The Soteriological Machine (Reading Benjamin’s Theses I & II)

Varo - The Juggler - 1956
Remedios Varo, The Juggler (1956).


• I: Benjamin’s opening allegory of the Mechanical Turk, the distinction between historical materialism and historicism, and the place of theology.
• II: The retrospective definition of happiness and the secular counterparts to messianic redemption.

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Next section (III & IV)

Thesis I:

There was once, we know, an automaton constructed in such a way that it could respond to every move by a chess player with a countermove that would ensure the winning of the game. A puppet wearing 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 on all sides. Actually, a hunchbacked dwarf—a master at chess—sat inside and guided the puppet’s hand by means of strings. One can imagine a philosophic counterpart to this apparatus. 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 small and ugly and has to keep out of sight.

(1) The game of historical materialism

What to make of this curious allegory? At its core stands the well-known contraption known as the ‘Mechanical Turk,’ which stunned the courts of Europe at the end of the eighteenth century with its apparent ability to play chess autonomously, without the guidance of a human mind or hands. As the story goes, the device was eventually revealed as a hoax, controlled by a hidden grandmaster, whose skills were put to use in service of the machine and its owner. The puppet, we are told, is named ‘historical materialism,’ a term which will appear frequently throughout the theses, but here bears a brief explanation.

One possible point of reference for Benjamin’s account of historical materialism is the unorthodox Marxist theorist Karl Korsch, whose works appear in the collected notes of Benjamin’s Arcades Project more than any other Marxist writer, including Marx himself. For Korsch, the break between Marx and the idealist philosophers who preceded him is marked by his discovery of the historical process that underlies the formation of ideological structures and economic laws. While the idealist philosophers and bourgeois economists had come to a certain understanding of the social world and its composition, they understood it in a “mystified form only,” mistaking the forms of their own historical situation for transhistorical, natural laws.[1] As we will see in later theses, Benjamin contrasts historical materialism with historicism, which is identical with bourgeois philosophy of history in Korsch’s sense because it performs this same operation of justifying the present shape of society by making it appear natural and eternal. Where the historicist seeks immutable laws within history, the historical materialist seeks the mutability of all laws.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves; this first reference to historical materialism is made ambiguous by the way Benjamin places it within the allegory. Note the quotation marks around the term, which seem to suggest that this is not the true ‘historical materialism’ but a fraud. Plenty of commentators on this passage have associated the puppet not with the historical materialism of Korsch, but with the Soviet state philosophy of dialectical materialism, which insists upon the mechanical necessity of historical events, that lead inevitably to the triumph of socialism over capitalism. In this sense, the theology that hides within the mechanism denotes the essentially religious aspect of Soviet Marxism, with its dogmatism and orthodoxy, that knows it will win the game ahead of time thanks to its unshakeably faith in the laws of history.

Is this the real historical materialism or not? In his commentary on the theses, in his excellent little book Fire Alarm, Michael Lowy equivocates on this point, suggesting that the puppet stands in for the bastardised Marxism of the Stalinists, while also saying that true historical materialism must also need theology if it is to win.[2] Both interpretations will find support in later theses, which will work to differentiate historical materialism from its philosophical usurpers, and which will return to theology as the conceptual armoury for radical politics. But at this point in the theses the stakes of historical materialism are not clear—and neither is the role of theology.

(2) The dwarf of theology

Whereas historical materialism is the puppet that appears to move the pieces on the chessboard, theology, we are told, is the dwarf that sits beneath the table, manipulating the puppet such that it always emerges victorious. For this trick to work, theology must be kept out of sight, so that the workings of historical materialism may appear autonomous from any guiding hand.


This allegiance of theology with historical materialism is not as surprising as it may first appear. In contrast to the earlier, rationalist and Enlightenment critiques of religion, which treated it negatively as a superstition to be dispelled, for the Marxist it is essential to grasp theology among other ideological systems “as concrete realities and not as empty fantasies.”[3] That is, the historical materialist does not seek to simply refute religious thought but wishes to grasp its reality as a form of life rather than a set of beliefs. In this manner, Marx’s early critique of religion lays the groundwork for all later Marxist writing on ideology, for which religious thought is the prototypical example of ideology as a reality rather than a mere illusion.

