Between Absolute Spirit and the Angel of History: On Walter Benjamin and Hegelian Marxism

Atropos_o_Las_ParcasFrancisco de Goya, Atropos (c. 1819–1823).

The late writings of Walter Benjamin are renowned for their attempt to rethink the stakes of historical thought and for their critique of the ideology of progress. In Benjamin’s “Theses on the Concept of History” (1940), especially, history is made into the site of a class struggle over the inheritance and remembrance of the dead, while the belief in progress is criticised for its reduction of historical time to an automatic and unthinking mechanism. In part due to their incompletion at the time of his death, Benjamin’s comments on history and progress have produced divergent readings, with a tendency to view his version of historical materialism as a move away from the Marxist origins of the term, toward a messianic politics of divine intercession in human affairs. Likewise, his critique of universal history has been placed in opposition to the universalising tendencies of Hegelian thought, with its task of grasping world history as a totality.

The goal of this paper is to put pressure on these received readings of Benjamin as a half-hearted Marxist and an implicit anti-Hegelian, by re-examining his late historiographical work in light of his interest in contemporaneous and unorthodox figures within Hegelian Marxism. I will argue for the centrality of the Marxist critique of bourgeois philosophy to Benjamin’s work, and especially the influence of György Lukács on Benjamin’s formulations of universal history, mechanical time, and the ideology of progress. Via Lukács, Benjamin’s commonalities with Hegel’s philosophy will also be elucidated, from their shared suspicion of bad infinities to the contingency that they place at the heart of universal history.


In his “Theses on the Concept of History,” Benjamin begins his thirteenth thesis with a quote from Josef Dietzgen’s Social Democratic Philosophy: “Every day, our cause becomes clearer and people get smarter.”[1] For Dietzgen, the shape of history is known: each day is a step in the right direction, and progress on that path is assured by the patient succession of days that stretch from ignorance to enlightenment. The task of historical consciousness is therefore not to understand itself in its moment, but to keep faith in a natural progression that sweeps everybody up in its movement. As Benjamin writes, this vision of progressive history is underpinned by a series of dogmatic claims about history, its subject, and its task:

“Progress as pictured in the minds of the Social Democrats was, first of all, progress of humankind itself (and not just advances in human ability and knowledge). Second, it was something boundless (in keeping with an infinite perfectibility of humanity). Third, it was considered inevitable—something that automatically pursued a straight or spiral course.”[2]

Stated more directly, progressive history is defined by its faith in human nature, the infinite potential of this nature, and the automatic course which this nature runs from its present state to a more perfect state. We’ll return to this second point in a moment, when we turn to the kind of infinity that is proper to this mode of historical thought. For now, the most crucial of these progressive dogmatisms is the third, which mandates that humanity is not only infinitely perfectible but that this perfectibility is an inevitable, immutable fact of the laws of history. As an ineluctable law of history, progress is given in the form of an empty, static image: the straight line from one state to another, or else the spiral that bends from one extreme to another while constantly circling tighter to its goal. Historical time is given a line to follow, reduced to a representational picture-thinking that designates all historical events a place plotted out in advance.

In his critique of progress as a dogmatism of historical thought, Benjamin repeats the terms of Lukács’s critique of bourgeois philosophy made in History and Class Consciousness, which may in turn shed some light on the conceptual stakes of Benjamin’s approach to history. In his essay on “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” Lukács characterises progressive forms of political thought as beset by a dogmatism that keeps it from properly conceptualising historical change. Specifically, Lukács sees in bourgeois theories of history a dependence on “eternal laws of nature” that “abolish the process of history” and produce in its place a frozen, mechanistic image of history.[3] This image reflects the standpoint of its bourgeois purveyors, for whom:

“[History] is an antagonistic process that is not guided by a consciousness but is instead driven forward by its own immanent, blind dynamic and that this process stands revealed in all its immediate manifestations as the rule of the past over the present, the rule of capital over labour. It follows that any thinker who bases his thought on such ideas will be trapped in the frozen forms of the various stages.”[4]

That is to say, from this mechanistic viewpoint, history is the history of capital. The motions of history are seen as automatic because they are made identical with the cyclical motions of capital, that operate in an unconscious manner, unmoored from the intentions of any one individual, society, or class. The faith in progress is in this sense a resignation of historical agency to the rule of capital, expanding the laws of capital accumulation and expansion into a universal order on the level of history as a whole. The import of this critique of progress for Benjamin’s later critique of social democracy is clear: even espoused from the left, it is a conception of history that masks a bourgeois view of things. It universalises the conditions of capitalist history to history as a whole and makes progress into an object of faith, fit for the owners of capital, who only want to see one day pass after the next with ever greater returns on their investments, but unfit for those who need to understand history as a changeable process.


