The Messianic Remnant (Reading Benjamin’s Theses A & B)

Adolf Hirémy-Hirschl, Seaside Cemetery (1897).


• A: Summing up the structure of historical time presented in the theses.
• B: Summing up the critical reading of Benjamin and bringing to the fore the unresolved problematics of the theses.

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Thesis A:

Historicism contents itself with establishing a causal nexus among various moments in history. But no state of affairs having causal significance is for that very reason historical. It became historical posthumously, as it were, through events that may be separated from it by thousands of years. The historian who proceeds from this consideration ceases to tell the sequence of events like the beads of a rosary. He grasps the constellation into which his own era has entered, along with a very specific earlier one. Thus, he establishes a conception of the present as now-time shot through with splinters of messianic time.

(1) The final theses

The last two theses are oddly placed, not only because they lack the numeration of the previous theses. Unlike the other theses, A and B are not present in all the extant copies of the text but are additions to an early draft that Benjamin later dropped, and which have been added back in by the editors of his collected works “on account of their scholarly interest.”[1] And certainly they are of interest in the way they recapitulate the central themes of the eighteen theses that precede them with a renewed sense of theological gravity, yet without providing an entirely cohesive conclusion to the text. In a close reading of the theses, we should be alert to the ways that theses A and B make explicit a discontinuity already present in the text, in which the numerical order of the theses belies an apparently arbitrary sequencing of material. Conversely, we should perhaps be wary of attributing too much to this anomaly given the vast masses of notes and fragments that Benjamin left scattered in the hands of friends upon his successive flights from Germany and France. It is one of the vices of Benjamin scholarship that the overambitious reader, on the one hand, wishes to find a hidden system in this mass of material yet, on the other, finds the fragmentation of Benjamin’s legacy all too convenient for the imposition of systems alien to it.

To cure us of our hermeneutical hastiness we would do well to heed the words of Gershom Scholem, who described the theses as “a legacy of ciphers—the sort that only a metaphysician in the vein of Edgar Allan Poe could have devised.”[2] Of course, as these sorts of Gothic tales go, it is the reader of the enciphered text just as much as its writer who is subject to all sorts obsessions, paranoias, and possessions. So rather than decipher these last two theses I would like to use them as opportunities to declutter: to perform some scholarly housekeeping and put our reading of the theses as a whole in order.

Thesis A, I believe, gives us ample reason to hone in on Benjamin’s critical powers, especially in the way it presents the final delineation of historical materialism from its historicist rivals and in its recapitulation of what has been said elsewhere about the structure of historical time. Reading the rest of the theses through Thesis A, we may discover here three principal components that make up Benjamin’s critique of the concept of history. They are as follows: (1) the unfulfilled form of historical time as quantitative measure; (2) the exteriority of messianic fulfilment to the historical sequence of events; (3) the necessity of secularising, if not immanentising, this messianic transcendence. We will elaborate on each of these points in turn.

(2) The beads of a rosary

Thesis A begins with Benjamin’s final comment on historicism and its fallacious practice of telling history:

“Historicism contents itself with establishing a causal nexus among various moments in history. But no state of affairs having causal significance is for that very reason historical. [It tells] the sequence of events like the beads of a rosary.”

Let’s begin with this image of the rosary and work backwards from there. In a sense, the rosary functions as a perfect image for the concept of homogeneous empty time that Benjamin has outlined so far. Like the beads of a rosary the units of homogeneous empty time are uniform with respect to one another and are measured in a quantitative manner. Dependent on creed, the beads may vary in colour or size, but in all cases they are subordinated to an additional, temporal order: each bead passes through the fingers of the believer according to the rhythm of prayer, affixing to each moment a set time and a set place within its sequence. Further, reflecting Benjamin’s belief that the myth of eternal return is only the infernal double of the faith in progress, the completion of each prayer cycle returns the believer to the same place in the sequence, which comes to occupy the determining role of structural principle that holds the uniform pieces in order.

