the same time he had fallen in love with a Latvian Bolshevik called Asja Lacis. His love for Lacis, who was based in Moscow, was another reason for visiting the Soviet Union. In actual fact, his time there leads him to distance himself from the Communist Party. Benjamin had travelled to Moscow with an open-mind and yet he was already suspicious of the way things were developing. Throughout his visit he kept a diary, called ‘Moskauer Tagebuch’, recording conversations with intellectuals and meetings with the left literary oppositionists who still remained in Moscow. The diary also notes observations about life in the capital and was drawn on for the production of a city-portrait titled ‘Moskau’ . The sojourn in Moscow was to give Benjamin the opportunity to study the culture of the post-revolution. It was an interesting time, for as Benjamin notes in his diary, the Left Opposition was being fervently debated.
Developments in the Soviet Union, at the end of the 1920s, engendered ferocious struggles over official economic, social, political and cultural positions. At the time of Benjamin’s visit to Moscow, the opposition was experiencing its final but vigorous gasps. The united left opposition of 1926-1927 attempted to promote workers’ resistance to the political decline that was being suffered under the government’s »New Economic Policy«. Hopes were raised in some quarters for a change in party leadership at the 15th Party Congress in 1927. At the end of 1927, the Stalinists finally began to clamp down hard on the opposition. Thousands of industrial militants were imprisoned. Trotsky was arrested, charged with counter-revolutionary activity, and exiled to Alma Ata, near the Chinese frontier, on 17th January 1928.
Benjamin registers that events in the Soviet Union at the time of his visit are working to the detriment of the left and are impairing cultural politics, but he is also aware of a vibrancy still present in Soviet society. He writes,
Life here is so extraordinarily meaningful. The entire scheme of existence of the Western European intelligentsia is utterly impoverished in comparison to the countless constellations that offer themselves here to the individual in the space of a month.
He notices that everything is still in flux a decade after the revolution – from the determining of laws to regulations on the positioning of bus stops. On a cultural level, he argues that the proletariat has genuinely begun to take possession of bourgeois culture, a stage demanded by Trotsky, and he is struck by how confidently the proletariat move in Soviet museums and galleries. In Germany, he remarks, if the working classes happen to be in galleries, they look as if they have broken in, in order to steal something. One of the starkest impressions in Benjamin’s diary is the sense of a momentous mood in the Soviet Union. For example, early on in his visit, a man he meets reports to him that Trotsky was speaking before the Comintern in defence of Zinoviev, whom Stalin had defeated in 1925 and had removed from the presidency of the Comintern in October 1926. The man informs Benjamin that the Party is possibly set to make an about-turn. This refers perhaps to the renewed zest pervading the opposition at just the time that Benjamin was in Moscow. On the whole though, the frailty of the opposition in the face of Stalinism, is, however, is rather more apparent in the diary. Any renewed activity around the Left Opposition would seem to be the respite before death. One of the first things Benjamin registers on arrival is the pessimism of his friend Bernd Reich who is based there and gets by making a living as a writer, involved with the theatre. As soon as Benjamin arrives in Moscow, he discusses with Reich the issue of joining the Party. Reich’s main problem with the Party, given that he is a cultural producer, is its stance on cultural matters. Reich tells Benjamin of the Party’s reactionary turn. Reich, reports Benjamin, fears that the left movements in art that were state-approved, and employed at the time of War Communism, will be totally dropped. Proletarian writers, notes Benjamin, have become, against Trotsky’s wishes, state recognized, although they are given no actual state support. This new »proletarian culture« is component of a narrow pragmatic vision of a culture based on the foundations of the perceived characteristics of the working class and its revolution. It is not a utopian-idealist rejection of bourgeois culture, along the lines of proletkult, but rather a bureaucratic artistic policy that determines the value of culture according to the class origins of cultural producers. It was soon to become an instrument of policy for Stalin, from 1928 onwards, at around the same time as the first five-year plan. The promotion of »proletarian culture«, primarily through the organization called Association of Artists of the Revolution, was consistent with a nonchalance about the absence of the cultural and productive conditions of communism. Instead of a new culture emerging, the bureaucratic concept requires a culture called up by order of state in order to corroborate the lie that communism can be forced through from above. Through this »proletarian culture«, the state champions, in fact, the artistic production of reactionary peasant art, declares Benjamin.
