Benjamin wrote Theses on the Philosophy of History (or On the Concept of History) in 1940, in exile and with his death fast approaching. The text is, perhaps appropriately, both urgent and resigned. Benjamin is openly angry, most of all at the complacency of politicians and political commentators—at all those who had either failed to take fascism seriously, or who became complicit with Nazism. The Theses are, above all, concerned with the question of progress, and with how progress fits into the writing of history, into dialectical materialism, and into Marxist thought. Fascism is everywhere in the essay; it represents the failure of narratives of inevitable progress.
Walter Benjamin on the (In)Evitability of Progress
The inevitability of progress, for Benjamin, engenders precisely the complacency—the lack of vigilance—that allowed fascism’s rise. Benjamin writes:
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 […] Our consideration proceeds from the insight that 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.
Benjamin, Theses on The Philosophy of History, 1940
Worse still, Benjamin worries that this complacency is a corollary of a certain kind of Marxism. His Theses are an attempt to drive a wedge between this determinist faith in progress and the proper practice of dialectical history. For him, the task of the historian is active and volitional, it is a conscious construction of the past directed towards both revolutionary action and the redemption of the historically oppressed.
Klee’s Angelus Novus
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The passage describing Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus (1920) forms the Theses’ lyrical center. Benjamin likens Klee’s picture—a print of a sheep-like angel, which Benjamin owned—to the “angel of history,” looking back at the tragedies and cruelties of the past while being involuntarily pulled forwards into the future.
The image—the angel’s eyes, his unfurled wings and desperation to hold his ground, his vast mourning for all the catastrophes of history—is Benjamin’s way of rendering both the horror and majesty of the past.
Here Benjamin must be quoted at length:
A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
Benjamin, Theses on The Philosophy of History, 1940
The passage is deeply ambivalent: the angel is divine and revolutionary—at once the whole of history and history’s impotent plaything. The storm is tragic and jubilant; the progress it represents is now real, now merely so-called; we cannot quite tell whether the look of Klee’s angel—always backward—is the mark of a futile nostalgia or the sign that he is wiser than us.
When we get to the end of the passage, we find that the idea of the storm of progress, ripping history along with matchless force, is not quite as soothing or triumphant as it should be. Something hubristic, something clumsy and overly simple, has poisoned the storm of progress.
Whatever the optimistic historian or politician might say, Benjamin worries that we have given the thing called “progress” the wrong name. Like the angel, we are pulled lurchingly forwards, leaving ever more catastrophe behind.
There lurks behind the theses an anxiety about Marx, and a need to set Marxist history on the right track, to make sure it avoids the pitfalls of determinism. Historical materialism, Benjamin tells us, sets itself apart by distrusting such narratives of progress, by seeing—as the angel of history does, that such narratives are not—can never be—determined chains of causation, pulling implacably towards a better future. They are retroactive inventions, always malleable and always incomplete until judgment day.
Critical Approaches: Eagleton and Jameson
Walter Benjamin’s potent mixture of literary flair and knotty argumentation makes him an ideal subject for critical disagreement, and the Theses on History—with their ambitious subject matter and fragmentary structure—are an even more ideal subject. Two of the world’s most prominent cultural critics, Terry Eagleton and Fredric Jameson, have written at length on Benjamin’s theses on history.
Terry Eagleton reads the Angelus Novus passage as an unambivalent indictment of myths of determined progress. In his reading, Benjamin’s angel has the right idea—he should “stay, awaken the dead,” rather than getting swept along by “what we call progress.” Eagleton writes:
What stops the angel from waking the dead here and now, calling time on history and ushering in redemption, is the assurance that history needs no such transformation, since it will carry us into a glorious future through its own momentum. It is the colossal complacency known as historical determinism that betrays the need for change.
