In September 1940 a German Jewish refugee committed suicide after he fled occupied France into Spain and was then told he would be turned over to Hitler’s Gestapo.
Walter Benjamin had been stripped of his German citizenship by the Nazis.
As a Jew, a left winger and a friend of Communists such as Bertolt Brecht, he was well aware of what his fate would be if he fell into Nazi hands.
If it were not for his final writings on history, Benjamin would be best remembered for his cultural writings. But the victory of Hitler led him to become critical of the Communist Party and the Soviet Union.
Unlike his friend Brecht he had the courage to voice those criticisms, which was no easy thing when many saw the Soviet Union as the only defence against fascism.
In his final writings Benjamin concentrated on the failures of both the German Socialists and Communists to take the Nazi threat seriously.
He argued that this, in part, flowed from a belief that history would bring about the triumph of socialism – or, in the case of Stalin’s Russia, what claimed to be socialist.
Such “mechanical Marxism” lulled workers into the belief that socialism was inevitable and not something that had to be fought for and won.
George Plekhanov, the “father of Russian Marxism”, expressed this tendency when he wrote, “We, indeed, know our way and are seated in that historical train which at full speed takes us to our goal.”
Benjamin responded with, “[Karl] Marx says that revolutions are the locomotive of world history. But perhaps it is quite different. Perhaps revolutions are the grasp for the emergency brake by the human race travelling on the train.”
Benjamin returned to a central contradiction in capitalism that Marx had pointed out.
Amid huge increases in productivity there had been an immense growth of the forces of destruction threatening humanity and the planet.
Revolution would not be the final outcome of economic progress. Instead it would involve a historical break or escape from a system progressing towards catastrophe.
Fascism represented the largest danger that the working class had yet encountered.
For “mechanical Marxists” fascism was an exception on a general upwards path of historical “progress”.
So the Socialists had argued that fascism could not triumph in a developed state like Germany, while the Communists argued that any victory for Hitler would be shortlived.
For Benjamin, fascism flowed from the constant reality of class oppression.
It could combine terrible social regression with the technology of “progress” employed to devastating effect on the battlefield and in the death camps.
Benjamin aimed to rescue Marx from those who claimed his mantle. He wrote, “In every epoch the attempt must be made to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.”
Marx pointed out that it is human beings who make history, although not in circumstances of their own choosing.
History does not exist as an independent force carrying us along in its tide.
“Mechanical Marxists” argue that slavery was replaced by feudalism, which was replaced by capitalism which, inevitably, will be replaced by socialism.
But nothing is inevitable. If history is made by human beings, failure is a possibility.
In the 20th century, in regard to revolution, it was the norm.
Issuing a stark warning Benjamin pointed out, “The experience of our generation: that capitalism will not die a natural death.”
Capitalism creates class struggle, as Marx pointed out. But Benjamin argued it took the form of constant guerrilla war which would not in itself overthrow the system unless the working class could be won to revolution.
The working class also had to be won to an “awareness that they are about to make the continuum of history explode”.
The working class has to be the “avenger” for all of the oppressed throughout history. It must draw inspiration from their struggles in order to break from the descent into calamity.
For Benjamin revolution was not some distant dream, it was a necessity.
The success of revolution is not assured, he argued. It is a gamble against the odds but one we have to take. We have to choose between catastrophe or achieving human emancipation.
There is the danger of failure but there is also the hope of success.