Trotsky believed in giving complete freedom of form to those artists who are on the side of the revolution. This was a position he maintained from ‘Literature and Revolution’ to the Manifesto that he issued together with Breton and Rivera. The revolution in the Soviet Union was understood to be a transitional phase – hence the impossibility of »proletarian culture«. How could a class in dissolution be blessed with a culture all its own, asked Trotsky. From 1923 to 1926 Trotsky wrote a number of articles on art and literature. These articles form a component of a many-headed struggle against Stalinism and, as Trotsky termed it, its »theoretical corrosion« of the Bolshevik Party. In his most detailed study of culture and literature, ‘Literature and Revolution’, written contemporaneously with the first phase of the left opposition’s rise, he points out that the proletariat is not creating a culture that conforms to its needs as proletariat. The proletariat, in its revolutionary phase, is engaged in a struggle to abolish itself. On these grounds the idea of »proletarian culture« as promoted by the state is misguided. Art has its own laws, notes Trotsky. In ‘Literature and Revolution’ Trotsky binds culture to its material roots, adamant that while the »class criteria« are vital in art, art must be »judged according to its own laws«. Trotsky’s point found some sort of echo in Benjamin’s cultural analysis of artistic production on the part of a disaffected bourgeoisie. Benjamin insisted that the character of the artwork itself is of decisive importance and not just the birthrights of the author. Questions raised in ‘Literature and Revolution’ echo Benjamin’s concerns, particularly as surface in his critical reviews of the late 1920s: how does a social revolution affect literature? What types of literature and what type of writers express the revolutionary process? Should revolutionaries encourage particular artistic schools? What is the literature of the post-revolutionary future? For Trotsky, art is not a mirror that reflects society, nor a hammer that shapes society according to its own desires. The proletariat must take control of the old culture as well as forging the new. In doing this they will create new forms as well as enlivening old ones. In ‘Literature and Revolution’ he expresses an interest in the Futurist-LEF nexus, although he admits that his understanding of its tenets is not fully comprehensive. He writes: »Though remaining, in some respects, a Bohemian revolutionary offshoot of the old art, Futurism contributes to a greater degree and more directly and actively than all the other tendencies in forming the new art.« Trotsky’s conception fuses with left formalism’s sense of artistic experimentation as a prefigurative transformation of the real, or probationary transmutation of subjectivity in relation to the real. He insists that art is not an autonomous realm, but nor is it an unmediated expression of socio-political needs. Art is not propaganda. Speaking of the Party in a way that was indubitably to become wishful-thinking, Trotsky writes:
The Party understands the episodic character of the literary groups of a transition period and estimates them, not from the point of view of the class passports of the individual gentlemen literati, but from the point of view of the place these groups occupy and can occupy in preparing a socialist culture.
Similarly, in his contention, in ‘The Author as Producer’, that the artist is a producer but not a proletarian, Benjamin drafts the Marxist debate on art in terms of the category of agency, an active category, and not in terms of the passive sociologistic fact of class. Official communist art theory, he charges, cannot advance beyond a listless paradigm of reflection of class interests in artworks, asking only whether artworks are reactionary or revolutionary in their subject matter.
Benjamin had experienced first-hand the distortions of a literary analysis that bases itself solely, contrary to Trotsky’s advice, on the class origins of writers. While in Moscow, Benjamin is allowed to submit an entry on Goethe for the ‘Great Soviet Encyclopaedia’, but his submission is rejected. The authorities desired a sociological treatment of Goethe’s life, concentrating on his class origins. Benjamin wrote an analysis of the after-life of Goethe’s works. He was certain that it is only the history of a poet’s influence that can be frutifully analysed in materialist temrs, and not his or her life. Karl Radek rejected Benjamin’s article, citing as reason Benjamin’s overuse of the words »class struggle«. Benjamin complains to his friend Scholem that the abstract submitted turned out to be too radical for the authorities. His bid to submit a materialist analysis had fallen foul of the perplexing aims of the editorial board:
They are shaken by good old Aristotelian fear and pity when it comes to the European intelligentsia; they want a standard work of Marxist science, at the same time, however, they want to create something that will awaken vain admiration in Europe.
Insisting on the centrality of the class origins of cultural producers, the Soviet authorities inherit a bourgeois-derived obsession with personalities rather than a materialist interest in the work and its afterlife. At the same time, the desire to secure recognition for scholarship in Europe compels them to defuse the political resonances of the analyses that they put out. This conundrum is typical of the contradictions that strike Benjamin in Moscow. Benjamin’s diary records how confused political life was in the Soviet Union in this period. For example, he observes how:
Externally the government seeks peace in order to undertake trade agreements with imperialist states; but, above all, ‘internally’ it attempts to suspend militant communism. It strives to institute a harmony between classes, to depoliticise bourgeois life in as far as that is possible. On the other hand, in the pioneer groups, in Komsomol, youth are being educated as revolutionaries. That means that the idea of revolution comes to them not as an experience, but as a slogan. The attempt is made to disconnect the dynamic of revolutionary processes in state life – whether one likes it or not, the restoration has begun – but in spite of that, the attempt is made to store up revolutionary energy in youth like electric power in a battery. That just is not possible.
Benjamin continues on the theme of Soviet youth’s ignorance of bourgeois culture, a point made by Trotsky too. But he notes also that bourgeois values are being officially popularised by the Party.
The Party officially recommends; the popularisation of these values. Now it is possible to see in Soviet-Russia how these values are being popularised in just that distorted and desolate form, which owes its existence to Imperialism.
Benjamin catches all the shock-waves of an experiment in revolution in decline or, even, in reverse.
On his return from Moscow, Benjamin writes a piece about Moscow for a left-wing journal. He distils images and annotations from his Moscow diary and presents a picture of the city which fuses excitement and a caution about burgeoning forms of oppression and cult. He details specifically the Lenin Cult, noting how little babies are called October or Wolf from the moment they can point to Lenin’s picture. He reports how Lenin’s picture is sold on icon stalls, with pictures of saints flanking it like a police guard. He tells of how in the Red Army Club there is a map of Europe. Turn the handle and all the places where Lenin went in his life light up one after another. Other cities are not marked at all, as if they had no significance without the charmed presence of Lenin. With heavy traces of irony, Benjamin writes: »On it Lenin’s life appears like a colonialist conquering of Europe«. Benjamin also concentrates on how life has become increasingly collectivised. Any deviation from the bureaucratic norm slams up against an enormous apparatus and immeasurable costs. It is a country of twenty-four hour mobilisation, where specialists are fetishized. At the Red Military Academy there was an old general, Benjamin relates, who had been given a teaching post. He had been notorious in the civil war. Every Bolshevik imprisoned by him had been hung. Now he has a post. Benjamin sees that ideology is sacrificed in this case to objective skills. Intellectual specialists are also returning to posts that they sabotaged during the civil war. The opposition or an independent intelligentsia who oppose the Bolsheviks does not exist in any particularly meaningful sense any more. Either it has been destroyed or it has called a truce, writes Benjamin. A new bourgeoisie has emerged.
