Who was the real Walter Benjamin? Was it the otherworldly aesthete who believed, along with the German Romantics, that literature has a redemptive purpose, and who was indifferent to whether a literary work was actually read, since it is ultimately a metaphysical end in itself?
Or was the real Benjamin the self-proclaimed “strategist in the literary struggle,” the follower of Bertolt Brecht who, during the 1920s and ’30s, became enamored of Soviet literature and film, with their odes to factory work and agricultural collectivization, dismissing art for art’s sake as an unconscionable bourgeois indulgence in an age of class struggle?
Or was it the passionate Kabbalist, the friend of Gershom Scholem who proclaimed that his interpretive ideal was the Talmudic doctrine according to which every Torah passage contained forty-nine levels of meaning; who pronounced, without a trace of irony, that any philosophy that could not foretell the future by reading coffee grounds was worthless; who, following the fall of France in 1940, argued that Marxism could prevail only if it enlisted the help of theology; and who claimed that the goal of revolution was not so much the emancipation of future generations as the resurrection of vanquished ancestors?
In fact, each of these portraits captures something of Benjamin, who contained multitudes. Yet this theoretical eclecticism was not the reflection of a man who could not make up his mind. The “real” Benjamin was in fact a constellation (to use one of his favorite terms) of complex oppositions, most notably Marxism and Jewish messianism. He struggled indefatigably against conceptions of the left that risked selling short its ultimate emancipatory potential–for example, Lenin’s prosaic definition of communism as “the Soviets plus electrification” or the equally mundane social-democratic conception of socialism as state ownership of the means of production. Marxism’s fatal error, Benjamin believed, was to have uncritically imbibed the shallow and deterministic worldview of nineteenth-century “scientism”–a perspective that reflected the nineteenth-century bourgeois faith in progress through achievements in industry and technical innovation. Scientism worshiped industrialism rather than striving to transcend it. Benjamin was convinced that Fourier’s fanciful phalansteries contained infinitely more “political truth” than Engels’s Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. Revolution meant a qualitative leap into the future, a utopian break with a long history of class domination. After all, if socialism merely perpetuated the status quo by giving it a slightly different shape and form, what was the point?
This was one of the reasons that theological notions figured so prominently in Benjamin’s work. He believed that historical materialism could ill afford to leave discussions of Paradise or the Last Judgment in the hands of deceitful clerics and prelates. Marxism’s utopian promise, for Benjamin, had more to do with the redemption of fallen humanity than it did with equitable transfer payments or a progressive income tax. As he put it: “My thought is related to theology as a blotter is to ink. It is totally absorbed by it.”