Now, so far the rosary is about a good an illustration of homogeneous empty time as the clock-face, which is also marked by uniform segments that follow one another in a circle. But the rosary has a greater significance than its ability to impose temporal order: it is an object of devotion, of faith, which orders the prayers of the believer before it shapes their perception of time. In a negative light, we can liken this faith to that which the historicist holds in the concept of progress, which is likewise deployed with the ambition of adding up the units of homogeneous empty time to something approximating salvation. But in another light, we should know that each bead itself holds the promise of salvation: each truly felt prayer recognises its moment as one that is potentially divine, ready to be broken from the sequence of homogeneous empty time.

Against this possibility of temporal rupture the historicist is content with positing a ‘causal nexus’ that puts all the moments of homogeneous empty time in their proper place. Governed only by the bare laws of causality, one moment must follow another, appearing for a moment and disappearing without note into the great mass of past moments that make up the stuff of progress. As Benjamin puts it in the supplementary notes to the theses: “Only when the course of historical events runs through the historian’s hands smoothly, like a thread, can one speak of progress.”[3] The concept of progress does not ensure the smooth motion from one moment to the next but demands it, because any irregularity threatens to upset the entire sequence and give the lie to the whole charade. Elsewhere in the supplementary notes Benjamin labels the “ideal” of Social Democracy as an “infinite task” which seeks to achieve its progress in so gradual and piecemeal a manner that its realisation is doomed to remain always just out of reach.[4] This is a blunder that no amount of stalled progress or gutted social democratic experiments can disprove, because each advance is so infinitesimal that each setback can only be measured against the ideal.

(3) Non-relation of the messianic to history

If Benjamin is critical of the social-democratic faith in a progress that never arrives, it is not because it defers the moment of realisation but because it misapprehends its nature. In Benjamin’s own conception of the messianic situation there are all manner of postponements and false alarms that keep the moment from arriving. But whereas the historicist insists that the moment of progress’s realisation can be brought about gradually, Benjamin’s position holds to the absolute distinction between the time of messianic fulfilment and the ordinary sequence of time. One does not lead to the other; one is shattered by the other. History is not the waiting room in which we sit before moving on to our appointment with the messiah, it is meeting room in which we anxiously wait for the messiah’s arrival, who arrives from outside and according to a schedule unknown to us.[5] There is nothing immanent to history that may fulfil it: “No state of affairs having causal significance is for that very reason historical. It became historical posthumously.” As in Benjamin’s very early comments on messianic time as an ‘idea’ that stands apart from and informs history, the present thesis describes a puncturing of the present moment by the intrusion of the messianic in “a conception of the present as now-time shot through with splinters of messianic time.”[6]

In a highly problematical sense, the messianic must be conceived as exterior to history. It can never arrive from within the sequence of historical events lest it become just one more event among others. It must instead arrive from a transcendent point above and beyond historical time. Benjamin says as much in his ‘Theological-Political Fragment’ of the early 1920s, in which he states that “nothing that is historical can relate itself, from its own ground, to anything messianic”—“only the Messiah himself completes all history, in the sense that he alone redeems, completes, creates its relation to the messianic.”[7] It is the confusion of the messianic with the historical that begets the myth of progress, which posits the messianic as a goal immanent to the historical dynamic. However, the messianic view of history involves no teleology because it cannot admit an end to history that arrives from within its movements.[8]

In the ‘Theological-Political Fragment,’ Benjamin notes that the exteriority of the messianic with respect to history means the refusal of any call for theocracy: because Kingdom of God is not to be found within this world but is to arrive from outside it, there can be no political merit in seeking its early realisation nor any theological value in making the messianic out as a part of our human affairs. But this poses a nearly insurmountable problem for Benjamin’s later forays into political theology. If there is no positive relation between the secular and the divine, what hope is there for a thinker whose model of political revolution is the messianic event? Peter Osborne has suggested that this can only lead to the most radical pessimism on Benjamin’s part, for whom the messianic is “consistent with materialism insofar as it depends upon the impossibility, not the imminence, of a willed redemption.”[9] To move forward from this impasse we must cease to think of the messianic’s absent relation to the historical and instead turn to its non-relation as a potent historical force unto itself.