Trotsky’s Thermidor-analysis contended that the various forces – the New Economic Policy capitalists, sections of the party, and also the wealthy peasants – were interested in some sort of bourgeois restoration. This generated a number of confusions a decade after the revolution. The ebbing of the revolutionary wave in 1921 and the stabilization of the world capitalist system meant that, for the post-revolutionary society to sustain itself, it had to introduce temporary measures in the form of the »New Economic Policy«. The N.E.P. was supposed to be a temporary measure until capitalist crisis was reasserted and class struggle internationally was on the rise again. But the N.E.P. turned away from this perspective and, from the mid-1920s, began to reconsolidate the Soviet economy along capitalist lines. By the time of the onset of capitalist crisis in the late 1920s, the central plan of bolshevik policy was to build up an independent industrial state, initially within the scope of the mixed, unplanned economy of N.E.P., later within the rigidly planned economy of the »third period«. According to Benjamin, the contradictory nature of the situation in the Soviet Union is expressed precisely in the misalignment between money and power, two forces that are aligned in the West. In the Soviet Union social status is determined by the relationship between an individual and the Party. The Party or the bureaucracy retains the power and the N.E.P. men have the money. Benjamin comments:
If the European correlation of money and power were to emerge here, the country would not be lost, not even perhaps the Party, but communism in Russia would be.
Trotsky, of course, argued that the two forces, the new capitalists and sections of the party, as well as the wealthy peasants, were interested in some sort of bourgeois restoration. Economic realignments were the results of political struggle. They brought their own political and cultural concomitant. On a visit to the theatre in December 1926 Benjamin notes in his diary:
As soon as I entered the auditorium I was met by the smell of perfume. I could not see a single communist in a blue tunic, but there were a few types who would not have been out of place in any of George Grosz’s albums. The performance had absolutely the style of a completely dusty royal theatre.
The ideals of the revolutionary avant-garde were definitely on the retreat, and this went, to a certain extent, hand in hand with the forced retreat of the left opposition. The revolutionary avant-garde had been opposed to the social stratification that the N.E.P. brought in its wake and to the reactionary turn in cultural policy to which it also seemed to give succour. Dziga Vertov and Osip Brik, both, of course, it should not be forgotten, partisan on the side of the avant-garde and therefore not disinterested, noted that the proletariat had responded positively to new cultural techniques in art. They contended that it was the N.E.P. men who were antipathetic to experimentation, preferring conventional notions of art as a luxury good, emotive and separate from life. N.E.P. culture contravened thus the central core of the avant-garde project of production-art. It appeared undeniable that a new class with its cultural shibboleths was ascendant. This re-emergence of the bourgeoisie was further promoted by Stalinist entrenchment. There was little to choose between the aesthetic preferences of N.E.P. culture and Stalinist-approved »proletarian culture«. Both discouraged experimentation. The new ground-rules of Soviet art encouraged figurative easel-painting and monumental sculpture in order to depict a »heroic realism«. Trotsky had warned about the fetishism of the style of Great Realism in ‘Literature and Revolution’. Benjamin discloses the cultural perspectives of the bureaucracy.
Political affiliation and content are deemed most important. Formal controversies had played a not inconsiderable role right up until the civil war. Now they have been silenced. And today, the position is official. Content and not form is decisive for the revolutionary or counterrevolutionary attitude of a work. Today banal clarity is demanded.
The sad consequences, for art and for artists, of this policy, and the fact of its successful enforcement can be assessed by its effect on the old revolutionary avant-garde. Trotsky, in an article on the suicide of the futurist-revolutionary poet Mayakovsky in 1930, makes a poignant point about the effects of bureaucratization on art. He writes of the arrival in Stalin’s Soviet Union of a system of bureaucratic command over art. Such bureaucratism leads to art’s impoverishment and its devastation.
In February 1929, in an essay on Surrealism, Benjamin brings together Trotsky’s analysis from ‘Literature and Revolution’ and his vision of the role of the revolutionary intelligentsia.
If it is the double task of the revolutionary intelligentsia to topple the intellectual predominance of the bourgeoisie and to gain contact with the proletarian masses, it has virtually failed in the second half of this task, because the masses are no longer to be won over contemplatively. But that has not stopped them from acting as if they could be and calling for proletarian poets, thinkers and artists. Trotsky had taken up this idea in ‘Literature and Revolution’, pointing out that they would only emerge in a successful revolution. In reality, it has less to do with trying to turn an artist of bourgeois origin into a master of proletarian art, than placing him in a functional capacity, even if it is at the cost of his artistic effectivity, at important points of the image-space. Perhaps the interruption of his artistic career might be an essential part of this function.
