Walter Benjamin's "Critique of violence"

[Paper presented at Workshop on ‘Literature as Revolt in Twentieth Century Europe’, 18 August 1998, The University of Haifa, Israel (6th ISSEI Conference)]

man cannot be said, at any price, to coincide with the mere life in him.

In terms of the European history of discourses on revolution, Benjamin's essay "Critique of Violence" belongs to the aftermath of the First World War. It formulates a poetics of violence in order to redress a poetics of shock. The shock was an overdetermined one. It encompassed Benjamin's conviction that the political institutions of parliamentary democracy in post-war Germany had failed to live up to the expectations with which they had been founded. It also incorporated an anxiety about the implications of forceful interventions on behalf of the state by those empowered by the state to a law-keeping function—the police ("a civil structure on a military model", as Derrida describes them).1 Ironically, it's apocalyptic conclusion also presaged the rise to power in Germany of extreme right-wing reactionary forces and the form of pure violence unleashed as the final solution of the Holocaust. The resolutions Benjamin sought for his times were troubled ones; they continue to trouble our own. The basic problem he addressed was the relation between law and justice as it hinges on violence. In more specific terms, his essay addressed the question of whether violence in the social and political realms could be justified as pure means in itself, independent of whether it was applied to just or unjust ends. That included a consideration of the coercive violence represented by the general and the partial strike—whether treated as political or proletarian in origin—against the power of the state. This preoccupation was his response to the new reality produced by industrial relations in Weimar Germany. It was also a programmatic concern he shared with Georges Sorel's Reflections on Violence (1915). The paradox of Benjamin's position was that he hoped to balance the ideology of proletarian violence represented by Marxism with the theology of divine violence represented by Judaic Messianism.

"Critique of Violence" (Zur Kritik der Gewalt) was written during late 1920 and early 1921.2 Three aspects of the title need comment. In the German, the essay claims to be "on the critique of violence", which is rather a different thing to be claiming than what the conventional translation does. Secondly, we are advised to remember that `Gewalt' in German can mean `force', `power' or `might'—depending upon context—though Benjamin's primary (indeed, even sole) referent is violence.3 The fortuity of this accidental pun is not without its own ironic violence. Also, the idea of critique needs grounding in Benjamin's other work of the period. In 1920, Benjamin had published his dissertation on "The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism". From Friedrich Schlegel, Novalis and Schelling he learned to think of art as a form of reflection that enabled the finite to relate to the infinite, and of criticism as that which clarified that relation. This indebtedness was complicated, as Rodolphe Gasché has shown, by Benjamin's rejection of their desacralization of the relation of art and criticism to "the Absolute". For him, "all critique must take place in view of... an Absolute that is absolutely transcendent, radically distinguished from everything profane or finite. Between it and the latter, no continuity is thinkable. Yet critique is a relating to such an absolute".4 This idea of a necessary onto-theological connection with the transcendent is also the apocalyptic conclusion of the "Critique of Violence". The realm of the transcendent, as immanent in language, has an even earlier genealogy in Benjamin. The 1916 essay, "On Language as Such and on the Language of Man" develops the claim that the representationality of language is the consequence of a fall from an originary adequacy of correspondence between language as a system of names and the essences of things as created by God. This belief provides a substratum for subsequent work, including "The Task of the Translator" (1921). In his next major essay, on "Goethe's Elective Affinities", completed shortly after the "Critique of Violence", "the business of critique" is defined in terms of the "excavation" of "the ideal of the problem". Critique is that which shows in the work of art "the virtual possibility of formulating the work's truth content as the highest philosophical problem".5 In his next major work, the study of German tragic drama of the baroque period, criticism is described as "the mortification of the works". This curious image is meant to distinguish the critical activity of reawakening the consciousness in living works from the "settlement of knowledge in dead ones".6

How might one transpose from these complex notions of critique in the realm of art to violence in all its manifestations? The Kantian conception of critique points to the ideal of autonomous judgment, and Benjamin shares some part of this legacy. He also appears close to Adorno's view of critique as emanating from intellectual freedom that has "the ability to distinguish what is known and what is accepted by convention", itself the outcome of "the power to resist established opinions and... also to resist existing institutions". This accords with Benjamin's undertaking, which may be described as proceeding under the belief, "in a variation of a famous proposition of Spinoza, that the false, once determinately known and precisely expressed, is already an index of what is right and better".7

