The awareness that they are about to make the continuum of history explode is characteristic of the revolutionary classes at the moment of their action. The great revolution introduced a new calendar. The initial day of a calendar serves as a historical timelapse camera. And, basically, it is the same day that keeps recurring in the guide of holidays, which are days of remembrance. Thus the calendars do not measure time as clocks do; the are monuments of a historical consciousness of which not the slightest trace has been apparent in Europe in the past hundred years. In the July revolution an incident occurred which showed this consciousness still alive. On the first evening of fighting it turned out that the clocks in towers were being fired on simultaneously and independently from several places in Paris. An eye-witness, who may have owed his insight to the rhyme, wrote as follows:
Who would have believed it! We are told that new Joshuas
at the foot of every tower, as though irritated with
time itself, fired at the dials in order to stop the day. – Walter Benjamin, “Theses On The Philosophy Of History,” in Illuminations, ed. by Hannah Arendt, trans. by Harry Zohn, pp.261-262
Continuing to unfold the idea that revolutionary time is not the time of the ancien regime, Benjamin here not only recalls the Revolutionary calendar, but expounds upon the notion of “calendar time” being, in fact, a marker of a particular kind of historical consciousness. Just as holidays are a kind of anamnesis, a recollecting and remembering through the recreation of the original moment being honored, so, too, each day of the Revolutionary Calendar was in fact a living out of that first day of Revolutionary Time.
Revolutionary Time, Benjamin is indicating, is in a dialectical relationship with what we think of as “time”. Indeed, it is the “end” of time as we knew it, with the example of the Revolutionaries simultaneously destroying clocks around Paris an indication of the awareness of time’s end among those who are bringing that end about. The Revolutionary Calendar, then, is not a way to measure time in any quantitative way. It is, rather, a social and political statement that time is now qualitative: Each day is the recalling of the first day of the New Era. Measuring, and thinking about, time has changed with the Revolution. We are now no longer “in” time. On the contrary, time is now a quality of the Revolution, those who have brought it about, and no longer “passes”, because each “day” is the Day Of The Revolution.
In many ways, this notion of “the end of time”, the unfolding of the ideas in the previous Thesis, is nothing more or less than a description of Judgement Day. Time as we once knew it has now stopped. We are not only in a new era; we are in the era that is no era, but that eschaton that was the dream of the ages, that moment when justice – as the Revolution defined it, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” – is and shall be the rule precisely because it always was the rule; it is a reflection of the qualitative distinction between Revolutionary Consciousness and that of the previous ages, who understood this but did nothing to bring it about. For Benjamin, the Revolutionary Class is God, not so much exercising Judgement in a casuistic sense as bringing forth the truly human, fully just society. The Revolution itself, by destroying “time”, and creating a calendar, is shifting our attention away from what was passing, to what has come forth precisely because it always was, “now” is, and always shall be.
It is Judgement Day precisely because those who do not accept this “end of time”, this anamnesis to which we are called by the cycle of days on the Revolutionary Calendar, judge themselves to be unworthy of the justice brought forth by the Revolutionary Class and its destruction of the injustice of age of quantitative time. This, then, is for Benjamin a mark of the Revolutionary Class: historical consciousness is the recognition that time itself is part of the structure the ruling class uses against the oppressed. It is the dialectical idea that “historical consciousness” is not “a thing”, but always and only the property of the Revolutionary Class. It is not an awareness of the past, as the bourgeoisie would insist; it is, rather, an awareness that the Day to come will bring an end even to “time” itself.
Origin is the goal. – Karl Kraus, Worte In Versen, Vol. 1
History is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogeneous, empty time, but time filled by the presence of the now. Thus, to Robespierre ancient Rome was a past charged with the time of the now which he blasted out of the continuum of history. The French Revolution viewed itself as Rome reincarnate. It evoked ancient Rome the way fashion evokes costumes of the past. Fashion has a flair for the topical, no matter where it stirs in the thickets of long ago; it is a tiger’s leap into the past. This jump, however, takes place in an arena where the ruling class gives the commands. The same leap in the open air of history is the dialectical one, which is how Marx understood the revolution. – Walter Benjamin, “Theses On The Philosophy Of History,” in Illuminations, ed. by Hannah Arendt, trans. by Harry Zohn, p.261.
