In the Shadow of Catastrophe: German Intellectuals Between Apocalypse and Enlightenment / Edition 1

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In this volume, Anson Rabinbach, an eminent intellectual and cultural historian, addresses the writings of some of the central figures in twentieth-century German thought. Rabinbach begins with a wide-ranging introduction, in which he discusses the intimate connection between apocalypse and twentieth-century German philosophy and compares the two postwar periods. He then goes on to show how diverse were the German intellectuals in their response to and understanding of catastrophe in their postwar writings.
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What People Are Saying

Andreas Huyssen
A direct and powerful intervention in current debates. This book is a gem.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520226906
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 1/3/2001
  • Series: Weimar and Now: German Cultural Criticism Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 274
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.63 (d)

Meet the Author

Anson Rabinbach is Professor of History at Princeton University. He is author of The Crisis of Austrian Socialism: From Red Vienna to Civil War, 1927-1934 (1983) and The Human Motor: Energy, Fatigue and the Origins of Modernity (California, 1992).

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In the Shadow of Catastrophe

By Anson Rabinbach

University of California Press

Copyright © 2001 Anson Rabinbach
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780520226906

Chapter 1
Between Apocalypse and Enlightenment
Benjamin, Bloch, and Modern German-Jewish Messianism


In the years approaching the First World War, the self-confidence and security of German Jewry were challenged by a new Jewish sensibility that can be described as at once radical, secular, and messianic in both tone and content. What this new Jewish ethos refused to accept was above all the optimism of an older generation of German Jews nurtured on the concept of Bildung as the German-Jewish mystique.1 The equally new political anti-Semitism and antiliberal spirit of the German upper classes made many of them call into question the political and cultural assumptions of the postemancipation epoch. Especially irksome was the belief that for German Jewry there was no contradiction between Deutschtum and Judentum ; that secularization and liberalism would permit the cultural integration of Jews (as Jews) into the national community.2 For German Jews of that earlier generation, the Bildungsideal of Kant, Goethe, and Schiller assured them of an indissoluble bond between Enlightenment, universal ethics, autonomous art, and monotheism (stripped of any particularist "Jewish" characteristics). The mission of the Jews could beinterpreted, as did Leo Baeck in his 1905 Essence of Judaism , as the exemplary embodiment of the religion of morality for all humanity.3

The unproblematic understanding of Judaism as "the religion of Reason," as Hermann Cohen called it, was equally characteristic of secularnineteenth-century Jewish Socialist intellectuals like Rosa Luxemburg, whose universalism permitted no special pleading for Jewish suffering, and Eduard Bernstein, who took Marx and Kant as the gospel of a self-assured Socialist future.4 Not only the intellectual elite but other less well known writers on "the Jewish Question" echoed this overconfident appraisal. The words of the German-Jewish Socialist Ludwig Quessel, a pro-Zionist, in the Sozialistische Monatshefte of June 1914 provide a not atypical example: "With the beginning of the twentieth century organized political anti-Semitism in Germany has gradually died out, and I do not believe that it can be brought back to life."5 Even political Zionism was not immune from this late Wilhelmine Jewish attitude that only in retrospect appears to us as a fatal blindness. Zion, too, we must recall, was a distant political ideal, while German Zionists remained faithful to the values of the transitory national community until the utopia could be realized.6

It is not surprising, then, that for the young German-Jewish "generation of 1914" it is this modern Jewish type that emerges as the negative image of the assimilated German Jews.7 As Béla Balázs observed of Georg Lukács in a diary entry written in that crucial year: "Gyuri has discovered in himself the Jew! The search for ancestors. The Chassidic Baal Shem. Now he too has found his ancestors and his race. Only I am alone and forlorn." Lukács, he noted, believed that "there is emerging or re-emerging a Jewish type, the anti-rationalist or Jewish skeptic, one who is the antithesis of all that is commonly described as Jewish."8 This new Jewish spirit, a product of the "post-assimilatory Renaissance," can be described as a modern Jewish messianism: radical, uncompromising, and comprised of an esoteric intellectualism that is as uncomfortable with the Enlightenment as it is enamored of apocalyptic visions — whether revolutionary or purely redemptive in the spiritual sense.9

One could of course also point to many parallels with the non-Jewish "generation of 1914" that Robert Wohl and others have written about, with its revolt against rationality and authority. We can also see the connection to the entire tradition of what Lukács referred to as pre-1914 European "romantic anti-capitalism," which ranged across such a wide "political" spectrum, providing the impetus for such diverse figures as Lukács, George Simmel, Max Weber, Paul Ernst, Hermann Hesse, Paul de Lagarde, and Möller van den Brück.10

The crucial component of the new Jewish sensibility, however, is a commitment to a different kind of modern Jewishness that stood under the sign of messianism. The messianic stance rejected traditional religiosity, the rational and secular Judaism of the German middle classes, and the personal Judaism of "renewal" represented by Martin Buber and the Bar Kochba circle. Nor did it participate in either the renaissance of Jewish orthodoxy during Weimar or the repudiation of assimilation characteristic of secular radicialism. Messianism demanded a complete repudiation of the world as it is, placing its hope in a future whose realization can only be brought about by the destruction of the old order. Apocalyptic, catastrophic, utopian, and pessimistic, messianism captured a generation of Jewish intellectuals before the First World War. The messianic impulse appears in many forms in the Jewish generation of 1914, and this chapter is an attempt to characterize it as a modern form of Jewish thought—secular and theological—as a tradition that stands opposed to both secular rationalism and what has been called "normative Judaism."11

Lukács, who embodied the new Jewish "type" far more than he would ever later admit, clearly understood that messianism was a prepolitical vision of the world made whole. He was also attuned to an element that constantly surfaces in messianic visions of the apocalypse: death and destruction as the harbinger of that integral world. In the same diary entry Balázs recorded "Gyuri's great new philosophy, messianism. The homogenous world as the goal of salvation. Art is Lucifer's 'making things better.' Seeing the world as homogenous before the process of becoming so."12 This study focuses on the early writings of Ernst Bloch and Walter Benjamin because they represent a particularly "pure type" of this thinking.13 There were others, of course, who embodied the new Jewish spirit, but only Bloch and Benjamin—initially without any mutual influence—brought, in varying degrees, a self-consciously Jewish and radical messianism to their political and intellectual concerns.

The messianic idea implied the radical rejection of any sort of quotidian politics combined with a characteristically apocalyptic attitude, which often incorporated an antipolitics in extremis. The new messianism turned on the double problem of redefining the "crisis of European culture" through a specific kind of Jewish radicalism and at the same time of redefining Jewish intellectual politics through a new attitude toward European culture. Yet, as a result of the abandonment of the Enlightenment, messianism was implicated in the subsequent political fate of its adherents, particularly after the First World War. How, to what extent, and with what consequences did messianism influence their political decisions and choices, especially in regard to the era ofwar and revolution that followed their first brush with Jewish messianism in the years around 1912, is the question posed by this chapter.


Modern Jewish messianism, encompassing a broad political and cultural spectrum, can be found among many Jewish thinkers before and after World War I. It was not identical with but part of a far more general trend toward redefining Jewishness without Judaism. The goal of messianic Judaism was not, however, simply a redefinition of Jewish culture. It also emphasized a certain kind of intellectuality as politics, a spiritual radicalism that aimed at nothing less than "total transformation" of the individual and society, sometimes coupled with activism, sometimes wholly without any concrete political touchstone. Whether theoretical or actual, the politics of Jewish messianism is in the final analysis apocalyptic. Even when it assumes a political guise it is most allergic to institutional politics and to political evolutionism, which it avoids in any form: Social Democracy, Zionism, and liberalism. As Scholem remarked about the appeal of Zionism for his generation, "We did not come to Zionism in search of politics."14

Michael Löwy has suggested that modern Jewish messianism was the product of an important intellectual convergence that took place between 1900 and 1933, the fusion of libertarian anarchism with hermeneutical Jewish motifs organized around the common purpose of romantic anticapitalism in a situation of general European crisis. He places great emphasis on two mutually reinforcing currents, "religious Jews with anarchist tendencies" (e.g., Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, Hans Kohn, and Gershom Scholem) and the "anarchist, anarcho-bolsheviks, and antiauthoritarian Marxists" (Gustav Landauer, Ernst Bloch, Erich Fromm, Ernst Toller, Georg Lukács). This distinction somewhat exaggerates the significance of the utopian libertarian tradition of the left, whereas the messianic element was central to a wider variety of currents, including important strands of Catholicism and Protestantism, whatever political consequences might have emerged from it. Nonetheless, Löwy is right to suggest that the messianic impulse appears within different Jewish-secular frameworks, from Kafka's images of exile in the alien landscape of the body to the political Zionism of Scholem in the Blau-Weiss epoch.15 Max Brod once wrote to a friend that "Jewish nationalism must not create a new chauvinist nation, but . . . must create a real foundation in the messianic direction."16 If we see Jewish messianism as anethos in the Greek sense of a characteristic spirit or attitude (Haltung ), it appears as a significant moment among a variety of Jewish radical sensibilities of the fin de siècle rather than in any pure form.

