Walter Benjamin Warned Us Against the Illusions of Capitalist Progress

Esther Leslie

Walter Benjamin was one of the most influential cultural theorists of the last century. There have been many attempts to defang and deradicalize Benjamin’s work, but his Marxist commitments run right through his dazzling intellectual legacy.

Walter Benjamin's membership card for the Bibliothèque nationale de France. (Bibliothèque nationale de France / Wikimedia Commons)

Interview by
Daniel Finn

The German writer Walter Benjamin has become one of the most influential cultural theorists of the last century. Benjamin took his own life in September 1940 to avoid falling into the hands of the Gestapo, but the Nazi regime could not snuff out his extraordinary intellectual legacy.

Benjamin’s unorthodox Marxism and ideas about culture and history have inspired several generations of critical thought about the world made by capitalism. His relationships with figures such as Bertolt Brecht and Theodor Adorno have also inspired a range of scholarly work, while his description of revolution as an “emergency brake” saving humanity from the disasters of capitalism resonates more than ever in a time of ecological crisis.

Esther Leslie is the author of several books about Benjamin’s life. She teaches at Birkbeck University in London. This is an edited transcript from Jacobin’s Long Reads podcast. You can listen to the episode here.

Daniel Finn

How do you summarize the phases in which Walter Benjamin’s work has been understood and interpreted since his death in 1940?

Esther Leslie

It’s quite complex because it depends where you are looking. There are different national relationships to this question. In the years immediately after his death, there was a focus on getting some of the legacy out in Germany.

That was really the work of Theodor Adorno and Gershom Scholem, gathering representative essays for a volume and then very quickly moving on to the letters. They wanted to put out an edition of the letters to reflect Benjamin’s milieu and the conversations that Benjamin had with such a variety of people. There was that initial philological and restitutive phase.

But then different things started to happen. By the 1960s in Germany, Benjamin had become quite favored as one of the writers who would appear in pirate editions, particularly his more left-oriented, practical work about mass production or the author as producer — the reconceptualization of the relationship between art and politics. There was a very politicized Benjamin that came out in the context of the student movement.

That was partly adopted in Britain through John Berger’s work with his 1972 BBC series and book Ways of Seeing, which was very much organized around Benjamin’s ideas on mass production. There was a sense of excitement about photocopiers and posters and how all of this could contribute to political campaigns.

But there were also different strands emerging during this period. In France, for example, there was a fascination with the Arcades Project and Benjamin’s work on Paris and Charles Baudelaire. That came to be worked out and reflected on in relation to new ideas around what the city was — high capitalism, the city of imperialism and consumerism, the city of dreams.

Also from France, you had contributions from Jacques Derrida, going back to the earlier work, thinking about questions of law and violence. This was effectively the plane of the linguistic and deconstructionist approach which then emerged in the United States, with a particular fascination for allegory and the literary.

In the 1980s and 1990s, one got a view in the Anglophone world of Benjamin as a melancholic figure who was far removed from Benjamin as a political activist. This view presented him as a philosopher of failure, death, loss, and mourning. On the other hand, there was the postmodern Benjamin who somehow allowed us to reject Adorno’s cultural elitism and think about popular pleasures — the joys of fashion, television, shopping, and so on.

These were deeply conflicted strains, which often aligned with dominant strains within the broader political world. It depended on whether there was a place to think through the very concrete questions Benjamin asked about the role of culture in the anti-fascist struggle and the struggle for liberation, or about an expanded sense of communism. That fell away at certain times.

There was also a strong interest in Benjamin as a Jewish mystic, which was very much encouraged and kindled by his interlocutor Gershom Scholem, who wanted to negate the Brechtian influence on Benjamin. Other figures such as Erdmut Wizisla, the archivist of Benjamin and Brecht, supplied a valuable corrective to this, showing the extent to which their thinking was intertwined.

Adorno, who was another interlocutor, wanted to claim Benjamin — perhaps through a sense of guilt in some ways — for the Frankfurt School. He wanted to see Benjamin as a brilliant critic of capitalism, but not necessarily as someone who was providing tools or prompting us to overthrow it in any practical sense.

Daniel Finn

Looking at Benjamin as a thinker in his own right, before those different interpretations began to emerge — when he began to engage with Marxism as an intellectual tradition or a school of thought, what were the key reference points for him?

