Reconsidering Part 1 Walter Benjamin


Reconsidering is my new series that I will be doing on my blog. This series will be about thinkers who have been seen in a negative light by the dissident sphere or have been forgotten and finding valuable insights and ideas by these thinkers and therefore shedding a new light on these thinkers. I will be going over thinkers from both the left, right, and in between. Giving a brief history of them and their ideas. You guys are welcome to recommend people for me to cover for this series and I will do it if I see value in this said thinker.

                 Who is Walter Benjamin?

Walter Benjamin was a German Jewish Marxist Philosopher born on July 15, 1892, to a wealthy liberal assimilated Jewish family. Many in his family became prominent intellectuals such as William Stern, and Gunther Anders. Benjamin first became interested in politics and philosophy in 1912 when he was exposed to Zionist ideas at the University of Berlin. While he remained deeply religious Benjamin came to reject Zionism believing that Jews had a role to play in furthering European culture and that Jews were the highest of the spiritual cast.

When World War 1 broke out in 1914 Benjamin tried to join the German Army but was rejected then later feigned illness to avoid conscription again. This allowed Benjamin to continue schooling and earn his PHD in 1918 and around this time he became a Marxist. Benjamin philosophy was a mixture Western Marxism, Jewish Mysticism, German Idealism and Romanticism. In 1920 for his post-doctoral thesis, he had a very similar thesis to Martin Heidegger theory of language which was published sometime earlier. When Benjamin was informed of this by his friend Gershom Scholem, Benjamin developed a lifelong antagonism to Heidegger due to many of their works over lapping. In 1921 Benjamin became friends with right wing philosopher Leo Strauss who he would remain an admirer of for the rest of his life.

In 1923 Benjamin went to work at Marxist Institute of Social Research later to be known as the Frankfurt School where Benjamin became friends with Marxist intellectuals such as Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and George Lukas. During this time Benjamin mostly wrote articles, translating books, and wrote for the newspaper called the Frankfurt Times. In 1933 Benjamin had to flee Germany to France due to the rise of Adolf Hitler and National Socialism. During this time, he was mostly supported by funds by Horkheimer and the Frankfurt School. While in France, Benjamin would write 2 of his most important works The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction and the Theses of the Philosophy on History. In 1940 Benjamin had to flee again to Spain hoping to get to America due to the German Invasion of France but when the Spanish authorities were thinking about deporting, Benjamin, and his group back to France, Benjamin decided to take his own life at age 48 and the next day his group was allowed passage into Spain. With some believing Benjamin suicide convinced Spanish authorities to not deport the group.

              Misconceptions on Benjamin

Many in the dissident world tend to dislike Benjamin due to him being a part of the Frankfurt School an intellectual group largely seen as the idealogues behind the New Left. A left-wing movement that’s more about, identity politics, radical social progressivism, and LGBT people then about working-class politics. This animosity is further strengthened when it was found that Herbart Marcuse a member of the group worked for the OSS the predecessor to the CIA and his book One Dimensional Man was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. Along with according to conservative historian Paul Gottfried in his article called “The Frankfurt School and Cultural Marxism,” two other member of Frankfurt School Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer playing major roles in German education with the support of the American State Department and Adorno Authoritarian Personality study was wildly used by the US government and corporations. To quote Gottfried on the matter

“Despite the anti-Communist mood in the U.S. at the outset of the Cold War, in the 1950s an Americanized and mainstreamed form of Cultural Marxism made powerful inroads here. Leaders of the Frankfurt school were sent back to Germany by the American State Department to “reeducate” the former subjects of the Third Reich and to make them “good antifascists.” Meanwhile psychological tests were devised for private jobs, government employment, and educational institutions to determine the “f scores” of applicants (as indications of pro-fascist leanings). Equally noteworthy, Frankfurt School pioneers like Eric Fromm became popular authorities on psychological well-being and had their works distributed through Book of the Month clubs.”

