What is Historical? (Reading Benjamin’s Theses III & IV)

Klutsis - Lenin_and_socialist_reconstruction_Design_for_poster_-_Gustavs_Klucis
Gustav Klutsis, Lenin and Socialist Reconstruction (1920).


• III: The practices of historian and chronicler; their methods of citation, repetition, and judgement.
• IV: The materialist conception of history as class struggle.

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Thesis III:

The chronicler who narrates events without distinguishing between major and minor ones acts in accord with the following truth: nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost to history. Of course only a redeemed mankind is granted the fullness of its past—which 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 [a citation to be taken up as (part of) the business of the day]. And that day is Judgment Day.

(1) Chronicle

Who is this chronicler who steps so boldly into our discussion of history? They are certainly no historian, because they do not concern themselves with the sorting of events into the significant and insignificant, or ordering them into a narrative that would honour some and discard others.

Indeed, as Benjamin writes in his 1936 essay “The Storyteller,” the task of the historian and that of the chronicler could not be more different. The historian’s task is to explain events, to organise them into a narrative that imparts meaning onto them. The chronicler, however, only needs to display events in the order that they occurred. This is because the chronicler has been relieved of the burden of explaining by a higher power. For the medieval chroniclers this was the belief that all history was situated within an inscrutable plan of salvation. But Benjamin notes that this organising function may be served by natural history too, as in a passage from Johann Hebel that describes the events of the years following the 1755 Lisbon earthquake like the seasons passing in procession, or in a short story by Nikolai Leskov that tells of the time of the stones in the earth and the stars in the sky that have “grown indifferent to the fates of the sons of man.”[1] In either case, the chronicler is oriented toward an order that is external to all historical categories, which may impose meaning on those categories from outside without thereby being shaped in return by the contingencies of history.

The narrative flatness of the chronicle has not gone unnoticed among other theorists of history. As Hayden White writes, the chronicle appears as a kind of history without a story, and without a proper resolution, because it plainly gives a sequence of events stretching from an arbitrary starting point to an equally arbitrary end. Moreover, the chronicle seems especially deficient in comparison to historical writing in the way it admits no uncertainty as to the meaning or veracity of the events that it records. The chronicle is in a sense a one-sided view of events, which records them in “the order that they come to notice, [and] since there is no contest, there is no story to tell.”[2] But this is not to disparage the chronicler in favour of the historian, because the chronicle gives the lie to history’s narrative ambitions, revealing that the plot of historical narrative is always imposed from outside by the formal techniques of the historian rather than being simply ‘found’ in the events themselves. The task of the historian is in this sense, and not without some embarrassment, clarified by the chronicler: the historian not only explains events, but shapes them retroactively, refers them to other events scattered across time, and uses narrative order them and ensure their significance. Whereas for the chronicler this order must be either divine or natural in their absolute exteriority to history, for the historian there remains the freedom to locate a guiding principle immanent to history itself.

(2) Citation

If the practice of history is directed toward redemption, the state of redemption is here associated with citation. To be citable is to be retrievable, to be called up to stand in the present. Note that the French citation, like its English cousin, has the connotations of both quotation and legal summons, and in either case calls for the making present of a person, in body or in writing, who was formerly absent. Additionally, the phrase citation a l’ordre du jour, depending on context, denotes an entry on an agenda or the contents of a military dispatch. We’ll return to the significance of the day of judgement in respect to this agenda or dispatch in a moment, but for now it is important to emphasise the citation as the foundational act of history. To write history, whether in the form of the chronicle or of history proper, is not only to describe the events of the past but to summon them into the present, to return to them to some form of existence, in the same way a quotation from a text brings it to life within the context of another. A redeemed humanity would rediscover its past as something fully citable, recollected in all its moments, but for now we may only practice a limited redemption, stealing quotations from out of the dead books of history and letting them breathe for a few moments in the present.

The citation also recalls the figure of the collector, who appears in many of Benjamin’s writings of the 1930s. The collector is not only someone who gathers objects together in one place, but is someone who thereby frees those objects from the need to be useful, making them into artefacts that now stand only for themselves. The collector is in a sense a radical figure, who is capable of transforming objects by plucking them from the world, from their uses and from their social context, and elevating them to positions of self-sufficiency. In Giorgio Agamben’s reading of this passage, the revolutionary character of the collector is made explicit, when he reminds us that “in a traditional society neither the quotation nor the collection is conceivable, since it is not possible to break at any point the links of the chain of tradition by which the transmission of the past takes place.”[3] The collection stands opposed to other institutions that store and display cultural objects, because it permits any object, regardless of its sacral or artistic value, and places it in a heap of other objects without distinction between those that are traditionally deemed more or less significant.