It is perhaps misleading to have copied this thesis as I have. The translator includes a note after the “now” in the first sentence: Benjamin says “Jetztseit” and indicates by the quotation marks that he does not simply mean an equivalent to Gegenwart, that is, present. He clear is thinking of the mystical nunc stans. With this particular piece of information, the meaning of this thesis changes from a somewhat confusing back and forth between Benjamin’s views of Robespierre, the Revolution, and Marx to a far more clear – and far more interesting – statement that Benjamin is clearly indicating not only a difference of opinion with Marx, but that Marx was incorrect precisely because he did not understand the forces at work in the Revolution under Robespierre.
It is important, first of all, to unpack that first sentence. The view Benjamin is putting forward here is one still present among mystics and theologians: Each moment of time contains all the possibilities of all time, all the past, present, and future. Benjamin’s view is that history is an unfolding of possibilities. Each moment is not just “time”, as we understand the flow of time measured by clocks. Not only is each moment of time filled with all moments of time simultaneously; for those committed to a revolutionary outlook, each moment of time presents us with its unique opportunity to decide how that moment will be lived. The Greek word for this particular view of time, kairos, came back in to fashion in the early and mid 20th century among those who wrote from a mystical background. Viewing each moment of time, of life, of history, as filled not only with all possibilities, but with a chance to make a conscious choice as to how that moment will be lived is to fill history with human possibilities.
Benjamin makes the important point that the Revolution invoked Rome as fashion invokes an age; that is, not as an unfolding of the human possibilities inherent in Republican-era Rome, possibilities that were destroyed by Julius Caesar. No, Robespierre was essentially playing dress-up, and this is precisely how fashion, in the hands of the ruling class, controls and destroys history’s “now”. By controlling how a moment of time is to be used, the ruling class destroys the historical possibilities of the “now”, both its full possibilities and the humanizing possibilities present as kairos.
Marx, Benjamin points out in the final sentence, thought the revolutionary leap a dialectical one. By invoking the past in the way it did, the Revolution was unfolding all those possibilities inherent in the “now”, a conscious decision to live out the choice faced by the kairos of the Revolutionary moment. For Marx, invoking the past was a way of moving to the truly and fully human future the Revolution presented. Benjamin, on the other hand, insists that Robespierre, for all his seeming devotion to the new, was in fact a dilettante, just another member of another ruling class, stripping the Revolution of its historical content and the choices the Revolution had of being truly human choices.
This specific thesis, by the subtle use of a particular German word that is impossible to evoke in English, is clearly a not-so-subtle dig both at Marx and his view of the French Revolution as well as the course of the French Revolution under Robespierre. I believe that Benjamin agrees with Marx that a truly revolutionary “leap” would be both an unfolding of the full content of the “Now” and a truly human choice, allowing others to make truly human choices. Benjamin, however, does not understand this as what happened with the recollections of Rome by the Revolutionary Committee under Robespierre. Benjamin is recalling for readers the necessity of acting historically, acting in accordance with the fullness of the possibilities each moment presents us, and to make our choices at each kairos fully human choices.
You all know the website peopleofwaltmart.com. It collects up photos others send in of shoppers with the simple intent of getting millions of other people to laugh at human differences, from older people to differing hairstyles to how people dress to, yes, a trans person. Of all the things the internet provides us, I find few things more offensive than the opportunity it allows some of us to feel better about ourselves at the expense of other people, and peopleofwalmart.com is perhaps the worst offender.
When I worked at WalMart, I used to go to the site. I used to laugh. Hell, I laughed at some of the customers we had. Working third shift for five years I can attest that night time is the right time for the unusual. I do not deny that I did my fair share of pointing and laughing at people who were dressed in ways that were outside the norm, or who might look different in one way or another.
Then, I realized how horrible it all was. I felt horrible for the way I had behaved. I felt horrible that I participated in belittling another human being simply for being different. And what, precisely, did I have to say to anyone, considering I was a third-shift WalMart stocker working for half what I deserved? I’m hardly a raving beauty. Most nights I was sweaty and covered in dust. What, exactly, was I proving by laughing at someone who might just prefer to wear black knee-high socks and dress shoes with red shorts, a t-shirt, and suspenders? That I was better than that person? Obviously I was not, because I was taking time out from work to laugh at another person just because of the way they are dressed.