But this is not exactly the relation of theology to historical materialism that Benjamin presents in his allegory. On a close inspection, the relation between theology and historical materialism is actually presented twice, in contradictory terms. In the allegory itself, the theological dwarf is the master of the machine, directing its movements from his hidden chamber; whereas in the final sentence Benjamin gives his interpretation of the tale and states that theology is “enlisted” in the service of historical materialism, reversing the priority of the two figures and making the machine the master of the dwarf.

The contradictory place of theology in this thesis may be ascribed to Benjamin himself, given his ambivalent comments on the theological throughout his writings. This is an ambivalence to which we will return, but for the time being it is worth mentioning a couple of ways that commentators have tried squaring the circle to make sense of this thesis. One of those is that of Michael Lowy, who affirms the contradiction and suggests that theology and historical materialism “are both the master and the servant of each other” at different times, that they “need each other” in some constitutive way.[4] Another option is to defuse the contradiction, as Slavoj Zizek does by likening it to the contradiction of allegory in general, which must always furnish an additional interpretation to make its meaning explicit, and paper over the gap between signifier and signified. [5] In my view, neither of these solutions is entirely satisfactory, because they presuppose the distinction between historical materialism and theological thought that Benjamin is evidently attempting to blur by placing them together within the one mechanism.

(3) Gothic Marxism

I would like to suggest another option, which hinges on the Marxist critique of ideology just mentioned. By taking religion as the formal model for ideological thought in general, the historical materialism of Marx collapses the distinction between religious belief and practice, and between the spheres of religion and social life in general. Unlike the rationalist critics of religion who preceded Marx, who conceived of religion only in the negative form of superstition, the historical materialist grasps the social basis for all superstitions, which cannot be swept away in thought without a total upheaval of life on a practical level. As Marx writes in his theses on Feuerbach: “All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.”[6] The historical materialist must therefore approach theology as another practice among many, which has been given ideological pride of place among certain cultures at certain times, and today may still serve as a representative part of the social superstructure as a whole.


In Benjamin’s allegory too, theology is denigrated as something which has become wizened and impotent, while it nonetheless provides the key by which historical materialism may survey the state of the board and plot its next moves. This enlistment of theology by historical materialism, not for its own sake but as a hidden zone within modern thought, takes us close to what Margaret Cohen has described as the “Gothic Marxism” of Benjamin’s thought. For the Gothic Marxist, the “realm of a culture’s ghosts and phantasms” is not a “mirage to be dispelled” but “a significant and rich field of social production” that may be excavated from within “a culture’s detritus and trivia as well as its strange and marginal practices.”[7] As we will see in the rest of the theses, theology will be the source of concepts and the motor behind ideological critique, but it will not be allowed to stand as itself. It will, as Benjamin insists, be kept out of sight, forced to work in the shadows as the double of historical materialism, which works behind the scenes to grant historical materialism the acuity it needs to win the game.

Thesis II:

“It is one of the most noteworthy peculiarities of the human heart,” writes Lotze, “that so much selfishness in individuals coexists with the general lack of envy which every present day feels toward its future.” This observation indicates that the image of happiness we cherish is thoroughly colored by the time to which the course of our own existence has assigned us. There is happiness—such as could arouse envy in us—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, the idea of happiness is indissolubly bound up with the idea of redemption. The same applies to the idea of the past, which is the concern of history. The past carries with it a secret index by which it is referred to redemption. Doesn’t a breath of the air that pervaded earlier days caress us as well? In the voices we hear, isn’t there an echo of now silent ones? Don’t the women we court have sisters they no longer recognize? If so, then there is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Then our coming was expected on earth. Then, like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak messianic power, a power on which the past has a claim. Such a claim cannot be settled cheaply. The historical materialist is aware of this.