(3) Repetition

The citation that Benjamin describes here is also a repetition. In summoning what once was back into being, it effects a return in time. In its most complete form, to which the chronicler holds faith, all moments are granted a return to life, and nothing is ever truly lost to history. Michael Löwy relates this return of all things to their original state to the Christian notion of apokatastis, or the restoration of creation on the day of judgement. Apokatastis denotes the multiple meanings of return, redemption, and restitution: it is part of the bodily resurrection of the dead, who will return to the earth to live again; it entails the redemption of all of creation, including even the devils and damned who will be saved by God’s grace; and it means the restitution of all who have been wronged, the victims of history who have lain dormant in the earth, who will in that moment be made whole once more. Picking up on this last sense of the word, Löwy associates apokatastis with the messianic Jewish notion of tikkun olam, or “repair of the world,” which also entails a moment of “redemption as the return of all things to their primal state.”[4]

This conception of repetition may also find its counterparts in philosophy, as when Kierkegaard writes of repetition and recollection as two complementary ideas, “the same movement, just in opposite directions, because what is recollected has already been and is thus repeated backwards, whereas genuine repetition is recollected forwards.”[5] This statement of the two ideas reflects the dialectic of happiness found in Thesis II, although Kierkegaard forecloses the possibility of a happy recollection, and invests all hopes for redemption in the faint possibility of repetition. Indeed, in his short book on the topic, Kierkegaard narrates a tale of a young, lovesick man who attempts to will a repetition of a love affair that he can only summon in recollection. For Kierkegaard, this recollection of the past is a melancholy affair, and must be opposed by a joyous “forward recollection” that constitutes a true repetition, which occurs in an unexpected manner, making new what was, and surprising those who look toward the past with the sudden appearance of the future.[6] This repetition would be a true moment of apokatastis—and it is no surprise that the example Kierkegaard gives is that of the restitution of Job’s family after his travails—but we should be wary of collapsing Benjamin’s philosophy of history into this future-oriented worldview. For Benjamin, it is backward-looking recollection that promises redemption, because while we are granted the power to preserve in memory what is past, only a god can repeat the past in all its fullness.

(4) Court of history

There is one last detail of this thesis that I’d like to call your attention to, and that is the final mention of Judgement Day. This is not the first time that Benjamin uses the day of judgement to describe the totality of history, and his use of it here may be illuminated by looking at its appearance elsewhere in his writing.

In a fragment written in 1921, Benjamin writes of the Last Judgement not as the day of retribution, but as the perpetually postponed day that holds retribution back. This wait for the day that never comes is not something to be lamented, but should be celebrated as a miracle, because the gap between now and then allows for an indefinite amount of time during which forgiveness may be granted. In the perpetually deferred wait for Judgement Day, “time not only extinguishes the traces of all misdeeds but also—by virtue of its duration, beyond all remembering or forgetting—helps, in ways that are wholly mysterious, to complete the process of forgiveness, though never of reconciliation.”[7]

In relation to this image of gradual forgiveness, we may turn to a letter that Horkheimer wrote to Benjamin in March of 1937, in which he remarks on the idealism of the historian who still believes in the incompleteness of history: “Past injustice has occurred and is completed. The slain are really slain… If one takes the lack of closure entirely seriously, one must believe in the Last Judgment.”[8] This is quite the critique of the position suggested by Benjamin’s allegory, in which that judgement is the sign of the radical openness of history. Forgiveness is all well and good, Horkheimer might say, but the dead are still dead! In response, Benjamin appends this comment to a copy of the letter found in his Arcades Project: “the corrective to this line of thinking may be found in the consideration that history is not simply a science but also and not least a form of remembrance. What science has ‘determined,’ remembrance can modify.”[9]

For a more sombre counterexample, in a short allegory from 1927, Benjamin puts forward the image of history as a trial that humanity brings against Creation for the failure of the Messiah to appear. The witnesses are those who can sense the future: the poet, the artist, the musician, and the philosopher. Although they all testify that the future is coming, they cannot agree on the details, and so the trial spirals into petty grievances, torture, and martyrdom. The members of the jury, composed of the living, succumb to the passage of time and leave their responsibilities to their descendants, who over the years vacate the court in fear. In the end, only the prosecutor (unsaved humanity) and the warring witnesses remain.[10] If the allegory of 1921 posits the wait for the Messiah as history’s greatest blessing, which allows us to evade judgement for our misdeeds, here the delay dooms us to an interminable decline, squabbling in the courtroom of history without a judge to resolve the dispute.