It isn’t just this particular website. There are Youtube videos, websites, blogs, and other places all over the internet that give people the opportunity to feel better about themselves by the simple act of looking at people who are different. These photos and videos get posted to social media and suddenly they go viral. A person could have been out shopping, minding their own business, doing no harm to anyone, and because someone thought their difference was funny, they become the butt of jokes shared around the world at the touch of a button.
These are people’s brothers and sisters; sons and daughters; mothers and fathers. Would anyone reading this want a loved one to become the center of attention like this? To be laughed at by people because of how they look, dress, or otherwise comport themselves in public? Would anyone reading this want to become the center of attention like this?
These are human beings, worthy of respect, whose differences are just that. So the gentleman above prefers to go out in public in women’s clothing. Is that really a reason to laugh at him? So some people dress in ways that aren’t flattering. Again – whose business is it? These are people, whose most precious, personal attribute – their very person, how they look and dress and go through life – deserve, at the very least, for others to have the courtesy if not decency to be left alone. So some boys want to wear their shorts too low. Is that really anything at all for others to care about? So some women dress in ways that are either revealing or don’t flatter their bodies. Who, exactly, is in charge of deciding how right or wrong this is?
As someone who was occasionally teased by my peers as a child because I was different – being a ginger isn’t always easy, let me tell you – I can attest that these actions hurt. These people are who they are, and have the right to be left alone by self-appointed police of our common and public spaces. Rather than being laughed at, they deserve to be left alone. They are human beings, therefore worthy of respect. Period.
Sorry for the rant. Go about your day.
Every day our cause becomes clearer and people get smarter. – Wilhelm Dietzgen, Die Religion Der Sozialdemokratie
Social Democratic theory, and even more its practice, have been formed by a conception of progress which did not adhere to reality but made dogmatic claims. Progress as pictured in the minds of Social Democrats was, first of all, the progress of mankind itself (and not just advances in men’s ability and knoelwedge). Secondly, it was something boundless, in keeping with the infinite perfectibility of mankind. Thirdly, progresss was regarded as irresistible, somethint automatically pursued a straight or spiral course. Each of these predicates is controbersial and open to criticism. However, when the chips are down, criticism must penetrate beyond these predicates and focus on something that tthey have in common. The concept of the historical progress of mankind cannot be sundered from the concept of its progression through a homogeneous, empty time. A critique of the concept of such a progression must be the basis of any criticism of the concept of progress itself. – Walter Benjamin, “Theses On The Philosophy Of History”, in Illuminations, ed. by Hannah Arendt, trans. by Harry Zohn, pp. 260-261
If there was any secular religious idea that united the ruling classes of the 18th and 19th centuries, it was the idea of Progress. Flush with victory over the feudal structures across western Europe, the aristocrats first, then the bourgeoisie took aim at power by convincing their comrades the future was theirs. This future, they insisted, was inevitable. The end of feudalism had brought with it a critique of Christian faith rooted both in the humanism of the more recent past as well as an analysis of the theological discourse of the time that many considered irrational. Combined with the very visible and all-too-well-known crimes against both rising classes with which the Church was complicit, it was easy enough to rise up and begin, finally, to displace the autocratic absolute monarchs. In France, however, this bourgeois revolution soon morphed in to the first true People’s Revolution against not only a corrupt and antiquated absolute monarchy, but the rising bourgeoisie and its pretense to rule in the name of the people without granting the people any power. While successful for a time, the Revolution soon devolved in to a different autocracy, rooted in dogmatism, and replaced Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite with the Terror, which could only be ended through force and the rise of something new and even more terrible – the Bonapartist Empire and its fantasy of world conquest.
One would have thought this example would have been enough to squelch any trust in either Progress or its dogma of infinite human perfectibility. After the Congress of Vienna in 1815, however, adherents to the church of Progress looked to Britain, its evolving Parliamentary semi-democracy, the changing British Constitution that continued through the 19th century to limit the power of the Monarch in favor of the industrial classes and landed aristocracy, and presented this as a model for the rest of Europe, who had reverted to absolute monarchy under the strict control of religiously-based autocracies. Prussia, Austria, Russia, and France were ruled by Monarch and Church, keeping a firm foothold on any attempt to alter the status quo.