Terry Eagleton, The Marxist and the Messiah, 2021
Eagleton criticizes Jameson’s equivocation about the nature of the storm (“Jameson seems uncertain about what this storm represents, Benjamin actually tells us”—Eagleton, 2021), but his own explanation treats the richness and complexity of Benjamin’s Angelus Novus as surplus—an overwrought way of calling into question our presumptions of progress.
Benjamin, however, makes that point succinctly enough elsewhere in the Theses, much more dismissively, and without invoking the grandeur and tragedy of the angel of history. The passage, therefore, cannot be quite so simple. After all, the storm is “blowing from Paradise.” The use of “Paradise” here does not appear to be ironic, or so-called, but its role in the metaphor is perplexing. Given the themes of the other Theses, it would be a wilful misreading to take this paradise as a reification of our comforting myths of progress. So, Benjamin’s surprising wording cannot be dismissed, and cannot be understood as it appears on first reading.
Jameson thinks the solution to this quandary is to look more closely at the text. The error of Benjamin’s critics, he suggests, has been in failing to notice that the storm is blowing from, and not to, Paradise. In other words, the storm is carrying the angel of history further and further from paradise, separating him from the divine with an ever-greater expanse of rubble and catastrophe. It suggests a temporal paradise outside of history, lingering before its commencement and after its conclusion, but a conclusion reached not by plodding, determined progress but by sudden revolutionary intervention.
This is an idea that fits with other parts of Benjamin’s philosophy—his essay “On Language as Such and On the Language of Man” contains a similar kind of paradise—but Jameson fails to follow his own close reading to the end: he never suggests why this catastrophic storm of history might be blowing from paradise.
The Role of Theology In Walter Benjamin’s Theses
Benjamin opposes complacent historical determinism, which he calls “historicism,” to historical materialism, whereby the historian tries to do what the angel of history cannot. The historical materialist burrows into a history of exploitation and oppression, understanding that there is no chain of events, and tries to furnish the present with a history that will dignify the dead and usher in revolutionary change.
The historical materialist, however important their task, is only “endowed with a weak Messianic power” (Benjamin, 1940). The strong Messianic power, the power that can end history and redeem the past in full, remains properly divine.
That this is the case—and the theses, along with so much of the rest of Benjamin’s work, confirms that it is—grates against Jameson’s attempts to recast the religiosity of Benjamin as a mere metaphor or placeholder. Jameson writes:
It is essential to insist from the outset that theology, in his sense, has nothing to do with God, and that it is to be considered a language or a code and not a system of beliefs. Theology exists because a void has been left in the areas traditionally assigned to philosophy
Fredric Jameson, The Benjamin Files, 2020
That Jameson would have us read “theology” as a cipher for a variety of basically secular motifs and categories useful to the exercise of historical materialism, and to Benjamin’s politics at large, seems particularly strange given the opening image of the Theses.
Benjamin introduces us to the Theses with the story of the Mechanical Turk, the ostensible chess-playing automaton secretly controlled by “a little hunchback who was an expert chess player.” Benjamin suggests another automaton, “historical materialism,” and another hidden hunchback, the frail and elderly “theology.” If either politics or theology are to be subordinated to the other, in Benjamin’s thought, the Theses seem to give us a clear enough indication that the subordination is not the one Jameson suggests.
Messianic arrival and revolution are certainly intertwined for Benjamin, perhaps even identical. Explicitly, the “Messianic cessation of happening” and the “revolutionary chance” are two ways of saying the same thing. It seems like maybe the weak Messianic power at least drives at the same end of history that the arrival of the Messiah ushers in, but that end—the end of history—lies out of reach unless historical materialism “enlists the services of theology” (Benjamin, 1940).
Even if the two ends of history are one and the same, both are properly (and not merely metaphorically) theological. Seriously taking on the idea of the end of history as a political end means ceding both the idea of historical causation and our representations of the future. Judgment day is an absolute horizon to representation, and as such, is where the materiality of history must give way to the unimaginable: to the province of the divine.