Esther Leslie

One needs to remember that Benjamin had a very political adolescence. He was high up in the hierarchy of the Free Student Movement, which was influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche, Henrik Ibsen, and all sorts of progressive ideas of the time. It was relating to currents within Expressionism and new thoughts about pedagogy and the reinvention of experience. He was coming from a strong milieu of debate where poetry was very important as a way of articulating experience and selfhood.

But when World War I broke out, that hit a limit. The suicide of some members of the student movement circle hugely affected Benjamin and his peers — they never forgot it. It also exposed for him some of the limits of that mode of thinking. He interpreted the deaths as a kind of sacrifice to militarism, which the student movement had not been able to prevent with all their wishes and all their thinking.

It also exposed to him the social structure within the city of Berlin, where he lived. From that point on, he was looking for a sort of holistic social understanding of what produces war and social division. Together with Scholem, in their student days, he was looking at anarchist trends and at what was happening in Russia during the revolution and after.

But there was a decisive moment when he went to Capri, an island in southern Europe, in 1924. Like many of his comrades and friends, he was reading Georg Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness, which had a huge effect on them all.

The book had a rigorous political and sociological analysis of power structures in the world, while at the same time, it was trying to account for consciousness and for the ideological at some level. There was a central notion of reification — of humans becoming things and things becoming alive in a fetishistic way. That idea of the exchange of properties was very generative for thought in this period.

It resonated with people who had been through the inflation, the wildness with which currency seemed to take on a life of its own, the way that things grew in importance through their tangibility while humans became a sort of flotsam and jetsam that could just disappear in the face of numbers. There was a lot in Lukács about rationalization, becoming a number, and so on. All of those things echoed with Benjamin.

At the same time, he made a personal encounter. His thought developed through his relationships to people — particularly women who influenced him. He met a Bolshevik from Latvia called Asja Lācis while in Capri. She was a theater producer who worked with children in a revolutionary dramaturgical way. He fell in love with her, but he also developed his ideas through that encounter.

In short, I think he was trying to understand a world in turbulence after war, inflation, revolution in the east, and the failed German revolution. Like so many others, he was just trying to understand what was happening, and the work from Lukács and others helped to orient him.

Daniel Finn

What was the significance of Benjamin’s trip to the Soviet Union for his political and intellectual development? How did he relate to the official communist movement in Germany and elsewhere?

Esther Leslie

He went to the Soviet Union for a few months at the end of 1926 and the beginning of 1927. At one level, he was going to visit the woman he was in love with, Lācis, who was there in Moscow. They had written together and thought together, and now he went there to pursue her more concretely. Of course, she was there with an existing lover, so it was quite a difficult relationship.

But he also went in order to see communism close up — to see and experience the postrevolutionary society. Experience was a strong category in Benjamin’s work. Some of the things that are most compelling about the way he wrote come from his articulation of experience. He wanted to render an experience of Moscow. He kept a diary while he was there, which is illuminating for understanding his attitudes.

He also wrote a shorter essay about his time there. He was fascinated by how different it was from Berlin. For Benjamin, Berlin was a rationalized space. What he experienced in Moscow was a place of great busyness and energy and of social reconstruction, which was quite exhausting.

I think he felt ambivalent about that at some level — the idea that there could be endless debates through the extension of democracy and through the workers’ clubs. Where do we place bus stops? How should we do this, how should we do that? Everything was being reinvented and this suffused him with a sense of his own reinvention as well.

This was poetic license at some level, but it was winter, the streets were icy, and he talked about how he had to learn to walk again — it was like he had become a child again. The new Soviet man began as the new Soviet boy and he was slipping and sliding everywhere, trying to get his bearings, and trying to get a foothold in what was also a chaotic and fluid situation.

He went there to see that firsthand — to speak to other intellectuals, to find out what Sergei Tretyakov and other figures were doing. He was obviously engaged with theater, with Lācis and her other lover, Bernhard Reich, who was involved in the theater there. Benjamin was looking at the cultural plane.

He spent a certain amount of time just walking, thinking, observing. There are extraordinary descriptions in his writings from Moscow of marketplaces and looking at the place of Lenin in all of this — the image of Lenin, who of course had been dead for a few years now. Benjamin saw the burgeoning cult around Lenin emerging and commented quite critically on that — Lenin as a kind of icon within the longer iconic tradition of Russia.