Finally, Benjamin’s use of legal metaphor to describe the course of history recalls Hegel’s famous description of world history as “the world’s court of judgement.”[11] In Hegel’s usage, the metaphor describes the subordination of individual human actors to the final say of universal history. Although the movement of history may appear to those within it as a vortex of contingency, propelled by the wanton desires of individuals whose actions are only taken with or against other individuals, they are only the finite particulars that will in time sink away into the “universal mind, the mind of the world, free from all restrictions” and exercising its “highest right” over its substituent characters.[12]

This is not exactly the image we find in Benjamin, but it may very well provide us with a secular alternative to the divine and natural orders that the chronicler sees at work in the events of history. And it also goes some way to comparing the tenuous optimism of both Benjamin and Hegel, who attempt to locate in the widest scope of history some freedom that might redeem the fallen nature of its parts. Where the two diverge, however, is on the desirability of this unity in the court of world history: for Benjamin there is restitution without reconciliation, because the deferral of judgement only allows for forgiveness, not renewal; while for Hegel history itself occupies the supreme standpoint of judgement from which reconciliation may be not only issued but enforced. In the allegory of 1921 our inability to initiate this judgement is a blessing, while in 1927 our attempts to realise it are a disaster. In 1940 we do not see the day arrive, but we know that the citations are being collected for the emergence of ‘a redeemed humanity’ and its ruling on history’s bloody disputes.

Thesis IV:

Seek for food and clothing first; then shall the Kingdom of God be granted to you.
—Hegel, 1807

Class struggle, which for a historian schooled in Marx is always in evidence, is a fight for the crude and material things without which no refined and spiritual things could exist. But these latter things, which are present in class struggle, are not present as a vision of spoils that fall to the victor. They are alive in this struggle as confidence, courage, humor, cunning, and fortitude, and have effects that reach far back into the past. They constantly call into question every victory, past and present, of the rulers. As flowers turn toward the sun, what has been strives to turn—by dint of a secret heliotropism—toward that sun which is rising in the sky of history. The historical materialist must be aware of this most inconspicuous of all transformations.

(1) Material histories

In this thesis we turn from the more theoretical matters of the previous theses toward the practical questions of class struggle. What has so far been a somewhat abstract rumination on redemption is here transformed into a far more direct statement on the stakes of historical work, its relation to the material conditions of the past, and the explicitly political dimensions of the historical work that questions the narratives of history’s victors.

Benjamin begins with a quote from Hegel that cheekily reverses the typical reading of his work, as it emphasises the material conditions that precede and allow for the pursuit of spiritual refinement. In Löwy’s reading, this is an example of Benjamin’s own sleight of hand, as he takes a phrase from Hegel, “the great Idealist philosopher,” and makes him endorse the “most elementary materialism.”[13] Certainly, some fun is being had with Hegel here, but the irony of the phrase is already his, not Benjamin’s, in that his phrase is itself a reversal of the lines from the Gospel of Matthew that read:

“Take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? […] But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.”[14]

Despite his reputation as an abstract and ethereal thinker, it is little surprise that this formulation should come from the pen of Hegel, whose work is not only one of the major influences on Marx’s historical materialism, but itself presents a thoroughly material account of human social relations. As has been noticed by Alexandre Kojève in his lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit, the entire dilemma of self-consciousness in that work begins and ends in the material questions of digestion and labour. The first stirring of self-consciousness is not that of a Cartesian ego sitting apart from its body, but of a living being that desires sustenance, to absorb part of the world into itself, and eventually to seek a more stable existence in the recognition of other living beings.[15] Similarly, Gillian Rose reads Hegel’s account of Spirit as one of an embodied subjectivity, which is constituted by the sociality of a human community and is propelled by the misunderstandings that arise from the often contradictory labours of individual humans in the world.[16]

So, rather than set up a tenuous opposition between the materialist Benjamin and the idealist Hegel, or posit an ironic reversal performed by one upon the other, the more important question here is what exactly is at stake in the materialism of historical materialism. What we find in both Benjamin and Hegel is evidently not a metaphysical materialism, which seeks in the concept of matter a primordial substance opposed to mind, Idea, or what have you. Rather, what is fundamental for the historical materialist is not substance but “the ensemble of the social relations” that make up our reality.[17] As Marx puts it in his “Theses on Feuerbach,” materialism has hitherto conceived reality “only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice,” which is to say the material world has been conceived as something separate from ourselves and only accessible as an object of thought, rather than as something shaped by our labours and therefore incorporated into the social world.[18]

