Walter Benjamin On the Concept of History [1940]

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Walter Benjamin On the Concept of History [1940]

The story is told of an automaton constructed in such a way that it could play a winning
game of chess, answering each move of an opponent with a countermove. A puppet in
Turkish attire and with a hookah in its mouth sat before a chessboard placed on a large
table. A system of mirrors created the illusion that this table was transparent from all sides.
Actually, a little hunchback who was an expert chess player sat inside and guided the
puppet s hand by means of strings. One can imagine a philosophical counterpart to this
device. The puppet called historical materialism is to win all the time. It can easily be a
match for anyone if it enlists the services of theology, which today, as we know, is wizened
and has to keep out of sight.
II
One of the most remarkable characteristics of human nature, writes Lotze, is, alongside
so much selfishness in specific instances, the freedom from envy which the present
displays toward the future. Reflection shows us that our image of happiness is thoroughly
colored by the time to which the course of our own existence has assigned us. The kind of
happiness that could arouse envy in us exists only in the air we have breathed, among
people we could have talked to, women who could have given themselves to us. In other
words, our image of happiness is indissolubly bound up with the image of redemption. The
same applies to our view of the past, which is the concern of history. The past carries with
it a temporal index by which it is referred to redemption. There is a secret agreement
between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like
every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power,
a power to which the past has a claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply. Historical
materialists are aware of that.
III
A chronicler who recites events without distinguishing between major and minor ones acts
in accordance with the following truth: nothing that has ever happened should be regarded
as lost for history. To be sure, only a redeemed mankind receives the fullness of its pastwhich
is to say, only for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its
moments. Each moment it has lived becomes a citation a l ordre du jour — and that day is
Judgment Day.
IV
Seek for food and clothing first, then
the Kingdom of God shall be added unto you.
Hegel, 1807
The class struggle, which is always present to a historian influenced by Marx, is a fight for
the crude and material things without which no refined and spiritual things could exist.
Nevertheless, it is not in the form of the spoils which fall to the victor that the latter make
their presence felt in the class struggle. They manifest themselves in this struggle as
courage, humor, cunning, and fortitude. They have retroactive force and will constantly call
in question every victory, past and present, of the rulers. As flowers turn toward the sun,
by dint of a secret heliotropism the past strives to turn toward that sun which is rising in the
sky of history. A historical materialist must be aware of this most inconspicuous of all
transformations.

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V
The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes
up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again. The truth will not run
away from us : in the historical outlook of historicism these words of Gottfried Keller mark
the exact point where historical materialism cuts through historicism. For every image of
the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to
disappear irretrievably. (The good tidings which the historian of the past brings with
throbbing heart may be lost in a void the very moment he opens his mouth.)
VI
To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it the way it really was
(Ranke). It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.
Historical materialism wishes to retain that image of the past which unexpectedly appears
to man singled out by history at a moment of danger. The danger affects both the content
of the tradition and its receivers. The same threat hangs over both: that of becoming a tool
of the ruling classes. In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away
from a conformism that is about to overpower it. The Messiah comes not only as the
redeemer, he comes as the subduer of Antichrist. Only that historian will have the gift of
fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be
safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.
VII
Consider the darkness and the great cold
In this vale which resounds with mystery.
Brecht, The Threepenny Opera
To historians who wish to relive an era, Fustel de Coulanges recommends that they blot
out everything they know about the later course of history. There is no better way of
characterising the method with which historical materialism has broken. It is a process of
empathy whose origin is the indolence of the heart, acedia, which despairs of grasping and
holding the genuine historical image as it flares up briefly. Among medieval theologians it
was regarded as the root cause of sadness. Flaubert, who was familiar with it, wrote: Peu
de gens devineront combien il a fallu être triste pour ressusciter Carthage . The nature of
this sadness stands out more clearly if one asks with whom the adherents of historicism
actually empathize. The answer is inevitable: with the victor. And all rulers are the heirs of
those who conquered before them. Hence, empathy with the victor invariably benefits the
rulers. Historical materialists know what that means. Whoever has emerged victorious
participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which the present rulers step over
those who are lying prostrate. According to traditional practice, the spoils are carried along
in the procession. They are called cultural treasures, and a historical materialist views
them with cautious detachment. For without exception the cultural treasures he surveys
have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not
only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the
anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at
the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of
barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to
another. A historical materialist therefore dissociates himself from it as far as possible. He
regards it as his task to brush history against the grain.
VIII
The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the state of emergency in which we live is
not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping
with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state
of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism. One
reason why Fascism has a chance is that in the name of progress its opponents treat it as
a historical norm. The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are still
possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning
of knowledge—unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is
untenable.