He looked at the way in which young people were being charged up — like batteries, as he put it — through a kind of enthusiasm. From his point of view, as someone who was also fascinated by French history and Immanuel Kant, he could see the power of that enthusiasm as something mobilized within revolution.

He was looking skeptically, perhaps, but also with his own sense of enthusiasm. Of course, it was also clouded by those difficult personal relations. When he left, it was with tears in his eyes, after a kind of fruitless love journey

In terms of his relationship to the official Communist Party, I think it’s something he was testing out. He was interviewed while he was there about who his favorite author was. Whether he was being playful or honest — I think he was being honest — he said it was Paul Scheerbart, a science-fiction author who wrote Lesabéndio, a slim, speculative novella about another planet, in the early twentieth century.

Scheerbart also wrote a manifesto called Glass Architecture, which related to Bruno Taut and the Glass Chain movement. This was partly utopian architecture and partly practical — Taut was building extraordinary workers’ housing estates in Weimar Germany. Scheerbart’s manifesto was about the use of glass and transparency. It was very poetic — practical and mystical at the same time.

Benjamin gave an interview to a newspaper about this favorite author of his, which I think was met with a certain amount of bemusement: “Why isn’t he talking about the greats?” He was then commissioned to write a piece for the Soviet encyclopedia about Goethe. He took it very seriously and delivered a materialist reading of the contradictions of Goethe in relation to the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie, and revolution.

The encyclopedia editors rejected it, effectively for being too Marxist — it was too materialist, it said too much about class struggle. It was as if he didn’t hit the right mark. From my point of view, I would say that was because by this point, there were Stalinizing processes in place. Benjamin’s more critical, anti-bourgeois cultural politics and his affinities with avant-garde thought did not find a welcome home in a Communist Party that was making a sclerotic turn.

Daniel Finn

Benjamin never secured the post he had been seeking in the German university system, and he had to make his living thereafter as a freelance writer. But was it ever conceivable that he could have pursued the lines of inquiry he had in mind within the academic university culture of his own time?

Esther Leslie

That’s an interesting question in the sense that it is completely counterfactual, isn’t it? Even if he had gotten a post, by 1933, he would have had to leave and find some other arrangement, like so many of them did. It all started with his habilitation thesis going wrong.

Germans have to write a second thesis in order to get a teaching post, but Benjamin was required to withdraw his, because its method was too experimental. That thesis was his work on baroque mourning plays. It had an extremely difficult introduction, while the body of the text was almost a montage of quotes and interpretation. It did not fit the structures of the time.

Of course, in theory he could have had a nice little sinecure where he could follow up his many interests, but I doubt many academics were in that position at the time. I’m thinking about a partially parallel figure, the art historian Aby Warburg, who was offered a post, but couldn’t do it because it was too confining. Benjamin had a very critical time at university, where he despised most of his lecturers. All his learning really took place within the student movement and was self-directed.

His own work on the baroque mourning plays was taught by Adorno in Frankfurt at the university, so he became part of the syllabus in the 1920s. That might have indicated that there was some sort of place for him. But I think his affinities really lay — hard and precarious as it was — with the more disjointed and disruptive rhythms of reviewing, radio shows, and essay forms.

Some of the work he did in the mid-1920s on One Way Street came through newspaper columns and journalism. Coming back to the idea of experience, there’s a sense in which he was writing up his experience in those dense vignettes that were then universalized to be the experience of urban dwellers in Berlin during the 1920s. But it wasn’t academic work, and neither was his final piece of writing, which was a reflection in thesis-form on the concept of history.

These were pieces of dense reflection that have generated an awful lot of academic commentary, but they have little place within the structures and demands of academic thinking. When he was writing things like “The Author as Producer” or “The Artwork in the Age of Its Technical Reproducibility,” again, these were not academic contributions. They were written on a hinge between diagnosis and analysis of what was needed on the one hand, and practical forwarding of new strategies on the other.

One could even say that of something like his 1931 essay, “The Short History of Photography.” It was a kind of partial history that was directed toward the practical recommendation of particular photographic practices by figures such as John Heartfield, August Sander, and Germaine Krull. There was a strategy there that wasn’t necessarily part of an academic environment.

Daniel Finn

What was so novel about the approach to culture that Benjamin developed in his work when set against the background of what had come before him?

