• Bleak Progress

  • By Walter Baier | 10 May 11 | Posted under: Reviews
  • On Michael Löwy’s Book

    "Juifs hétérodoxes, romantisme, messianisme, utopie"

    (Heterodox Jews, Romanticism, Messianism, Utopia)

    On Michael Löwy’s Book  "Juifs hétérodoxes, romantisme, messianisme, utopie" (Heterodox Jews, Romanticism, Messianism, Utopia)

    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 upon 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 from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such 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.

    Walter Benjamin,
    Theses on the Philosophy of History, 1939.


    When thinking of today’s wars and catastrophes this key passage from Walter Benjamin’s theses on history almost inevitably comes to mind. Does it contain more than the desperate cry of someone who was politically and racially persecuted, who in the characteristic linking of Jewish theology to the theory of class struggle had theoretically anticipated a horror, which actually took place only a few years later? Is this thinking situated within or outside a mode of observing history oriented toward Marx? And within today’s virulent “crisis of civilisation” are the findings it reached still relevant? Michael Löwy’s small book, published 2010 by Éditions de l’éclat in Paris, is not only a contribution to a striking chapter of European intellectual history; one can also acquire from it important insights for answering these questions1.

    Crisis of civilisation and Marxism

    The theme is as contemporary as the crisis itself. What is symptomatic of this outlook, which is now winning ground, is the way in which the International Council of the World Social Forum, in a call issued at the end of last year for a worldwide discussion of alternatives, characterised the “hegemonic, Western civilisation” through three concepts: “modernity”, “colonialism”, and “Eurocentrism”, which indirectly includes in its criticism the western left, seen as a child of modernity.

    This may even be justified for a large part of the political and trade-union left. Shouldn’t one then also broaden this objection of a blind belief in progress to include Marxism itself? What is the latter’s view of progress? Is there a concept of progress in the first place around which those who call themselves Marxists agree?

    Marx called revolutions the “locomotives of history”2. “But perhaps they are something else”, objects Benjamin. “Perhaps they are the hand of humanity, which sits in the train and pulls the emergency break” (Löwy, Juifs hétérodoxes, p. 62).

    What is disconcerting is not only that Benjamin, in the same gesture as he turns to “historical materialism”, attacks one of its core concepts. It is above all his inversion of the motivation of revolutionary action which troubles the conventional readings of Marx: “If the fall of the bourgeoisie is not accomplished by the proletariat before the almost calculable moment of scientific-technical development (represented by inflation and chemical warfare) then all is lost. One has to put out the brushfire before it reaches the dynamite” (Löwy, p. 115).

    In contrast to the evolutionism of the sterile textbook Marxism of his time and after, Benjamin recognises in revolutions not the “natural” or “inevitable” result of economic and technical progress (or of the “contradiction between the forces of production and the relations of production) but the interruption of an historical development, which, it is clear to him, leads to catastrophe.

    From this perspective fascism for him is not an historical operational accident, as something abnormal, as an impossible absurdity in the context of progress, but as the reverse side of instrumental reason and of the combination, typical of modernity, of technical progress and social regression. Is this conclusion relevant for today’s problems?

    The linking of progress to disaster, however, also has an historical importance for Benjamin. From the point of view of the oppressed, he sees the past as represented by an uninterrupted series of catastrophic defeats. The slave uprisings, the Peasants War, June 1848, the Paris Commune and the January Revolution in Berlin form the chain of events continually cited in his writings, which illustrates “that the enemy has not stopped winning” (Löwy, p. 121).

    And this is supposed to be “Marxism”, ask both its adherents and opponents? Yes, Gershom Scholem answers in his essay “Walter Benjamin and His Angel”3, although it is a Marxism distinguished by its pronounced obstinacy, because “historical materialism” in Benjamin does not supplant his romantic-utopian and messianic scepticism of progress but absorbs it into a radical critique of contemporary politics and history.