(1) Happiness

Having puzzled over Benjamin’s preparatory allegory, we are here introduced to some of the core concepts that will make up his theory of history. The first of these is his formulation of happiness, and the conditions under which it may be achieved. By way of a quotation from Hermann Lotze, Benjamin notes the essentially backward-looking nature of happiness. When we desire happiness, or when we envy an imagined moment of happiness, we do not, Benjamin suggests, desire a future state of affairs but cast our minds back to the past. Benjamin’s examples are those of past encounters that were in some way lost: the places we miss, the people we failed to connect with, the romances that passed us by. Likewise, following Lotze, the moments that provoke our envy are those that lie irretrievably in the past, perfected by their passage from the uncertainty of the present into the stasis of memory. Although it has passed out of reach, the image of happiness nevertheless exercises a sway over us, demanding its recollection if not its actual completion.

In her reading of this passage, Alison Ross suggests that Benjamin’s association of happiness with the wish should be understood as a Freudian theme, reflecting Freud’s hypothesis that it is the childhood wish that lies dormant in the adult and determines the desire for and feeling of fulfillment in adult life.[8] Certainly, for Benjamin happiness is essentially a kind of wish fulfillment, but it also clearly extends beyond the psychic life of any singular individual, and has some wider importance for thinking the relation between past and present on a wider, historic scale.

In a short note written between 1928 and 1930, Benjamin puts forward a definition of happiness similar to that which appears in Thesis II, which he differentiates from another, future-oriented form of happiness. The note goes as follows: “Dialectics of happiness: a twofold will—the unprecedented, that which has never existed before, the pinnacle of bliss. Also: eternal repetition of the same situation, eternal restoration of the original, first happiness.”[9] Happiness has two forms—in a word: the happy surprise and the fulfilled wish. The surprise is, if not exactly future-oriented, unbound from the past as something without precedent, which delights us with the appearance of the new. The wish-come-true, on the other hand, is not only a repetition of something past, but its restoration in original form. If both forms of desire seem a touch impossible to realise—as the appearance of the radically new and the return of an original utterly lost—it is perhaps their interplay that informs the real, practical happiness that we can achieve. Dialectically reversed, the two forms of happiness complete one another: the surprise that we miss in the moment becomes the object of the wish; while we search in vain for the object of our wish, we are surprised by happiness we did not know we wanted. In later theses, Benjamin will call attention to these brief moments of recognition, which flash before our eyes and disappear, and ascribe to them an especial importance within his theory of historical knowledge.

(2) Retrospection as redemption

The quotation from Lotze doesn’t only concern the envy that a person may feel for moments in their own past, but also applies to the wider relation between the past and the present. As Benjamin writes, the same dialectic of happiness and fulfillment “applies to the idea of the past [in general], which is the concern of history.” In Lotze’s philosophy of history, the historical conception of this dialectic is essential, because it informs the entirety of our relation to the past. In a passage from Lotze’s Microkosmos that Benjamin records in his Arcades Project notes, we find the crux of this problem summarised like so:

“To hold that the claims of particular times and individual men may be scorned and all their misfortunes disregarded if only mankind would improve overall is, though suggested by noble feelings, merely enthusiastic thoughtlessness […] Nothing is progress which does not mean an increase of happiness and perfection for those very souls which had suffered in a previous imperfect state.”[10]

That is, Lotze insists that the conception of historical progress must not be shorn of the debt owed by the present to the past, because a true progress would be one that improves the lot of our forebearers and not only of ourselves or our descendants. Just as our personal happiness depends on the fulfillment of a previously frustrated wish, so too does history demand the satisfaction of the dreams of the long dead, whose sufferings must not be scorned for the sake of our own empty pleasures.

And so, in moving from the personal into the historical sphere, Benjamin repeats his examples of the places, people, and encounters that are missed in the form of a series of questions that relate to our recollection of history. Do we not breath the same air as previous generations? Are there not echoes of the past in the everyday speech that surrounds us? Is a present romantic encounter not shadowed by the recollection of earlier romances, whether they be our own or those we have heard and ourselves become enamoured with? If these questions are answered in the affirmative then, Benjamin reasons, our present actions are not unique and unprecedented, but are governed by a secret pact with the past, which was made before our lives even began, and which demands the redemption of that past in our present actions. As Fredric Jameson suggests in his reading of the Theses, events in the past “demand completion by events in the future; their redemption is not a personal one, not a bodily resurrection, but a reenactment that brings them to realization and fulfillment.”[11] Or, in a variant of the Thesis II that Benjamin recorded in his Arcades Project, we find it written that:

“Our life, it can be said, is a muscle strong enough to contract the whole of historical time. Or, to put it differently, the genuine conception of historical time rests entirely upon the image of redemption.”[12]

(3) Messianic power

This brings us to Benjamin’s rather unclear formulation of “weak messianic power” as the bond that ties us to a past that demands fulfillment in the present. The term immediately provokes the question: Why is it a weak messianic power, specifically?

The most prominent commentaries on this question are unsatisfactory. Giorgio Agamben, for instance, argues that the weakness of this messianic power is a reference to Second Corinthians, when Christ’s power is said to be “made perfect in weakness” allowing Paul to declare: “I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:9-10). Agamben supports this hypothesis with a spurious reference to Luther’s Bible, as if the presence of two ordinary German words, Kraft (power) and Schwachen (weakness), in both Luther’s phrase and Benjamin’s necessitates the influence of one on the other.[13] On this point, Lowy is a step ahead of Agamben, when he notes that the expression not only has its theological precursors but has a special significance for the present, bearing in its weakness “the melancholy conclusion” that “redemption is anything but assured; it is merely a slim possibility, which one has to know how to grasp.”[14] Moreover, by turning Benjamin’s notion of weak messianic power into a mere quotation of Paul, Agamben elides the question at hand: what is it that is specifically weak about this messianic power? Or, stated more directly: how might this weak messianic power differ from a strong messianic power?

If weak messianic power is expressed in the tenuous claim that the past has on us, and is exercised in our fulfilment of past promises, wishes, and desires, then its strong counterpart must be a more assured, more fulfilled, and altogether more messianic power than the one available to us. That is, it must be the power of the Messiah themselves when they appear on the historical stage and usher in a new, messianic epoch. This strong messianic power would bring with it a new relation between past and present, such that the promise of redemption which had formerly been incomplete would be absolutely fulfilled for all of history.

For the Jewish sources of Benjamin’s messianism, the moment of messianic completion has not yet arrived. In contrast to this position of messianic non-arrival, and as an example of a strong messianic power and its transformation of historical consciousness, we can turn to the Christian practice of figural interpretation, which sought to locate in the earlier Hebrew scriptures signs that would be fulfilled in the future life of Christ. Under this mode of interpretation, the events of the Old Testament are firstly treated on a literal level as historical events concerning the trials of God’s chosen people, while on a second level specific events from that history may be taken as prefigurations of events within the life of Christ. The bondage of the Hebrews in Egypt, for example, figures the three days that Christ spends in hell following his crucifixion. As Erich Auerbach writes in his masterful essay on figuration, “figural interpretation creates a connection between two events or persons in which one signifies not only itself but also the other—and that one is also encompassed or fulfilled in the other.”[15] The messianic event not only completes but subsumes the rest of history, subordinating the many happenings of history to the singular event that grants them completion.

For the Christian theologian, for whom the Messiah has already come, history is imbued with a strong messianic power in the form of the assurance that Christ lived and died, that his living and dying were foretold in the eras prior to his birth, and that the import of his life and death is realised in the salvation of all who have lived or will live. But if this ability to re-order the world is the power of the Messiah, then in the time before their arrival what we are left with is only the weakened form of this messianic power, which expresses the yearning of the past to be fulfilled, and which for the time being may only be perfected in memory. As we will see in later theses, the strong messianic power of the arrived Messiah is refused at every turn in Benjamin’s work, which insists upon the exteriority of the messianic with respect to historical events and fosters in its place the practices of remembrance that remain for we humans in the absence of divine intercession.

(4) Secularising messianism

With the non-arrival of the Messiah in mind, it is worth pausing here to consider the significance of theology to Benjamin’s thought. Two distinctions can be made concerning the practicality of Benjamin’s encounter with theology.