Intellectuals can be deployed differently in the modern age, argues Benjamin, side-swiping at the old guardians of cultural heritage, as well as at the proletarian novel-writers. The pivotal task of the Marxist critic is to actively engage in directing the cultural emancipation of the masses – not by serving up proletarian-bred culture, but by interrogating forms. Revolutionary images propose a certain structure of appropriation which relates to questions of function, rather than ones of content. Benjamin’s essay on surrealism summons up a realm in which creative contact can be made with proletarian masses. A new collective body needs new image forms to represent its new reality to itself. This becomes a reality, for Benjamin, in the organizing of writers’ workshops and the presentation of popular theatre, as well as the active engagement of revolutionary intellectuals and worker-intellectuals in literacy programmes and journalism. Benjamin calls for the transformation – »Umfunktionieriung« – of the cultural and educational apparatus. He sees the artistic producer role transformed in Brecht’s artistic practice, as well as in the work of Sergei Tretyakov and the experimental wing of Soviet cinematographers.
1934: first call at Brecht’s
Benjamin’s experiences in exile – always framed by persisting social and financial insecurity – led him to seek relief at Brecht’s fugitive home in Scandinavia in 1934. Benjamin remarked of his relationship to Brecht that it was an »ever recurring constellation in his life«. The relationship between Benjamin and Brecht has often been viewed according to the prejudices of Benjamin’s friends, Adorno and Scholem, who remonstrated about Brecht’s crude and catastrophic influence and saw Benjamin as a hapless victim of the callous Brecht. A more sympathetic study might reveal the support provided was mutual: social exchange, literary and political discussion, attempts by Brecht to get Benjamin published in Moscow in the mid-1930s, and efforts by Benjamin to secure Brecht a good reputation in Paris. But most importantly, Brecht is instrumental in directing Benjamin to a closer engagement with the possibility of a revolutionary art practice, for he offers an operative model of this sort of practice. Benjamin finds this model to be contemporary and appropriate for the needs of class struggle in culture in Germany. Brecht’s influence finds its most vivid expression in the two essays ‘The Author as Producer’  and ‘The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility’ [1935-1939].
‘The Author as Producer’ was written in the Spring of 1934. It was designed as a lecture to be delivered to the Paris based Institute for the Study of fascism, a Communist Party operation. Benjamin’s lecture stresses the necessity for theorizing relations of production in art, in order to suggest ways to bring them into line with forces of production. In ‘The Author as Producer’, Benjamin aims to concretize a set of prefigurative recommendations for artistic practice in non-revolutionary Europe, through a seemingly empirical study of events in the Soviet Union. Initially the paper included a quotation from Trotsky. This was dropped. Benjamin checked himself, bowed to pressure and subjected himself to self-censorship: the order of the day. The quotation from Trotsky had been included to attack the intellectuals who claimed to be above the messiness of material political struggle, but who thought they could somehow challenge fascism with the power of rational thought. The doomed mock-internationalism of the League of Nations was promoted by just such a group of enlightenened pacifists who insisted on the ability of reason to counter the propulsion towards war, and were unable to recognize the futility of such appeals in the context of imperialist capitalism. Originally Benjamin had written:
Or to use Trotsky’s words: »When enlightened pacifists undertake to abolish war by means of rationalist arguments, they are simply ridiculous. When the armed masses start to take up the arguments of reason against war, however, this signifies the end of war«.
And, in a very real sense, war was not about to suddenly disappear because the intellectuals were pointing out its irrationality. Preparations for war were in high gear. Kurt Hiller’s activism, typified as an idealist conscience-communism for intellectuals, is refused by Benjamin because of its perceived antipathy towards the designing of cultural models that foreground authors as producers and producers as audiences. Conscience-communism relies on moral guidance of the polity by the intellectual elite. Benjamin’s argument in ‘The Author as Producer’ insists that political art is predominantly concerned with reception effects, generated by modes of production that provide conditions for consumers to become producers or authors of an artwork’s meaning. Artistic production must have the character of a model that introduces other producers to production, by placing an »improved apparatus« at the disposal of authors and audience, bringing audiences into contact with the production process, turning readers or spectators into collaborators. Intellectuals who claim to identify with the fostering of class struggle must be forced to consider their place as producers on the conflictive ground of forces and relations of production.
Benjamin’s recommended aesthetic in ‘Der Autor als Produzent’ is based on a Korschian epistemology of praxis. He is interested in the politics of any artistic representation of the “real”. Representation of the real in art should not rely for its progressiveness on a mirroring of surface appearances, be that the bald photographic realism of new objectivity, or the reflection theory aesthetic recommended by policy makers in the Communist Parties. Such reflectionism disempowers viewers, denying their intelligence and participation in making meaning. Reflection art seems to do all the work for the viewer, and does not foreground art as the place of a struggle over making meanings. It does not introduce modernist moments of self-reflexivity. Benjamin is opposed to any aesthetic theory founded on an ontological materialism, as in the Widerspiegelungsästhetik of socialist realism, an aesthetic standpoint state-sanctioned in 1934, and transmitted through the Comintern to the international sections. This aesthetic decrees that art relates in a simple reflection relationship to social reality. In promoting reflectionism, Benjamin perceives a restorative bias in the Kulturpolitik of the Stalinized Soviet Union. In one passage in ‘The Author as Producer’ Benjamin insinuates that it is indeed fascist aesthetic recommendations that most closely approximate Comintern directives to writers to imitate nineteenth century realists.