Indeed, if we cast the net widely enough we can include many Jewish types that bear the marks of this messianic ethos. Lukács, for example, whose radical messianism is as evident in his non-Marxist Soul and Form and Theory of the Novel as it is in his self-avowedly "sectarian-messianic" History and Class Consciousness never chose (apart from the brief episode recorded by Balázs) to make explicit the Jewish aspect, and Gershom Scholem brought a similar radical ideal into his Zionism, while rejecting—at least from the Jewish standpoint—the arena of European politics tout court .17 Rosenzweig's Stern der Erlösung (1916) belongs to the messianic tradition in its emphasis on redemptive radicalized Jewish religiosity, while remaining estranged from any sort of political radicalism.18 The Jewish Nietzscheans, most notably Kurt Hiller, Theodor Lessing, Salomo Friedländer, and Martin Buber, and the "linguistic" mystics, from Gustav Landauer and Benjamin to the Oskar Goldberg circle, would certainly also have to be included.19 Or we can restructure the axis along other lines: for example, Benjamin and Bloch as "theological Messianists," Landauer/Buber/Scholem as "radical Zionist Messianists," Rosenzweig and Lukács along a critical Hegelian axis; perhaps with Kafka, Brod, and the Prague Bar Kochba circle as the antithesis of that constellation.20

My point is that whether one chooses politics, theology, philosophy, or aesthetics as the starting point, the messianic tradition appears in different guises. There are at least four different dimensions to Jewish messianism, and it is useful to consider them separately for a moment. First, there is a restorative aspect that opposes the idea of restitutio to reform or any kind of gradual change. As Scholem notes, the messianic idea restores "the ideal content of the past and at the same time delivers the basis for an image of the future."21 The utopian content of the past becomes the material basis for a vision of the future of mankind, the dim recollection of the golden age before the Fall. The messianic concept is thus intimately connected to the idea of a return to an original state that lies in both the past and the future. Karl Kraus's motto Origin Is the Goal, cited by Benjamin among others, captures this idea most succinctly.22 This gives the messianic idea a special mission that accords a central place to language as the medium of redemption. Thought focuses on the restoration of lost meanings, suppressed connections, which is often linked to a sense of redemption through language and throughthe reading of texts that reveal the hidden presence or traces of a messianic epoch. Whereas the prophetic tradition involved public testimony, the messianic tradition involves an esoteric or even secret form of knowledge. Certain images or words, combinations of letters, or even entire works evoke the lost utopian content of the past. But these works demand a special allegorical reading to disclose their message. The restorative element therefore involves "revelations or disclosures of God's hidden knowledge of the End."23 This notion of the esoteric function of the intellectual, which is strongest in Benjamin, is also present in Bloch's gnostic notion of utopia as a restoration of the lost truth of the world: "The world is not true, but it will successfully return home through human beings and through truth."24 Knowledge is thus linked, not to power, but to the triumph of translucent redemption—it takes on an esoteric cast.

Second, there is a redemptive utopian aspect that conceives of utopia in terms of a new unity and transparency that is absent in all previous ages which is its central ideal. The utopian vision is that of a future that is the fulfillment of all that which can be hoped for in the condition of exile but cannot be realized within it. Redemption appears either as the end of history or as an event within history, never as an event produced by history. In every case it is experienced as a decisive and total break with the past and the restoration of an esoteric truth. Lukács's extraordinary thesis in History and Class Consciousness that the proletarian revolution will necessarily restore the identity of subject and object in philosophy, overcoming the "antinomies of bourgeois thought," and end the "prehistory" of mankind depends on the proletariat having access to a secret truth by virtue of its privileged historical position, the "standpoint of totality."25

Third, there is a strong apocalyptic element that opposes salvation to historical immanence (evolution, progress, reform, even some forms of revolution) and conceives of the coming of the messianic age as an event that occurs publicly, either historically or suprahistorically.26 The apocalyptic event disrupts and intrudes into the historical unfolding of events from outside, with the emphasis on the caesura that separates the messianic age from the past. In one of his earliest essays, Benjamin notes that "there is a conception of history which, in its faith in the endlessness of time, distinguishes only between the differences in tempo of human beings and epochs rolling with more or less speed toward the future along the tracks of progress. . . . The elements of the ultimatestate of affairs are not manifest as formless tendencies of progress, but rather are embedded in every present as the most endangered, discredited and ridiculed creations and thoughts."27 The apocalyptic element involves a quantum leap from present to future, from exile to freedom. This leap necessarily brings with it the complete destruction and negation of the old order.

Scholem has emphasized the tension between "the destructive nature of the redemption on the one hand and the utopianism of the content on the other."28 This tension, which the Marxian idea of revolutionary "transition" only weakly captures, is the essence of the apocalyptic vision of catastrophic upheaval as the handmaiden of redemption. This image constantly recurs in history, appearing in the Muenster Anabaptists destroying the records of the old church, in the creation of the revolutionary calendar of 1793, in the Komsomol youth disinterring the bones of the saints in the Russian revolution, or in the specter of the Maoist Red Guards demolishing the ancient artworks of Confucian China—each symbolizes a total destruction of the prior age as the precondition for the full restitution of the messianic period.

In Jewish messianism, however, the cataclysmic element remains otherworldly and consequently makes redemption independent of either immanent historical "forces" or personal experience of liberation. It differs from all of the aforementioned secular manifestations of messianism as historical eschatology since "redemption is not the product of immanent developments such as we find it in modern Western (or Eastern) reinterpretations of messianism since the Enlightenment."29 As Blumenberg has shown, the Jewish apocalyptic tradition involved a radical devaluation of the world, and accorded preeminence to a fulfillment that occurs "beyond history."30 Freedom may occur in history, but it is not brought about by historical forces or individual acts. Messianism therefore cancels out the possibility of an optimistic and evolutionary conception of history, of progress, without of course foreclosing the possibility of freedom.

Fourth, the chasm that separates the historical quotidian from redemption is too wide to be bridged by determined action or profane events. This creates a dilemma for the ethics of messianism between the idea of liberation and the absolute superfluity of any action that is often difficult to sustain. This dilemma also gives messianism its characteristically pessimistic cast of mind, "contempt for the day and a mockery of the hour because of a belief in the future."31 The optimism of themessianists "is not directed to what history will bring forth, but that which will arise in its ruin, free at last and undisguised."32 Since messianism is nurtured by its vision of the total negation of the existing order of things, there is always a desire to break out of its contemplative and pessimistic constraints in the present in order to hasten the end.33

This dilemma accounts for a profound ethical ambivalence in the messianic idea. In his Ancient Judaism, a work that bears more than an accidental relationship to the problems of pre-World War I German Jewry, Max Weber recognized that Jewish messianism, faced with the strong element of expectation coupled with a profound pessimism about "this-worldly" salvation, vacillates wildly between its fixation on the liberatory potential of eschatology and an ethical attitude toward the present that is one of humility, patience, and passivity.34 The pendulum swings constantly between doom and hope, and the result is that the messianic tradition is caught between the poles of contemplative inaction and action. In Weberian terms its "this-worldly" ethos is in permanent conflict with its "otherworldly" image of redemption. Ethically speaking, passivity and amoral violence are often coupled in the messianic tradition. On the one hand, "the unreal alone imparted the hope that made life bearable."35 On the other hand, the concrete actions of individuals in the pivotal moment of apocalyptic catastrophe could not be measured by normal human standards. Esoteric knowledge and political extremism are the two poles of the political ethics of messianism. In its modern form (as opposed to its prophetic incarnation) this particular tension between esoteric intellectualism and politically transcendental morality (amorality) is especially strong. The idea of revolutionary nihilism as the counterpoint to esoteric intellectualism—often embodied in the same figure, for example, Auguste Blanqui, Bakunin, or again Lukács—is the fundamental aporia of this aspect of messianism.

A great deal has been said about the revolutionary, redemptive, and restorative aspects of the modern messianic idea. Far less attention has been paid to the context in which it emerged, and still less to the notion that esoteric intellectualism was seen as a specific Jewish cultural alternative prior to World War I. This chapter then focuses on three specific questions. First, how did the radical messianic idea emerge in the Central European Jewish community in the prewar years, specifically in regard to Martin Buber's influence on the Jewish revival of the fin de siècle? Second, how did the specific type of radical messianism that Bloch and Benjamin personified reflect both Jewish concerns and the experiences of the Great War? Third, how did Bloch and Benjamincome to their respective political choices (Marxism and Benjamin's "theoretical anarchism") in the early 1920s?


Both Bloch and Benjamin had their first contact with specifically Jewish concerns in the atmosphere of the Jewish revival of 1909–1913, which coincided with Buber's enormous influence among young German-Jewish intellectuals. We cannot underestimate the tremendous impact of Buber's Three Speeches to the Jews (1909, 1911), with its conception of Judaism as a living teaching and as a personal and inner experience.36 Buber's early philosophy embraced, in stark Nietzschean language, a central core of existential and mystical Jewish experience as that which is "primordially Jewish" against its rationalist absorption into secularized neo-Kantianism.37 For Buber, Zionism was not simply a political movement but a "Lebensphilosophie." In the face of anti-Semitism and the vicissitudes of assimilation, his romantic recasting of Hasidism provided a road to Judaism that embraced the "East" without the "Ostjuden"—adopting only its religiosity and traditionalism—Hasidic mysticism without the Hasidim.

