How revolutionary is the revolution?

Walter Benjamin’s Critique of Violence

Walter Benjamin’s passport photo in 1928

At first sight, the question of violence from the left is easy to answer. Anyone who has ever been a tenant with rent in arrears, anybody who has organized a demonstration, knows that the liberal state is also using violence to protect social inequality. Why, in view of this, should the subordinates, the subalterns, determine the freedom of violence? Insurgent violence may not always be smart, but it certainly does not lack legitimacy.

For Walter Benjamin, however, there is an objection which one should know when dealing with the question.

The essay “On the Critique of Violence” was published in 1921, at a time when Benjamin was more influenced by Marxism in a leftist manner, and is one of the few explicit political texts of the cultural theorist. Benjamin discusses the relationship between violence, justice and justice. For this purpose, he first outlines what the two great schools of law theory have to say about the subject: For nature – law students, the The application of violence for just ends does not pose a problem. According to Benjamin, violence is “the raw material of history” – an unavoidable means of enforcing justice.

The problem with this argument is obvious: the discourse of revolutionary left is hardly distinguishable from the authoritarian right. The Bush, Blair and Cheneys also justified their campaigns, pointing out that in the fight against terror all means, including open terrorism, such as abduction and torture, were unavoidable.

On the other hand, legal positivism, as the second major theory tradition, has always emphasized that a concept as fuzzy as “justice” can not serve as the basis of legal orders. It is true that juridical positivism is by no means blind to righteousness, but in the narrower sense the question arises whether something is legally constituted. It is not decisive whether violence serves a “just purpose”, but whether it is exercised within the law.

An example: If, as in the case of natural law, only the “just purpose” were concerned, it would be irrelevant whether a murderer is punished by the power of the state or a Lynch mob. Both would serve the “just purpose”. Legal positivism, on the other hand, proceeds from the contrary: it is decisive whether the persons who are punishable are also entitled to do so. The result can be quite identical: some state legal systems also address death. But the killing by the judiciary is – unlike that of the Lynchmob – legally constituted.

Benjamin, however, accuses the two legal theories of sharing a common basic dogma: Both consider that just ends can be achieved by just means, and vice versa, justified means can be used for just ends. But what if this is wrong? If the means of violence and the purpose of justice are incompatible?

Benjamin refers here to the remarkable circumstance that for the liberal state not the violence as such presents a problem, but the exercise by unauthorized persons. In order to understand this more precisely, Benjamin discusses a form of violence that the state just tolerates: the strike. Now it can be argued that the strike is less a means of violence than a form of refusal. However, it can be said that the strike is a very militant means of countering its own interests. Strangely enough, according to Benjamin, this campaign is legal if it forces the entrepreneurs to do something concrete, eg wage increases, but illegally, if it threatens to overthrow the government. This example shows that not the means is the problem, but the intentions pursued with it.

In a further step, which is based on the international constitutional law, whose origins go back to the question of how the result of warfare can be a “state of peace”, Benjamin then develops his core thesis: violence and justice are inseparable , Whereby the violence has two basic functions: Either it acts as a right-wing or right-wing . The right-wing violence as expressed in the police, the judiciary or, in the most extreme way, in the death penalty does not fulfill the task of preventing the citizens from concrete crimes. It is, on the contrary, a demonstration of power, by which, without a word, the remnant and the essence of the law are recalled: the power set by force.

Remarkably, at the same time, Carl Schmitt has developed an almost identical thesis – albeit in the opposite direction. The authoritarian state theorist, who was to become a Nazi jurist in the 1930s, in his writings “The Dictatorship” and “Political Theology” derives the right from the violence. Where there is no order, according to Schmitt’s credo, there is no right; And order was again created violently. This is the core of the famous Schmittian decisionism : the right decision is found in the interior of the law: the enforcement of an order, which must be defended in all situations, even in crisis situations.

While, however, Schmitt is concerned with proving the legitimacy of dictatorship and the state of exception, the same combination of law and violence is the abyss for Benjamin. There is dark emptiness in the interior of the liberal constitutional state. For violence is the real center of gravity of law.

The dramatic aspect of Benjamin’s reasoning is that this connection is also true of revolutionary violence. It, too, establishes a state of order which does not lose the Cain time of arbitrariness. This gives Benjamin a kind of pendulum movement between the functions of violence. Since the right-wing violence can not shake off its wrongdoing, it provokes rebellious reactions that attempt to set a new right. But this means that revolutionary violence is not in a position to leave the circle of rule and insurrection.