At the same time that Benjamin planned to offer his paper at the Institute for the Study of Fascism, street demonstrations broke out in Paris. Benjamin had been living here in exile for a year, since rapidly exiting from nazi Germany. The loudest protests on the streets emerged from the right. These street-commotions were responses to the intensification of world economic depression. Battles on the Place de la Concorde on 6th February 1934 left fifteen dead and well over a thousand wounded. The French parliament argued that a fascist putsch was looming. When not at Brecht’s Svendborg home, Benjamin watched the events from his hotel room on the Boulevard St. Germain, which lay in the thick of disturbances.
1935-1936: Benjamin, Trotsky and the unpopular front
The riotous events on the streets and the growing power of the right unified the left in France. The Communists and the Socialists came together in a Popular Front against fascism. Previously, the official Communist Party policy had been one adapted to the third period. The concept of the third period was the offshoot of an ultra-left lunacy. In the third period social democrats were dismissed as social fascists, representing the »moderate wing of fascism«. Social fascists, promoting the lie of reformism, were viewed as the main enemy, seeding illusions, blocking the revolutionary development of the proletariat. Communist Party doctrine had insisted that the third period registered the imminence of economic catastrophe, the precondition for revolution. The concepts of the third period and social fascism had been muted in 1924 at the 5th Conference of the Comintern. They became part of official doctrine from 1928, once Stalin was firmly in control of the Comintern. Trotsky was immensely critical of these divisive concepts. He insisted that such divisions acted to split the working-class movement. Party policy began to change during the frenzied early months of 1934. In France the call for a general strike in February brought the Communist Party-controlled trade union federation, the CGT-U, together with the main trade union federation, the CGT. The Socialist Party and the Communist Party joined forces on a huge demonstration. New alliances were forming in response to fascism’s European victories. Though few would admit it, Trotsky’s advice was, belatedly, taken.
In May 1934 Benjamin writes a difficult letter to his friend Scholem. Quite contemptuously, Scholem had challenged Benjamin’s commitment to the »credo« of communism. Benjamin felt compelled to defend his position by referring to his communist affiliation as deeply rooted in his historical experience. He adds that his communist sympathies are distant from orthodox conceptions. He describes communism as a »lesser evil«, in comparison to everything else that »surrounds« them, and it is to be supported in its »practical, fruitful form«, but not in its dogmatic »unpractical and sterile form«. Such a statement might suggest that Benjamin was impressed by the practical activity on the streets of Paris – the de facto alliance between socialist and communist trade unionists and militants, as yet unsanctioned by the dogma from Moscow.
In June 1934 there was a United Front agreement between Socialists and Communists in France. In October 1934 it was expanded to include radicals and in 1935 the policy was made official. According to Dimitrov and Togliatti’s definition, like a vanishing target, the conglomeration of capitalist interests that fascism was seen to represent, diminished. This enabled making a very broad coalition of anti-fascist elements. The Popular Front had an elastic concept of who allies might be, and an excessively concentrated idea of the enemy. Two hundred families of finance capitalists, it was argued, had enacted the nazi obscenity. The Popular Front’s programme combined worker’s demands with patriotic loyalty to the state. Class politics were out, national defence was in. In this analysis, as in its mirror-reflection, the ultra-leftist Third Period analysis, the specific conjunctures of class struggle and the nature of the mass labour movement were overlooked. Trotsky denounced the Popular Front in France, as a betrayal of the French working class to imperialism. Benjamin too saw various dangers in the left’s political response. The Popular Front slate won the elections in 1936. Shortly afterwards, strikes began in the city. Communist and Socialist trade union officials and the Party leadership refused to join the strikes and decided to make accords with frightened business leaders. By June, one and a half million workers were on strike. Trotsky stated that the French Revolution had begun. Blum’s government seized the Trotskyist newspaper that had carried Trotsky’s call for the establishment of revolutionary French soviets. The government put the gardes mobiles on red alert. Communist, socialist and radical leaders denounced the strikes and factory occupations as illegal actions. The wave of militancy gradually subsided, as employers plotted their own offensive, bolstered by the government’s initiatives against a combative working class.
Both Trotsky and Benjamin contested the ultra-left lunacy of the Third Period, when social democrats were dismissed as social fascists, the »moderate wing and cross class tool of fascism«. The adherents of the Third Period thesis proclaimed the proximity of economic catastrophe and, on the back of that, they insisted, would follow a revolutionary situation. Such catastrophe was assumed to benefit the organized proletariat. This thesis had been muted in 1924 at the 5th Conference of the Comintern, but had grown in influence later and was official doctrine from 1928. To criticize it was not necessarily to fall in line with the politics of broad alliance. Both Trotsky and Benjamin rebuffed the illusional promises of social democracy and the conjoining of the forces of communism and social democracy in an alliance with liberals which served only to double-cross supporters of both communism and social democracy. Trotsky’s polemics against the Popular Front conception of anti-fascist struggle are matched in Benjamin’s scorn for simple alliances with traditional culture and its representatives. In a letter to Alfred Cohn, written in July 1935, Benjamin alludes to the Congress for the Defence of Culture, the great Popular Front effort to bring together respectable, liberal bourgeois writers and Communist Party members. Depressingly, Benjamin considered his encounter with Brecht there the only good one at a conference that had been designed to bring together anti-fascist intellectuals. In a letter to Alfred Cohn at the close of June 1936, Benjamin described the opposition to his essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility’ expressed by emigré writers who were members of the Communist Party. Or rather he described their silence when he presented his paper to them, and to him that spoke volumes. The recent founding of the journal Das Wort in Moscow led to fears on Benjamin’s part that Communist Party literary policy had become the patronage of belles-lettres. In a keynote article, the German communist Johannes Becher introduced the phrase »the great turning point« to describe the new Party platform in cultural affairs – the policy of literary Popular Frontism. The turning point in question was the turn towards realism, also known in conjunction with that popular Stalinist adjective, great: »Great Realism«. Writers were to become in Stalin’s words »engineers of the soul«, a cadre in the service of the »people«. This appeal to Great Realism marked a return to the cultural heritage of the nineteenth century with its classical values of harmony and heroism. It was accompanied not just by the restoration of a bourgeois past, but also by the traditional division between author and public. Culture becomes a booty that the people expect the artists to save. Great Realism and great artists go hand in hand, writes the realist Romain Rolland. All of this countered Benjamin’s ideas of self-organization, of workers’ participation in art, of the reformulation of artistic practice.