Buber's Speeches and the influential collection of essays published by his devotees and followers of the Prague Bar Kochba Union, Vom Judentum (1913), carried a clear message: modern Jewry had to undergo a "decisive transformation," a "transvaluation of values."38 As opposed to the assimilated Jew of the Wilhelmine epoch, who was "the idolater of his own ego," the new Jew had to affirm his ties to history and return to an essential and personal Judaism. Though Buber always maintained that Palestine was the Jewish homeland, political Zionism with its emphasis on emigration was secondary to this goal: "Before there can be external emancipation there must be liberation from the inner Galuth (diaspora), from inward slavery, a purification of the heart and a growth of the people beyond itself." Zionism, in short, was "not knowledge but life."39

For both Bloch and Benjamin the year 1912 marked, as it did for so many others, a first confrontation with the challenge of Buber's call for self-definition. "Finally the pride of being Jewish has woken," Bloch announced in his essay "Symbol: The Jews," written in that year.40 "It stirs within us restlessly, yet these people remain mixed and ambiguous."41 "Among younger Jews," Bloch noted, "there is a new pride, and the social manifestations of submissiveness and self-deprecation havedisappeared."42 Scholem, too, recalled the profound impact of Buber's addresses on him when they appeared.43 At that time Benjamin wrote to his Gymnasium friend Herbert Belmore that he experienced Zionism and its influence for "the first time" and that these were to him "a possibility and a duty," though he intended to remain firmly within the secular youth movement of his teacher Gustav Wyneken.44 Wyneken's Free School Community (Freie Schulgemeinde) represented an elite, aristocratic, and fiercely intellectualist wing of the German youth movement that was opposed to populist volkisch myth and stressed the formation of the individual as an ethical being. Wyneken's ideal of a dedicated, studious, and highly ethical männerbund (male cult) devoted to the timeless truths of Kant, Hegel, Goethe, and Nietzsche was the most important influence on Benjamin in his student years.45 In August 1912, during his summer vacation at Holzmünde and after his first semester at Freiburg, Benjamin, who was twenty years old at the time, noted that he often discussed Zionism with Kurt Tuchler, a friend who attempted to introduce him into his "Zionist conceptual framework," while Benjamin attempted to convert Tuchler to the ideas of Wyneken and his model Free School Community at Wickersdorf.46

That fall Benjamin felt compelled to take the problems of Judaism raised by Buber more seriously, both personally and philosophically. The occasion was his now partially published correspondence with Buber's future son-in-law, the writer and poet Ludwig Strauss.47 Strauss, enraptured by Buber's Speeches , had written to Benjamin—whose prominence as the most vocal of Wyneken's Jewish disciples was already resonant—asking if he would participate in the founding of a new journal devoted to German-Jewish intellectual life, which Strauss planned to edit.48

Benjamin's correspondence with Strauss chronicles his attempt to find his own path to Judaism, culminating in a confrontation with some of Buber's followers in a debate in Berlin the following year.49 These letters reveal a side to Benjamin's Jewishness that has been obscured and overshadowed by his later meeting and friendship with Scholem, whose reminiscences of Benjamin have perhaps contributed to a neglect of his earlier position. Scholem's characterization of Benjamin's early attitude toward Judaism in his Story of a Friendship , as "tortured," gives the misleading impression that Jewishness was not a matter of central concern at that point. Moreover, Scholem also refers condescendingly to the young Benjamin as "the most gifted intellect" among the Jewish followers of Wyneken "for whom that fact [Jewishness] wasof little or no practical significance."50 Other scholars have readily accepted Scholem's verdict on Benjamin's earlier contact with Jewish ideas, and there has been an overemphasis on Scholem's influence on the formation of Benjamin's subsequent attraction to Kabbalah and mysticism, especially during the war.51

However, Benjamin's letters to Strauss demonstrate a clear and sensitive attitude toward the issue of Jewishness as early as 1912, and an equally clear distance from both Buber and Zionism. More important, they show that his convictions about the "Jewish Question" were already quite developed by the time he met Scholem and were altered very little by their encounter. Benjamin's meeting with Scholem intensified the esoteric and intellectual side of Benjamin's thought, bringing him closer to Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism, but it did not change his mind about Zionism or about the role of the Jewish intellectual in German politics and culture.

Strauss's plans for a new Jewish-German journal were directly connected to an intellectual event that took on extraordinary political dimensions within the German-Jewish milieu in the spring of 1912. In that year Moritz Goldstein, a young unknown Jewish writer and editor of the influential cultural journal Der Kunstwart , published a now famous sharply written and highly provocative article entitled "Deutschjüdischer Parnass" that articulated for the first time the dilemmas faced by the German Jews in Wilhelmine Germany. Goldstein argued that Jews were in the impossible position of "administering the spiritual property of a nation which denies our right and our ability to do so."52 To make matters worse, Goldstein adopted the terms of Werner Sombart's argument in Die Zukunft der Juden , which cited the disproportionate influence of the Jews in liberal culture, especially the arts and the press. For Goldstein, assimilation was an illusion, intensified by the stubborn refusal of the Jews themselves to openly admit either their rejection by German society or their power in the world of culture—a power readily noted by the anti-Semites—in the fear that such acknowledgement would lead to even greater injustices toward them. When it came to the Jews, Goldstein concluded, "Europe is not just, . . . but characterized by a truly barbarian lack of justice."53 If "German culture was to a not small extent, Jewish culture," the relationship of Jews to Germany "is that of an unrequited love."54

Goldstein's article provoked an unprecedented furor in Jewish political circles. It broke the taboo on publicly speaking (especially in a non-Jewish pronationalist journal edited by Ferdinand Avenarius) of theGerman-Jewish "dilemma" and announced a new bravado in the expression of Jewish "interests" in regard to German cultural life. But while the Zionists enthusiastically embraced Goldstein's article for its unabashed avowal of a Jewish "character" and Jewish intellectuals, Jewish liberals were furious, denouncing its pessimism about assimilation, pointing to the difficult and painstaking evolutionary process of Jewish self-development toward full citizenship in Germany.55 The Goldstein article led to heated and even violent exchanges between the Jews of the liberal Central Verein and members of the German Zionist organization, the Zionistische Vereinigung für Deutschland (ZVfD), and ultimately to a complete break between the Zionists and the anti-Zionists within the Jewish community.56

Ludwig Strauss had been one of the most active participants in the intensive debate that ensued in the pages of the Kunstwart later that summer. In his pseudonymous reply to Ernst Lissauer, who offered a strong defense of Jewish assimilation and liberalism, Strauss countered that Lissauer and the liberals had denied "the national substance in German Jews" and argued that there was a "Jewish nationhood" evident in "an inner difference" that inhibited assimilation and made the Jews appear "alien" and unacceptable.57 Citing Buber's Speeches , Strauss spoke of the Jews as a community of blood and inner experience and called for a "national Jewish movement in Germany" oriented toward Palestine and toward a new Jewish literature, in which Jews would become a "closed cultural circle" with their own literature and art, and perhaps ultimately even with "their own language (Hebrew)."58 Most important for the immediate occasion of his letters to Benjamin, Strauss affirmed Goldstein's call for a German-language journal that would be the focal point for all creative Jews.59 He too saw in the Kunstwart debate the moment for establishing a "central organ for Jewish writing in the German language." In contrast to the official Zionist periodicals, which placed "national regeneration in the foreground," the new journal would permit "the Jewish spirit to show itself more clearly and confidently."60

Strauss inquired as to Benjamin's reaction to the Kunstwart debate, which Benjamin said he had followed in its entirety and discussed with a few Zionists (apparently Tuchler) who had been in Holzmünde during his stay. Benjamin also castigated the German liberal "philosemitic press," especially the Berliner Tageblatt for passing over the polemic in silence.61 "The manner in which the Kunstwart attacked the problem from the literary side was the most satisfactory," he added. Benjaminwas also positively disposed toward Strauss's plans for a new journal: "Precisely for the Jewish Question we need an area where the Jewish spirit can be isolated and reveal its nature." Since "Jewish religious life . . . [was] inadequate," Benjamin agreed that the Kunstwart 's motto of "expressive culture" (Ausdruckskultur ) provided the suitable forum. Therefore, Benjamin notes, "in accordance with the implications of your plan for a journal of Jewish spiritual life in the German language, I am completely on your side. Not only for the Jewish Question, but for those who are outsiders to it [die Aussenstehenden ], it promises a great deal."62 Benjamin also approved of Strauss's suggestion of appropriate themes, all obviously directed at assimilationist German Jewry: "Jews and Luxury; Jews and the love of Germany; Jews and Friendship." For the first time "we will see the literary circles and the Jewish money aristocracy from the standpoint of Jewishness." "If we are indeed two-sided, Jewish and German," Benjamin concurred, "up to now all of our enthusiasm and affirmation has been directed toward the German! The Jewish side was perhaps only a foreign (worse, sentimental) Jewish aroma in our production and our lives. No individual, not even an artist, knows how to balance this dual spirit. But we will discover it."63

