Walter Benjamin – a modern, messianic and magic Marxist


Walter Benjamin (1892 – 1940) is a significant presence in the book I am writing, Student as Producer: how do revolutionary teachers teach? Benjamin was a German political philosopher and cultural theorist with a compendium of interests, including art, architecture, literature, philosophy, history and education. He was part of a group known as the Frankfurt School, based at the Institute of Social Sciences, who set out to  recover and reappraise  Marxist social theory through a body of intellectual work that has become known as ‘Critical Theory’.   His writings were a combination of modernism, the messianic and Marxism, making him ‘the most peculiar Marxist ever produced by this movement’ ( Arendt 1968 ). He was forced to flee Germany during the 1930s when his Jewish religion and Marxist politics put him in danger of imprisonment and death. He committed suicide in 1940 in Portbou, Spain, when en route to America he feared capture and deportation back to France. Benjamin was not read widely during his life, achieving posthumous fame (Eiland and Jennings 2014 11) and now occupies ‘… a singular, even unique place, in the intellectual and political panorama of the twentieth century’ (Lowy 2005 1).

One of his most famous essays is ‘The Author as Producer’, written in 1934 in Paris, where he posed the question ‘how do radical intellectuals act in a moment of crisis?’  This question  about the role of radical intellectuals underpins the core issue of the Student as Producer book: ‘how do revolutionary teachers teach? The title ‘Student as Producer’ is adapted from the title of this essay.  At the heart of the Student as Producer book is a critical engagement with two controversies that coalesce around Benjamin’s work: his relation to Marxist social theory and how this  informs what he referred to as  proletarian or communist pedagogy.

The general view of Benjamin’s Marxism is that although he had a sophisticated understanding of Marx’s value theory,  his approach to Marx’s social theory ‘was not dialectical enough’ (Feldman 2011). His understanding of Marx was acquired from reading commentaries by Otto Ruhle, Karl Korsch and, in particular, Georg Lukacs’ ‘History and Class Consciousness’ (1972) to support his own readings of Marx (Clark 2004 ). Benjamin’s Marxism was not simply ‘something to be pursued academically’, but ‘a field of possibility’ (Leslie 2005 558),  an understanding of Marx deepened by his relationship with the Russian revolutionary, Asja Lacis.Marxist dialectics understands revolutionary change to be motivated by class struggle: ‘all history is the history of class struggle’. A major controversy within this understanding of Marxist dialectics is the extent to which the working class forms the subject of revolution. A reading that is ‘not dialectal enough’ identifies the revolution as being when the working class achieves its moment of historical destiny through class struggle: what Benjamin refers to a ‘positivist dialectic’ (Benjamin 1929). This  revolutionary process is described by Benjamin using a messianic metaphor, as a form of  ‘divine violence’ (Neary 2016). A more dialectical reading has Capital itself as the automatic subject with  the working class and the particular form of labour that they personify as  a central factor of capitalist accumulation. This means reading the revolution not from the perspective of labour but as a critique of labour in capitalism (Postone 1993): a negative dialectic. This negative dialectical reading focuses on value as a particular form of capitalist wealth, expressed as  money and profit. The revolution requires that money-wealth is  abolished and replaced by another version of social wealth, organised around the interests of humanity in nature. This points beyond the politics of distribution to a new politics of production based on the logic of abundance rather than scarcity.  The politics of abundance is already an unrealised capacity of Capital, denied by the logic  of market exchange and the economics of scarcity. Abundance can be established by connecting social individuals’ needs and capacities, which is how Marx defines communism (Kay and Mott 1982).

Benjamin’s proletarian and communist pedagogy was based on his attachment to the working class as the subject of the revolution. Benjamin was influenced by Bertolt Brecht, the German Marxist playwright and poet. Brecht was known to  favour crude thinking over dialectics, so too did Benjamin: ‘Crude thoughts …are  nothing but the referral of theory to practice…a thought must be crude to come into its own in action’  (Arendt 1968 15). Crude is antagonistic to the dialectical, which is a dialectic of sorts.

There was a very clear connection between his ‘not dialectical enough’ reading of Marx and his approach to what he refers to a communist or proletarian pedagogy. Benjamin wrote about pedagogy in terms of his longstanding interest in childhood and the life of students. Benjamin’s theory of childhood is prelapsarian, providing the possibility for redemption and revolution (Salzani 2009 189).

A communist pedagogy for Benjamin is against the psychology and ethics and theory of bourgeois education which fixes children and adults into their functions as socially useful citizens based on an idealist humanist philosophy. For Benjamin, communist pedagogy is not idealist  but non-humanist and non-contemplative, in ways that are both practical and active ( Solzani 2009 188): ‘Education is a function of class  struggle, but not only this. In the communist creed it represent the thoroughgoing exploitation of social environment in the service of revolutionary goals. Since this environment is a matter not just of struggle but also of work, education is also a revolutionary education of work’ (Benjamin 1929 274).  A part of this revolutionary education are school strikes and other political disruptions by pupils. Education is based on privileging work in the form of universal labour, leading to ‘universal readiness…so man ( sic) can mobilise his energies in the service of the working class again and again and in every new context’ ( 274).  Students are best prepared for the universality of labour through a polytechnic mass education which should include adults. While Benjamin refers to this analysis as a ‘dialectical anthropology’ (275) the concept of universal labour is affirmative and not contextualised, providing more reasons  to argue that his dialectic approach is not dialectal enough.

Writing in ‘Proletarian Pedagogy of the Theatre’ Benjamin argues Proletarian education needs first and foremost a framework, an objective space within which education can be located,’  and allowed to develop. This is opposed to bourgeois education which is based on an idea to which it is heading towards, teleologically.  He identifies this liberated space as the theatre, as ‘It is only in the theatre that the whole of life can appear as a defined space, framed in all its plenitude; and this is why proletarian children’s theatre is the dialectical site of education’ (Benjamin 202). In this dramatic space the adult gives up the domineering role, so that their function is  ‘indirect’ and ‘mediated by tasks, the subject matter and  performances’ (Salzani 2009 188). The teacher’s role is ‘neutralised’  giving up their  ‘moral personality’  and ‘superior standpoint’ which is described as ‘knowing better and wanting better’ (188). This is not based on a preplanned curriculum but improvisation  leading to a ‘radical unleashing’ and ‘wild improvisation’ where the child’s imagination  must be ‘released from the hazardous magical world of sheer fantasy and be connected to materials’, to enable a semiotics of ‘innovation’ and ‘creativity’ (189).  What emerges out of ‘the tensions’ of relationship between student and teacher is a release of ‘the true genius of education: the power of observation’ (188). What is truly revolutionary is the secret signal of what is yet to come that speaks from the gesture of the child, not as an individual but as part of a collective group (188-189). In this way the orthodox roles of teacher and student are reversed with the teacher learning from the student (Salzani 2009).

The Student as Producer book will deal with themes established in this short review: the place of space as the context out of which revolutionary teaching can emerge beyond the class room and the school to establish new forms of political community; not childhood as prelapsarian and redemptive, but pedagogy as a way of maintaining learners in a childlike subordinate condition, from the Greek paed for child,  without responsibility or authority; and the role and function of magic, not as sheer fantasy that must be connected to materiality, but a magic that is conjured out of materiality (Neary and Taylor 1998): an alchemical project based on the power of revolutionary teaching.