Benjamin followed the political developments in France, and noted his observations in correspondence, often in letters sent to his christian communist friend Fritz Lieb. Benjamin was highly critical of developments. In a letter written in July 1937, he states:
They all cling solely to the fetish of the »left« majority, and they are not concerned that this majority executes a kind of politics which, if it was being done by the right, would lead to insurrection.
Further strikes in the following December, led by the fascist Doriot movement, were further evidence of all sorts of confusions in French class politics. Benjamin attributed the confusion to the activities of the leadership of the working-class movement who had devoted their energies to stifling all potential for escalation. A letter to Fritz Lieb, written in San Remo at the end of December 1937, concludes that, over the preceding two years, the leadership had succeeded in robbing the workers of their elementary sense of instinctive action. It had destroyed their infallible sense of when and under what conditions a legal action must give way to an illegal one, and when an illegal action must become violent.
In July 1936, a fortnight after the election of the Popular Front government in France, the Spanish Civil War began. By 2nd August Blum had spawned a plan for a non-intervention pact, despite the Spanish republican government’s urgent request for aeroplanes and warfare materials. In Spain the Popular Front policy translated into a subordination of the proletariat to the Spanish bourgeoisie. It eventually led to a liquidation of militants. The war finished with the final victory of Franco’s fascist troops in 1939. Victor Serge, in ‘Memoirs of a Revolutionary 1901-1941’, relates how the effect of the Spanish collapse was to provoke a catastrophic moral breakdown in France, as the state and its organs rejected and abused the dispossessed Spanish refugees and interned many in concentration camps, while the tattered, confused adherents of the left did little to help. On the other side of Europe the nazis were annexing Austria. Hitler triumphantly entered Vienna on 14th March. It was an invasion without resistance and was the first episode of Gleichschaltung. The subsequent plebiscite in Germany and Austria gave the nazis more than 99% of the vote. Foreign governments voiced little opposition. In a letter to Karl Thieme in March 1938, taking note of events in Austria and Spain, Benjamin alludes to his sense of despair. He writes:
As far as I am concerned, I can hardly conceive any longer of suffering or death still making sense. What seems terrible to me, in the case of both Austria and Spain, is that the martyrdom is endured not for the actual cause itself but rather for a compromise proposal, be it the compromise of Austria’s precious ethnic culture with a despicable economy and state, or that of revolutionary thought in Spain with the Machiavellianism of the Russian leadership and the mammonism of the local leadership.
Leadership in these dark European days is corrupt and compromising. It is as if Benjamin foresees the possibility of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact between the Soviet Union and nazi Germany, sealed in August 1939. There are no alliances that cannot be forged; except for the right ones.
1938: eavesdroppings from Brecht’s house
Benjamin’s conversations with Brecht record their shared interest in Trotsky and degeneration of the Soviet Workers’ state. Brecht, on one occasion, showed a poem to Benjamin: ‘The Peasant to his Ox’. The poem is a death ode to Stalin, but Stalin is not yet dead. Benjamin writes:
Brecht, by the way, is not prepared to offer a more enthusiastic form of honour; he is sitting in exile and waiting for the Red Army. He follows the Russian developments; and Trotsky’s writings as well. They prove that there is cause for suspicion; a justifiable suspicion, which demands a sceptical consideration of Russian affairs. Such a scepticism stands in the tradition of the classical writers. Should it be proven one day, one would have to fight the regime – publicly. But »unfortunately or thank god, as you will«, this suspicion is today not yet a certainty. To derive such a politics from this situation as the Trotskyists do is not founded. That, on the other hand, in Russia itself, certain criminal cliques are at work, is not to be doubted.
Suspicion is the watchword of this purge period. The cliques are forming, but what do they represent? Benjamin and Brecht are keen to monitor the Marxist cultural theory emerging from the Soviet Union and its sympathisers. But discussions of literary theory and aesthetics quickly veer into discussion of cultural policy, and then, turn into discussions of politics in a broader sense. Brecht’s formulation echoes the Trotskyist assertion that, contrary to Stalin’s doctrine, there can be no socialism in one country. In late July 1938 Benjamin records:
The publications of Lukács, Kurella et al are giving Brecht a good deal of trouble. He thinks, however, that one ought not to oppose them at the theoretical level. I then put the question on the political level. He does not pull his punches. »A socialist economy does not need war and that is why it is opposed to war.« The »peace loving nature of the Russian people« is an expression of this and nothing else. There cannot be a socialist economy in one country. Rearmament has inevitably set the proletariat back a lot, back to stages of historical development which have long since been overtaken – among others the monarchic stage. Russia is now under personal rule. Only blockheads can deny this.