Benjamin obviously shared Strauss's enthusiasm for the possibility of bringing Western European Jewry "to self-consciousness" before "the valuable forces in Jewishness" are "lost through assimilation." But he did not share Strauss's view that "the only salvation is in a Jewish state." Perhaps, he added, "that [view] could be accepted when we think about the East European Jews. They have as little occasion to reflect on where they will end up as a man fleeing a burning house." Benjamin questioned the consequences of a state comprising both eastern and western Jews: "Is the unification of two cultures, like the western and eastern Jews not something like a Salto-mortale in the natural, in chaos." Moreover, Western European Jews "are no longer free as Jews ." They can only become part of a "Jewish movement," insofar as they are "tied to a literary movement." The Jews are "committed to Internationalism."64

For Benjamin, this is the "strange" position of the Jews in Western society: "In most circles the word 'literati' has a derogatory undertone," but it is for him only the Jewish literati who "take the intellectual and spiritual as seriously as Tolstoy took the culture of Christianity. The 'literati' draw the consequences of our famous Enlightenment and lack of prejudice." Jews therefore have the "serious mission," not of creating art, which they cannot do, but rather of "drawing from art Spirit for the life of the epoch."65 In short, the intellectualist mission of the Jews is the Western alternative to Zionism. This "modern asceticism," as Benjamin called it, even determines the "forms" in which Jewish cultural life appears. What he means is evident: "even the Café." The Jew, to continue in the idiom of Christian discourse, "is called," according to the "new social consciousness," to be what "'the poor in spirit, the enslaved and the meek,'" were for the first Christians. "The best Jews today are linked to a valuable process in European culture, and though this does not mean that political Zionism is antithetical to Jewish cultural work, in practice it is quite distinct from it and lacks any intrinsic relationship to it."66

Benjamin's subsequent letters to Strauss are more explicit and less conciliatory in tone. They mark a growing distance from Buber's views, particularly his central idea of Judaism as a personal experience, and they demonstrate his impatience with Strauss's efforts to make political Zionism an integral part or goal of the renewal of European Jewry. On October 10 he wrote to Strauss that he too believed "that which is Jewish is an essential core," but he emphasized (using a distinction that Buber adopted from Goethe and Dilthey and—completely inverted—became crucial to his mature philosophical work) that his position toward Judaism was not formed through an inner Jewish experience (Erlebnis ) but solely through the experience (Erfahrung ) of ideas in relation to the world. Benjamin conceded that he "recognizes" and "in a certain sense supports Zionism." But, he adds, "this support extends only to contributing to Zionist organizations." Zionism, he admits, is hardly a "determining factor" in his life, whereas Jewishness is: "I see two paths for modern West European national Jewry: Zionism and one other."67

Benjamin reminded Strauss that his decisive intellectual experience occurred "before Jewishness became important or problematic for me." At the same time, he recognized that for the most part those who held most resolutely to the ideas of Wyneken "were Jews" and that the result was a noticeable "dualism" in them, particularly in Benjamin himself. It is "from Wickersdorf," then, that Benjamin discovered his Jewishness and led him to this conclusion: "I am a Jew and if I live as a conscious human being, I live as a conscious Jew."68

Whether this declaration was sufficient to convince Strauss of Benjamin's suitability for his new journal is doubtful. Benjamin continued to affirm the validity of his attachment to Wyneken, even if that meant that "what is valuable in me and in the other 'Jews' is not Jewish." He added that Zionism did not appear to him as particularly Jewish. Itis "futile to ask if Jewish-Palestine work or Jewish-European work is more urgent," and among the Zionists, he found, "the Jewish was a natural impulse, but Zionism a matter of political organization. The inner core of their personality was not determined by Jewishness: they propagandize Palestine and [speak]69 German. Perhaps these people are necessary: but it is least of all they who should speak of Jewish experience [Erlebnis ]. They represent half-humans. Have they ever thought through, school, literature, inner life, or the state in a Jewish manner?" "I see three Zionist forms of Jewishness [Judentum ]," Benjamin concluded, "Palestine Zionism (a natural necessity); German Zionism in its halfness; and cultural Zionism which sees Jewish values everywhere and works for them. Here I will stay, and I believe I must stay."70

That Benjamin was concerned with the question of Jewishness at that time, and with religious and secular identity in particular, is also apparent in one of his earliest literary efforts, "Dialog über religiöses Gefühl unserer Zeit," which he wrote during the exchanges with Strauss and included with his letter of October 10, 1912.71 This highly esoteric text presents an imaginary debate between a modern post-Enlightenment pantheist (for whom religion has become the culture of aesthetic forms in the Simmelian sense) and the defender of a religious-social ethic, who is closer to Benjamin himself. For the protagonist, the sober defender of a tragic modernist culture, there is only an elegy (Nachtrauer ) for the disappearing value of metaphysics and at the same time a newfound freedom in the release from the "superfluous use of energy consumed in relating everything to metaphysics." Benjamin, by contrast, identifying with his opponent, sees in his Enlightenment interlocutor only "the degradation of human beings into "work-machines," and he advocates — along the lines of Wyneken's philosophy — a Goethean religiosity, "an inner striving for union with God."72 His theme, the identification of the literary intellectual with religious purpose, was the subject of the first letter to Strauss. For this reason Benjamin's prophets at the time were "Tolstoy, Nietzsche, and Strindberg," the beacons of a "new man."73

Benjamin's third salvo to Strauss, written on November 21, 1912, began on a provocative note: "You are, I assume, aware that my correspondence with you in the matter of Zionism has a programmatic meaning for me."74 Abandoning the "careful attitude" of his earlier letters, Benjamin attempted to articulate his "Jewishness" against the ideals of Zionism. "My experience," he wrote, "brought me to the insight: the Jews represent an elite in the party of the intellectuals [geis- tigen ]." But, as a prescriptive morality, or, in Benjamin's Kantian language, as a "maxim" that expresses the categorical imperative in the concrete world, "Jewishness" provides no guide. "For me Jewishness is not in any sense an end in itself, but the noble bearer and representative of the intellect." Again, he reiterates that a commitment to Zionism is impossible for him, because it would betray the ethical universalism of Wyneken: "I could come closer to the active Zionism, if it were less important. If it was something purely technical. But it is much more, it also contains a formal and definitely worked out Jewish attitude." He adds also that "an idea that is rationalized, freezes to a large extent life, cleans out the instincts."75

Instead Benjamin maintains his advocacy of ideals of youth in the Wyneken community — as cultural resistance, which he finds, in the works of an obscure Chinese writer, Wu Huang Ming, whose book China: Verteidigung gegen europäische Ideen represented a "radical cultural will." European culture in need of Oriental Despotism? Benjamin does not completely dismiss the idea: "Goethe says there is no true culture without despotism. Nevertheless, even if that may be correct, it is also worth striving for the despotism to be transformed from a physical one into an ideal one." Since today "no thoroughly cultivated and privileged ruling caste can be recognized, it is implicit that our cultural consciousness forbids us ideally from ever restricting the concept of culture to any single part of humanity."76

These reflections brought Benjamin, for the first time, to the question of the meaning of politics for Jewish intellectuals. In contrast to Buber/Strauss, he concluded in his third letter that there could be no satisfactory relationship between politics and ideas, "that politics are the consequence of intellectual principles no longer carried on by the intellect."77 To politicize an idea was to deprive it of its ethical and spiritual validity. The idea loses its symbolic element, and it becomes simply "one's" idea; or as Benjamin put it, "out of God develops a fetish."78 Sullied by politics, ethical ideas lose their substance and become simply agonistic forces in the arena of conflict. Activism was the death of the idea, and, conversely, as he later formulated it, "truth is the death of intention."79

Zionism, therefore, was an alternative only if it remained in the sphere of ideas — as the utopian promise of cultural universality, not politics: "For me Zionism was until now an idea, a something , which concerned me in a particular intellectual province. . . . But you want me to transform this idea into a political imperative." "I cannot make Zionism into my political element," he concluded, "because politics is the choice of the lesser evil, the idea never appears in it, only the party."80

Obviously aware that it meant the end of their relationship, Benjamin told Strauss that he would now fight against Zionism in the future. Zionism, he claimed, threatened to rob western Jews of their cultural potential. Zionism "as it exists, and as it can only exist," has as its "highest value nationalism," and the spiritual Zionism of Max Brod, or of Strauss himself, remains therefore "only an idea, and is thoroughly esoteric."81 Politically, only the left was a real alternative (Social Democracy), not because it represented European culture, but because it alone could combat the nationalism that directly threatened that culture. Benjamin's confrontation with Buber's ideas led in the end not to a mutual embrace but to a distancing, first from personal Judaism, against which Benjamin posed the universal idea of intellectual culture, and second against political Zionism, which was compromised by its own nationalism. Benjamin, at the time, according to Scholem (they did not meet until July 1915), "thought little" of Buber's Daniel: Dialogues of Realization which appeared in 1913, and he was publicly critical of Buber during his appearance at a meeting of the Free Student Association in Berlin.82 For Benjamin in 1913–1914, still the passionate advocate of the Wyneken youth culture, school reform (according to Wyneken's principles) was "a conviction [Gesinnung ], an ethical program for our time."83

