Palinurus: Engaging Political Philosophy

Alfredo Lucero-Montano: Walter Benjamin: Dialectics of Solidarity

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1. The aim of this work is to shed light on how Walter Benjamin’s concept of history is addressed to politics, and concomitantly, how politics is referred to ethics. Benjamin’s texts contain many passages concerning politics and ethics, but one searches in vain for a systematically developed political ethics. The rudiments of those passages could be summarized, but that would not thereby adequately elucidate Benjamin’s ethico-political thought, and then one would inevitably stagnate its potentiality. It is well-known Benjamin’s game of hide-and-seek in his philosophical texts, so any attempt to read Benjamin in such a way that the relevant passages open one’s understanding to a systematically oriented political ethics must rely upon other approaches. For my own part, I draw heavily on Reyes Mate’s La Razon de los Vencidos [Barcelona: Anthropos, 1991].


What does Benjamin’s philosophy of history involve? What is hidden behind the veil of Benjamin’s theological-philosophical language? A straightforward answer would be its political content. However, the answer to the question might be twofold: one side of the answer concerns an epistemological key - the true knowledge of history becomes self-knowledge of the subject - and the other side, concerns an ethical key – the impulse of political action is experience.


First, the core of Benjamin’s philosophy of history is a new concept of the present, and correspondingly, a new constitution of ‘the subject of historical knowledge.’ For Benjamin, the subject of history is the ‘struggling, oppressed class itself,’ [Benjamin 1940, thesis XII, 394] oppressed class that becomes itself a subject of history not by taking up arms, but by putting the stress on historical knowledge and itself –‘what is historically understood contains time in its interior as a precious but tasteless seed’ [Ibid, thesis XVII, 396]. The subject of history is not given; on the contrary, it has to constitute itself as the depository and catalyst of historical knowledge. This process of constitution is nourished not from utopias – ‘the ideal of liberated grandchildren’ - but from remembrances and experiences – ‘the image of enslaved ancestors’ [Ibid, thesis XII, 394.]


The ‘oppressed class’ does not become a subject of history because of its place in the productive process, like Marx’s subject of revolution - the working class - which constitutes its real power from its productive position, but rather passing ‘through what has been, in order to experience the present,’ [Benjamin 1927-40, 838, Fº,6] that is, through the actualization (remembrance) of the past – ‘the awakening of a not-yet-conscious knowledge of what has been’ [Ibid, 458, N1,9]. Thus historical knowledge is an encounter between a subject that does not resign himself to the given as real - ‘the ‘eternal’ image of the past’ [Benjamin 1940, thesis XVI, 396] - and a specific past as not present – ‘[a] time [not] filled full by the now-time (Jetztzeit)’ [Ibid, thesis XIV, 395] - that is, between a dissatisfied subject and an unknown object.


Once the ‘oppressed class’ has grasped this knowledge – ‘Articulating the past historically… means appropriating a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger’ [Ibid, thesis VI, 391] and recognizes the sign of ‘a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past,’ [Benjamin 1940, thesis XVII, 396] then it could introduce a critical change into its present situation. However, its action would never be the same as Marx’s revolutionary class, whose action is grounded on its power, rather it would be its weakness, its necessity.


For Benjamin the notion of necessity refers to an instance of dissociation between the subject and its historical situation. Thus, the answer to that necessity is the actualization of the past that has not been realized; or to put it differently, by the apprehension of that forgotten past the subject grasps his historical consciousness, a new consciousness of himself, for hitherto the subject has experienced necessity as a mere privation, not as an impulse to strive ‘for the oppressed past.’ A past that enriches the present and awakes the forgotten meaning within it – his ‘tradition’, the meaning of his hope - a past that recovers, in the very core of the present, a new actuality. That is because historical ‘truth is not […] a merely contingent function of knowing, but is bound to a nucleus of time lying hidden within the knower and the known alike’ [Ibid, 463, N3,2]. Here the consciousness of necessity is double: first, the necessity of happiness - ‘the idea of redemption’ - that it lacks, and second, the consciousness that the power to fulfill it comes from the past – ‘we have been endowed with a weak messianic power, a power on which the past has a claim’ [Benjamin 1940, thesis II, 390].


According to Benjamin, there is only a subject of history if the candidate to accomplish the role is invested by a knowledge that is received from the past. This mediation of knowledge in the constitution of the subject of history seems to paralyze the subject’s action, but it does not because the motives for action - necessities and values - are never given before the constitution of the subject, who then - not before - assumes them as the aims of his political action.


Second, Benjamin’s political pathway seeks for something that is not given at the beginning of the process, but discovers the impulse that leads to the end - ‘remembrance.’ Benjamin understands politics as the route from the beginning to the end due to ethic, that is, an ethical impulse drives the process. The task of politics is to take to its end, as much as possible, ‘what is good for men in general’ [Aristotle, NE, 1140b]. Thus, Benjamin conceives political action as ‘the adequate form of morally and philosophically decisive action’ [Radnoti 1978, 66].


