Critical assessments

Michael Löwy

Fire Alarm: Reading Walter Benjamin’s ‘On the Concept of History’, trans. Chris Turner. London: Verso, 2005, 10-11, 55, 83-84, 93-94.

[…] Uniquely among the Marxist thinkers and leaders of these years, Benjamin had a premonition of the monstrous disasters to which a crisis-ridden industrial-bourgeois civilization could give birth.

This pessimism manifests itself in Benjamin, as it did in Blanqui or Péguy, in a kind of ‘revolutionary melancholia’, which betrays a sense of a recurrence of disaster, the fear of an eternal return of defeats. How is it reconciled with his commitment to the cause of the oppressed? Benjamin’s ‘proletarian’ choice was in no way inspired by any kind of optimism regarding the behaviour of the ‘masses’ or a confidence in the brilliant future of socialism. It is essentially a wager, in the Pascalian sense, on the possibility of a struggle for emancipation. […]

[…] To brush cultural history gegen den Strich means, then, to view it from the standpoint of the defeated, the excluded, the pariahs. For example, the rich culture of the French Second Empire must be examined, as Benjamin does in The Arcades Project, by taking account of the defeat of the workers in June 1848 and the repression of the revolutionary movement (Blanqui!) over several decades to which that defeat led. Similarly, the glittering culture of Weimar must be seen in relation to the situation of the unemployed, the poor and the victims of inflation – as in One-Way Street. In other words, to quote one of the preparatory notes for the ‘Theses’, the history of culture ‘has to be integrated into the history of class struggle’. […]

[…] Thesis XII appeals to two great historical witnesses to support its argument. The first is Spartacus, or, rather, the Spartacus League (Spartakusbund), founded by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, which in January 1919 assumed the leadership of a spontaneous workers’ uprising in Berlin that was bloodily crushed by Gustav Noske, the Social Democratic interior minister. The aspect Benjamin stresses is the historical consciousness manifested in the name of the organization: the modern proletariat as heir to the slaves who rebelled against the Roman Empire. In this way the 1919 revolt becomes a moment in a universal battle that has lasted for thousands of years and not, as often depicted, a mere manifestation of post-war German domestic politics.

The other figure is Auguste Blanqui, ‘at the sound of whose name the preceding century had quaked’. As a character, Blanqui, that grand vaincu, locked away in the prison cells of monarchies, republics and empires for decades, without ceasing to embody the staunchest revolutionary opposition to the existing order, fascinated Benjamin. The German text speaks not just of the ‘sound’ of his name, but of its Erzklang, its sounding out like brass, and this is doubtless a reference to the tocsin, the alarm bell this armed prophet figuratively sounded to warn the oppressed of imminent catastrophe.

Benjamin is interested not just in the historical figure, but also in the thinker, whose ideas were familiar to him from the splendid biography by Gustave Geoffroy [sic]. In defining the proletarians as ‘modern slaves’, Blanqui reveals a conception of history similar to that of the Spartakists. And he was, indeed, a staunch adversary of positivism and the ideologies of progress. In his book Geoffroy quotes some remarks by Blanqui from 1862: ‘I am not one of those who claim that progress can be taken for granted, that humanity cannot go backward … No, there is no inevitability; otherwise, the history of humanity, which is written hour by hour, would be entirely written in advance.’ It was perhaps with remarks of this kind in mind that Benjamin emphasized, in a passage in ‘Central Park’, that: ‘the activities of a professional conspirator like Blanqui certainly do not presuppose any belief in progress – they merely presuppose a determination to do away with present injustice. This firm resolve to snatch humanity at the last moment from the catastrophe looming at every turn is characteristic of Blanqui…’ […]

[…] Pursuing his polemic against historicism, Benjamin formulates a curious allegory. We may interpret is as follows: the prostitute called ‘Once upon a time’, ensconced in the bordello ‘Historicism’, receives the victors one after another. She has no qualms about giving herself to one and then abandoning him the next moment and taking another. The succession of these victory forms the continuum of history: once upon a time there was Julius Caesar, once upon a time there was Charlemagne, once upon a time there was the Borgia pope, and so on.