Benjamin closed his last lengthy communication to Strauss with the unequivocal statement that from the standpoint of "liberal culture," Zionism had to be rejected.84 Judaism only plays "a partial role" in the complex "of my attitudes," and "the National-Jewish [attitude] of Zionist propaganda is not as important for me, as is the contemporary intellectual literary-Jew." Nevertheless, he conceded that he had not yet provided a definition of what he meant by "the creative culture-Jew." Benjamin's definition is "more of an image than a series of thoughts." It is an inverted tower of Babel: the people of the Bible pile stone upon stone, but the tower does not grow downward. The Jews, he wrote, "handle ideas like quarry stones." But they "build from above, without ever reaching the ground."85


It is striking that at the same moment, 1912, Ernst Bloch reached very similar conclusions. Paraphrasing Buber's metaphors of illness andhealth from the Speeches in the sections of Spirit of Utopia composed in that year and entitled "Über die Juden," he too found himself opposed to the rationalism and "liberal poison" from which the Jews of Europe became "sick" and which left assimilated Jewry completely "self-less."86 Already in his 1908 doctoral dissertation on Heinrich Rickert, which Bloch wrote under Hermann Cohen, he criticized Cohen for his attachment to the postulates of a priori reason and for his incapacity to grasp the transcendent imperatives of history. Cohen, he charged, not only reduced "the spiritual life of man" to reason, but God as well.87

Bloch also rejected Buber's idea of Judaism as a purely inner experience. It is not clear whether Bloch had known Buber, but both attended Georg Simmel's private seminar in Berlin and had a mutual friend in Margarethe Susman.88 Bloch's critique of Buber also retains something of Simmel's defense of the Jewish intellectual "Luftmensch," which was Simmel's answer when, in 1909, Buber confronted him with his view that the Jewish spirit rested on a "biological foundation."89 Also influenced by Max Weber, Bloch cast Jewishness in terms of a cultural idea or ideal type, a Jewish "world-feeling" that contains three elements: (1) an attitude of enthusiastic and completely willful opposition to the world (the position of Jewish intellectuals since Spinoza); (2) a utopian impulse to transform life into purity, intellect, and unity — toward a just world; (3) a vision of history that is explicitly messianic.90 Bloch's dissertation concludes that "God's appearance at the end of history" is dependent on "the daring of humankind to defy history," which requires "a knowledge of the eschatological end."91 History for Bloch is predicated on a future-oriented knowledge that transcends the empirical order of things, that does not take flight in false images or fall prey to naturalism, but is directed beyond the existing world toward a yet unrealized "messianic goal."92

Bloch also rejected Zionism because it threatened to negate the central cultural content of European Jewish experience, its messianism, by reducing the idea of Judea to a completely prosaic rendering of the Jewish mission, "to an Asiatic Balkan state." The "assimilation addiction" of liberal German Jewry had given way to "Zionism grounded in the state," or to a denial of Jewishness in its entirety, a situation expressed by the two poles of "modern Jewish false consciousness" embodied in Karl Kraus and Martin Buber. On the one side was Jewish self-hate and on the other Jewish nationalism, the amour propre that abandoned the terrain of Jewish intellectual conflict with the Western tradition.

Both attitudes, "Jewish self-hate and the national flag," represented for Bloch "secondary reckonings in Jewish stock-taking," a retreat from the depths of Judaism and from the painful Lehrjahre of Jewish intellectuality.93

In contrast to Zionism, for Bloch messianism was the product of the great paradox of Jewish history: assimilation and a fanatical refusal to abandon the religious-cultural character of Judaism. Even early Christian communism and the Christian evangelium of the Second Coming are for Bloch essentially Jewish elements. Zionism also threatened to negate the central Jewish experience of "chosenness," a key to the messianic idea. Though he expresses it in the prophetic nonsequitur of his early writings, the measure of the estrangement of the Jews from Europe is their oppositional intellectualist culture, "the secret of Jewish history."94 Bloch traces the origins of this radicalism through the epochs of Jewish wandering, which resulted in "a latent gnosticism," a clear opposition of "the good and the illuminated against everything petty, unjust and hard." Not Jesus, Bloch exhorted, but this negative Jewish message has remained dangerous because it is so completely uncompromising.95

Bloch's and Benjamin's confrontation with Buber and with Zionism affirmed a Jewish ideal that was at once secular and theological — and which represents an intellectualist rejection of the existing order of things. The messianic idea, though more pronounced in Bloch's early writings than in Benjamin's — which were preoccupied with Kant and grappling with Nietzsche — still comes through in their common emphasis on the limits of rationalism, the need to transcend ordinary modes of perception and experience through the utopian, and the restorative nature of the "language-work" of the intellectuals. As Richard Wolin points out, as early as 1914 Benjamin articulated a conception of history remarkably close to Bloch's: "The elements of the end condition are not present as formless tendencies of progress, but instead are embedded in every present as endangered, condemned, and ridiculed creations and ideas. The historical task is to give absolute form in a genuine way to the immanent condition of fulfillment, to make it visible and predominant in the present. . . . [H]owever, it is only comprehensible in its metaphysical structure, like the messianic realm or the idea of the French Revolution."96

The purpose of philosophy or criticism is not merely to point to the failures of rationalism to grasp the totality, it is to reveal through language the missing dimension of cultural experience, to restore theellipse of Reason. For both Bloch and Benjamin, the Enlightenment represented a radical foreshortening of experience, the reduction of the rational to the real and vice versa. To create a post-Enlightenment philosophy meant finding an alternative to positivism that could fulfill the promise of returning thought to the realm of experience denied by rationalism. Nowhere is this purpose more clearly defined than in Benjamin's 1918 "Program of the Coming Philosophy," which points to the limits of Kant's notion of experience:

But this is precisely what is at issue: the conception of the naked, primitive and self-evident experience, which, for Kant, as a man who somehow shared the horizon of his times, seemed to be the only experience given, indeed the only experience possible. This experience, however, . . . was unique and temporally limited. Above and beyond a certain formal similarity which it shared with any sense of experience, this experience, which in a significant sense could be called a worldview , was the same as that of the Enlightenment. In its most essential characteristics, however, it is not all that different from the experience of the other centuries of the modern era. It was an experience or a view of the world of the lowest order.97

For Benjamin, the "philosophy of the future" had to be concerned with demarking the provinces of experience denied or ignored by Kantianism, with its blindness to religion, the irrational, and history.98

The modern world was not simply disenchanted, in Weber's sense of the term, it was infinitely impoverished and lacking in a discourse that could adumbrate the nature of experience. Since language is also the origin of that experience for Benjamin, the new philosophy must not only analyze the fall of experience through language, it must discover a language that brings experience into being. This language, however, because it unraveled the secret of the present — its inner hope — had to remain esoteric. As Nietzsche exclaimed in his Fröhliche Wissenschaft , "One does want to be understood when one writes but just as surely not to be understood."99

Enlightenment could only be redeemed through a "higher concept of experience," one that could take into account the prerational, the magical, and even madness through images of a world beyond mere sense experience — the messianic world. For Bloch, too, the Enlightenment created a "hollow space" in which religion becomes an objective "other," an alien phenomenon rather than an authentic desire, resulting in the false authority accorded to reason in the modern age.

Margarethe Susman, who was close to Bloch in Berlin during that time and also attended Simmel's seminar, described him as "a man forwhom the future burned like a great light on his forehead."100 Simmel noted that he "had Eros" (der hat den Eros ) in his thinking. He assumed a prophetic style in his mannerisms, gestures, and physiognomy. He personally tried to embody the ideal of a prophetic, anti-Enlightenment figure in his personal relations and "self-consciously tried to break through the conventional life forms, and expected the same from every human being whom he recognized as kindred."101

Bloch's posture irritated some acquaintances, especially the members of the famous Weber circle in Heidelberg, which Bloch attended in those years. Marianne Weber noted Bloch's appearance at the seminar as follows: "Suddenly a new Jewish philosopher was there—a youth with an enormous head of black wavy hair and equally enormous self-consciousness, he apparently considered himself to be the precursor of a new Messiah and hoped that everyone would recognize him as such."102 Max Weber was so vexed by Bloch's prophetic manner, his outwardly religious amalgamation of Catholic, agnostic, apocalyptic, expressionist, and above all Jewish attitudes, that he said "the man cannot be taken seriously in scientific matters." His student, Maria Bernays, author of one of the first sociological studies of factory work, recalled Weber remarking, "I would like to send a porter to his house to pack his trunks and take them to the railroad station so that Bloch would go away."103


Missing in the writings of Bloch and Benjamin before August 1914 is the radical and apocalyptic aspect of modern messianism. In this regard the war obliged them. After 1914 we see in both Bloch's and Benjamin's writings an attempt to find a secular and theological philosophy that can embody the messianic impulse in relation to a real apocalypse and to translate the promise of European culture into the promise of political redemption. Like so many intellectuals of their generation, the war was interpreted in terms of the collapse of Western culture and the triumph of technology and civilization. Though many embraced the war as the harbinger of a new and more violent modernity, Bloch and Benjamin were among its most resolute opponents and perceived the war as a total conflagration that threatened to consume all of bourgeois culture in the name of its own destructive values.104 Benjamin's messianic theory of language, which he developed during the war, and Bloch's theological-messianic anarchism, embodied in Spirit of Utopia , are bothexpressions of the powerless deracinated, universalistic, and cultural Jewish philosophy in the face of its potential annihilation. The war gave political shape to the idea of redeeming European culture and to the implication of language in its crisis.