(4) Secularisation of messianic time

As Benjamin continues in his ‘Theological-Political Fragment,’ although history possesses no positive relation to the messianic, it may nevertheless discover a fortuitous unity of these opposed principles:

“If one arrow points to the goal toward which the secular dynamic acts, and another marks the direction of messianic intensity, then certainly the quest of free humanity for happiness runs counter to the messianic direction. But just as a force, by virtue of the path it is moving along, can augment another force on the opposite path, so the secular order—because of its nature as secular—promotes the coming of the Messianic Kingdom.”[10]

Secular history and messianic time run past one another on opposite tracks, but although their paths may not cross they exert a subtle influence upon one another such that the secular order that cannot build the Kingdom of God may nonetheless promote its realisation. How is this possible? Benjamin says it is a question happiness. Let us recall that happiness for Benjamin is not the satisfaction of a desire sought in a future state of affairs but the fulfilment of a past scenario in which our wishes were frustrated. Happiness appears in our lives as the happy return of moments and feelings that we thought we irretrievably lost, just as it appears in the historical sphere as the redemption of past events in a present that completes them. True happiness for this reason cannot be anything but bittersweet: in a sense it is not happiness for us in the present but for our past selves or for our forebearers who did not have the chance to see it through for themselves. Happiness is felt on behalf of the past, perhaps even at the expense of the present, and this is what allows it access to a transcendent position alongside the messianic:

“For in happiness all that is earthly seeks its downfall, and only in happiness is its downfall destined to find it […] The rhythm of this eternally transient worldly existence, transient in its totality, in its spatial but also in its temporal totality, the rhythm of messianic nature, is happiness. For nature is messianic by reason of its eternal and total passing away. To strive for such a passing away—even the passing away of those stages of man that are nature—is the task of world politics, whose method must be called nihilism.”[11]

We find in this identification of happiness with transience something of Benjamin’s description of the allegory, which signifies only what has left this world. As the present shrinks away the remnants of the past are felt all the more strongly, are returned to us as the signs of a world that can no longer speak to us but may yet appear mutely before us. In Benjamin’s later work the allegorical image would be superseded by the dialectical image, in which the contortion of the present with the past is pushed to the point that the most archaic signs and objects are imbued with a sense of the now. In having passed away, the past moment becomes retrievable for us after the fact. As Benjamin puts it in the present thesis: “It became historical posthumously, as it were, through events that may be separated from it by thousands of years. The [historical materialist] grasps the constellation into which his own era has entered, along with a very specific earlier one.” The Owl of Minerva, as Hegel famously stated, takes flight at dusk; so too for Benjamin, it is only in decay that the historical moment reveals its true face and awaits a later redemption.[12]

What of Benjamin’s strange remark that “to strive for such a passing away—even the passing away of those stages of man that are nature—is the task of world politics, whose method must be called nihilism?” We may read this pessimistically, that the truth of history will only be found when all has wasted away.[13] But we may also take this in a more practical sense: we must seek to realise happiness in the historical domain even at the cost of the world as we presently know it. The revolutionary event—the secular equivalent to the messianic event—sweeps away the ruins of the recent past to draw a connection between the desired classless society of prehistory and the modernising society of the present. The old world must die for the new one to be reborn.

Thesis B:

The soothsayers who queried time and learned what it had in store certainly did not experience it as either homogeneous or empty. Whoever keeps this in mind will perhaps get an idea of how past times were experienced in remembrance—namely, in just this way. We know that the Jews were prohibited from inquiring into the future: the Torah and the prayers instructed them in remembrance. This disenchanted the future, which holds sway over all those who turn to soothsayers for enlightenment. This does not imply, however, that for the Jews the future became homogeneous, empty time. For every second was the small gateway in time through which the Messiah might enter.