Can we consider the universality of history without the past that is not present? Can we think about the universality of the present without ‘the oppressed past’? In Benjamin’s view, the ethical principle of universality is the non-subject (the oppressed man) that in the dialectical point of explosion (awakening) discovers himself as a needed and dissatisfied man: ‘the moment of awakening would be identical with the “now of recognizability,” in which things put on their true […] face’ [Benjamin 1927-40, 463-4, N3a,3]. That is the impulse (dialectical negation) that drives the non-subject to abandon his inhuman condition; impulse that charges itself with reason (ethical rationality) when he discovers the non-identity (dissociation) with the present, that is, the present privation of the subject’s dignity, freedom and equality. With the notion of ‘remembrance,’ then, Benjamin reconciles ethics and politics in an original relationship:


History is […] a form of remembrance. What science has “determined,” remembrance can modify. Such mindfulness can make the incomplete (happiness) into something complete, and the complete (suffering) into something incomplete [Ibid, 471, N8,1].


Precisely, Benjamin’s ethics turns into politics beginning with the critical moment of the oppressed man, when the non-subject is in tension to be a subject. That tension necessarily leads to a confrontation with the actual situation of injustice, oppression and suffering. In Benjamin, the non-subject, because of his inhumanity, dialectically becomes the subject; it is the notion of non-subjectivity that defines the human condition. Moreover, it is by dialectically assuming that condition that man obtains his human condition -  ‘In the principle it’s the negation’ [Schelling 1856-41, 8:600]. But how in Benjamin is conceived that access to the condition of the subject? The starting point is the recognition of the human condition, that is, the recognition of the other as our own condition. Due to Benjamin radical claims of the universality of the subject, it is possible to speak of political ethics.


2. Max Horkheimer claims that ‘man’s striving for happiness is to be recognized as a natural fact requiring no justification’ [Horkheimer 1992, 44]. In the same way, Benjamin bases the radical universality of human action on a verifiable fact. This factum is the experience of feelings such as rebelliousness, compassion or solidarity; feelings that express the political dimension of experience. In Horkheimer’s words:


The life of most people is so wretched, the deprivations and humiliations are so many, and their efforts and success are for the most part so disproportionate, that we can easily understand the hope that the earthly order of things may not be the only real one [Ibid, 23].


For Horkheimer, the ‘moral sentiment’ is active today in a twofold manner: first, as compassion, and second, as politics. Likewise, Benjamin understands this experience as solidarity, which emerges from the notion of remembrance; solidarity as the attitude that looks toward the other not because the power he holds - that feature admirable and admired by bourgeoisie society - but for his potentiality to develop happiness. The experience as solidarity is guided to the other’s necessities and wants. Thus the subject of experience sets his sights on the neediness and poverty of the present whose overcoming opens the way to hope, and is addressed to happiness – ‘the idea of happiness is indissolubly bound up with the image of redemption’ [Benjamin 1940, thesis II, 389]. We cannot understand this experience without the orientation toward the realization of mankind; orientation that rises from the privation of the present, from the misery and suffering that predominates in history. The experience of suffering is translated into a gesture of compassion to the other, who is not resigned to its luck. This experience as solidarity is given as a vital necessity; no one questions its grounds or legitimacy: ‘All living beings have a claim to happiness for which it would not in the least ask any justification or grounds’ [Horkheimer 1995, 34-5]. Thus, solidarity with the man forced to suffering and death is called compassion, a feeling that is inherent to man.


However, the experience as solidarity is rationally mediated: the other is worthy of compassion. We view the other not as a mere suffering object of a blind historical situation, but as a subject with his dignity offended and frustrated. He is recognized as an end in itself, and not as a mere means. That dignity through which the other reveals himself is the dignity that he justly demands. Therefore, compassion is the mediation between the particularity of that experience and the universality of human dignity.


Compassion, though, is the ‘moral sentiment’ of an inter-subjective relationship, not a symmetrical one, but one rather in accordance with a real asymmetry. If we view this relationship as ideally symmetrical, the question is just to determine the object of compassion, the recipient of our compassion. Here it is assumed that the ethical subject is already constituted. But the dignity that the other has, as the object of compassion, he really does not have it. What he has is a demand, a necessity, and a negation, as the subject of compassion. Here the emphasis is not put on the object, but on the subject. Thus, the constitution of the ethical subject cannot be understood as a mere emanation of the self, but as an answer, an action, to the necessity of the other, that is, as a negation of the negation. So the answer is directed toward the subject. In this way, the action is not dissociated from the constitution, or recognition, of the ethical subject. Therefore, any universality that deals with the other as if he had dignity would just leave the other plunged in his disgrace, and the self that is acquainted with the other could just abandon itself to the satisfaction of its assumed ethical possession.