Benjamin's involvement in the Berlin Free Student Movement lasted until the outbreak of the war, more specifically, until May 1915 when his final break with Wyneken occurred.105 Benjamin describes August 1914 in his Berlin Chronicle: "It was in that café (Café des Westens), that we sat together in those very first August days, choosing among the barracks that were being stormed by the onrush of volunteers. . . . I duly appeared on one of the following days, no spark of war enthusiasm in my heart."106 After a few days on the endless queue, Benjamin gave up trying to enlist. But it was the protest-suicide of his close friend Fritz Heinle in August 1914 that moved him to reject the chorus of war jubilation. In the "strongly willful" moral gesture of Heinle's act, Benjamin saw the meaning of a phrase that he had written but not delivered in his speech to the youth movement in Breslau in October 1913: "This epoch does not have a single form which permits us silent expression. But we feel ourselves enslaved by speechlessness. We despise the facile irresponsibility of written expression."107 In his final letter to Wyneken, Benjamin quotes this phrase against Wyneken's prowar Der Krieg und der Jugend (1915), noting that his loyalty to Heinle now moved him to refuse to speak to those who "write those lines about war and youth" and who are guilty of "sacrificing youth to the state which has taken everything from them."108

The war not only brought the final rupture with Wyneken but also with Buber, with personal mysticism, and with German and Jewish nationalism. His important essay, "On Language as Such and on the Language of Man," written in November 1916, in the darkest hour of the war, must be read between the lines as an esoteric response to Buber's prowar and pro-German position.109 Already in his 1912 letters to Strauss, Benjamin identified the Jewish intellect with "expressive culture." In 1916 he returns to this theme to discuss the essence of language in its "immanent relationship with Judaism and in its relationship to the first chapter of Genesis."110

Benjamin's decision to "situate the crisis in the heart of language" was occasioned by and coincided with the appearance of Buber's new journal, Der Jude , in May of that year.111 Benjamin's extremely negative response to Buber's request for a contribution repeats some of the motifs of his earlier encounter with Strauss, but even more decisively.

Strauss too, it should be noted, also embraced the war with the remark that national Jews were no worse patriots than national Germans.112 Benjamin, by contrast, noted the "intensity of opposition" that so many of the contributions to Der Jude , especially those concerned with the European war, elicited in him. He wrote that his "relationship to this journal is, and can in reality be, nothing more than what it is to all politically effective writings which the onset of the war finally and decisively opened for me." It was not simply that politics resulted in "writing and language that was powerless, denigrated to a pure means."113 Nor was it only that with the war, "the relationship between word and deed has become a mechanism for the realization of the right absolutes."114 What was at stake was not the war itself but the intellectual complicity of the Jews in their own betrayal as the "bearer and representative of the intellect." Here Benjamin articulates the political sense that his 1916 essay on language expressed in far more esoteric form.

It is a widely noted, in fact generally accepted dominant opinion that writing can influence the moral world and the activities of human beings, insofar as it provides concrete motives for actions. In this sense language is only a means for a more or less suggestive preparation of motives, which are determinant in the inner soul of the actor. It is characteristic of this view, that it in no way takes into account the relationship of language to the act, insofar as the first is a means to the second.115

Language degenerates into "an impoverished, weak act" whose sources lie outside of itself, in political or ideological motives. Writing can be understood in a variety of ways, from prophecy to simple matter-of-factness, but the essence of language can be comprehended "only magically , that is im-mediately . Every salutary effect of the written (of the word, of language) that is not in essence deprecating rests in its secret. No matter in how many different forms language can be effective, this does not occur through the mediation of contents, but through the pure disclosure of its dignity and its essence."116 "My conception of straightforward and at the same time highly political style and writing," he wrote to Buber, "is to indicate that which fails words; only there, only where this sphere of wordlessness reveals itself in its unspeakably pure power, can the magic spark between word and deed arise."117

Years later, in his ill-fated Habilitationsschrift, The Origin of German Tragic Drama , Benjamin returned to the theme of speechlessness as an antidote to the powerlessness of language as political discourse thatpreoccupied him in regard to the war and Fritz Heinle's fatal "gesture." Benjamin found in Franz Rosenzweig's theory of tragic silence confirmation for his own view of the stance of the tragic hero condemned to solitude and powerlessness. Drawing on Rosenzweig's Stern der Erlösung , Benjamin quotes him to the effect that speechlessness is the essence of the tragic self: "'For this is the mark of the self, the seal of its greatness and the token of its weakness alike; it is silent. The tragic hero has only one language that is completely proper to him: silence.'"118

Benjamin's objection to Buber is not to his prowar stance per se but to his propagandistic self-annihilation of the intellectual—which he explicitly identifies as political. The task of the intellectual for Benjamin is "the elimination of the unspeakable in language," through writing that is suggestive of the actual relationship between word and act in linguistic magic.119 Esoteric language is akin to the silence of the tragic hero, in the unsuccessful attempt to break out of its solitude. As the medium of truth, rather than as an instrument of politics, language is always doomed to a kind of speechlessness. "In his silence the tragic hero burns the bridges connecting him to God and the world, elevates himself above the realm of personality which in speech, defines itself against others and individualizes itself, and so enters the icy loneliness of the self."120 This is a political stance, "since the community of the nation denies these achievements [of the tragic hero], they remain inarticulate."121

In short, the esoteric theory of language developed through Benjamin's encounter with Kabbalah and with the linguistic theories of the romantics and Johann Georg Hamann, set forth in the essay of 1916, represents a programmatic antipolitics. The esoteric language of the intellectual Jews is directed against the language of political instrumentalism. The expressive quality of language carries the hidden promise of redemption from power and judgment, a reminder of "the absolutely unlimited and creative infinity of the divine word."122 Expressive culture, then, retains only a weak remembrance of the originary "paradisic language of man," he wrote. That language "must have been one of perfect knowledge, whereas later all knowledge is again infinitely differentiated in the multiplicity of language."123 After the Fall, language is reduced to a "mere sign," to an instrument of judgment, and to abstraction: "Man abandoned immediacy in communication . . . and fell into the abyss of the mediateness of all communication."124 The debasement of language from this Adamic state is identified with the fall of language and culture in the war, the catastrophe of war with the catastrophe of the word. What is lost is what he later described as the messianic world: "a world of an all-sided and integral actuality."125 The traces of that world can still be felt in the power of naming, a mimesis of God's original act. The human capacity to create an identity between name and thing retains the memory of the original correspondence of object and signifier, initially present in the language of God and ultimately preserved in a kind of onomatopoesis, the imitation of the objects to which they refer.

In contrast to modern linguistics and Ferdinand de Saussure, whose Course in General Linguistics appeared in the same year, Benjamin does not see the arbitrary character of the sign as the "true nature" of language as an object of scientific study, but as the expression of the fallen world, the disenchantment of experience.126 The loneliness of language gives its esoteric character a decisively tragic cast. Benjamin invests language with a messianic power precisely at the moment of its fall, its disintegration into propaganda. At the end of 1916 he wrote despairingly to his school friend Herbert Belmore, "We are in the midst of night. . . . The war threatens to take everything, art, truth, justice, out of our hands."127 At the same time, however, he recognized that this power is not destined to win: "I once tried to fight it [the night] with words . . . but then I learned that whoever fights the night must remove the deepest darkness in order to yield its light, and in this great effort words are only a station."128

Georg Simmel and Max Weber played an analogous role for Bloch that Wyneken and Buber had played for Benjamin. Bloch later recalled that "in Heidelberg or among the elite intellectuals it was naturally assumed that one rejected the war and saw Wilhelm II, as before, as a disaster for Germany and the world."129 But when Weber appeared in uniform and Simmel gave a lecture at Heidelberg that Bloch, his admiring student, attended, Bloch was horrified. "It was a prowar lecture, all-German to excess [alldeutsch bis zum exzess]." "That this friend of Bergson, the lover and admirer of French culture, of French kitchens and of French wine, participated in the war; and that he, the Privatdozent with the title 'Extraordinary Professor,' because as a Jew he could never get a University position in Berlin . . ., even he capitulated, the man who said to me: 'Future history will reveal two great disastrous epochs for Germany: the first, the Thirty Years War, the second Wilhelm II.' That was incomprehensible to me."130

In a letter that echoed Benjamin's to Wyneken and Buber, Bloch wrote to Simmel, "You have never sought a definite answer to anything,never. The absolute was always something completely suspect and inaccessible to you, as was the striving for the absolute. And praise to you! But now you have finally found it. Now the metaphysical for you is the German trenches."131