Esther Leslie

Partly it was the way in which he was prepared to take deep materialist historical analysis into unpredictable realms, like those of the radio or the newspaper. There was something truly extraordinary about the work he did for children — the radio shows with their miniature outlining of various subjects.

Those subjects could be the significance of the coming of iron construction and how that related to the economic and social conditions of the time, or the forging of stamps and what that told us about the state and authority. Bizarre little topics like that became the occasion for knitting together economic, social, political, and cultural structures.

There was also his interdisciplinary nature, as we call it today. When he began, he thought he might be an art critic; then he became interested in French literature, and then he had a certain understanding of German literature, culture, philosophy, and so on. He refused to be pinned into one place and moved around between all of them.

That’s what one sees in the Arcades Project, which is most likely an unfinished book. It’s a series of very extensive notes and quotes, but it shows us the panoramic approach that he adopted. He asked how we could understand nineteenth-century Paris, which was such an important realm for understanding the development trajectory of capitalism and its own generation of its antithesis, from 1789 through to 1871 and the Paris Commune. We needed to understand how these things arose and how the bourgeoisie took back control and limited self-organization at each moment.

For Benjamin, that was why we needed to understand the nineteenth century. We also needed to understand empire’s reach, and how that was reflected into the microcosms of the Parisian arcades. We needed to understand the ways in which it generated consumerism and a figure such as the flaneur, all of which were for Benjamin precursor forms of the twentieth-century fascism to come.

In this framework, we don’t just tell a political history: everything’s intertwined. We can understand it through arcades, through fashion, through technology, through prostitution, through lighting — all of these things give us clues about what has been and what is being set in train and what we have to grasp in order to comprehend our present.

That consistent understanding of the knottiness and unitary nature of a social formation, but also of how what happened in the past is conveyed or bears upon the present, is quite a remarkable thing. I think it goes much, much deeper than many strands in what we’ve come to know as cultural studies.

Daniel Finn

How would you summarize the mutual influence that Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht had upon each other?

Esther Leslie

They were very close. Asja Lācis brokered their first meeting, because she was close to Brecht and interested in his drama, but apparently, they didn’t have much to say to each other and didn’t hit it off. However, when they met again, an extraordinary relationship developed between them. Brecht thought Benjamin was the greatest critic of his generation — partly because Benjamin wrote about eleven pieces on Brecht’s work — while Benjamin thought that Brecht was not only the best playwright, but also the best poet, literary figure, and theorist of drama.

They learnt from each other not only about how to articulate the political situation through cultural work, but also about how to write in a way that generated political and critical thinking. It wasn’t simply a question of representing the world and saying: “look at this, how bad is the world, now that I’ve told you, you know it.” It was also a question of working through what Benjamin called technique. How did you lay something out to people to get them to think for themselves and understand structures? Benjamin learned something from Brecht about form, while Brecht saw Benjamin reflecting that back to him and found that useful.

They spent nearly a year together over the course of three years. Benjamin was effectively homeless, while Brecht was able to find refuge in Denmark once the Nazis came to power. They spent every summer together. They listened to the radio — they listened to Hitler’s speeches — and they talked about what was happening in the Soviet Union. They played chess — apparently Brecht was usually the winner.

They gave solidarity to each other. Benjamin had few other options. There were tensions between them: Benjamin wrote down notes of his conversations with Brecht, and you can also see these tensions recounted in letters and elsewhere. Brecht was very skeptical about Benjamin’s concept of aura — the idea of the artwork looking back at you. He saw it as a form of mysticism. But to me, these were the productive arguments of people who effectively wanted the same things.

I do recommend Wizisla’s book, Benjamin and Brecht: The Story of a Friendship, which has been translated into English. It goes through the minutiae of their encounters and their mutual closeness. Wizisla felt compelled to do that because the line coming from figures like Scholem and Adorno was to say that Brecht was a crude, destructive influence who took Benjamin away from what he should have been doing. All the evidence points directly to the contrary of that.

Daniel Finn

Recently, some of Benjamin’s thinking about history — in particular, the idea or image of revolution as an emergency break, saving humanity from disaster — has become quite influential in left-wing circles, especially in the face of amounting ecological crisis. What was the original context in which he developed that thinking? And what was the main target of his critique?