(1) Non-messianism

Just as the previous thesis occasioned a summary of Benjamin’s typology of historical time, the present thesis allows for some final, critical comments on his project as a whole. The first that I would like to make has to do with the ambiguous place of theological discourse at this final moment of the theses. Having shut theology away in Thesis I and deployed its concepts strategically through the intervening theses, here in the last of the theses we find Benjamin’s argument stated in a more fully theological manner. The content of this thesis has been used as justification for a theological reading of Benjamin’s project, as if in this final moment the veil of his Marxism had fallen away to reveal the mystical operations always working behind the scenes. But on this point we must be clear: in this thesis we are presented with a religious scene that does not speak the language of theology but that of Benjamin’s secular typology of time.

The central distinction in Thesis B is not between the secular and the theological, but between homogeneous empty time as the secular assurance of future progress and a ban upon prognostication in general. Although we read here of remembrance, disenchantment, and the Messiah, in the foregoing theses each of these terms has been thoroughly secularised and made a concept for an understanding of profane history. The concept of remembrance has passed through our encounters with Marx and Proust, transforming it from a religious practice to a general principle for historical thought. Disenchantment has been fed through Freud and the Surrealists to create a system of dream-worlds, dream-content, and awakenings, which in turn map onto the cultural sphere in a ‘dream-interpretation’ of capitalist society. Even the Messiah has been thoroughly secularised in the figure of the proletariat, while its category of messianic time has been made profane in the revolutionary event.

The theses thus far have worked to secularise all theological concepts, to undermine the faith of historicism, and now arrives at a final scene borrowed from religion but with all its components thoroughly purged of their religious valences. Now these elements appear one last time in theological garb, and what we are left with is one more allegory that speaks in the language of religion to describe a secular dilemma. It is the dilemma of those who wait for the future, which is here described in the language of prophecy but might be just as well understood as the ethos of the progressives, who prognosticate on the future course of history based on their faith in the quantitative increase of human wealth over time. The historical practice that Benjamin describes could not be more opposed to this perspective: it is not concerned with prognostication but with remembrance. It turns away from the future to salvage what it can of the past. Certainly, there remains a chance that the messianic epoch might appear on the horizon, but this is not a matter of future time: every present moment is one through which the Messiah might enter, but in truth he never arrives. As in Kafka’s famous phrase: “There is an infinite amount of hope—but not for us!”[14] Hope for the future is the preserve of the arrived Messiah, while in secular terms all that remains for us is the weak messianic power of the past and the historical repetition that redeems it in the present.

(2) What future?

Speculation on the future is banned, but this does not mean it has no significance within Benjamin’s philosophy of time. In fact, we can say that in the theses on history the category of the future is under-theorised and the futural dimension of time is generally subordinated to the dimensions of the past and present. The temporal relations that we have seen so far have exclusively been those that exist between the past and the present in various forms. In Benjamin’s historiographical system, the present may be intended by the past, but this is decisively not a futural relation. The connection does not exist until the past moment has passed away and become an object of historical knowledge for the present: the past anticipates the present, but this anticipation only appears retroactively, and there is no equivalent anticipation of the future by the present. In the present intensity of now-time there is no transition of this moment into a future moment, because this now is extracted out of the sequence of time that might distinguish the now from another, later moment. Even the concept of progress, which appears to hold a promise for the future, is shown to be an illusion produced by inadequate historical knowledge. Progress knows nothing of the future; its prognostications are delivered on the basis of an expected return of past developments, which it measures and extrapolates upon in the vain hope of knowing the future.

It is for this reason that we can dismiss most attempts to make Benjamin a utopian thinker, whose desire is to delve into the past only so that it may be recovered and rebuilt for the future. Perhaps the most notable of these readings is put forward by Michael Löwy, whose eagerness to assume Benjamin into a revolutionary-Romantic tradition does a disservice to his otherwise close reading of Benjamin’s work. Löwy writes: “Benjamin’s search for the lost experience might seem to have been turned towards the past, but it was ultimately directed towards the messianic / revolutionary future.”[15] In addition to the problems presented by the future-oriented view just mentioned, Löwy’s desire to impose futurity onto Benjamin’s thought can be chalked up to two errors: Firstly, there is a misapprehension of the messianic as belonging to the future rather than ‘the now:’ for us, the messianic can only exist in a weak form, as the bond that exists between past and present, rather than as an anticipated, future event. Secondly, there is a misrecognition of the practical differences between the messianic moment and the revolutionary event, and the necessity of secularising the one in the other: messianism is not a model for revolutionary politics but a store of concepts of which the revolutionary makes use, without committing themselves to the hopeless task of realising God’s Kingdom on earth.[16]