In 1917 the family fortune of Bloch's wife, Else Bloch-von Stritzky, collapsed, and the pair emigrated from Munich to Switzerland, first to Bern, then to Thun and Interlaken. Emigration was an act of "decisive" refusal to participate in the war and actively join the antiwar cause. Having completed Spirit of Utopia , Bloch undertook a study of "political programs and utopias in Switzerland" for Weber's Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik .132 Bloch joined the ranks of the "anti-Kaiser Germans" in Bern, where he was in close contact with a virtual who's who of the German exile intelligentsia in World War I. Along with Annette Kolb, Carl v. Ossietzky, and his close associate Hugo Ball, Bloch wrote for several exile newspapers including René Schickele's Die weissen Blätter and the Freie Zeitung , which he and Ball helped edit.133 Bloch wrote literally hundreds of articles, under a variety of pseudonyms, covering an extraordinarily wide range of topics, most of them political.134 He was supported financially by his wealthy friend, Dr. Johann Wilhelm Muehlon, the former Krupp attorney and diplomat whose antiwar writings in Swiss exile included revelations of secret government war preparations in July 1914, published as Die Schuld der deutschen Regierung am Krieg . Bloch's political engagement in those years, when he was still an anarchist and a pacifist and under frequent police surveillance, when as late as 1918 he called Lenin a "Red Czar," remains one of the most interesting and least unexplored periods of his entire career.135

Like Benjamin, Bloch too saw light in the depths of the night: ultimately the defeat of Germany would bury forever the feudal values of the Prussian upper classes and bring a kind of religious but democratic socialism to Germany. In 1918, the year that Spirit of Utopia appeared, Bloch published a pamphlet entitled "Would Military Defeat Help or Hurt Germany?"—answering, of course, in the affirmative. Though we might believe it could not be worse, Bloch wrote, the apocalypse was the only source of hope: from the external military defeat, the inner economic, political, and spiritual resurrection of Germany, "our hope remains . . . that Germany must first freely undergo the destruction and defeat of its military autocracy in an 'unhappy' outcome of the war, if its deeply buried currents of beclouded, dreamy piety . . . are to come to consciousness."136 The appearance of Spirit of Utopia established Bloch's reputation as the theologian of the German revolution. But its distinctive voice is not that of a systematic theologian but "of a great, angry, god-obsessed prophet." Bloch himself claimed that it was Simmel who recommended its publication because its originality so overshadowed "much that is incomprehensible, very subjective, fantastic, and inorganic."137 Appropriately, the concluding chapter is entitled "Karl Marx, Death and the Apocalypse." Spirit of Utopia announces the messianic redemption that awaits the end of the war, a redemption that also brings about "the fruitful harvest of the apocalypse." A redeemed world without death and suffering could only be found in the ruins of the old order.138 "There can be no image of that which lies above," he wrote, "without first brushing against death; it makes us blanch and removes the weightiness from our words."139 Only in the cataclysm of the war could the promise of culture be realized in "an anarchist-expressionist determined world." For Bloch there was no contradiction between the arrival of a "spiritual aristocracy" and the communal production of goods, between elite culture and democracy, between socialism, anarchism, Marxism, Christianity, Judaism, and Eastern religion—all of those dichotomies evaporated in the "hour of death." The messianic and the political are completely identical: the radical idea of a community of the just and this-worldly redemption is simply one side of the otherworldly longing. The revolution reveals the singular truth that evil exists through God, "but the just—God exists through them, and in their hands is the salvation of the name, God's capacity to name is itself given to them."140


The parallel intellectual trajectories that brought both Bloch and Benjamin to Switzerland made their first meeting in 1919 an obvious occasion for enthusiasm. Both had begun a philosophical journey that passed through the apocalypse of European culture, and both had made a language of esoteric intellectualism the expression of a secular-theological messianism. In March or April 1919 the twenty-seven-year-old Benjamin was introduced to Bloch by Hugo Ball, the Dadaist and anti-Prussian republican exile, whom he had befriended, along with Ball's companion, Emmy Hennings.141 At the time Bloch, who was seven years older than Benjamin, was working on his never completed magnum opus, the "System of Theoretical Messianism." Benjamin was immediately taken with his personality, finding him "receptive to questions of Judaism."142 But the meeting and friendship of these two carriers of the messianic idea also revealed a substantial area of conflict: politics. In their conflict the ethical dilemma inherent in the messianic idea surfaced with uncharacteristic sharpness. By 1919 Bloch had become a socialist. He had spent the two years in Switzerland deeply embroiled in the politics of the exile community. Yet he was still far from fully embracing either the Russian or the German revolution. For him the direction of the antiwar left symbolized by the Zimmerwald movement (after the conference of September 1915, which upheld the idea of class war and international socialism against all the belligerents) labored under the illusion that there was no distinction to be made between the Entente democracies—America, England, and France—and the German autocratic state.143 Though he placed his hopes in the democratic powers, France and America, and though he was skeptical of both the Russian experiment (state socialism) and the potential for socialism in Germany, Bloch had already begun his own path to Marxism.144

Benjamin's rejection of politics was equally emphatic. Though both Bloch and Ball tried to convince Benjamin of the necessity of political activity, he remained unmoved, despite his concern for friends, especially Gustav Landauer, caught up in the maelstrom of the Munich revolution. His philosophy of language was an antipolitics; his rejection of Buber's personal Judaism for the idea of redemption through the word barred the path to action. The messianic idea for him was, as Scholem put it, "a life lived in deferment , in which nothing can be done definitively, nothing can be irrevocably accomplished."145 For Benjamin, the instrumentalization of language in all political judgment made it complicit in violence. Already in 1917, he condemned Hegel as "an intellectual man of violence, a mystic of violence, the worst sort that there is."146 Bloch, in contrast, despite his professed pacifism, was hardly shy about revolutionary violence. Spirit of Utopia , for example, contains the phrase, "It is necessary to oppose established power with appropriately powerful means, like a categorical imperative with a revolver in your fist."147

Benjamin's first reaction to Bloch's Spirit of Utopia , which he read in 1919, was therefore one of disappointment for both political and philosophical reasons. Writing to Ernst Schoen, he noted that Bloch himself was "ten times better" than his book, but he also remarked that this was the only book against which he could compare himself, "a truly contemporary and synchronous expression."148 Elsewhere he is similarly ambivalent, noting his impatience with the book but also that his kinship (verwandtschaft ) with Bloch stirs him. For him, the most interesting passage is a quote from the Kabbalah (misattributed by Bloch to the Zohar), which he cites from Spirit of Utopia in a letter to Scholem.

Know that there is a double view for all worlds. The first shows its external side, namely the general laws of the world according to its external form. The other shows the inner side of the essence of worlds, namely the essence of the human soul. Accordingly there are two levels of acts, works and the orders of prayers; works are there to perfect the world in accordance with the external, the prayer, however, is there to place this world in the other and to raise it up toward heaven.149

Though his review is presumed lost, it is clear that Benjamin resisted the strange blend of Christianity and Jewish messianism entwined in Bloch's this-worldly eschatology and his optimistic utopianism.150 We also know that Benjamin devoted the conclusion of his review to a critique of Bloch's epistemology.151 Benjamin remarked (somewhat exaggeratedly) that the book made him mistrustful and that although he saw some of his ideas confirmed in it, "it nowhere corresponded to my idea of philosophy, but rather is diametrically opposed to it."152

Scholem also found much to his distaste in Spirit of Utopia . In a letter to Benjamin, he noted his dissatisfaction with the Jewish sections of the work (which Bloch subsequently omitted).

The following remarks are based mainly on the sections entitled "Über die Juden" and "Über die Gestalt der unkonstruierbaren Fragen" [The Form of the Unconstruable Questions]; to the extent that I have understood these correctly, I most violently reject them. I have the impression that here Bloch encroaches, in the worst fashion and with inappropriate means, upon an area whose boundaries the book might at best define. With the gesture of a magus (and, woe, I know the sources of this magic!) he makes statements about the stories of the Jews, history, and Judaism, which clearly bear the terrible stigma of Prague (in my linguistic usage, that meant Buber); it's no use, even the terminology is from Prague. The Jewish generation that Bloch has invented does not exist; it exists only in the intellectual realm of Prague.153

It is interesting that Scholem identifies the influence of Buber in Bloch's renderings of Jewish mysticism in Spirit of Utopia , but the above-mentioned "source" is probably Johann Andreas Eisenmenger's two-thousand-page anti-Semitic work on Jewish mysticism published in 1701, which Bloch told Scholem he had read from "the opposite point of view" during his first meeting with him in May 1919.154 Scholemwent on to criticize the amalgamation of Jewish kabbalistic and Christian motifs in the work, an intermingling of testimonies that he found "indiscriminate."155

Benjamin noted that he was in "full agreement" with Scholem's comments on the Jewish chapter, particularly as far as a certain "impalpability of distance" that characterizes the work.156 Benjamin also found Salomo Friedländer's review of Spirit of Utopia in Kurt Hiller's journal Ziel "highly interesting" and affirmed that it "brought to light its weaknesses with real thoroughness."157 Here Benjamin meant what Hiller called its "undiscussable Christology," its exultant "schwärmerisch" metaphysics of pure inwardliness, and above all its confusing amalgamation of the first, second, and third testaments that was the butt of Friedländer's scathing sarcasm.158 Friedländer, himself an extraordinary figure on the fringes of the Oskar Goldberg circle of modern Jewish "Kabbalists" was a Jewish Nietzschean whose book Schöpferische Indifferenz (Creative Indifference) is a form of Jewish apocalypticism of another stripe.159 The identification of the messianic breakthrough with both Jewish and Christian redemption, the mysticism of the Russian revolution as the "breakthrough of the power of love," galled Friedländer's Nietzschean soul: "This is the melody that the music of this book makes . . . to tastelessness and absurdity, Christian, un-Zarathustrian, un-Dionysian."160 Spirit of Utopia was a work of clever obscurantism that created the appetite for a new church: "Its most noble sentiments lead, without reason, without logical law, to babble, to chaos."161

