Walter Benjamin and the “Tradition of the Oppressed”

Thesis IX of "Über den Begriff der Geschichte," Hannah Arendt manuscript, Walter Benjamin Archiv Berlin, Ms 466r; a reedited version of this thesis later became thesis XII.

Thesis IX of “Über den Begriff der Geschichte,” Hannah Arendt manuscript, Walter Benjamin Archiv Berlin, Ms 466r; a reedited version of this thesis later became thesis XII. 

In his influential essay “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific,” Friedrich Engels (1880) deemed tradition “a great retarding force,” “the vis inertiae of history.” This negative view became the dominant version of historical materialism’s take on tradition. In his last “Theses On the Concept of History” (1940), Benjamin proposed his own reading of historical materialism, resulting in a radical revision of vulgar Marxism. For Benjamin history is not based on a progressive flow of “homogeneous, empty time” directed to the future but on a disruptive constellation of the present and the past. The past is not simply gone; it can never be fully historicized. The medium in which the present is connected to all lost causes and struggles of those who lost their histories is called the “tradition of the oppressed.” Against the continuous temporality of the humanist idea of cultural heritage, “the tradition of the oppressed” forms a fractured medium the dialectics of which Benjamin discussed in two fragmentary notes. These notes are partly integrated in the final version of Thesis XII and to a lesser degree in Thesis VIII (see appendix). They discuss the question of how the “struggling, oppressed class” relates to its oppressed past and how this past is constitutive or destitute of tradition.

 

Walter Benjamin:
Excerpts from the Paralipomena and Notes of the
Theses On the Concept of History (1940)

[crossed out passages are indicated by curly brackets]

{Problem of tradition I}
Dialectics at a standstill

(Basic aporia: ‘Tradition as the discontinuum of the past in contradiction to history as the continuum of events.’ – ‘It may be that the continuum of tradition is semblance [Schein]. But then precisely the persistence of this semblance of persistence provides it with continuity.’)

(Basic aporia: ‘The history of the oppressed is a discontinuum.’ – ‘The task of history is to get hold of the tradition of the oppressed.’)

More on these aporias: ‘The continuum of history is the one of the oppressors. Whereas the idea [Vorstellung] of the continuum levels everything to the ground, the idea [Vorstellung] of the discontinuum is the foundation of real tradition.’ —

[crossed out passage]

{What characterizes revolutionary classes at the moment of their action is the consciousness of historical discontinuity. On the other hand, however, the class’s revolutionary action is most closely related to the class’s concept (not only of coming history but also) of past history. This is only an apparent contradiction: bridging the gap of two millennia the French Revolution drew on the Roman Republic.}

Problem of tradition II

For the proletariat, the consciousness of its new mission did not correspond to anything historical. No memory occurred. (The effort was made to establish one artificially in writings such as Zimmermann’s “History of the Peasants’ Wars” and the like. However, this was not successful.)

[crossed out passage, earlier version of Thesis XII]

{It is the tradition of the oppressed in which the working class enters the stage as the final enslaved, avenging and liberating class. This consciousness has been abandoned by the Social Democrats right from the beginning. They cast the working class in the role of a redeemer of future generations. In this way they cut the sinews of its strength. This indoctrination made the working class forget both its hatred and its spirit of sacrifice. For both are nourished by the true image of enslaved ancestors rather than by the ideal image of liberated descendants. At the beginning of the Russian Revolution this awareness was still alive. The motto “no glory for the victor, no sympathy for the defeated” is so poignant because it expresses solidarity with the dead brothers rather than with future generations. – Young Hölderlin writes “I love the generation of the coming centuries.” But is this not at the same time the acknowledgement of the congenial weakness of the German Bourgeoisie?}

Translated by Sami Khatib in collaboration with Jacob Bard-Rosenberg

Appendix

Thesis XII

We need history, but our need for it differs from that of the jaded idlers in the garden of knowledge.
Nietzsche, On the Advantages and Disadvantages of History for Life

The subject of historical cognition [Erkenntnis] is the struggling, oppressed class itself. Marx presents it as the last enslaved class – the avenger that completes the task of liberation in the name of generations of the downtrodden. This conviction, which had a brief resurgence in the Spartacus League, has always been objectionable to Social Democrats. Within three decades they managed to erase the name of Blanqui almost entirely, though at the sound of that name the preceding century had quaked. The Social Democrats preferred to cast the working class in the role of a redeemer of future generations, in this way cutting the sinews of its greatest strength. This indoctrination made the working class forget both its hatred and its spirit of sacrifice, for both are nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than by the ideal of liberated grandchildren.

Thesis VIII

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “state of exception” [“Ausnahmezustand”] in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that accords with this insight. Then we will clearly see that it is our task to bring about a real state of exception, and this will improve our position in the struggle against fascism. One reason fascism has a chance is that, in the name of progress, its opponents treat it as a historical norm. – The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are “still” possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of cognition [Erkenntnis] – unless it is the cognition that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable.

Sources

Problem of tradition I: Walter Benjamin Archive, Ms 469; cf. Benjamin, Walter: Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Hermann Schweppenhäuser; Rolf Tiedemann, vol. I.3, Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 1974, 1236; cf. Benjamin, Walter: Über den Begriff der Geschichte, ed. Gérard Raulet, Kritische Gesamtausgabe. Werke und Nachlaß, ed. Christoph Gödde; Henri Lonitz, vol. 19, Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 2010, 123f. See also Benjamin’s Arcades Project, Konvolute N, 19,1.

Problem of tradition II: Walter Benjamin Archive, Ms 466r, cf. Benjamin, Walter: Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Hermann Schweppenhäuser; Rolf Tiedemann, vol. I.3, Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 1974, 1236f.; cf. Benjamin, Walter: Über den Begriff der Geschichte, ed. Gérard Raulet, Kritische Gesamtausgabe. Werke und Nachlaß, ed. Christoph Gödde; Henri Lonitz, vol. 19, Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 2010, 120.

Appendix: Benjamin, Walter: “On the Concept of History,” trans. Harry Zohn, in Selected Writings, ed. Marcus Bollock; Michael W. Jennings, Vol. 4, Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 2006, 394, 392; trans. modified.


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