Gottfried also notes that’s there very little inside the major works of Adorno and other members of the school especially in their later years that influenced the New Left that can be described as “Marxist” rather just radical humanism or social liberalism. This leads many to view the New Left and Frankfurt School as nothing more than fake opposition. Besides the lack of Marxism in Benjamin works most of these criticisms are unfair, due to the fact this is what Benjamin associates did after Benjamin’s death or cannot be applied to Benjamin for a couple of reasons.

  1. When Benjamin first joined the Frankfurt school in the 1920s, the school was based on the study of the labor movement, socialism, philosophy, and economics. According to intellectual historian Martin Jay the Frankfurt School largely stayed out of politics in the 1920s and 1930s being disenfranchised and believing that this would help the group not to be dogmatic about Marxism along with more time to study.  In the 1930s the Frankfurt School did become more focused on critiques of culture but was mostly in defense of classical music and traditional art. Some of these critiques and other aspects of the Frankfurt Schools writings ended up influencing some conservative writers such as Christopher Lasch and Paul Gottfried. This direction in the Frankfurt School is what most of Benjamin writings are about. Most of the major works by the Frankfurt School that influenced the New Left happened years to decades after Benjamin’s death.
  2. Despite Benjamin receiving some recondition in the New Left in the 1960s and 70s his works were not a major influence on the New Left and has almost nothing in common with the modern left. The modern left is embracive of modern art and the idea of progress. While Benjamin is completely critical of these things and even seems to have some conservative leanings on these issues (more on this later). 

       Benjamin on Art in the Mechanical Age

      In Benjamin book The Work of Art in the Mechanical Age of Reproduction, Benjamin makes a damning critique of modern art and art movements of its time particularly Dadaism and Futurism. Benjamin writes that Art has lost its authenticity or aura in the mechanical age due to the fact that art can be reproduced on a large scale which destroys the experiences and uniqueness that the original art piece once had. He also states that reproduction of art detaches it from tradition that it was created in by turning the art piece into a commodity. To quote Benjamin on the matter

“One might subsume the eliminated element in the term “aura” and go on to say: that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art. This is a symptomatic process whose significance points beyond the realm of art. One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence. And in permitting the reproduction to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced. These two processes lead to a tremendous shattering of tradition which is the obverse of the contemporary crisis and renewal of mankind. Both processes are intimately connected with the contemporary mass movements. Their most powerful agent is the film. Its social significance, particularly in its most positive form, is inconceivable without its destructive, cathartic aspect, that is, the liquidation of the traditional value of the cultural heritage. This phenomenon is most palpable in the great historical films. It extends to ever new positions.”

Benjamin arguments in many ways are also an attack on consumer culture due to mechanical reproduction making it easier for people to have more and want more. He also goes on to say that the mechanical age also made it were modern art unlike premodern art being based in traditions becomes more about how much it can be reproduced. In other words, to Benjamin modern art is more about quantity then quality. Liked stated earlier Benjamin goes on to critique progressive arts movement such as Dadaism and Futurism. While Benjamin like the fact that Dadaist sacrifices the market value of their art however criticizes their poems for being nothing more than word salads and Dadaist paintings lacking aura and being more about shock value than being genuine art. When it comes to Futurism, Benjamin attacks the philosophy of futurism believing that war is aesthetically beautiful and creative, which Benjamin takes the exact opposite approach seeing war and technology that Futurist admirer so much as destructive and even goes as to say that society is not mature enough for technology.

Quote “This manifesto has the virtue of clarity. Its formulations deserve to be accepted by dialecticians. To the latter, the aesthetics of today’s war appears as follows: If the natural utilization of productive forces is impeded by the property system, the increase in technical devices, in speed, and in the sources of energy will press for an unnatural utilization, and this is found in war. The destructiveness of war furnishes proof that society has not been mature enough to incorporate technology as its organ, that technology has not been sufficiently developed to cope with the elemental forces of society. The horrible features of imperialistic warfare are attributable to the discrepancy between the tremendous means of production and their inadequate utilization in the process of production – in other words, to unemployment and the lack of markets. Imperialistic war is a rebellion of technology which collects, in the form of “human material,” the claims to which society has denied its natural materrial. Instead of draining rivers, society directs a human stream into a bed of trenches; instead of dropping seeds from airplanes, it drops incendiary bombs over cities; and through gas warfare the aura is abolished in a new way. “Fiat ars – pereat mundus”, says Fascism, and, as Marinetti admits, expects war to supply the artistic gratification of a sense perception that has been changed by technology. This is evidently the consummation of “l’art pour l’art.” Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art.