IX
Mein Flügel ist zum Schwung bereit,
ich kehrte gern zurück,
denn blieb ich auch lebendige Zeit,
ich hätte wenig Glück.
Gerherd Scholem, Gruß vom Angelus
[My wing is ready for flight,
I would like to turn back.
If I stayed timeless time,
I would have little luck.]
A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to
move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is
open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is
turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single
catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would
like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is
blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel
can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his
back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we
call progress.
X
The themes which monastic discipline assigned to friars for meditation were designed to
turn them away from the world and its affairs. The thoughts which we are developing here
originate from similar considerations. 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 disintangle the political
worldlings from the snares in which the traitors have entrapped them. Our consideration
proceeds from the insight that the politicians stubborn faith in progress, their confidence in
their mass basis , and, finally, their servile integration in an uncontrollable apparatus have
been three aspects of the same thing. It seeks to convey an idea of the high price our
accustomed thinking will have to pay for a conception of history that avoids any complicity
with the thinking to which these politicians continue to adhere.
XI
The conformism which has been part and parcel of Social Democracy from the beginning
attaches not only to its political tactics but to its economic views as well. It is one reason
for its later breakdown. Nothing has corrupted the German working, class so much as the
notion that it was moving, with the current. It regarded technological developments as the
fall of the stream with which it thought it was moving. From there it was but a step to the
illusion that the factory work which was supposed to tend toward technological progress
constituted a political achievement. The old Protestant ethics of work was resurrected
among German workers in secularized form. The Gotha Program * already bears traces of
this confusion, defining labor as the source of all wealth and all culture. Smelling a rat,
Marx countered that …the man who possesses no other property than his labor power
must of necessity become the slave of other men who have made themselves the
owners… However, the confusion spread, and soon thereafter Josef Dietzgen proclaimed:
The savior of modern times is called work. The …improvement… of labor constitutes the
wealth which is now able to accomplish what no redeemer has ever been able to do. This
vulgar-Marxist conception of the nature of labor bypasses the question of how its products
might benefit the workers while still not being at, their disposal. It recognizes only the
progress in the mastery of nature, not the retrogression of society; it already displays the
technocratic features later encountered in Fascism. Among these is a conception of nature
which differs ominously from the one in the Socialist utopias before the 1848 revolution.
The new conception of labor amounts to the exploitation of nature, which with naive
complacency is contrasted with the exploitation of the proletariat. Compared with this
positivistic conception, Fourier s fantasies, which have so often been ridiculed, prove to be
surprisingly sound. According to Fourier, as a result of efficient cooperative labor, four
moons would illuminate the earthly night, the ice would recede from the poles, sea water
would no longer taste salty, and beasts of prey would do man s bidding. All this illustrates
a kind of labor which, far from exploiting nature, is capable of delivering her of the
creations which lie dormant in her womb as potentials. Nature, which, as Dietzgen puts it,
exists gratis, is a complement to the corrupted conception of labor.
XII
We need history, but not the way a spoiled
loafer in the garden of knowledge needs it.
Nietzsche, Of the Use and Abuse of History
Not man or men but the struggling, oppressed class itself is the depository of historical
knowledge. In Marx it appears as the last enslaved class, as the avenger that completes
the task of liberation in the name of generations of the downtrodden. This conviction,
which had a brief resurgence in the Spartacist group,* has always been objectionable to
Social Democrats. Within three decades they managed virtually to erase the name of
Blanqui, though it had been the rallying sound that had reverberated through the preceding
century. Social Democracy thought fit to assign to the working class the role of the
redeemer of future generations, in this way cutting the sinews of its greatest strength. This
training made the working class forget both its hatred and its spirit of sacrifice, for both are
nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than that of liberated grandchildren.
XIII
Every day our cause becomes clearer
and people get smarter.
Wilhelm Dietzgen, Die Religion der Sozialdemokratie
Social Democratic theory, and even more its practice, have been formed by a conception
of progress which did not adhere to reality but made dogmatic claims. Progress as
pictured in the minds of Social Democrats was, first of all, the progress of mankind itself
(and not just advances in men s ability and knowledge). Secondly, it was something
boundless, in keeping with the infinite perfectibility of mankind. Thirdly, progress was
regarded as irresistible, something that automatically pursued a straight or spiral course.
Each of these predicates is controversial and open to criticism. However, when the chips
are down, criticism must penetrate beyond these predicates and focus on something that
they have in common. The concept of the historical progress of mankind cannot be
sundered from the concept of its progression through a homogenous, empty time. A
critique of the concept of such a progression must be the basis of any criticism of the
concept of progress itself.
