On 15 July 1892, Walter Benjamin was born into a well heeled assimilated Jewish family in Berlin. On 26 September 1940, he was interrupted in his escape to the US from Nazi Germany. Prevented from crossing from Occupied France into Spain, weakened by illness and threatened with being handed over to the Gestapo, he chose suicide.
In the years between these dates Benjamin lived all over Europe, as a tourist and émigré. Once the Nazis had annulled his German nationality, specifically because of an article he wrote for a Communist magazine on the decadence of fascist art, he became an exile.
With the victory of Nazism in Germany and the fall of France, the spaces of safe Europe were shrinking. The east held little promise. At the end of 1926 Benjamin had visited Moscow for eight weeks in order to decide whether to join the Communist Party.
He decided against. The Soviet system appeared as a dynamic and energetic society - but already there were frightening tendencies towards leadership cults and corruption. By the time Benjamin sought to flee the Nazis, the situation in Russia had worsened.
The Middle East was no option either. Gershom Scholem, a Zionist friend from his youth, had long tried to tempt Benjamin to Palestine, but neither the Desert State nor Zionism held any attraction for him.
Instead he started a journey undertaken by other displaced European intellectuals - to the US, in the hope of an academic post, or simply the opportunity to flog his talents to Hollywood.
A freelance writer selling literary criticism, cultural analysis and the odd radio lecture for children, Benjamin might have secured a few commissions in the US or aid from the more successful exile community. It was not to be.
The topics that attracted Benjamin were exceptionally diverse. They included the social dynamics of technology, the philosophy of history, the politics of literature, theories of memory and experience, and even the cultural significance of astrology.
Given his own precarious freelance existence, one of Benjamin’s key concerns was with the changing status of intellectuals, writers and artists over the period of industrialisation. The intelligentsia had to struggle to find financial backers where once patronage by nobility or the church had sufficed.
Benjamin was alert to the political meanings of culture. His essay “The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility” and his lecture for a communist circle “The Author as Producer” proposed ways of creating an anti-capitalist and anti-fascist culture.
He devised strategies to avoid the pressures on artists to be individualistic, competitive, or proponents of art as a new religion. Benjamin assessed what the new mass cultural forms - radio, film, photography, photomontage, worker-correspondent newspapers - meant socially and politically. He was hopeful that new technologies could bring culture closer to larger numbers of people, demystify it and make its formats relevant for a modern epoch.
Benjamin studied the past in an effort to understand how capitalism had created the conditions for the victory of fascism. It was Paris that Benjamin chose to focus on. From the late 18th to the late 19th century Paris had been an animated place of burgeoning consumer capitalism and repeated revolutionary waves.
For the last 13 years of his life Benjamin investigated the shopping arcades of Paris and the developing culture of consumerism they represented.
The first Parisian arcades were built in the early 1800s and the last was constructed in 1860. Arcades were passages through blocks of buildings, lined with shops and other businesses. These iron and glass constructions housed chaotic juxtapositions of shop signs, lighting and attractive window displays of commodities and mannequins.
For Benjamin the arcades of Paris were a microcosm of capitalism. They represented both historical potential and disappointment - a promise of abundance and betrayal of that promise.
An international architectural form, they were crammed with colonial plunder, the raided booty of wealthy nations. The empire aided commodity production, providing sources of raw materials which could be worked over and sold off in newly established markets.
Imperialism unified the world through trade, but equally it divided peoples, setting them against one another as workers and as soldiers. The world exhibitions, another 19th century architectural form devoted to commodity display, were similarly contradictory.
Victor Hugo’s introduction to the 1867 Paris World Exposition catalogue is a call for the unification of peoples - he talks of “the world as neighbours” who come together to “compare ideals”.
But in reality, the displays were organised along the dividing lines of nation. And commodities were placed on pedestals, erasing the labour of the workers who had made them.
World exhibitions promised to be places where visitors of all classes and backgrounds could rub shoulders democratically. Benjamin quoted the Soviet writer Rjazanov to point out how far from the truth this notion was:
“In 1855 the second world exhibition took place, this time in Paris. Workers’ delegations from the capital as well as from the provinces were now totally barred. It was feared that they gave workers an opportunity for organising.”
