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

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

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

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