To be fair, Benjamin is not always clear in his denunciation of the future as a historical concept. The sentiment of the present thesis is reflected in two supplementary notes to the theses that simultaneously confirm the view that the future is to be ignored while contradicting one another in their details. In one passage Benjamin recounts the “saying that the historian is a prophet facing backward,” reasoning that it is not because the historian delivers prophecies on things that have already happened but because “the historian turns his back on his own time, and his seer’s gaze is kindled by the peaks of earlier generations as they sink further and further into the past.”[17] A couple of pages later, however, Benjamin describes the prophet as a figure who already faces toward the past: “The seer’s gaze is kindled by the rapidly receding past. That is to say, the prophet has turned away from the future: he perceives the contours of the future in the fading light of the past as it sinks before him into the night of times.”[18] If the historian is a prophet facing backward, but the prophet is already facing toward the past, then in what direction does the historian face? In attempting to reconcile these images we are left spinning, unable to separate historian from prophet or ascertain whether we have our backs to the past or the future. If these two scenes cohere at all it is in their preoccupation with the past, upon which the gazes of both historian and prophet are fixed.

(3) How soon is now?

If there is no place for the future in Benjamin’s philosophy of time, the place for the present is nothing if not ambivalent. At every turn, the present is made subservient to the past, as the moment of its belated realisation: “Someone who pokes about in the past as if rummaging in a storeroom of examples and analogies still has no inkling of how much in a given moment depends on its being made present.”[19] On the one hand, the present is a moment of recollection directed toward the remnants of the past, while on the other it is a motionless ‘now’ filled by fragments of ‘what-has-been.’ For those of us living in the present moment, we are faced with one crucial question: is the present a mere involuntary effect of the past or do we possess the capacity to willingly recall what we need from the past to make our actions in the present?

To clarify the stakes of this question, let me place Benjamin between two spokespeople for opposed conceptions of the present and its relation to the past. The first is Rosa Luxemburg, for whom the present is a tactical pause in which we evaluate past struggles and gather strength for the coming storm:

“Revolutions have brought us nothing but defeat till now, but these unavoidable defeats are only heaping guarantee upon guarantee of the coming final triumph. On one condition, of course! The question arises, under which circumstances each respective defeat was suffered.”[20]

The second is Gershom Scholem, for whom the present is like a flash of lightning, in which the force of revelation intrudes from outside of history with neither warning nor explanation:

“It is precisely the lack of transition between history and the redemption which is always stressed by the prophets and apocalypticists. The Bible and the apocalyptic writers know of no progress in history leading to the redemption. […] It is rather transcendence breaking in upon history, an intrusion in which history itself perishes, transformed in its ruin because it is struck by a beam of light shining into it from an outside source.”[21]

The revolutionary needs to make the past present, to know the past so as to better act in the present. The apocalypticist desires to make the present past, to see it expire in the messianic moment of fulfilment. Somewhere between these positions, Benjamin attempts to find a relation between past and present that at once retains this messianic abruptness while still being of aid to political practice. Concurring with Scholem, the messianic is conceived as absolutely exterior to history, but in line with Luxemburg, its secularised form must be made historical. What results is Benjamin’s search for a subject-position capable of making this transcendent view of history accessible to us. The most famous of these positions is that of the melancholy Angel, which must be viewed alongside the figure of the proletariat as its failed, impractical double. As we have seen, Benjamin’s preferred route to transcendence is via the ‘archaeomodern’ classless society that stands both before and after history, and we may even posit Benjamin’s own position as a philosopher of time as one more attempt to find a structuring principle outside of history. In all cases, the secularisation of the messianic bears the kernel of transcendence deep into whatever revolutionary project Benjamin attempts to build on top of it. Benjamin’s philosophy of history is perhaps better labelled a critique of history—as an attempt to map its contours and identify its limits—but it retains a philosophical (that is, metaphysical) core in this ambition to view history from outside.