And, a few days later, again of Lukács, Gabor and Kurella, the leading communist literary critics; »With these people« comments Benjamin, »no state can be formed«. Benjamin records Brecht’s reply:
Or only a state, but no communality. They are simply enemies of production. Production gives them the creeps. It cannot be trusted. It is unpredictable. One never knows what will come out of it. And they themselves do not want to produce. They want to play apparatchiks and control others. Each of their criticisms contains a threat.
Brecht gets to the essence of the matter, indicating the bureaucratic mind-casts of the Stalinist-friendly hacks who defend the centralized control of industrial production as much as they dictate the terms of cultural production. It is self-activity that scares them. Self-activity means workers’ activity. Autonomy unbalances the hoped-for sureties of the five-year plans, and disrupts the top-heavy recasting of class society. Questions of culture and politics are entwined. In a conversation about the new novels in the Soviet Union Benjamin admits that they do not follow what is produced any longer because of the deterioration in literary quality. Cultural work has gone to seed in the Soviet Union. In revolutionary times, revolution bit into the heart of literature. Now there is nothing of aesthetic-technical interest anymore. Bourgeois models are imitated; bureaucratic control insists the only legitimate subject for art is the worshipping of the hero. Cultural production twists on a pinhead.
Then we talk about poetry and the translations of Soviet Russian poetry from various languages with which Das Wort is flooded. Brecht thinks that the authors over there have a hard time. »It is seen as a deliberate provocation if in a poem the name Stalin does not appear«.
A realization is dawning on Benjamin and Brecht, but it is such a cautious admission, and a contradictory one that twists and turns in order to disavow the magnitude of the defeat. This reluctance to acknowledge defeat is more perceptible on Brecht’s part. It is simply too catastrophic. Benjamin transcribes Brecht’s bet-hedging position:
In Russia a dictatorship rules over the proletariat. We should avoid disassociating ourselves from this dictatorship for as long as it still does useful work for the proletariat – i.e. so long as it contributes towards a reconciliation between the proletariat and the peasantry, giving prime recognition to proletarian interests.
A few days later Brecht speaks of a »workers’ monarchy«, and Benjamin »compared this creature with certain grotesque sorts of nature dredged up from the depths of the sea in the form of horned fish or other monsters.«
In a letter to Gretel Adorno, written in July 1938, Benjamin criticized the intellectual poverty of Johannes Becher’s partyline journal Internationale Literatur. He was offended by the journal’s equation of his work with Heidegger’s philosophy, on the basis of an extract from an early piece of writing. In the letter Benjamin confirmed Brecht’s view that the theoretical line imposed by Russian cultural politics spells catastrophe for everything that they had been defending for the last twenty years.
Finally the evidence is incontrovertible: »There can’t be any doubt about it any longer: the struggle against ideology has become a new ideology.«
Back to the end again: 1940 and death
On the Suicide of the Refugee W.B.
I am told that you raised your hand against yourself
Anticipating the butcher.
After eight years of exile, observing the rise of the enemy
Then at last, brought up against an impassable frontier
You passed, they say, a passable one.
Empires collapse. Gang leaders
are strutting about like statesmen. The peoples
Can no longer be seen under all those armaments.
So the future lies in darkness and the forces of right
Are weak. All this was plain to you
When you destroyed a torturable body.
Walter Benjamin, who Took his Life while Fleeing Hitler
Exhaustion tactics were what pleased you,
Sitting at the chess table in the shadow of the pear tree.
The enemy, who chased you from your books
Does not allow himself to be exhausted by our kind.
In 1939 and 1940 Benjamin worked on one of his last pieces, a series of gnomic vignettes known in English as ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’. One of the theses divulged the significance of this short final fragment.
At a moment when the politicians in whom the opponents of fascism had placed their hopes are prostrate and confirm their defeat by betraying their own cause, these observations are intended to disentangle the political worldlings from the snares in which the traitors have entrapped them.
The political worldlings are the European proletarians and the identities of the betrayers are the politicians who failed to mobilise effectively against fascism. This failure resulted in the PCF and the German CP immigrants in France welcoming Hitler as Stalin’s ally. With their non-aggression pact in August 1939, Hitler and Stalin divided Poland and the pact gave the German army free hand on the Western front. The leadership of the PCF called for capitulation and justified this »theoretically« by positing fascism as a necessary historical phase. Just as were the Social Democrats in the late 19th century, so the Communist Party »was happy to play for the working class the role of a saviour of future generations.« Benjamin’s reaction was a refusal to side with those on the left who underestimated the destructiveness and violence of fascism for specific forces in history at that moment. This was the basis of Benjamin’s attack on a belief in progress. Benjamin disputed the crass, undialectical idea of progress, which he saw perpetrated both philosophically and historiographically by political creeds across the spectrum. He depicted catastrophic progress in the image of a storm that blows humanity off any just course. Progress as concept, he insists, needs to be broken down, and specified. Progress for whom and at what cost? Benjamin was unable to participate in any Marxist account that saw history as moving inexorably, automatically, progressively towards socialism. Such thinking has outflowed in disaster.