    Benjamin is the central figure of Löwy’s book. More precisely, he forms the intersecting point of the two introductory essays on European Jewish intellectuals and of the following chapters, each one dedicated to the representatives of this group, using the happy device of presenting them in pairs: Walter Benjamin and Franz Rosenzweig, Hannah Arendt and Walter Benjamin, Walter Benjamin and Manès Sperber, Ernst Bloch and Georg Lukács, Victor Basch and Bernard Lazare, Ernst Bloch and Hans Jonas. Then there are individual presentations on Gustav Landauer, Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem and on Benjamin himself. The volume is concluded with an interview with Ernst Bloch recorded in 1974.

    In the interweaving of the presentations, the range and variety of Jewish left milieus in the Europe of the 1920s and 30s becomes appreciable, which combines right and left Zionists, Marxists and individual leading personalities of the communist movement. In this connection we should mention, for example, Heinz Neumann, member of the KPD’s Politburo, who was condemned to death in 1937 in Moscow, and who was married to the former daughter-in-law of Martin Buber. (She, Margarete Buber-Neumann, was deported by the Soviet authorities to Nazi Germany where she survived the Ravensbrück concentration camp.)

    “Juif parvenu – juif paria”

    Löwy notes a striking polarity: The majority of German, non-Jewish intellectuals who felt drawn to romanticism landed in the conservative camp, in many cases as right-wing nationalists and anti-Semites, while conversely the overwhelming majority of Central-European intellectuals with romantic-utopian orientation were Jews.

    In this context “heterodox” is meant to indicate their dissidence, the pivotal shared characteristic of those partaking in this culture, and also their call for a break with the two leading Jewish orthodoxies – the religious orthodoxy based on adherence to strict rules, on the one hand, and the other, less constricting orthodoxy of the liberal, assimilating, bourgeois Jews, whom Hannah Arendt taxed with the unflattering concept of “parvenu Jews” who deny their identity and accommodate to society’s ruling forces.

    Many young Jews, however, who had come from the ghettos and shtetls to the metropolises of Vienna, Prague and Berlin around the turn of the century, discovered that the hoped for social mobility and assimilation remained closed to them. As a result they went into the free professions, for which university studies were a precondition, and they formed the mass of declassed Jewish intellectuals, the “pariah Jews”. “Some completed their break with orthodoxy by becoming Zionists – in its non-statist form —, others went over to Marxism, quite a few also to anarchism. However, on this terrain there were also those heterodox Jews who withdrew from the doctrinaire certainties and political disciplines of the various movements: They became heretical Zionists, Marxists or libertarians, distinguished by a romantic, rebellious, non-conformist attitude, freely drawing on Jewish sources in formulating their messianic and radical-utopian discourses.

    Walter Benjamin occupies an exceptional position due to his “utopian-libertarian sensibility”, his “anti-authoritarianism” and his “intransigence in the face of domination – by no means only in relation to economic exploitation”, which distances him “from the leading ideas among the German and European left”. In this way he also embodies “in the deepest and most radical way the whole richness, the whole subversive power, but also at the same time all the contradictions, of this Jewish heterodox culture” (Löwy, p. 8).

    Revolutionary pessimism

    At the end of the 1920s he observed in the main left tendencies of his day an “optimism without consciousness”, an “optimism of dilettantes”. By this he did not only mean the unrealistic assessment of the situation, also on the part of the Communist International, with which he sympathised, but in general the belief in linear progress, which he above all saw embodied in the liberal and social-democratic parties.

    In his view, the situation of Europe and the world demanded a radical mistrust on the part of revolutionaries, a “pessimism all along the line”: “Doubt regarding the fate of literature, doubt regarding freedom, doubt regarding European people, but above all a threefold doubt as regards any compromise between classes, between peoples, between individuals”. This doubt ought not today to be misunderstood as a contemplative and fatalistic feeling, since its basis was a practical and active pessimism, which called for preventing with all available means the worst from occurring. More than a decade before the industrially perfected extermination of people through Zyklon B, Benjamin pushes his plea for comprehensive mistrust into the paradoxical extreme: “An unlimited confidence only in IG Farben and in the peaceful perfecting of the German Luftwaffe” (Löwy, p. 61).