-Walter Benjamin

Despite Benjamin at the end believing that Communism and politicization of art to replace tradition is the answer but if we look throughout the text, Benjamin is at times more on the side of tradition and anti-technology than on the side of progress and technology were Marxism stands.  In fact, many of his critiques of art are very similar to the American Traditionalist Agrarian thinker Donald Davidson who wrote his book I’ll Take My Stand several years prior that talks about comidification of art. Benjamin critique of technology is also similar to Traditionist thinker Richard Weaver who wrote about after the second world war in his book called Ideas Have Consequences. The only thing really “Marxist” is Benjamin disdain for the private property system and talking about social alienation under capitalism, but this can be easily founded in other non-Marxist anti-capitalist schools of thought. Benjamin would also soon realize this and in his final work before his death would be a critique of historical materialism and progress.

       Theses on Philosophy of History

Benjamin was not the first nor the last leftist to become disillusioned with the idea of progress. Before him there was Pierre Joseph Proudhon, Georges Sorel, Herbert Croly, Ernst Niekisch and after Benjamin, Christopher Lasch. What separates Benjamin from the rest is that his text These on Philosophy of History is particularly a critique of Marxist historical materialism and is very esoteric. Benjamin goes as far to suggest that Marxist historical materialism is a quasi-religious fraud.

“It is well-known that an automaton once existed, which was so constructed that it could counter any move of a chess-player with a counter-move, and thereby assure itself of victory in the match. A puppet in Turkish attire, water-pipe in mouth, sat before the chessboard, which rested on a broad table. Through a system of mirrors, the illusion was created that this table was transparent from all sides. In truth, a hunchbacked dwarf who was a master chess-player sat inside, controlling the hands of the puppet with strings. One can envision a corresponding object to this apparatus in philosophy. The puppet called “historical materialism” is always supposed to win. It can do this with no further ado against any opponent, so long as it employs the services of theology, which as everyone knows is small and ugly and must be kept out of sight.”

-Walter Benjamin

Benjamin also goes on to critique the social democrats view of progress as not being in reality and being extremely dogmatic believing that humanity was constantly moving forward without ever falling down or repeating situations. Benjamin does not see history as moving forward but rather numerous catastrophes that are building up. Benjamin rejects the idea of history of going in one direction to utopia but rather that every event in history is unique and has its own problems and situations however, not to say it cannot have similarities to past experiences.

German philosopher and friend of Benjamin Gershom Scholem who was quoted in the text believes that Benjamin is rejecting Marxism and returning to theology and metaphysics. However, others like Marxist intellectual Michael Lowy believes that Benjamin is attacking the historical materialism of the Social Democrats of the second international and the Marxist Leninist of the Third International. Sadly, we will probably never know who is right due to Benjamin dying right after writing this but, we do know that the text has strong religious tunes and strong critiques of certain views of progress and historical materialism with Benjamin saying nothing positive about the two. Not to mention Scholem knowing Benjamin personally makes me believe that Scholem is right.


There is no way of knowing where Benjamin would have gone ideologically after World War 2. Weather he would rejoin the Frankfurt School and become part of the New Left or follow the footsteps of Leo Strauss and become a Jewish Conservative philosopher or solely stick to religion and metaphysics. A few things are for certain though, Benjamin critiques on art, progress, technology, and historical materialism can all be things that we can learn from and find value in due to Benjamin ideas still being relevant in the modern world. 


                      Strange Death of Marxism by Paul Gottfried

The Frankfurt school and Cultural Marxism by Paul Gottfried

      The Dialectical Imagination. A history of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research 1923-1950 by Martin Jay

The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction by Walter Benjamin

             Theses on the Philosophy of History by Walter Benjamin

               Marxist Internet Archive/ Walter Benjamin Archive

          Frankfurt School: The Walter Benjamin Internet Archive (                                                          Walter Benjamin Wikipedia

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