(2) Class struggle

As Benjamin makes clear, in a society defined by its class divisions, the social composition of the material world is likewise shaped by class conflict. The content of this class struggle is not the abstract ideals or values of a given society, but the bare essentials of everyday life, which serve as the preconditions that make the existence or destruction of a class possible. For the historical materialist, the struggle for the basic means of survival is not something incidental to history as a whole, nor is it particular to extreme or exceptional moments of scarcity. It is the very stuff of history. As Marx and Engels famously put it in the Communist Manifesto, “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle.”[19] All history comes back to the “crude and material things” that sustain human life, the “food and clothing” without which the kingdom of heaven could not be imagined, let alone brought into being.

Although at first glance this equation of history with class struggle appears simple, it is not without its complexity. Note the contraction of past and present struggles that Benjamin performs, when, following Marx, he identifies in the class conflict of present-day society the possibility of redeeming the memory of past struggles, or of preserving the spirit that moved the people of the past to take up arms against the rulers of their day.

The class struggle about which Benjamin writes here is not only the modern struggle between capitalist and proletariat, but rather the struggle against all the “victors” and “rulers” of history, who have come out on top at one time or another over the indefinite span of time elapsed since the birth of class society. The bourgeoisie are the latest in a long line of historical victors, but they are also the inheritors of a ruling culture that encompasses aristocrats, kings, priests, and despots stretching back to the very beginnings of history, who have certainly warred with one another but have far more viciously suppressed the countless victims of history: the workers, the colonised, the serfs, the peasants, the slaves. All of these victories—all of these defeats—are called into question by the tradition of the oppressed that runs through all eras and reminds us that class struggle is not only the war of one class against another but the fight against class society itself. In this, all class struggles are one:  because they are either no true struggle, and merely trade rulers for rulers, or they seek to abolish the class division entirely and put an end to its procession of ruling classes.

(3) History from below

This identification of present struggle with that of the oppressed of history is not an innovation on Benjamin’s part, but an integral part of the practice of historical materialism. Parallel examples can be found throughout the works of Marx and Engels. For example, there is Engels’s short book on The Peasant War in Germany, which looks back to the revolutionary movement of Thomas Müntzer in the first quarter of the sixteenth century as a precursor to the proletarian movements of the nineteenth century. As Engels remarks, the origins of the German Peasants’ War have largely been misunderstood and classified by bourgeois historians as a dispute over theology rather than anything more material. “Should the people of that time, say our home-bred historians and political sages,” writes Engels, “have only come to an understanding concerning divine matters, there would have been no reason whatever for quarrelling over the earthly affairs.”[20] For the historical materialist, this understanding of the situation could not be further from the truth. Far from being the manifestation of a purely theological disagreement, the German Peasants’ War found its roots in the breakdown of feudal society and the desperation of the lowest classes deprived of the barest essentials for life.

As Engels recounts it, the main trends of the Reformation were decided by the various established class powers of sixteenth-century Germany: the emperor, monarchs, and princes of the fragmented polities that made up the Holy Roman Empire; the landed nobility that filled the courts of the rulers; the knights who vied for favour in military gambits; and the burghers who oversaw the commerce of the cities. The Reformation was a chance for these actors to play against each other, making fortunes or meeting their ruin. But as the feudal order deteriorated and the Reformation picked up speed, the main share of ruin was apportioned to the classes that remained without a voice in the new order: the rural peasants whose obligations to their lords were multiplied by conflict and whose guarantees from those lords were dissolved with the waning of feudal law; and the urban plebeians, the masses of people who fled the countryside in droves to seek precarious labour in the cities, and who, without any formal recognition within the feudal system, where “the only class that stood outside existing official society.”[21] The alliance of the peasants and the plebeians made up Müntzer’s faction, which sought the institution of a classless society, and which ultimately succumbed to the combined force of the dying feudal classes.[22] In the moment of crisis, the ruling classes lay down their arms against one another to form a bloc against the revolutionary faction, putting into sharp focus the distinction between the two-way split of class society into oppressors and oppressed.