In focusing on the spaces of consumerism, Benjamin uncovered how the brokers of a new social order determined that bonds emerge only between consumers, not between workers. Nevertheless the workers’ bond of class solidarity threatened to endure - and so it had to be thwarted.
To this end, a new form of consumer experience proved useful. Benjamin tracked how Paris was restructured in the 1850s and 1860s in an effort to counter revolutionary actions. This modernisation project, inaugurated by Emperor Napoleon III, involved constructing vast boulevards designed to confound barricade building by rebellious workers, and to enable the swift passage of state vehicles from one part of the city to another to quell rioters.
Baron Haussmann’s rebuilding of Paris aimed to move the working classes out of the city centre to the east, remodelling the west for the bourgeoisie. The arcades, which had been places of chance encounter, fell victim to this city tidy-up. Paris was to be turned into a location for tourists to contemplate rather than a locus of revolution.
The arcades thus gave way to department stores, with their economies of scale, fixed prices and concentration of ownership. Here the mass of consumers needed by a “modernising” capitalism found an appropriate home.
This consumer mass, Benjamin observed, is the mass that enters the stage of history not as a revolutionary subject, but as the mass of “mass politics”, which can be moulded into a public in order to prevent it gaining any class-based understanding. The 19th century mob is tamed and trained, turned into a consumer crowd encouraged to forget its own role in production.
By the time Benjamin wrote about the arcades they were unfashionable, and many had been demolished. This makes the Arcades Project a piece of history writing in the sense that Benjamin loved best. The ruined hopes of the past - dimly remembered from his own childhood - loom into greater visibility in his historical construction of events.
Benjamin, influenced by Surrealism, unearthed impulses, objects, dreams and wishes in matter that had decayed. He wrote of his Arcades Project:
“We can speak of two directions in this work - one which goes from the past into the present and shows the arcades, and all the rest, as precursors, and one which goes from the present into the past so as to have the revolutionary potential of these ‘precursors’ explode in the present.”
The arcades and the consumer culture they ushered in was identified as a prerequisite of fascism, which cannot be understood without reference to capitalism. This was both in terms of its economic basis and in the way people are encouraged to conceive themselves as consumers and national masses, rather than as workers and internationalists.
At the same time, the arcades and similar 19th century forms - railway stations, museums, exhibition halls - all fizz with the utopian promise of luxuries, mobility and knowledge.
Benjamin was always alert to how the “hell” of commodity production and capitalist society could be probed to reveal traces of hope. So, at the same time as the worker’s consciousness is colonised by the commodity in spaces of consumption, the consumer reacts to the utopian side of commodity production.
The impulse for accepting the commodity is the wish to see dreams fulfilled. Advertising makes this so much clearer - it works with our fantasies and desires in order to convince us that products will make us happy. Yet they never do - so the desire remains, as does the possibility and motivation of genuine improvement.
Arguably Benjamin’s writings on film and technological culture are also an attempt to explore the revolutionary potential of these art forms. A democratic possibility inhabits film and photography, he argued, but it is impeded by capitalist production relations, such as the ownership of copyright and display channels by the rich.
From 1934, Benjamin’s dreams became ever more politicised and the dreams of the past, sought out in his historical archaeology of human desires, were obliterated by the pressing nightmares of the present. The collective appeared to have succumbed to the spectacle. The mass found an uncomfortable home in totalitarian states, where “class” was an outlawed category.
While the Nazis pushed one way, Benjamin moved in other directions, from country to country, stumbling finally to ground on a stretch of no man’s land between Spain and France.
This is when Benjamin wrote his final piece, “On the Concept of History”. In the darkest days Benjamin pointed out the impotency of conventional modes of thinking and action. He diagnosed the root of the problem to be the “servile subordination into an uncontrollable apparatus” on the part of even those politicians, such as reformist social democrats, who were anti-fascist.
Benjamin’s challenging perspectives signal to us that revolutionary action in hand with revolutionary theory is the only rightful challenger to the system that oppresses us - and the only possibility for true happiness.
Esther Leslie is researcher at Birkbeck College and author of Walter Benjamin - Overpowering Conformism (Pluto Press).