Even if Benjamin does not mention the young Russian revolution at this point, these paragraphs read like a prophetic prediction of the state socialist history. For the development of the revolutions can be interpreted as such a pendulum movement: the right-wing, ultimately arbitrary revolutionary power immediately left the new order of justice rotting within. In order to maintain the new order, the “right-wing” violence to the Stalinist terror had to be extended. This provoked a counter-movement that called for a new, alternative legislation.

With his inconspicuous, 36-page essay, Benjamin ultimately casts no less than the question of what revolutions really are. If Benjamin is right with his suspicion, then the act of violence ‘revolution’ is obviously no means of liberation. But what remains then?

At this point Benjamin turned to the “proletarian general strike” and pointed to Sorel, who was the leading theoretician of revolutionary syndicalism at the beginning of the twentieth century (before his turn to fascism). In defense of the direct action of the working class, Sorel distinguishes between two forms of the general strike: the political strike seeks the enforcement of a new order in which “the state loses nothing of its power, the power of privileged to privileged as the mass of the producers Men change “. The “proletarian”, on the other hand, does not aspire to a new legal order, but – according to Benjamin – “means without purpose”.

At this point, the essay finally goes to theological terrain. Benjamin distinguishes between the “mythical” violence of the Greek gods’ world and the “just violence” of the Judaic god. This distinction may at first have a very strong effect, but, in fact, different ideas of human existence are hidden behind the divine images. In Greek mythology, the power of the gods has the function of demonstrating their power and thus setting right, ie, their rule. Thus, Odysseus crosses the Mediterranean for 10 years because Poseidon is angry with him. And even Oedipus does not escape his oracles. People are the ball of the ruling order. The Judaic God, on the other hand, is, at least in parts of the Torah, also a god of changeability. The Jews flee from bondage in Egypt and found a community of free and equal in Sinai.

Benjamin now asserts that the bourgeois legal order follows the Greek-mythical principle that justice, on the other hand, is assigned to the Judaic: “Judgment is an act, and in this respect an act of direct manifestation of violence. Justice is the principle of all divine purpose, power the principle of all mythical regulation. ” (57)

Benjamin also distances himself from pacifism with this theological volte. It is not only that the means of violence contaminates the targets, as pacifists would probably maintain. In Benjamin the context is rather the reverse: the violence is contaminated by the purpose . An action becomes an act of power and violence only when it is supposed to make a difference. The “divine force”, on the other hand, is one which does not serve any interests, does not want to establish any legal order.

As a political thesis this is admittedly doubtful, because – as already mentioned – how do we define justice? And: How is it to prevent interested groups from establishing new power orders?

But Benjamin’s essay is not a political strategy; He puts forward a problem: he shows how liberal law is bound up with the arbitrary rule of violence, and suggests that even revolutionary violence can only produce mythical forms of law. The social revolution as liberation, as a “tigers under the free sky of history” – also a Benjamin quotation – would have to be based on something else: on the understanding of people, on new, radical forms of democracy. Hannah Arendt, one of the few people who knew Benjamin’s essay before the re-release in the mid-1960s, took up this idea when she defended the American Revolution (with her council-like structures) against French Jacobinism in On Revolution. Constitutive process instead of Grande Terreur. In its book, Arendt idealizes the USA by eliminating the systematic extinction of native americans , racism, slavery, and bourgeois rule as part of the founding of the state. But she remains faithful to Benjamin’s objection in one respect: It is necessary to interrupt the closed circle of violence, regulation and upheaval.

Subversive, political violence may be legitimate, in some cases unavoidable: without the partisans of Southern and Eastern Europe national socialism would not have been defeated. And if the German workers’ parties had taken up the armed struggle in 1933, the forces of Nazi Germany would probably have been no longer sufficient for Auschwitz and the occupation of Europe. It would be idiotic to deny that political violence can be an indispensable form of resistance. But as a means of establishing justice, it obviously is not. If there has been social emancipation in armed uprisings, it is not because of, but in spite of, violence.

Benjamin’s essay thus leads to the unresolved question of the constituent process: How does an alternative, radically democratic power emerge under prevailing conditions, which allows us to leap from the continuum of the history of the world?


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