The rule that history is the history of class struggle may be taken even further into the past, such as in the works of Pierre Clastres, or more recently those of James C. Scott, who attribute the formation of the first states in the ancient world to the violent imposition of class divisions and the forcible subjugation of peoples in the earliest known examples of slavery.[23] History itself is in this respect, from its beginnings, the history of class domination. Taken in another direction, the lesson of historical materialism is one of expansive sympathy for the lateral struggles of different classes against multiplied forms of subjection. As an example, we may look to a book written by Peter Linebaugh and titled after a line from William Blake, Red Round Globe Hot Burning, which maps the global resistance to the seizure of the commons at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Linebaugh weaves together stories that reach from the proletarian struggles of industrial England to the liberatory struggles of colonial Ireland, from the fight against slavery in Haiti to the indigenous movements of Central America, encompassing the myriad protests against the oppressions of class, race, and gender, which are all united across the revolutionary highways of the Atlantic by a common desire for a final shattering of the chains that keep us imprisoned and apart.[24] In contest with the ruling bloc of monarchical, aristocratic, and bourgeois classes is the disparate alliance of subordinated groups, the solidarity of which makes up the tradition of the oppressed across time, space, and the different forms of class subjection.

For the historical materialist, the project of abolishing class society may therefore be found throughout history as the desire of the subjugated classes who grasp the nature of their subjection. If victorious at last, the class that abolishes class society will be the last class, which dissolves itself and thereby realises dreams nurtured for millennia. This is what allows Benjamin to contract the past and the present of class struggle into one movement, and it is what allows him to make concrete the abstract, theological notion of redemption.

(4) Addendum on heliotropism and cunning

Before we are done with Thesis IV, I’d like to draw your attention to two last things.

The first is Benjamin’s curious mention of heliotropism, that is, the motion of plants to face the sun. Given what Benjamin says about this process—that “what has been strives to turn […] toward that sun which is rising in the sky of history”—we might well take it as expressing in allegory a summary of what the rest of the thesis states more programmatically. Not only do we in the present look to the past for some model for our present desires and dreams, but the past is also directed toward us, and seeks the realisation of its own desires and dreams in our actions. This is another way of expressing the formulation of weak messianic power, or the compact that the past holds over us, given in Thesis II. But in the context of class struggle, it also secularises this messianic principle, as it denotes an historical rather than theological power.[25]

The second is the mention of cunning in Benjamin’s list of the spiritual qualities of the oppressed classes, alongside their “confidence, courage, humor, […] and fortitude.” I want to emphasise the cunning of the oppressed to nip in the bud any Nietzschean complaints about Benjamin’s sympathy for the downtrodden of history. We will see in later theses the theme of historical victimhood accompanied by an expressed hatred for the victors of history and the desired revenge of the oppressed upon their oppressors. Together, these elements are reminiscent of Nietzsche’s famous diagnostic category of ressentiment, or the internalised, moralistic hatred that the oppressed feel for their oppressors, by which they transform an actual lack of power into a feeling of righteousness. This slave morality, as Nietzsche calls it, lets the enslaved say to themselves: “I am good because I do not do what my master does; my master is evil because they do what they do; in my suffering I am sanctified and in their wrongdoing the masters shall be damned.”[26] Is this moralism at all comparable to the virtues of class struggle that Benjamin describes?

Possibly not: Let’s not forget that the ressentiment of Nietzsche’s slave morality is a pacifying affect, which engenders hatred and vengeance in fantasy so as to sooth the pain of being impotent in fact, whereas in Benjamin’s theses the hatred of rulers and the revenge of enslaved classes are “source[s] of action, of active revolt, of revolutionary praxis.”[27] Ressentiment is an envy that has lost is practical side, which no longer has an identifiable object of struggle and has regressed to the fantasy of revenge in the belief in the otherworldly justice of the afterlife. If Benjamin describes a kind of envy, it is an envy that is entirely practical, that does not seek the salvation of heaven but the provision of food, clothes, and the other material things that sustain life.

But something is perhaps still to be gained from this Nietzschean encounter. If we are to accept Nietzsche’s diagnosis of slave morality, it is cunning that constitutes the active principle of that morality, which Nietzsche cannot help but admire. It is cunning that allows the priest to walk among the beasts of prey “venerable, clever, cold, deceptively superior,” as a new kind of hunter; it is cunning that will yield the “strong, independent spirit” of the new man.[28] It is also cunning that Nietzsche most admires in the people he otherwise reviles, such as the women who conceal “their tiger’s claws inside their glove[s],” or the socialists who compel the rulers of Europe to keep their wits about them lest they be outsmarted by a superior foe.[29] This cunning, which is treated ambiguously by Nietzsche, is for Benjamin one of the defining qualities of the oppressed, who survive not only by courage and strength, but by their intelligence and secrecy.[30] As we continue through the theses we will also see the cunning of the historical materialist on display, as they uncover the hidden traditions of the oppressed, tell history against the grain, and undermine the narratives of history’s victors.