If progressive history is theoretically suspect, that is not the last of its problems. On top of its complacency in the face of capital, it is also conceptually limited on its own terms, resorting to definitions of time that are formally deficient. As Benjamin writes in the seventeenth thesis, this mode of historical thought:

“Rightly culminates in universal history. It may be that materialist historiography differs in method more clearly from universal history than from any other kind. Universal history has no theoretical armature. Its procedure is additive: it musters a mass of data to fill the homogeneous, empty time.”[5]

This homogeneous, empty time and its additive procedure is in many respects similar to Hegel’s discussion of spurious infinities in the Science of Logic, where a distinction is drawn between a purely quantitative form of infinity and an infinity which is properly self-reflexive. This first form of infinity is characterised by its subordination of finite particulars to its overarching form. That is, as each finite thing appears, ekes out its existence, and then subsides, it is assumed into an infinite sequence that transcends every one of its finite parts. This form of infinity exerts a homogenising principle over each of its parts, reducing them to the status of interchangeable, inconsequential elements that are added one after another in a sequence approaching infinity.

This is likewise the method by which Benjamin’s homogeneous, empty time is composed out of historical events, and the manner in which it is assembled into a universal history—in this case a universal history of progress. In Benjamin’s terms, homogeneous, empty time is a purely formal conception of time, which knows the passing of time only as a sequence of empty moments, measured in regular intervals without any regard for the content of those moments. It therefore entails a qualitative flattening of historical events, such that they become merely quantitative units that are indifferently assumed into the upward arc of progress. As Daniel López puts it in his commentary on Lukács’s early Marxist writings, “the reified view of history reduces historical time to quantity and sees the present as Heraclitus’s river; that is, as an eternal quantitative unfolding of the self-same.”[6] As in Dietzgen’s platitude for progressive history, the additive procedure of this universal history means that the future is always assured. Every day the world moves closer to a perfected state; and every day is spent like any other in wait for the time when the infinite task of progress is complete.

Now, it is important to note that the universal history criticised by Benjamin is not the same form of universal history found in Marxist thought, which is neither mechanistic, additive, nor transcendent of its constituent moments. Here we may again refer to Lukács, who writes that:

“History as a totality (universal history) is neither the mechanical aggregate of individual historical events, nor is it a transcendent heuristic principle opposed to the events of history, a principle that could only become effective with the aid of a special discipline, the philosophy of history.”[7]

The philosophy of history is, in Lukács’s terms, the crutch which holds up the notion of universal history as a transcendent form that stands over and above the empirical events of history. In effect, functioning as what Hegel would call a spurious infinity that functions only in its negative relation to its finite parts, which are homogenised and assumed into a transcendent sequence. This philosophical view of history, which is identical with history from the bourgeois standpoint, is opposed by a positively universal history which does not subordinate its moments but grasps their place within and as the totality of history itself. Universal history without a grasp of history as totality falls into dogmatism, as it loses the ability to relate the particular events of history to the overarching structure of history as totality.

Indeed, Benjamin says as much in his preparatory notes to the theses, where he remarks that:

“Universal histories are not inevitably reactionary. But a universal history without a structural principle is reactionary. The structural principle of universal history allows it to be represented in partial histories.”[8]

This structural principle stands opposed to the “transcendent heuristic principle” that defines reified, bourgeois views of history.[9] Whereas the latter of these principles suggests Hegel’s spurious infinity and the subordination of events to an abstract, quantitative view of history, the structural principle points to Hegel’s true infinity, which is not opposed to its particular, finite moments but is rather composed in the unity of finite particulars and infinite universals. In Lukács’s terms, too, the structural view of history means a de-reification of history as a philosophical concept, which no longer stands apart from the events that fill its homogeneous, empty units of time.