On the theme of the relation between violence and revolution, Benjamin shared several inclinations with Sorel. One was the rejection of Utopianism—interpreted rather narrowly by Sorel to mean the perpetual deferral of that which is promised to the electorate by politicians in parliamentary democracy. Secondly, Sorel was firm in his call for—and Benjamin firm in his support for the idea of—revolutionary violence by the proletariat, not only in the form of strikes, but in the form of the general class war that was to bring down the bourgeoisie and the state. Thirdly, they both made a distinction between their concern with violence and the ideology of anarchism (even if Benjamin had some sympathy for special cases of ethical anarchism), because the violence of anarchism forfeit all validity if it did not accept its role as means. Fourth, both rejected the kind of violence that had characterized the French revolutionaries of 1893, because they felt it was based on natural law, according to which means were justified simply because they served natural human ends, such as self-preservation (and also, one might add, revenge, which Francis Bacon called "rough justice"). Benjamin contrasts natural law with positive law. Whereas natural law seeks to justify means, positive law tries to guarantee ends. Both must be transcended, according to Benjamin, but positive law at least distinguishes between sanctioned and unsanctioned force, thus providing a distinction between natural and legal ends. When conflicts of interest arise between the two, the pursuit of natural ends can threaten legality, and is legislated against. Not all types of conflict need violent resolutions. Benjamin regarded the strike used as part of the class struggle as an instance of "pure means".

The régime of violence derived from Marx by Sorel distinguished the term `violence' from `force':

The term violence should be employed only for acts of revolt; we should say, therefore, that the object of force is to impose a certain social order in which the minority governs, while violence tends to the destruction of that order. The middle class have used force since the beginning of modern times, while the proletariat now reacts against the middle class and against the State by violence.8

The point of Sorel's distinction is that violence legitimized becomes force. Legitimation requires that those under the sway of force recognize (or misrecognize) it as endorsed by law. But before that can happen, for law to be established, there must first be the violence that makes the law. A contemporary fragment by Benjamin recognizes that if the state has the right to use force, "every use of its force stands in need of a particular law", and also that "the law's concern with justice is only apparent, whereas in truth the law is concerned with self-preservation" (9). At about the same time,

Max Weber defined the state as "the rule of men over men based on the means of legitimate, that is allegedly legitimate, violence".10 Benjamin adds organized labor to the nation state as the only legal subjects entitled in Europe to exercise violence. The many forms of violence sanctioned and reserved by the state for the state include militarism, conscription, the death penalty, and so on. On the theme of revolution, Benjamin teaches us to think of it as a specific kind of violence directed towards a law-making or law-positing function.

The new distinction Benjamin introduced in the "Critique of Violence" is between what he calls the mythic violence needed by the activity of law-making, and the law-preserving violence needed to maintain a state (or a state-of-affairs) created by the first kind of violence. Mythic violence is a manifestation of the power of fate over the human. Fate personified and pluralized gives us the gods, as in Greek myth, and the narratives we invent for these pagan gods are a way of humanizing the inscrutable force exercised over us and our puny freedom, a violence whose endurance is our destiny. Benjamin opposes this system with the Judaic-Messianic, in which true justice is promised and delivered in divine endmaking.

At this point I would like to introduce a slightly different perspective on some of the issues raised by Benjamin. In the chapter "Of Divine Law" from the Theologico-Political Tractatus, Spinoza distinguished between the laws we obey as a consequence of our nature, and the laws we make. The latter, he felt, are more properly named as ordinances. Law refers to the predetermined and universal in nature. Their sanction may be said to reside in God. A challenge to these would be a contradiction in terms, since, as part of nature, we can access its laws, but we can hardly change them. Ordinances, in contrast, are human in decree and sanction. To challenge them is to offer violence, and when this is offered on behalf of other–yet to be promulgated–decrees, we have revolution. Revolution, we might say, is the purposive violence that precedes the formation of a state which is either created as a direct outcome of that violence, or which fails of realization (in which case, the revolution may be said to have failed).

The most remarkable feature of the "Critique of Violence" is how, in a final swerve, the argument translates what might have seemed, until then, a secular and political discussion about law and justice into the language of Messianism and the divine law. But, as Benjamin's views on language make clear, what looks like a swerve was always already immanent in his approach to the notion of law. The onto-theological impulse in Benjamin cannot be seen as something overlaid or twisted by a subsequently acquired Marxism. It is the shaping force of his interest in justice. In the final analysis, according to Benjamin, the justification of means depends on fate and the justness of ends upon God, by which he means a Messianic God. True justice belongs to "the world to come"; whereas, in this world, we can only have justification.

This recognition that the making and conserving of laws has little to do with justice has been widely noticed in the history of European discourses on legality and power. Derrida, for instance, invokes Pascal, who invoked Montaigne before him: "And so laws keep up their good standing, not because they are just, but because they are laws: that is the mystical foundation of their Authority".11 Derrida has given the self-deconstructive aspect of the division between law-making and law-conserving a reading that argues that the two kinds of violence cannot be kept apart. Cases such as war, strikes, or police violence show how the distinction between the foundation and conservation of law can get blurred. Law-making violence is forced into "self-conserving repetition", and "Conservation in its turn refounds, so that it can conserve what it claims to found". Both notions suffer what he calls a "differential contamination"; neither can be kept purely itself. It must be said, however, that Benjamin does not lack awareness of this tendency. If he never gives up "trying to contain in a pair of concepts and to bring back down to distinctions the very thing that incessantly exceeds them and surpasses them",12 the reason is the form of a will to believe that many—including Derrida—may not share, but which, nonetheless, has its own justification.