Our consideration proceeds from the insight that the politicians’ stubborn faith in progress, their confidence in their »mass base« and finally their servile integration into an uncontrollable apparatus have been three aspects of the same thing. It seeks to formulate a concept of how dear our usual thinking is when it tries to cast an image of history that avoids every complicity with that to which these politicians remain wedded.
Benjamin identifies a dual-carriageway of social democratic and Stalinist thought in the years before and after the nazi Machtergreifung. Comintern orthodoxy had beaten out the track of fascism as the final stage of capitalism on the road to collapse. The Stalinist road was undeniably zig-zagged, as alliances were forged and broken en route. But always, communism is just around the next corner. Onwards and upwards! The Social Democrats’ underlying dogma held faith with the permanently progressive nature of history, the ever-developing forces of production and technical progress and an automatic mass base. A central contention of the German Communist Party was that nazism represented a bourgeois counter-revolutionary movement, a purely defensive step against an insurgent working class, close to revolutionary victory. In ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ Benjamin challenged this notion of an insurgent proletariat. He made reference to the conformism of the working class. The working class had been corrupted by the notion that they were »swimming with the current« of history. Organized elements of the class were shocked by what seemed to be a sudden turning of the tide. Trotsky likewise admitted the dismal state of the German organised working classes, much shaken by the mistakes of their leadership.
In his unparalleled commentaries on Germany in the 1930s, Trotsky considered the impact of fascism on all classes. Fascism, he declared, expressed the interests of finance capital at the time of a crisis of profitability and difficulties in the realization of surplus value in monopoly capitalism. He accounted for the swelling ranks of the National German Socialist Workers’ Party by pointing to the deep social crisis of capitalism that threw the petty bourgeois masses into disarray. He noted that the working class was on the defensive by the time fascism digs in, and not, as the KPD would have it, on the offensive. But neither Trotsky nor Benjamin assume that this defeat is irreversible. The final victory of the proletariat was not written in the stars. But the possibility remains of a renewed offensive on the part of the working class. Trotsky recognized that there was a split between fascism as movement, resting on a petty bourgeois base, and fascism as regime, organised around an economic restructuring in favour of certain sections of capital. That split is a crack of light. Benjamin translates this hope into a messianic hope for redemption. He calls for an intervention into history. It demands actors, those who are »man enough to explode the continuum of history open«. Who is man enough? The angel blown in by the storm of progress is incapable of putting back together the debris of a world gone awry. Such restitution becomes the job of the »historical materialist« who remembers past dismemberments, and it is the task of the »subject of historical knowledge«, the »fighting, oppressed class itself« who is Marx’s revenging class.
In his preface to the Pathfinder edition of Trotsky’s writings on German fascism, Ernest Mandel discusses the historiographical relevance of fascism in terms that are remarkably close to Benjamin’s. Mandel calls fascism a »new phenomenon« which appeared suddenly and »seemed sharply to reverse a long-term historical trend of ‘progress’«. He continues:
The shock experienced by attentive observers was all the greater because this historical reversal was accompanied by the even more direct brutality of physical violence against individuals. Historical and individual fate suddenly became identical for thousands of human beings, and later, for millions. Not only were social classes defeated and not only did political parties succumb, but the existence, the physical survival, of broad human groups suddenly became problematical.
Mandel’s words evoke Benjamin. Benjamin was one of those, who, as Marxist, as Jew and as critical intellectual, partook of an identical tragic fate to thousands of others. He was forced into exile, interned and persecuted. Mandel uses the word »shock« to describe the arrival of fascism. One of Benjamin’s central concepts was the notion of shock, and the designation of shock-experience as a way of life in capitalism itself. Shock is at the core of the experience of industrial modernity. Mandel speaks of reversal, the interruption of a complacent belief in progress. Benjamin took this idea further, debunking historical progress and also unmasking it as compelling myth in capitalism. Within capitalism, argues Benjamin, progress is illusory and ideological. For every inch of progress on a technological level under these relations of production, the oppressed suffer regression on a social level. Like Marx’s understanding of machinery: as potential liberator, which in this moment, under this organisation of relations of production, only intensifies our exploitation and often our discomfort.
Benjamin cuts apart history and »tradition«, the tales of the dispossessed and oppressed. Tradition includes the rite of revolutionary remembrance, the command to recollect the history of the oppressed, and never to forget it. Terry Eagleton reminds us that Trotsky said »We Marxists have always lived in tradition.« There are always battles over the content of tradition. The struggle is to yank the power of tradition clear of the ruling class lineages in which it is constrained, and to slice sideways into time, dashing the endless continuum of ruling class propagandism, in which the oppressed are encouraged to empathize with the rulers. Tear through this, constellating a moment of the crisis-rocked present with a redeemed fragment of the tradition of the oppressed; disrupt ruling class history without spilling tradition. In his theses on the philosophy of history, Benjamin relays a phrase now much quoted: »There is not one document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.« Its sentiment reverberates in Trotsky’s watchful warning against an indiscriminate celebration of tradition. The cultural legacy must be viewed from a dialectical perspective. Culture’s contradictions are historically formed. Civilization’s achievements supply knowledge of humanity and nature but they also conserve social cleavage. Only social struggle illuminates the textured surfaces of progress.
And so the purpose of this essay is revealed – as it too contributes to a social struggle over the progress of a legacy. For, while Trotsky has been sold short here, in ridiculously brief readings of his cultural theory and political judgements, Benjamin, at least, may have been offered a leg-up out of the political black-hole into which he has been cast by contemporary academics.