By contrast, the historical materialist – who, contrary to what Benjamin implies, does not have to be of the masculine gender (‘man enough’) – has a unique experience with an image of the past. The essay on Fuchs, which contains a kind of variant of Thesis XVI, explains: That it is a matter of perceiving – as it ‘flashes’ before us, to use the language of Thesis V – the critical connection a particular fragment forms with a particular present. For example, between Walter Benjamin, in a moment of supreme danger in 1940, and Auguste Blanqui, the prisoner, the forgotten revolutionary. Or again, in the work by Bloch mentioned above, between the revolutionary rising in Germany in 1919-21 – that ‘present in which he himself is writing history’ – and the peasant uprising inspired by Thomas Münzer. For that constellation to be able to form, the present must, nevertheless, come to a standstill for a moment: this is the equivalent, at the historiographical level, of the revolutionary interruption of historical continuity. […]

With Daniel Bensaïd. ‘Auguste Blanqui, Heretical Communist’. Radical Philosophy 185 (May-June 2014), 27, 35.

[…] The political reproaches often directed against Blanqui are sufficiently well known that it is not worth going over them: putschism, revolutionary elitism, Germanophobia, and so on. And yet his image continues to haunt us: he personifies not only the victim of all the (nineteenth-century) reactions – Orléanists, Bonapartists, Versaillais, conservative Republicans [républicains d’ordre] all took turns in imprisoning him – but also the message of his ‘rallying sound’ (Walter Benjamin) that reverberated well beyond his own century.

If one were to sum up Blanqui’s politics, one could say that it is above all, and most significantly, a revolutionary voluntarism, at once the source of his strength and weakness, of his greatness and limitation. Contrary to the Saint-Simonians and, above all, the positivists – those rogues who distinguish themselves only by ‘their respect of force and their care to avoid contact with the vanquished’, who systematically tend to liken society to nature – Blanqui does not believe in alleged political ‘laws’. For him the word ‘law’ only has meaning in relation to nature; what we call a ‘law’ or a fixed rule is incompatible with reason and will. Where man acts there is no place for law.2 If this voluntarism sometimes led Blanqui to failure – the armed uprisings of 1839 and 1870 being the best such examples – it nevertheless saved him from the straitjacket [marais gluant] of ‘scientific’ determinism. […]

[…] With Blanqui, the strategy of future revolutions is what falters, clumsily posing questions to which it still responds with the techniques and conspiracies of an era that is coming to an end. In 1830, only popular fervour was needed to overthrow ‘a power terrified by armed uprising’. But a ‘Parisian insurrection repeating the old mistakes today no longer has any chance of success’, the old fighter recognized in 1868 in his Instructions. In 1848 the people had won by the ‘method of 1830’ but was defeated in June ‘because of lack of organization’. For the army only has two advantages over the people: the chassepot rile and organization. One could not therefore remain static and ‘perish by the absurd’ in fearing the Haussmannian transformation of Paris. One had to dare to take the initiative, to take the offensive.

Hence Blanqui’s virulence towards positivist sociology, which is essentially anti-strategic. Even though ‘in the trial of the past before the future, history is the judge and the verdict almost always an iniquity’, ‘the appeal remains forever open’. A theory of order and of orderly progress, of progress without revolution, positivism is an ‘execrable doctrine of historical fatalism’ elevated to a religion. However, ‘the sequence of human things is not inevitable like that of the universe, it can be changed at any moment.’

At any moment! Each second, Benjamin will add, is a narrow door through which the Messiah can emerge. Against the dictatorship of the fait accompli, for Blanqui ‘Only the chapter of bifurcations remains open to hope.’ Against ‘the mania of [continuous] progress’ and ‘the infatuation with continuous development’, the eventful irruption of the possible within the real was called revolution. The debate overriding history laid out the conditions of a strategic, and non-mechanistic, ‘homogenous and empty’ temporality.