How then are the ethical subject and his action constituted? In Benjamin, the starting point of the constitution of man as an ethical subject is the needed man; one making his cause our own as an ethical impulse, and one asserting the answer to the necessity of the other as a political action. The cry of the needed one - expression of suffering and injustice - is the universality of the answer to the actual misery and injustice. There is no ethical subject except as an impulse and an answer to that demand. In the history of mankind, in which unhappiness constitutes a fundamental feature, a certain human reaction has become apparent: the experience of its negativity.


For Benjamin, ethics is politics. The ethical impulse is the content of the political ideals and values - justice, freedom, equality and solidarity. Benjamin’s concern is to bring compassion and politics into a dialectical relationship, one that manifests itself in configurations of one into the other and vice versa - a theological relationship in Benjamin’s language.


Benjamin’s politics starts not from a matter of reason but from the ‘history of suffering’ and its negativity. This fact is that the man of flesh and blood suffers, is hungry, suffers from injustice; where man is not seen as a subject deprived of his dignity, which belongs to him, but as an object of a blind historical situation. Because the other one does not yet have dignity, there can only be a relationship of solidarity, whose sense is not other but to actualize the demand of dignity. This sense of solidarity that necessarily goes with experience makes Benjamin’s philosophy a political ethics. This experience as solidarity is not merely satisfied with the Kantian imperative that says just not to obstruct the other as an end in itself, but rather compels us to remove the obstacles that limit the other to recover his dignity. That active attitude is what Benjamin understands as political action, as historical praxis.


Benjamin understands the experience of solidarity as a situation of injustice and misery that the other suffers, situation to which we are indissolubly bound up – ‘there is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one […] our coming was expected on earth’ [Benjamin 1940, thesis II, 390]. There is an ethical relationship between the subject deprived of his dignity and the self that discovers itself dependent on the other – ‘Only for the sake of the hopeless ones have we been given hope’ [Benjamin 1913-26, 356] - where an ethical impulse occurs only when man professes his commitment to feelings of indignation, compassion, and solidarity. This means that we belong to a tradition of hope, and we burden the history that the present displays. In Mate’s words:


But somebody is “expecting us:” he has been previous to us, but he had not stayed behind but has moved forwards. Who is that? The victims, the army of losers, all those that cannot have peaceful rest because they have been deprived of their dignity. If they wait for us is because they expect something in return, they have some pending rights that we must settle [Mate 1991, 154].


In sum, Benjamin’s concept of experience as solidarity is what gives ethical substance to politics, or in other words, it is a ‘political temporalization of experience’ [Osborne 2000, 59], where the character of the present - its political action-generating - is determined by its relation to a specific past - its ethical impulse. Thus, a specific idea of the past is the cause of the experience as solidarity –  ‘idea of the past, which is the concern of history’ – to wit, the idea of justice. This is the dialectics that redefines historical experience as solidarity, solidarity as politics; political praxis as ethical actualization, ethical actualization as praxis.




Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. In The Complete Works of Aristotle, Vol. 2. Ed. Jonathan Barnes. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984.


Benjamin, Walter. ‘Goethe’s Elective Affinities’ (1919-22). In Selected Writings. Vol. 1. Ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996.


___. The Arcades Project (1927-1940). Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.


___. ‘On the Concept of History’ (1940). In Selected Writings, Vol. 4. Ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings. Trans. Edmund Jephcott et al. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003.


Horkheimer, Max. ‘Materialism and Morality.’ In Between Philosophy and Social Science: Selected Early Writings. Trans. G. Frederick Hunter, Matthew S. Kramer, and John Torpey. Cambridge: MIT, 1995.


___. ‘Materialism and Metaphysics.’ In Critical Theory: Selected Essays. Trans. Matthew J. O’Connell et al. New York: Continuum, 1992.


Mate, Reyes. La Razón de los Vencidos. Barcelona: Anthropos, 1991.


Osborne, Peter. ‘Small-scale Victories, Large-scale Defeats: Walter Benjamin’s Politics of Time.’ In Walter Benjamin’s Philosophy: Destruction and Experience. Ed. Andrew Benjamin and Peter Osborne. Manchester: Clinamen, 2000.


Radnoti, Sandor. ‘Benjamin’s Politics.’ In Telos, 37 (fall 1978): 63-81.


Schelling, F.W.J. Sämtliche Werke. Vol. 8. Ed. K.F.A. Schelling. Stuttgart: Cotta, 1856-1861.




Alfredo Lucero-Montano holds a Master in Philosophy from San Diego State University.