The Past Is Ours To Redeem: Benjamin’s Theses On The Philosophy Of History V
The true picture of the past flits by. The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again. “The truth will not run away from us”: in the historical outlook of historicism these words of Gottfried Keller mark the exact point where historical materialism cuts through historicism. For every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably. (The good tidings which the historian of the past brings with throbbing heart may be lost in a void the very moment he opens his mouth.) – Walter Benjamin, “Theses On The Philsophy of History,” in Illuminations, ed. by Hannah Arendt, translated by Harry Zohn, p. 255
It is important to remember the project Benjamin has set for himself with these theses. It is also important to remember the times in which he wrote them. With the victory of the Bolsheviks in Russia and the rise of viable Communist Parties in Central and Western Europe, it seemed the moment of victory was approaching. While having broad support, in particular from unions and workers organizations controlled by the Soviet Union, it was the right that was actually ascendant in these same places. Poland, Romania, Hungary, Germany, and France all had right-wing governments prior to the rise of Fascism in Italy, then Spain, and Nazism in Germany. The right-wing parties that gained control in Poland and the other countries mentioned had both strong political ties and ideological sympathies with the German National Socialists, including its virulent anti-Semitism. The idea of “victory” seemed to fall ever further in the distance, while the ruling classes hijacked popular discontent and channeled it in to internal strife, racist violence, the consolidation of industrial, banking, and mercantile interests to support the state machinery of control, and a largely indifferent attitude from those few powers that might have done something, particularly Great Britain.
Benjamin was writing precisely to give courage and fortitude to those who continued the struggle in the face of official oppression we cannot imagine today – beatings in the street without recourse to law; the large-scale incarceration in official concentration camps; making membership in both the socialist and communist parties illegal. He was also writing to create an understanding of the place of history in the class struggle, a way of understanding the past that was counter to the official line of professional historians, most often beholden to the state for their work. Benjamin’s philosophy of history was as much polemic and ideology as it was an alternative framework within which to understand the past. He wanted people to see and understand in new ways, life-affirming and life-giving ways.
While the flow of the theses may not seem so clear, if you consider first Thesis III then Thesis IV in order, then Thesis V becomes far more natural, flowing from each and both together, the specific declaration that the past is not the possession of the historian, who kills it the moment he tries to describe it. History, rather, is that still-unredeemed past that flits across our collective consciousness, images of human life that can only be grasped if we are willing to forego the “historians” insistence on description and examination and demand the truth of the past, in all its flickering ephemerality, be called what it is – the truth that has not yet been declared, but also cannot be denied. It is the task of the historical materialist, now schooled both in the necessity of redeeming all the past for the sake of a humanity now redeemed by the victory of the class struggle, as well as those who have sought to bring about that victory, seeing glimpses of it here and there along the way, to make of the past what it both was and is in its fundamental reality: part of the flow that has led to the victory over the forces of oppression throughout history. Rather than destroy the beating heart of the past through explanation, the task of the historical materialist is to keep the beating heart of the past alive, as it continues to inform our present, and bring hope to our future.
We Christians still have much to learn from Benjamin, particularly here. No less prone to factionalism, the declaration of error in difference (indeed, I think the Communist Parties learned this from the fracturing of the Christian churches, so we have little room in which to criticize them), and the elevation of particular individuals and movements within the broader scope of our common story, we should be far more willing to heed the call of Benjamin to make of the past our past. Not some fleeting image that disappears the moment is appears as image; not the property of the “church historian” who is more than likely a servant either of a particular theological heritage or denominational institution, we in the churches should be willing to take all those moments from our past, moments that seem so fleeting, disconnected, and irrelevant, and recall they are part of what makes us who we are today. They do not belong to the historian. They belong to the people of God; they are images of hope and life and the freedom we have from the Triune God in Christ, through the Spirit, for the Father. They shape who and what we are, but only if we wrest them from the clutches of the historian who would destroy them, insisting that, being past, they are already dead.
Whether the historical materialist who seeks to recall the past of the class struggle so that the roll call on the last day is one that knows no difference between the great and the small, or the Christian who understands neither Catholic nor Orthodox nor Reformed nor Evangelical, but in the words of St. Paul, on Christ Jesus and him crucified, the past is ours not only recall, but to grasp and bring to life, to inform the present with its wisdom, its struggle, its victories and failures. In this time of increasing and rapid secularization, we Christians should struggle even more than usual to see all the past, the good and bad, the successes and failures, the names of the great Saints and those whose names exist only on church baptism and burial records, as part of the great work of bringing about the Kingdom of God.