After the failed revolutions of 1848, however, it became possible to believe the future could change. Even a tactical loss by the working classes could be understood as a strategic victory, if only analyzed and understood correctly. A generation later, with the unification of the old Germanic states under a new Imperial banner governed by Bismarck, it was to Germany that many looked for possibilities for the future. While Bismarck created a Parliament, he did so in such a way that the multiple parties would never have the ability to anything but rubber stamp his decisions for the creation of the infrastructure of the new Empire. Nevertheless, even the drab fakery of democracy was enough for some on the Left to set aside revolutionary hopes and praxis, and join the Church of Progress, if only toward an end they claimed differed from that of Bismarck, the Emperor, or the aristocratic Junkers, for whom Bismarck worked.
If there has ever been an idea more antithetical to true human liberation, to true human living, to a just social organization, or to clarity of moral or political thought, it is Progress. In 1991, the late Christopher Lasch published his magnum opus, The True And Only Heaven, a long and winding critique of the idea of progress, invoking everyone from Adam Smith to Reinhold Niebuhr, while recalling the revolutionary syndicalists and their vision of small, semi-autonomous, self-sustaining and self-governing, fully democratic polities. The thoroughgoing critique of Progress for which Benjamin called Lasch completed, although to what many (including myself) consider mixed ends. The fact remains, however, that for all its failures, for all its obviously false dogmas, and for all its obvious transparency as the New Clothes of the same old Emperor, Progress continues to hold adherents and evangelists. It is, perhaps, the single most successful rival to Christianity, at least in the West. Nothing more clearly represents what Scripture calls “the Principalities and Powers”, the spiritual forces of the ruler of this age, than does the notion of Progress.
Like the Christian Churches when they keep to their faith, it was the revolutionary Marxists who saw through the lies of Progress. Benjamin’s damning of the German Social Democrats for buying in to this particular social fiction is thoroughly justified precisely because it is not only a salve for guilty consciences, but a recipe for inaction in the face of inaction. Why should one actually organize and act out against injustice and oppression if History is moving inexorably, inevitably toward a fully human future as dictated by those who are in power? And it is precisely here that both the Christian Churches and the revolutionary classes can join together and call out the fundamental irrationality of the religion of Progress. As Benjamin notes, it is rooted in an ahistorical view of history, one in which we do not see strife and struggle, one in which the dead lie in unmarked mass graves, and one in which all the terms are defined for us, and cannot be altered precisely because they are dogmas far more powerful than anything dreamed up by any Christian church. The inhumanity of Progress is revealed in the falseness of its understanding of “History”. As Benjamin noted in the prior Thesis, it is the oppressed who are the true bearers of Historical knowledge; for the Christian faithful, we can agree that it is those despised, forgotten, written out of social and even human life by the Powers and Principalities that are, in fact, the beloved of God and the agents of Divine Love in and for the world. However we describe them, and whatever terms we use, we are saying much the same thing here, in protest against the official State Religion of Progress, most recently defined as TINA. The names change, but they are only masks that hide the true face of the Powers of this world.
The work instituted by Lasch, critiquing progress by looking at history through eyes understand History as involving human beings struggling for freedom, must continue. Even as we mouth Christian/Muslim/Jewish/Hindu/Communist/Nationalist platitudes and phrases, Progress has marched around much of the rest of the world, evangelizing in the name of wealth and power, stripping suffering humanity even of existence as the bodies pile up. Whether we resist in the name of the oppressed or in the name of the crucified and risen Christ, we must always resist this false religion, this demonic force that kills people in the name of humanity, and robs the past of any existence for the sake of a future built by and for the ruling classes.