Now, having seen how Benjamin’s critiques of progress and universal history replicate the positions of Lukács and Hegel before him, we may turn to his own contribution to this discourse, and the ways that his position does differ from the Hegelian line. Having arrived at the true infinity of a legitimate universal history, we have seemingly arrived at the same point which Hegel announces in the final pages of the Phenomenology of Spirit. There, at the stage of absolute knowledge, Spirit grasps itself and its history as a totality, and having turned back on its previous stages to know itself and its past it becomes “a conscious, self-mediating process.”[10] Spirit in Hegel’s sense is not an ethereal force that stands apart from the events that make up its history, but is the process by which the rational human community becomes conscious of itself and capable of shaping itself. This is the realisation of a true universal history, which is grounded in Spirit that knows itself as the subject and object of its own historical knowledge.

For Hegel this is all well and good, but for Lukács something crucial has been missed. Standing at the pinnacle of bourgeois philosophy, Hegel has apprehended the form of universal history as a conscious, self-mediating process, but he has not grasped the real material instantiation of Spirit in history. Although absolute Spirit is intended as the culmination of a collective self-consciousness that knows itself and actively shapes itself, in doing so it also stands as the end of history in a stable and self-identical state. As Lukács writes:

“This amounts to the self-annulment of history. History is transformed into the mere realization of a goal inherent in its subject, its spirit from the very outset. At the same time, its immanent reality is also annulled: history does not contain its own real autonomous laws of motion, but on the contrary, the latter only really exist and come into their own in the science that comprehends and annuls history, i.e. in absolute knowledge.”[11]

In effect, “Lukács argued that Hegel’s proposed subject-object of history—world spirit—became a mythology” that could not bridge the gap between the idealism of Spirit and the reality of its historical existence.[12] The antinomy that develops here between the process of history and its realised goal remains unresolved in Hegel’s work, which requires history as the object of Spirit’s knowledge while demanding that it be wholly superseded in the knowing subject of history that is Spirit.[13]

To return to Benjamin, we may find a counterpoint to Hegel’s absolute Spirit in his cryptic allegory of the Angel of History. The Angel, we are told, is turned toward the past, at which he stares in horror while the winds of a storm catch hold of his wings and drive him irresistibly into the future. This storm, Benjamin tells us, is named progress. Like absolute Spirit, the Angel is a conscious subject who attempts to grasp history as a totality, such that “where a chain of events appears before us, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage.”[14] Unlike Hegel’s Spirit, however, the Angel is not the agent of its own destiny, as it is blasted to-and-fro by the storm of progress, flying against its will into a future it cannot see, eyes transfixed on a past it cannot save. Whereas absolute Spirit, as the completion of history, promises a redemption of its past—a redemption which it cannot, perhaps, achieve—the Angel is a figure that apprehends history in its totality but without hope of salvation.

In effect, Benjamin’s Angel functions as the melancholic shadow of Hegel’s Spirit. Spirit knows itself as the culmination of its history, grasping itself as both the subject and object of its historical knowledge, and thereby sets itself apart from history as its transcendent conclusion; the Angel, on the other hand, sees the totality of history as an object apart from itself, which it is incapable of reclaiming and making whole. The Angel of History is a mythic figure that understands itself as myth. It is a totalising subject of history that has lost its ambitions of apprehending its place within history, and resides in a self-conscious inactivity apart from the events that it beholds.

The Angel is therefore, despite popular readings to the contrary, not a revolutionary figure but an emblem of bourgeois historical thought in the era of its decline. It communicates in allegory the critique of progress developed in the rest of Benjamin’s theses, inverting the imaginary of progressive thought to show its other face: the immutable laws of history become a raging, implacable storm; the gradual completion of progress’s infinite task is transformed into the endless accumulation of ruins; and the hope for a self-conscious subject-object of history gives way to the hopeless proposition of a spirit that watches over history, doomed never to act upon or alter its course.