Esther Leslie

He wanted to understand how we could be at the position of war and fascism in much of Europe — not just in Germany, but also Italy and Spain. The “Theses on the Concept of History” are probably one of the last pieces that he wrote. They were in the form of notes, and it’s uncertain whether they were intended for anyone to read. But they were certainly written out of a sense of urgency, at the point when he was trying to find a way out of Europe and away from death in the camps or elsewhere.

He wrote in some notes about the “Theses” that he was trying to think about that arc of time or arc of decline from the German revolution of 1918–19 onward. He was thinking about all that could potentially have happened around figures like Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht and all the forces that were trying to change Germany after its defeat in World War I and bring about a revolutionary society on new terms.

Of course, that did not happen. Benjamin was conscious that the next twenty years involved working through the repercussions of that defeat. Fascism or Nazism was a mode whereby capitalism sought to preserve itself and make sure that the prospect of working-class revolution couldn’t rise again to threaten it.

For Benjamin, in writing the “Theses,” the role that social democracy played as an enabler was crucial. It was an enabler firstly in the sense of being the crusher of the German revolution, directly or indirectly responsible for the murders of Luxemburg and Liebknecht. It was an enabler secondly in the sense of making continued efforts to discourage people from pushing back too hard, assuring them that things were okay and that there would be jam tomorrow if we just kept going.

Social democrats never understood the enormity of the situation and the stakes because fundamentally, the social democratic philosophy was one of progress through technology. They believed that we would more or less automatically arrive at a better or more equal society. Society was always moving in the direction of progress: we really didn’t have to try to push it on through revolution, because social evolution would get us to where we wanted to be. Things would get better and better each day.

Benjamin’s response was to say: “This is not what happens — the moment has to be seized.” Of course, history teaches us again and again that we need to be organized in order to produce genuine improvements and changes. He was very much writing against the illusions of social democracy in progress and the mindset of people — some of whom might exist in our own time — who say: “My God, how can such a thing happen in our world? Something has gone wrong.” He was also writing against Stalinism, which had its own form of automatism around historical events.

The “Theses” are about fascism as well. They contain some very powerful lines about the victory parades — triumphal marches that stomp over the bodies of those that they have defeated. Those are the people who get to be in charge of historical memory, and they will write out of history all of the traditions of the oppressed and all of their actions.

The victors will write history in their own light. Not only will they do that — through the act of writing, they will attempt to enforce an empathy on the part of those who are quashed in order to make them believe that the successes of the victors are their own.

Daniel Finn

Since his death, there has sometimes been a tendency, which you referred to earlier, to present Benjamin in binary terms — as having been either a Marxist thinker or one rooted in Jewish philosophical and religious traditions. But do you think it’s actually necessary to choose between one or the other reading of Benjamin?

Esther Leslie

I ponder this question a lot. In earlier times, I’ve been polemically more on the side of saying Benjamin was a materialist, a Marxist, and a communist (with a small “c”). The positioning of Benjamin within Jewish mysticism was something forwarded by Gershom Scholem. In the 1990s, people wanted to work against the notion of the materialist Benjamin — they found it much more interesting to think about him as a religious thinker. That was an ideological move.

I still think that way in part. I often think about Peter Osborne’s analysis of “Theses on the Concept of History,” where Benjamin talked about messianic time, if that was a Jewish notion, but also about the Antichrist and rosary beads — the religious references were ecumenical. For Osborne, Benjamin was really trying to lift the capacities of critical Marxists from dull positivism. These other references were meant to open up spaces of imagination and speculation toward a kind of transcendence, in all its meanings.

Your question suggests a potential reconciliation, or the idea that we don’t need to choose. I would probably favor that in a sense. There was a point where Benjamin wrote about Marx secularizing religious motifs. This was not a matter of saying that Marxism was just religion clothed in some other garb, and therefore we could dismiss it.

Rather, he meant that religion was the thinking of commonality, of going beyond what we have. It was a way of thinking about human solidarity and the desire for otherness or some other regime. We could be like Ernst Bloch and think about utopias and heaven on Earth.

In a way, I want to go in that direction and affirm the religious — not in the sense of organized religion, but as a capacity within thought that has a utopian dimension and is in that sense reconcilable with certain versions of Marxism. The point is that all of us want to get to a more democratic, egalitarian, and humane place.