The conformism which has been part and parcel of Social Democracy from the beginning attaches not only to its political tactics but to its economic views as well. It is one reason for its later breakdown. Nothing has corrupted the German working class so much as the notion that it was moving with the current. It regarded technological developments as the fall of the stream with which it thought it was moving. From there it was but a step to the illusion that the factory work which was supposed to tend toward technological progress constituted a political achievement. The old Protestant ethics of work was resurrected among German workers in secularized form. The Gotha Program already bears traces of this confusion, defining labor as “the source of all wealth and all culture. Smelling a rat, Marx countered that ” . . . the man who possesses no other property than his labor power” must of necessity become “the slave of other men who have made themselves the owners. . . .” However, the confusion spread, and soon thereafter Josef Dietzgen proclaimed: “The savior of modern times is called work. The . . . improvement . . . of labor constitutes the wealth which is now able to accomplish what no redeemer has ever been able to do.” This vulgar-Marxist conception of the nature of labor bypasses the question of how it products might benefit the workers while still not being at their disposal. It recognizes only the progress in the mastery of nature, not the retrogression of society; it already displays the technocratic features later encountered in Fascism. Among these is a conception of nature which differs ominously from the one in the Socialist utopias before the 1848 revolution. The new conception of labor amounts to the exploitation of nature, which with naive complacency is contrasted with the exploitation of the proletariat. Compared with this positivistic conception, Fourier’s fantasies, which have so often been ridiculed, prove to be surprisingly sound. According to Fourier, as a result of efficient cooperative labor, four moons would illuminate the earthly night, the ice would recede form the poles, sea water would no longer taste salty, and beast of prey would do man’s bidding. All this illustrates a kind of labor which, far from exploiting nature, is capable of delivering her of the creations which lie dormant in her womb as potentials. Nature, which, as Dietzgen puts it, “exists gratis,” is a complement to the corrupted conception of labor. – Walter Benjamin, “Theses On The Philosophy Of History,” in Illuminations, ed. by Hannah Arendt, trans. by Harry Zohn, pp.258-259
If there is any thesis of Benjamin’s which we have encountered thus far with which to take serious issue, it is this one. Without commenting on the internal struggles present during the Gotha Conference of 1875 that united the two largest Socialist Parties in Imperial Germany, it is surprising that Benjamin begins this thesis with a criticism of the Social Democrats’s belief that technological improvements were akin to improved working conditions; that these technological improvements were the result of the Social Democrats’s reliance on labor solidarity forcing industry to provide conditions for the improvement and, as the Gotha Statement made clear, the dignity of labor in an industrial society. Yet he ends with what might have seemed fanciful in the 1930′s, and perhaps even a humanizing and taming of nature toward humane ends, but some of which we live with and can only be set at the feet of the very exploitation of nature that Benjamin derides as part and parcel of a vulgar Marxism that he insists does not understand that techne that serves the ruling class does not serve humanity.
Regardless of the ends to which the exploitation of nature are put, one cannot in good conscience applaud a vision of communal labor destroying the night sky, melting the polar ice caps, desalination, or forcing domestication upon wild species. We already live with the results of the end of night in our metropolitan areas. The melting of the polar ice caps continues apace, and we all know that can only bring more human disaster. While desalination in arid areas of the world might certainly serve certain limited human ends, the desalination of the oceans would destroy not only the maritime ecosystem, but could spell disaster for the whole planet. There are already vast swaths of the ocean that are deoxygenated thanks to human technology; desalinating would be even more disastrous. Finally, wild species do not exist to serve human ends; even those species we have domesticated are harmed by their association with human beings.
The view Benjamin expresses here is rooted in the Baconian and Cartesian idea that control of nature equals power. It is as old as the modern era, and has wreaked havoc across our planet, in any and every ecosystem, and is quickly altering the very processes of the climate upon which so much of our present life depends. Evolution by natural selection does not and cannot work fast enough to keep up with the changes we have already experienced, and which will continue to pile up as nation-states diddle around the edges of solutions, leaving the basic structure of natural destruction and exploitation intact. For Francis Bacon and Rene Decartes, the natural world was just a thing, its sole purpose to grant to humanity more and more power as we exploited it for our own ends. Few ideas have been as disastrous as the idea that nature is a void, a surd, void of any integrity in and for itself therefore useful only for human uses and those who have the power define and construct them.
After Creation, all that God had made was handed over to humanity as a charge to keep. We are not the exploiters of the natural world, but merely its stewards because the true Master of Creation has graciously offered us the opportunity to preserve and protect it. Instead, we have raped and pillaged and destroyed and killed off entire species and are on the brink of altering the planetary climate, rendering huge swaths of the planet uninhabitable not only by human beings but any species currently living. To fall in to the technological trap, even one claimed as serving the interests of the oppressed, is to continue the Baconian/Cartesian project of control, power, and destruction. We must rid ourselves of the idea that nature is a thing that exists solely for human use before we render the world incapable of supporting human life. A Christian cannot endorse a program to make the world in our image, for the Bible reminds us that image is corrupted by sin and evil. We must return to view of our place as stewards of God’s good creation; it might already be too late, but still, it is far preferable to the destructive fantasies Benjamin endorses.