(4) Realisation of the dream

It is from this metaphysical position of the substantial, absolute ‘now’ that Benjamin’s philosophy of history must be thought. There is no other place available to us: the future is forbidden, the past cannot be voluntarily retrieved, and even the present in its normal sense as a transition between past and future has been rejected. The ‘now’ stands apart from these everyday dimensions of time, although it retains a special relationship with the past as the content of a tradition that ‘has-been’ but is not yet absolutely past.

In each of Benjamin’s chosen subject-positions, the ‘now’ threatens to become a melancholy position of unhappy consciousness, which situates itself as a finite subject perceiving the infinite scope of history. For the Angel of history, the past is a totality that cannot be reconciled with the present, in which the Angel must be blasted to and fro by forces outside of its control. For the historical materialist, the totality of the past can only be grasped in the frozen moment of the ‘now,’ when the opposition of past and present is put on hold and historical truth becomes visible in the dialectical images that capture this relation at a standstill. Recalling Benjamin’s early theory of allegory, the dialectical image must appear retrospectively, after the era to which it belongs has been lost to conscious recollection. From Benjamin’s first book on the German Trauerspiel to his last unfinished project on the Paris arcades, it is only in ruins that the past speaks to us and reveals something essential about its historical moment.

If at this stage in our reading of Benjamin’s last work we can state a unifying element or goal for his project, it must be the discovery of these dialectical images and the historical truths that they carry. It is the logic of the dialectical image that underpins Benjamin’s openly stated intentions of outlining a method of dream-interpretation for the social realm, because the content of our collective dream-world is informed by the persistence of prehistoric classless society in the political unconscious of our epoch:

“These tendencies [of the dialectical wish image] deflect the imagination (which is given impetus by the new) back upon the primal past. In the dream in which each epoch entertains images of its successor, the latter appears wedded to elements of primal history [Urgeschichte] that is, to elements of a classless society.”[22]

Even our imaginings of the future are relayed via the most distant past, such that when we dream, we dream of history.[23] The realisation of this dream does not entail the return to primordial classless society, which remains the unconscious basis of a dream-content that only becomes legible in the process of interpretation. Rather, what wakes us from our present dream-world is not the distorted content of our collective unconscious, but a shock that makes this content unbearable. This awakening is, keeping with Benjamin’s search for a position of transcendence, initiated by forces that stand outside dream but are interposed into the dream-world as phantasms, as when the sound that awakes a dreamer is briefly heard and made intelligible within the dream.[24] As Benjamin declares in the Arcades Project, 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 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.”[25]

These are the terms that Benjamin puts forward for his final project: not a decisive intervention in Marxism or a rejection of politics for messianism, but a clarification of the historiographic methods that are shared by all attempts to think historical totality. To this end, the critical side of Benjamin’s theses subtracts from our historical knowledge any recourse to a thinkable future, a meaningful present, or a retrievable past. Conversely, the philosophical side of this work builds up a typology of time, such that we may replace our abstract notions of the past-present-future with the more complex concepts of ‘what-has-been,’ the ‘now,’ and their relations of anticipation, recollection, and intention. Practically speaking, the task of the historian is no longer to ‘know’ the past in a positivistic sense, but to comprehend the relation between the past and present, and to know what is at stake in this relation for the political practice of telling history against the grain.

(5) Historicising Benjamin?