This justification is based on Benjamin's view that political institutions decay when the revolutionary violence that founded them ceases to be a force in their propulsion in time. History is thus simply the decay of force. A short fragment written by Benjamin in 1919-20 claims, gnomically, that

In the revelation of the divine, the world—the theatre of history—is subjected to a great process of decomposition, while time—the life of him who represents it—is subjected to a great process of fulfillment. The end of the world: the destruction and liberation of a (dramatic) representation. Redemption of history from the one who represents it. /But perhaps in this sense the profoundest antithesis to "world" is not "time" but "the world to come".13

The swerve from the secular world of history to the divine realm that is the termination of history comes about in Benjamin as a consequence of his life-long conviction that the world of time and history is a fallen world, subject to decay, in which there is only the delusion of progress, and from which there is no redemption except, as "Critique of Violence" claims, in" pure divine violence". One might object that if "pure" is to be applied to violence, "pure violence" has to mean violence seen purely as means, without reference to ends—precisely that which divine violence is not in Benjamin, since it has the end in mind of bringing time and history to a stop. Be that as it may, Benjamin posits a dialectical oscillation in which the decay of one structure of law is superseded by another and another, in a series that has no end except the end of time, no justice except in the bloodless violence of the end of history. While mythic violence brings guilt and retribution, the divine violence Benjamin would like to believe in offers expiation. Despite Derrida's pointed horror at how much this vision of expiation appears to him to correspond with the Holocaust, it is difficult not to sympathize with the kinds of objection raised to his reproach of Benjamin by Gillian Rose and others.14 So by the end of "Critique of Violence", Benjamin has translated the issue from the plane of history to that of redemption from history. He believes that only when legality in the profane sense has been abolished, will the true revolution succeed, and this revolution will be "lethal without spilling blood".15

As a performative act, Benjamin's "Critique of Violence" is a strange and estranging argument for the interpenetration of the sublime and the terrifying. While his elective affinities obviously suggest an affiliation to the Judaic, I am tempted to say that his critique of violence is also very German in the manner in which, in 1965, Adorno (after much reluctant demurring) answered the question "What is German?" with the claim that "If one is permitted to speculate that something is specifically German, then it is this interpenetration of what is magnificent, not contenting itself with any conventional boundaries, with what is monstrous".16

You will have gathered that I find it monstrous and sublime of Benjamin to insist that the only true revolution in this world—which is synonymous for him with the only true justice in this world—consists in the ending of this world as we know it, for another realm posited for us through that violence which founds revelation. The posthumous life of Benjamin's "Critique" is thus both relevant, and a limit condition of relevance, for Europe since 1921, and especially for Europe since 1945. Not everyone—not today—will live with his kind of revelation, and most of our notions of revolution will have to do with much less than the rigor of what Benjamin posits, so violently.


1 Jacques Derrida, "Force of Law: The `Mystical Foundation of Authority'", in Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, eds. Drucilla Cornell, Michel Rosenfeld and David Gray Carlson (New York and London: Routledge, 1992), 44.

2 Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, volume 1 1913-1926, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996), 236-53.

3 Derrida, "Force of Law", 6; Werner Hamacher, "Afformative, Strike: Benjamin's `Critique of Violence'", in Andrew Benjamin and Peter Osborne (eds.), Walter Benjamin's Philosophy: Destruction and Experience (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), 127.

4 Rodolphe Gasché, "The Sober Absolute: Walter Benjamin and the Early Romantics", in David S. Ferris (ed.), Walter Benjamin: Theoretical Questions (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1996), 72-3.

5 Ibid., 334.

6 Walter Benjamin, The Origins of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne, with an introduction by George Steiner (London: Verso, 1977), 182.

7 Theodor W. Adorno, Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 281-82, 288.

8 Georges Sorel, Reflections on Violence, trans. T.E. Hulme (London: Allen & Unwin, 1915), 195.

9 Benjamin, Selected Writings, 231-32.

                          10 In Hannah Arendt, On Violence (London: Allen Lane, 1969), 35.

                          11 Derrida, "The Force of Law", 12.

                          12 Ibid., 38, 42, 44.

                          13 Benjamin, Selected Writings, 226.

14 Gillian Rose, Judaism and Modernity: Philosophical Essays (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 1993, 81-84; Mourning Becomes the Law: Philosophy and Representation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 68-9; also see Ralf Rogowski, "The Paradox of Law and Violence: Modern and Postmodern Readings of Benjamin's `Critique of Violence'', New Comparisons 18 (Autumn 1994), 131-51.

                           15 Benjamin, Selected Writings, 249-50.

16 Theodor W. Adorno, Critical Models, 208.