Firstly, Benjamin’s notion of redemption introduced in this passage must not be confused with that of the Christian Messiah. This is because the concept of redemption that he inherits from Jewish messianism is already historical and material in character. As Gershom Scholem remarks, whereas Christianity “conceives of redemption as an event in the spiritual and unseen realm, an event which is reflected in the soul, in the private world of each individual,” the Jewish tradition maintains “a concept of redemption as an event which takes place publicly, on the stage of history and within the community.”[16] The act of redemption is therefore practical, not moral, and initiates a transformation in this world rather than salvation in the next.

Secondly, we should not for this reason confuse Benjamin’s own concept of redemption with that of a purely theological kind. We are not dealing with the strong power of a realised messianism, but the weak power that remains in the absence of the Messiah. This weak messianic power is the force that the past exerts over the present, that we can redeem only in our remembrance. As Benjamin writes in his Arcades Project, the practice of remembrance can bring about a limited kind of redemption, but it must not be mistaken for a solely theological concept:

“Such remembrance can make the incomplete (happiness) into something complete, and the complete (suffering) into something incomplete. That is theology; but in remembrance we have an experience that forbids us to conceive of history atheologically, little as it may be granted to us to try to write it with immediately theological concepts.”[17]

In our remembrances, we are forbidden from conceiving the past without its theological significance, but we are conversely banned from writing of it in a directly theological manner. That is, we are to engage with the messianic without more than a conceptual reference to its theological roots.[18]

This puts us at as some distance from the more religiously inclined readings of Benjamin’s work, which would insist that theology retains its independence and primacy within his work. But holding theology at arm’s length is necessary for us to maintain a properly historical materialist perspective—and here we may take Marx’s comparable use of philosophy as our model. Just as in Marx’s work the thought of philosophy is superseded by the interplay of theory and practice, so too is theology to be treated as something deprived of its independence as a purely intellectual field.[19] Still, the problems of theology may be of interest, just as those of philosophy sometimes are, but they are no longer so for their own sake: they are now exercises used to sharpen our wits; their concepts have become tools to be furnished in the service of our praxis; and they are to be discarded when their purpose is complete. To paraphrase Marx’s phrase that put the final nail in the coffin of pure philosophy: The theologians have only interpreted the relation between humanity and the divine; the point is to change it![20]


[1] Karl Korsch, Karl Marx (Chicago: HaymarketBooks, 2017), 151.

[2] Michael Löwy, Fire Alarm, trans. Chris Turner (London: Verso, 2005), 25.

[3] Karl Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy, trans. Fred Halliday (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1970), 73.

[4] Löwy, Fire Alarm, 27.

[5] Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 1989), 152.

[6] Karl Marx, Early Writings, trans. Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton (London: Penguin, 1975), 423.

[7] Margaret Cohen, Profane Illumination: Walter Benjamin and the Paris of Surrealist Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 11.

[8] Alison Ross, Revolution and History in Walter Benjamin (New York: Routledge, 2019), 23.

[9] Walter Benjamin, Selected Works, vol. 2, eds. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 287.

[10] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), N13,3.

[11] Fredric Jameson, The Benjamin Files (London: Verso, 2020), 232.

[12] Benjamin, Arcades Project, N13a,1.

[13] Giorgio Agamben, The Time That Remains, trans. Patricia Dailey (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005), 140.

[14] Löwy, Fire Alarm, 33.

[15] Erich Auerbach, Time, History, and Literature, trans. Jane O. Newman (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), 96.

[16] Gershom Scholem, The Messianic Idea in Judaism, trans. Michael A. Meyer (New York: Schocken, 1971), 1.

[17] Benjamin, Arcades Project, N8,1. My emphasis.

[18] Compare the passages above to Benjamin’s likening of the role of theology in his thought to that of the ink which saturates a blotting pad: “My thinking is related to theology as blotting pad is related to ink. It is saturated with it. Were one to go by the blotter, however, nothing of what is written would remain” (Arcades Project, N7a,7).

[19] On Marx’s lack of a philosophy per se, and his desire to subsume philosophical thought within the practical side of thinking, see Etienne Balibar, The Philosophy of Marx, trans. Chris Turner (London: Verso, 2017).

[20] See: Marx, Early Writings, 423.

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