[1] Walter Benjamin, Selected Works, vol. 3, eds. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 153.

[2] Hayden White, The Content of the Form (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1987), 19. Compare this to Peter Fenves on Benjamin’s early historiography, in The Messianic Reduction (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), 237: “The chronicle is reduced history […] The chronicle is distinguished from other modes of historiography in that I ‘chronicle’ occurrences without any intention of determining how they follow from one another, much less how one epoch is related to another.”

[3] Giorgio Agamben, The Man Without Content, trans. Georgia Albert (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), 105.

[4] Michael Löwy, Fire Alarm, trans. Chris Turner (London: Verso, 2005), 35.

[5] Søren Kierkegaard, Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs, trans. M.G. Piety (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 3.

[6] On the parallels between Kierkegaard and Hegel on repetition and futurity, see: Gillian Rose, The Broken Middle (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988), 24-9.

[7] Walter Benjamin, Selected Works, vol. 1, eds. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), 287.

[8] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), N8,1.

[9] Benjamin, Arcades Project, N8a,1.

[10] Walter Benjamin, Selected Works, vol. 2, eds. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 68.

[11] G.W.F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, trans. H.B. Nisbet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), §340.

[12] See also, Löwy, Fire Alarm, 64-5 on this passage in Hegel.

[13] Löwy, Fire Alarm, 37.

[14] Mat. 6:31-3. For the source of Hegel’s phrase, see G.W.F. Hegel, The Letters, trans. Clark Butler and Christiane Seiler (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), 142.

[15] See: Alexandre Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, trans. James H. Nichols, Jr. (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1969), 3-30.

[16] Gillian Rose, Mourning Becomes the Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 71-2.

[17] Karl Marx, Early Writings, trans. Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton (London: Penguin, 1975), 422.

[18] Marx, Early Writings, 421. See also Karl Korsch, Karl Marx (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2017), 127-8.

[19] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” in Karl Marx, The Political Writings (London: Verso, 2019), 61.

[20] Frederick Engels, The Peasant War in Germany (New York: International Publishers, 1966), 12.

[21] Engels, Peasant War, 15.

[22] As an illuminating counterpoint, see Guy Debord’s suggestion that there was nonetheless something theological about Müntzer’s rebellion, limited as it was by the forms of political consciousness available at that time. The revolutionaries of 1525 sought to prepare for God’s kingdom on earth, leaving the possibility of making that kingdom unrealised: “The peasant class could achieve a clear consciousness neither of the workings society nor of the way to conduct its own struggle, and it was because it lacked these prerequisites of unity in its action and consciousness that the peasantry formulated its project and waged its wars according to the imagery of an earthly paradise.” Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Zone Books, 1995), 101-3.

[23] Pierre Clastres, Society Against the State, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Zone Books, 1989); James C. Scott, Against the Grain (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017).

[24] Peter Linebaugh, Red Round Globe Hot Burning (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2021).

[25] Compare this image of the heliotrope to Georg Lukács’ comments on the revolutionary leap that “turn[s] in the direction of something qualitatively new,” in History and Class Consciousness, trans. Rodney Livingstone (London: Merlin Press, 1971), 250.

[26] Paraphrase of Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality, trans. Carol Diethe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), §I.10.

[27] Löwy, Fire Alarm, 81.

[28] Nietzsche, Genealogy, 92; and Beyond Good and Evil, eds. Rolf-Peter Hortsmann and Judith Norman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 37.

[29] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 129; and The Will to Power, trans. R. Kevin Hill and Michael A. Scarpitti (London: Penguin, 2017), §125.

[30] We may add, following Fredric Jameson’s direction, that accusations of ressentiment are nearly always auto-referential. The term was formalised by bourgeois and aristocratic writers of the nineteenth century in an attempt to discredit the rising proletarian movement. Looking upon the growing power of the working class and feeling their status in society under threat, they ascribe to the workers’ movement an ulterior motive, effectively projecting the insecure moralism of the established powers onto those who would displace them. What the reactionaries cannot accomplish with their diminished political acumen, they make up for with their fantasies about how the other side lives. See: Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious (London: Routledge, 1983), 189-90.

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