XIV
Origin is the goal.
Karl Kraus, Worte in Versen, Vol. 1
History is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogenous, empty time, but time
filled by the presence of the now. [Jetztzeit] Thus, to Robespierre ancient Rome was a
past charged with the time of the now which he blasted out of the continuum of history.
The French Revolution viewed itself as Rome incarnate. It evoked ancient Rome the way
fashion evokes costumes of the past. Fashion has a flair for the topical, no matter where it
stirs in the thickets of long ago; it is a tiger s leap into the past. This jump, however, takes
place in an arena where the ruling class give the commands. The same leap in the open
air of history is the dialectical one, which is how Marx understood the revolution.
XV
The awareness that they are about to make the continuum of history explode is
characteristic of the revolutionary classes at the moment of their action. The great
revolution introduced a new calendar. The initial day of a calendar serves as a historical
time-lapse camera. And, basically, it is the same day that keeps recurring in the guise of
holidays, which are days of remembrance. Thus the calendars do no measure time as
clocks do; they are monuments of a historical consciousness of which not the slightest
trace has been apparent in Europe in the past hundred years. In the July revolution an
incident occurred which showed this consciousness still alive. On the first evening of
fighting it turned out that the clocks in towers were being fired on simultaneously and
independently from several places in Paris. An eye-witness, who may have owed his
insight to the rhyme, wrote as follows:
Qui le croirait! on dit,
qu irrités contre l heure
De nouveaux Josués
au pied de chaque tour,
Tiraient sur les cadrans
pour arrêter le jour.
[Who would have believed it!
we are told that new Joshuasat the foot of every tower,
as though irritated with
time itself, fired at the dials
in order to stop the day.]
XVI
A historical materialist cannot do without the notion of a present which is not a transition,
but in which time stands still and has come to a stop. For this notion defines the present in
which he himself is writing history. Historicism gives the eternal image of the past;
historical materialism supplies a unique experience with the past. The historical materialist
leaves it to others to be drained by the whore called Once upon a time in historicism s
bordello. He remains in control of his powers, man enough to blast open the continuum of
history.
XVII
Historicism rightly culminates in universal history. Materialistic historiography differs from it
as to method more clearly than from any other kind. Universal history has no theoretical
armature. Its method is additive; it musters a mass of data to fill the homogoneous, empty
time. Materialistic historiography, on the other hand, is based on a constructive principle.
Thinking involves not only the flow of thoughts, but their arrest as well. Where thinking
suddenly stops in a configuration pregnant with tensions, it gives that configuration a
shock, by which it cristallizes into a monad. A historical materialist approaches a historical
subject only where he encountes it as a monad. In this structure he recognizes the sign of
a Messianic cessation of happening, or, put differently, a revolutionary chance in the fight
for the oppressed past. He takes cognizance of it in order to blast a specific era out of the
homogenous course of history—blasting a specific life out of the era or a specific work out
of the lifework. As a result of this method the lifework is preserved in this work and at the
same time canceled; in the lifework, the era; and in the era, the entire course of history.
The nourishing fruit of the historically understood contains time as a precious but tasteless
seed.
XVIII
In relation to the history of organic life on earth, writes a modem biologist, the paltry fifty
millennia of homo sapiens constitute something like two seconds at the close of a twentyfour-
hour day. On this scale, the history of civilized mankind would fill one-fifth of the last
second of the last hour. The present, which, as a model of Messianic time, comprises the
entire history of mankind in an enormous abridgment, coincides exactly with the stature
which the history of mankind has in the universe.
A.
Historicism contents itself with establishing a causal connection between various moments
in history. But no fact that is a cause is for that very reason historical. It became historical
posthumously, as it were, though events that may be separated from it by thousands of
years. A historian who takes this as his point of departure stops telling the sequence of
events like the beads of a rosary. Instead, he grasps the constellation which his own era
has formed with a definite earlier one. Thus he establishes a conception of the present as
the time of the now which is shot through with chips of Messianic time.
B.
The soothsayers who found out from time what it had in store certainly did not experience
time as either homogeneous or empty. Anyone who keeps this in mind will perhaps get an
idea of how past times were experienced in remembrance–namely, in just the same way.
We know that the Jews were prohibited from investigating the future. The Torah and the
prayers instruct them in remembrance, however. This stripped the future of its magic, to
which all those succumb who turn to the soothsayers for enlightenment. This does not
imply, however, that for the Jews the future turned into homogeneous, empty time. For
every second of time was the strait gate through which Messiah might enter