Writing history against the grain—this is the core of Benjamin’s project as he saw it and as best we can express it in his terms. But standing at the end of the eighty-odd years since he penned his theses, we may now wish to step outside this project and place Benjamin in his own historical moment. I have suggested throughout these lectures that Benjamin’s work of the 1930s must be seen as a frenzied, heroic attempt to escape the bourgeois standpoint. The epistemological passages of the Arcades Project and the historiographic work of the “Theses on History” all display a desire to not only step outside the philosophical discourses of Benjamin’s milieu but to undertake an internal demolition of the concepts and categories that sustain the bourgeois philosophy of history. In his turn toward Marxism, Benjamin was more influenced by Brecht than by Adorno or Horkheimer, as is evinced by his admiring portrait of the playwright as a ‘destructive character’ and by his own conception of materialist history as a practice of breaking with the present, of destroying what cannot be saved, motivated by a hatred for the plundered treasures of high culture.

Indeed, in our reading of the theses the strength of Benjamin’s critical project must be placed alongside the comparative weakness of his positive theory of history. In his concepts of collective unconscious, his mythologisation of the proletariat as a suprahistorical force, and in his search for a viewpoint of historical transcendence, Benjamin’s work must be understood as incomplete. To be sure, this is not to say that Benjamin’s work met a conceptual dead end—only that the notes and fragments that make up his final writings display to us a series of snapshots of theoretical developments in process.

When comparing Benjamin’s early writings on history and aesthetics to his later works on the same topics, we can see a thorough and deeply felt impetus toward a more fully developed materialist view of things. Between 1920 and 1940, Benjamin moved from an idealist hermeneutics of the allegorical image, which only speaks for a world that has passed away, to a materialist concept of the dialectical image, which is founded in the living practices of individual memory and collective remembrance. Likewise, he advanced from a philosophy of history centred on the messianic ‘idea’ of fulfilled time toward a critique of the principles that underpin the philosophical view of history as the realisation of one ideal or another. It is in this movement from idealism to materialism that we can identify the methodological scission that marks his final works: on the one hand a philosophy of history with a positive metaphysics of fulfilled time, and on the other a critical historiographic account of time as the impartial structure that underpins all narratives of history. Both threads are present throughout Benjamin’s oeuvre, but it is the latter which in his final works begins to predominate, bolstered by the Marxist critique of philosophy as a field of theoretical thought independent from political and social practice.

And yet, by 1940, Benjamin’s adoption of historical materialism remained incomplete. But if we are willing to move beyond his work, while remaining faithful to its trajectory, we may supplement it with later developments in Marxist thought. To give substance to Benjamin’s intuition of a tradition of the oppressed, we may turn to the empirical research of social historians, whose works remind us that although the struggle against class society has always been one, ‘the’ working class has always been many, united in solidarity across the divisions of geography, nation, race, and gender that multiply its cause of liberation. In a direct continuation of Benjamin’s critical project are the works of the Marxist philosophy of time, which further complicate any attempt to return to the philosophy of history in its bourgeois sense. And looking further afield we may find theories of subjectivity that bring the phantasms of capitalist ideology down to earth to reveal their social composition. In each of these threads we can find commonalities with Benjamin’s last works: the orientation of historical materialism against bourgeois traditions of philosophy; the critical demolition of those philosophies; and the ever-present willingness to appropriate and secularise the concepts required to effect a break with history as it has hitherto transpired.


[1] Walter Benjamin, Selected Works, vol. 4, eds. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), 400, n. 28.

[2] Theodor Adorno and Gershom Scholem, Correspondence: 1939-1969, trans. Paula Schwebel and Sebastian Truskolaski (Cambridge: Polity, 2021), 39.

[3] Benjamin, Selected Works 4, 403.

[4] Benjamin, Selected Works 4, 401.

[5] Benjamin, Selected Works 4, 402: “Once the classless society had been defined as an infinite task, the empty and homogeneous time was transformed into an anteroom, so to speak, in which one could wait for the emergence of the revolutionary situation with more or less equanimity. In reality, there is not a moment that would not carry with it its revolutionary chance—provided only that it is defined in a specific way, namely as the chance for a completely new resolution of a completely new problem.”

[6] On the messianic as an ‘idea’ that intrudes upon the historical sequence, see Walter Benjamin, Origin of the German Trauerspiel, trans. Howard Eiland (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019), 262.

[7] Walter Benjamin, Selected Works, vol. 3, eds. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), 305.