    The Principle of Hope

    Ernst Bloch’s Marxism is also heterodox. This can especially be seen in his “principle of hope”. As is known, Marx had bid farewell to any utopia, and Engels had sworn an oath, in his famous pamphlet, on the transition of socialism from utopia to science, as it was titled. Bloch however, insisted on the inversion of this relation.

    He conceded that Marxism needed sobriety, investigatory rigour and reason; at the same time, however, it needed imagination, hope and enthusiasm. What was necessary, as a famous expression of his went, was the fusing of both – that is, of the hot and cold tendency of Marxism, in which the hot strain would have the decisive role, since what flowed from it was what Bloch called militant optimism, that is, active hope in the realisation of utopia.

    In contrast to the majority of non-Jewish, German romantics, Bloch, Benjamin, Buber and Scholem did not lead their critique of industrial-capitalist civilisation – a critique carried out at least in part in the name of pre-modern, pre-capitalist ethical, social and religious values – toward the reactionary idea of restoring the old Germanic tribal societies or the Middle Ages.

    Buber, for example, recognised that the social bond that held these old societies together was that of “blood ties”, that is, the naturalisation of social relations. The “new gemeinschaft”, however, would rest, he said, on the emancipation of individuals, that is, on free choice, on “elective ties”. This would not only absorb all modern freedoms, but it would go beyond bourgeois society and its norms. In his 1947 Paths to Utopia, which originally appeared in Hebrew, Buber describes a history of socialism from St. Simon and Fourier through Marx and Lenin to the kibbutzim, in which his preference went to the libertarian socialism of Proudhon, Kropotkin and above all Gustav Landauer, a friend from his school days, who, as a leader of the 1919 Bavarian council revolution, was murdered by the reactionary military.

    One can also describe as heretical the relation to Zionism of the theorists treated here. Around 1915, the young Gershom Scholem rejected the Zionist idea of a Jewish state in Palestine with harsh words, because “we preach anarchism. This means: We do not want to have any state at all, but a free society, which has nothing to do with the one Herzl describes in The Old New Land. As Jews we know enough about the terrible false god of the state to not kneel down before it and not leave our progeny to its insatiable hunger for profit and sacrifice” (Löwy, p. 126).

    The shoah and the founding of Israel have shifted the grounds of this debate. No one on the left was able to continue contesting the right to a Jewish homeland. In the process “statist Zionism” achieved hegemony among surviving Jewish intellectuals. This is also more or less true of the left. Still, this does not smooth out all differences. Manfred Buber, who had fled the Nazis in 1938 to Palestine and taught from 1951 at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, remained a lifelong critical commentator of Zionism and its repressive policies against the Arab population. Although he spoke out over the years for diverse state forms of cohabitation in Palestine – bi-national state, Jewish-Arab federation or confederation – he always stood for a moral as well as political principle: Both peoples, Jews and Arabs, have an equal right to live on this land. In a 1947 article, “Two Peoples in Palestine”, he wrote: “What both peoples, which live side by side, one living through the other, therefore really need is self-determination, autonomy and the possibility of freely deciding” (Löwy, p. 104).




    1. With the current volume of essays, Juifs hétérodoxes, at present unfortunately only available in French, Löwy takes up again the themes of his 1988 book Rédemption et utopie. Le judaïsme libertaire en Europe centrale (in German: Erlösung und Utopie. Jüdischer Messianismus und libertäres Denken. Eine Wahlverwandschaft, published in 1997 by Karin Kramer Verlag, Berlin).
    2. Karl Marx, Class Struggles in France, 1848 to 1850, in Marx/Engels Werke, vol. 7, Berlin 1969, p. 85.
    3. Gershom Scholem, “Walter Benjamin und sein Engel” in Zur Aktualität Walter Benjamins, Frankfurt am Main, 1972, p. 87 ff.


    (As I have recently learned from Michael Löwy, a Spanish translation of the book is in preparation. This is welcome. However, it is also to be hoped that in time a competent publisher in Germany or Austria can be found, to bring out a German edition.)

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