But the standpoints of Spirit and Angel are not all that is available to historical consciousness. Against Spirit’s mythic transcendence and the Angel’s mythic resignation stands a third figure, who is capable of consciously knowing itself within the totality of history and acting upon its position as the subject-object of that process. This figure is of course the proletariat, “the struggling, oppressed class itself,” which is in Benjamin’s terms “the subject of historical knowledge” and “the avenger that completes the task of liberation in the name of generations of the downtrodden.”[15] This class realises the idealistic hopes of Hegel’s Spirit as the subject-object of history because, in Lukács’s terms, “it is itself nothing but the contradictions of history that have become conscious.”[16] Just as Hegel’s Phenomenology narrates the growing consciousness of Spirit as the ideal subject-object of history, so too is the task of the proletariat that of becoming conscious of itself and thereby awakening history from the mythic slumber in which it has hitherto resided. As Lukács writes:

“This image of a frozen reality that nevertheless is caught up in an unremitting, ghostly movement at once becomes meaningful when this reality is dissolved into the process of which man is the driving force.”[17]

So too for Benjamin, the self-conscious activity of the collective worker arrives in history like the shock that awakens the sleeper from their dream, which in the final moments of sleep is interposed into the dreamworld and heralds the dissolution of that dream. No doubt Benjamin’s use of the dream metaphor brought with it a debt to that other branch of unorthodox, visionary Marxism—namely, the surrealism of Breton, Bataille, and Aragon—which would be a point of contention in his collaborations with Adorno and Horkheimer.[18] Likewise, the miraculous appearance of the proletariat as a salvific figure reveals the problematics of theology and messianism that underpin the Marxism of both Benjamin and Lukács.[19] Nevertheless, the dreaming collective and the awakening from myth were the central themes that would define the early stages of Benjamin’s Arcades Project, his entry into Marxism, and his attempt to follow thinkers such as Lukács out of the dreamworld of bourgeois philosophy. While the Angel remains bereft in myth, the proletariat resides in the background of its dreamworld, waiting to awaken the dead and make whole a history as yet unmourned. As Benjamin declares, the first rumblings of this awakening are already to be heard beneath the roar of this storm we call progress, because:

“Every epoch, in fact, not only dreams the one to follow but, in thus dreaming, precipitates its awakening. It bears its end within itself and unfolds it—as Hegel already noticed—by cunning. The earliest monuments of the bourgeoisie began to crumble long ago, but we recognize, for the first time, how they were destined for this end from the beginning.”[20]


[1] Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” in Selected Works, vol. 4, eds. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Belknap, 2003), 394.

[2] Benjamin, “Concept of History,” 394-5.

[3] Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, trans. Rodney Livingstone (London: Merlin Press, 1971), 48.

[4] Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, 181.

[5] Benjamin, “Concept of History,” 396.

[6] Daniel Andrés López, Lukács: Praxis and the Absolute (Chicago: Haymarket, 2020), 502.

[7] Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, 151-2.

[8] Walter Benjamin, “Paralipomena to ‘On the Concept of History,’” in Selected Works, vol. 4, eds. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Belknap, 2003), 404.

[9] Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, 152.

[10] G.W.F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), §808.

[11] Georg Lukács, The Young Hegel, trans. Rodney Livingstone (London: Merlin Press, 1975), 546-7.

[12] López, Lukács, 423.

[13] See Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, 194: “Mythologies are always born where two terminal points, or at least two stages in a movement, have to be regarded as terminal points without its being possible to discover any concrete mediation between them and the movement. This is equally true of movements in the empirical world and of indirectly mediated movements of thought designed to encompass the totality. This failure almost always has the appearance of involving simultaneously the unbridgeable distance between the movement and the thing moved, between movement and mover, and between mover and thing moved. But mythology inevitably adopts the structure of the problem whose opacity had been the cause of its own birth. […] Mythology is simply the reproduction in imagination of the problem in its insolubility.

[14] Benjamin, “Concept of History,” 392.

[15] Benjamin, “Concept of History,” 394.

[16] Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, 178.

[17] Lukács, History and Class Consciousness, 181.

[18] See the exchange between Adorno and Benjamin collected in Aesthetics and Politics (London: Verso, 2007), 110-134. On Benjamin’s surrealist influences, see Margaret Cohen, Profane Illumination: Walter Benjamin and the Paris of Surrealist Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).

[19] On Lukacs’s recourse to praxis as a lapse into the mythic thinking for which he criticised Hegel, see López, Lukács, 550. More broadly, on the empirical failure of an identical subject-object to materialise, see “An Identical Abject-Subject?” in Endnotes 4 (2015), 276-301.

[20] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge: Belknap, 1999), 898.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s