[8] Benjamin, Selected Works 3, 305: “Only the Messiah himself completes all history, in the sense that he alone redeems, completes, creates its relation to the messianic. For this reason, nothing that is historical can relate itself, from its own ground, to anything messianic. Therefore, the Kingdom of God is not the telos of the historical dynamic; it cannot be established as a goal. From the standpoint of history, it is not the goal but the terminus [Ende]. Therefore, the secular order cannot be built on the idea of the Divine Kingdom, and theocracy has no political but only a religious meaning. To have repudiated with utmost vehemence the political significance of theocracy is the cardinal merit of Bloch’s Spirit of Utopia.”

[9] Peter Osborne, The Politics of Time (London: Verso, 1995), 147: “Only if the Messianic remains exterior to history can it provide the perspective of a completed whole (without the predetermination of teleological end), from which the present may appear in its essential transience, as radically incomplete.”

[10] Benjamin, Selected Works 3, 305.

[11] Benjamin, Selected Works 3, 305-6.

[12] Regarding the Owl of Minerva, see: G.W.F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, trans. H.B. Nisbet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 23. As Lukács has noted, this image of retrospective comprehension is a product of Hegel’s late acquiescence to the reactionary state of Europe following the Restoration of 1814-5. The image of understanding’s arrival at dusk stands in contrast to the imagery of dawn that defines the preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit, which seeks to announce for philosophy the new epoch that Napoleon was realising in European politics. The predominance of retrospection in Benjamin’s work, and his gradual rejection of all futurity in the realm of historical knowledge may likewise be seen as a symptom of his own era’s collapse of revolutionary momentum. See: Georg Lukács, The Young Hegel, trans. Rodney Livingstone (London: Merlin Press, 1975), 456-7.

[13] Osborne, Politics of Time, 177: The anticipation of historical death, the death of the species, is the material meaning of Messianic exteriority.”

[14] Kafka cited in Walter Benjamin, Selected Works, vol. 2, eds. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 798.

[15] Michael Löwy, Redemption and Utopia, trans. Hope Heaney (London: Verso, 2017), 122.

[16] Alison Ross, Revolution and History in Walter Benjamin (New York: Routledge, 2019), 134: “Löwy seems to think that in order to show the relevance of Benjamin’s thought for revolutionary struggles he must somehow find the ‘future’ in Benjamin’s preoccupation with the past […] The whole idea of the recovery of a past form of collective experience is dubious and, as I argued above, is not found in Benjamin’s writing, whether on history or on literature. Contrary to Löwy’s intention, the approach makes Benjamin’s ‘revolution’ appear at once artificial and trite.”

[17] Benjamin, Selected Works 4, 405.

[18] Benjamin, Selected Works 4, 407.

[19] Benjamin, Selected Works 4, 405.

[20] Rosa Luxemburg, The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, eds. Peter Hudis and Kevin B. Anderson (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2004), 377. To guard against the objection that Luxemburg’s talk of ‘guarantees’ in history contradicts Benjamin’s rejection of all assurances as to the future course of history, I will add that this is clearly not the guarantee of progress that the social democrats find in history. For Luxemburg, it is not that each struggle piles material onto the heap of progress, gradually elevating successive generations, but that the material failure of past movements must be comprehended in the present to guard against a repetition of their mistakes. The guarantee is not made by history itself, but by the battle-sharpened tactics of the revolutionary movement capable of comprehending itself as an agent of historical change.

[21] Gershom Scholem, The Messianic Idea in Judaism, trans. Michael A. Meyer (New York: Schocken, 1971), 10.

[22] Benjamin, Selected Works 3, 33-4.

[23] Although, see Adorno’s correspondence (in Benjamin, Selected Works 3, 54-5) and his critique of the dream-metaphor in Benjamin’s theory of the collective unconscious.

[24] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge: Belknap, 1999), K2,5.

[25] Benjamin, Arcades Project, 898.

2 thoughts on “The Messianic Remnant (Reading Benjamin’s Theses A & B)”

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