The themes which monastic discipline assigned to friars for meditation were designed to turn them away from the world and its affairs. The thoughts which we are developing here originate from similar considerations. At a moment when the politicians in whom the opponents of Fascism had placed their hopes are prostrate and confirm their defeat by betraying their own cause, these observations are intended to disentangle the political worldlings from the snares in which the traitors have entrapped them. Our consideration proceeds from the insight the the politicians’ stubborn faith in progress, their confidence in their “mass basis,” and, finally, their servile integration in an uncontrollable apparatus have been three aspects of the same thing. It seeks to convey an idea of the high price our accustomed thinking will have to pay for a conception of history that avoids any complicity with the thinking to which these politicians continue to adhere. – Walter Benjamin, “Theses On The Philosophy Of History”, in Illuminations, ed. by Hannah Arendt, trans. by Harry Zohn, p. 258
As the Warsaw Pact nations had their governments overthrown or voted out of office; as the West began to plan for a new order for the industrialized world in the absence of any substantial Soviet threat, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, when addressing a group of critics of the fermenting policy that was dubbed “The New World Order” by American President George H W Bush – a combination of neo-liberal economic policy, demilitarization of former Warsaw Pact nations, and democratic forms without any infrastructure to support it – proclaimed “There is no alternative.” This became shortened to the acronym TINA, and became and continues to be the conventional wisdom of foreign policy elites when considering the expansion of NATO and the European Union, the creation and rise of a single European currency, and even our approach to Russian imperialism toward Ukraine. Regardless of the economic and social and political hardships, we continue to be told TINA.
When political “leaders” express the idea that there are no substantive policy alternatives to those they are currently pursuing, particularly in the face of criticisms that include substantive alternatives, they have not only lost their legitimacy. They have demonstrated what Benjamin describes above as the attitude of the “opponents” of Fascism in the 1930′s who in fact surrendered in many ways long before any wars were declared or any armies were mobilized. An adherence to “progress”; their self-confidence rooted in a false sense of their own popularity; and the fact that they are not leaders, but rather servants of forces that seek to use them for ends not in keeping with the best interests of the people they allegedly serve all demonstrate that the names and faces and political theories may have changed, but in fact the game itself has not. Understanding this, as Benjamin notes, takes a great deal of effort, separating ourselves from the world in much the way the friars would, by focusing and meditating on the great gift to come rather than the horrors and evil of this age. Only then, only when the spell of this time is broken, can we understand the “conception of history” which Benjamin himself is proposing.
In much the same way, Christians are famously reminded that we are “in the world, but not of the world”. Precisely because of the equivocal nature of the word “world” in the New Testament – on the one hand it is the focus of Divine Love and Care as expressed in the incarnation of Jesus and through his death on the cross and resurrection; on the other hand, the world is ruled by the Powers and Principalities, understood not only as the then-current political forces, but also spiritual realities rooted in the Ruler Of This Age, i.e., Lucifer – we Christians must always demonstrate our love for this world while never falling for the tricks and traps, the “snares” Benjamin calls them, of this world. We are “not of the world” precisely because we understand “There Is No Alternative” is a lie. It has always been a lie whenever it or its like has been uttered by those who, rooted in this world, serve it rather than the people. Unlike those to whom Benjamin is appealing, the Christian churches have long had a way of understanding life in this world, its destructive capabilities, and the weakness and evil of politicians in the face of forces far larger than themselves. While non-Christians struggle to disentangle themselves from the comfortable lies of this age, we struggle on, making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, always with one eye on those who wish to see clearly, understand clearly, and act freely in the face of forces that would destroy all of us for their own sake.
There are always alternatives. This historical materialist and the faithful Christian can join together on this, at the very least: that together, seeing and understanding clearly we can refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the powers of this age and seek to build a fully human, communal future in which all are considered of worth, and in which alternatives are always considered.