Compared to the statements of the Zimmerwald left, the political program of Spirit of Utopia was manifestly vague. Bloch's apocalyptic religiosity stood in marked contrast to Lenin's famous rejection of the Second International pacifism and his readiness to see the war as the opportunity to initiate a class war and bring about revolution. Indeed, Bloch's Spirit of Utopia was so lacking in any "indices for practical application" that the wartime censor judged it "harmless."162 Still, Bloch's enthusiasm for the Russian revolution, along with his negative evaluation of Lenin and Bolshevik methods, is often more prescient than that of many of his compatriots, acknowledging the truth of the rumors of terror and warning of the Bolshevik fetishism of central authority and power. By 1918, Bloch's hopes rested not with Lenin and the Bolsheviks but with Woodrow Wilson and the Entente, for a peace secured by an "armed pacifism." Those hopes were soon dashed, however, and the German revolution of November 1918 brought a change in Bloch'sevaluation of the chances for socialism in Germany. The war had so ruined all of the German classes, he now speculated, that the basis for socialism was created. Once again the redemptive moment arises from the destructive power of war.

Behind Bloch's political pamphlets and articles of 1918–1919 we can see a volatile though not always clear-sighted thinker whose redemptive politics were constantly confronted with unanticipated revolutionary events. Unlike Benjamin, who had thus far evaded the essential question of violence posed not only by Spirit of Utopia but also by the events of that crucial year in German history, Bloch was adamant that politics could not be avoided, certainly not in 1918–1919. Some twenty years later Bloch reconstructed the argument that seemed to him most persuasive: Bloch was determined not to reenact "the misfortune which had beset even greater spirits of the past, . . . the many German poets and thinkers who wavered at the time of the French Revolution."163

That it was Bloch who provoked Benjamin to reflect on the nature of politics is evident from a letter to Ernst Schoen: It was "more than his [Bloch's] book, but also his conversation that was so often directed against my rejection of every contemporary political tendency, that finally caused me to immerse myself in the matter." Bloch, he added, "was the only person of importance who I met in Switzerland."164 This letter marks the beginning of his writings about politics—and not, as is sometimes claimed, his "conversion" to Marxism after his famous meeting with Asja Lacis in Capri in July 1924. Wolin has suggested, for example, that Sandor Rádnoti's comment that Benjamin stood largely outside the revolutionary events taking place in his German "homeland" is misplaced since, as a Jew, he did not consider Germany his homeland.165 While it is true, as Wolin points out, that Benjamin's philosophy of history "condemns history in toto as categorically incapable of fulfillment " and therefore finds little consolation in the vicissitudes of everyday politics—even revolutionary politics—his argument still operates within the terms of a sudden, overnight turn from "unpolitical messianism" to Marxism in 1924. As I have suggested, Benjamin conceived, as did Bloch, of esoteric messianism as a form of politics—as a politics against politics in the prewar and war epoch. To search for the reasons for Benjamin's lack of engagement in the years from 1919 to 1924 may be a question mal posée .

After meeting Bloch in the fall of 1919, Benjamin's writings reflect a profound inner battle with the problem of violence and activism in general, and with the writings of Georges Sorel in particular. As his 1916essay on language was a confrontation with the war and the Jewish response to the war, his political essays of the early 1920s (unfortunately, the most important may be among those missing) are a confrontation with the German revolution and the Jewish response to it. Benjamin characterized his position in those years as "theocratic anarchism," which "was the most sensible response to politics."166 In his September 19, 1919, letter to Schoen he speaks of "thoughts" he had written down on the subject of "politics."167 In April 1920 he mentions a note entitled "Life and Violence" written, he says, "from the heart."168 Probably even more important is the lost essay on politics conceived as a response to the Blochean challenge. But even the names of the titles of the "second part," mentioned in a letter to Scholem, are evocative of the spirit of the essay: entitled "True Politics" it contained two subtitles, "Demolition of Violence" and "Teleology without Goal."169 In conjunction with the planned work on politics, during the new year 1920–1921 Benjamin became more acquainted with Sorel's Réflexions sur la violence (1906–1908), which plays a crucial role in the only significant essay to survive this period, "Critique of Violence." Benjamin began reading Sorel, according to Scholem, "as a result of his conversations with [Hugo] Ball and Bloch," after which "coming to terms with Sorel occupied him for a long time to come."170 In addition to the work by Sorel, Benjamin praised a little-known work by Erich Unger, a member of the Oskar Goldberg circle of Berlin Kabbalists, Politik und Metaphysik . Benjamin considered Unger's book "the most important writing on politics of this time."171

Once again in esoteric form, Benjamin considered the problem of revolution from the heights of a messianic philosophy of history that in principle rejected any intrinsic relationship between "activism" and utopia. According to Scholem, "Critique of Violence" contains "all of the motifs that moved him during his time in Switzerland," and along with the short piece later entitled "Theologisch-Politisches Fragment" remain the only important sources for his thinking on the question of violence at that time.172 As the war found its esoteric-allegorical expression in the essay "On Language," the revolution found its expression in the "Fragment" and the essay on violence. Announcing what appears to be a challenge to Bloch's promiscuous amalgamation of apocalyptic history and messianism, the "Fragment" begins with the sentence, "Nothing historical can relate itself on its own account to anything messianic." But also here for the first time the problem of redemption is posed in the political realm.

Benjamin's debt to Bloch is openly acknowledged in the "Frangment," but in a very ambiguous sense. The laconic sentence, "To have repudiated with utmost vehemence the political significance of theocracy is the cardinal merit of Bloch's Spirit of Utopia, " can be read against the grain of Bloch's own revolutionary messianism, which amalgamates politics and messianism in a way that Benjamin explicitly rejects. The preceding sentence, "Therefore the order of the profane cannot be built up on the idea of the Divine Kingdom, and therefore theocracy has no political, but only a religious meaning," seems to inveigh against Bloch's most fundamental political sensibility, the fusion of hierocratic and secular politics.173 The programmatic rejection of politics is clearly emphasized. "The order of the profane should be erected on the idea of happiness," Benjamin writes, but this idea is the very antithesis of the messianic order of things. The messianic idea cannot tolerate the earthly Kingdom: "the Kingdom of God is not the telos of the historical dynamic." Yet the "Fragment" also places the relationship between revolutionary violence and messianism in another, perhaps more sympathetic light. Though "the quest of free humanity for happiness runs counter to the messianic direction," the actions of human beings can, "just as force can, through acting, increase another that is acting in the opposite direction, so the order of the profane assists, through being profane, the coming of the messianic Kingdom." It does this by bringing about misfortune and suffering, which, in its transience, presses toward the messianic epoch. "For Nature," Benjamin writes, "in contrast to history, is messianic by reason of its eternal and total passing away."174

The tenor of these essays might be described as "anarchomessianic," in sharp contrast to Bloch's embryonic Marxism. This is evident, not only in the lengthy paean to Sorel's revolutionary syndicalism in the "Critique" but in the complex ways those essays acknowledged the affinities of revolutionary thought and action with the messianic idea while pitting the messianic idea against legitimate state-sanctioned power and violence. As Bloch was rapidly moving toward Marxism, Benjamin was approaching the messianic anarchism espoused by Bloch at the time of their first meeting.

Though Benjamin's letters rarely reveal much about his political opinions on contemporary issues, Scholem mentions the importance of events in Russia and Germany for Benjamin in 1919, as well as the November 1919 General Strike in Switzerland, "which the Swiss government put down by force of arms." Scholem also recalls the importancefor both Benjamin and himself of the problem of revolutionary dictatorship, particularly for the events unfolding in Russia. According to Scholem,

I represented the more radical point of view and defended the idea of dictatorship—which Benjamin then still completely rejected—provided that it was a "dictatorship of poverty," which to me was not identical with a dictatorship of the proletariat. I would say that our sympathies were to a great extent with the Social Revolutionary party in Russia which later was liquidated so bloodily by the Bolsheviks. We also discussed the question of republic and monarchy, and to my surprise Benjamin opposed my decision in principle in favor of the republic. . . . Even under present conditions a monarchy might be a legitimate and acceptable form of government.175

In the end, however, Benjamin reaffirmed his rejection of the connection between history and the messianic impulse. Yet history is somehow implicated in the coming of messianism, if only negatively, through its completely profane character. This image of history as a catastrophic "second nature," which can be attributed to his reading of Lukács's History and Class Consciousness, will continue to play an important role in Benjamin's philosophy.

That image is even more evident in the final pages of "Critique of Violence" where the discussion of the origins of violence and of law in myth and history ends in a disavowal of mythic and historic force, and in the affirmation of divine violence, which represents justice and is the negation of force and power: "Lawmaking is power making, and, to that extent, an immediate manifestation of violence. Justice is the principle of all divine end making, power the principle of all mythical lawmaking."176 Benjamin counterpoises two closely aligned conceptions of force in Western culture, the constitutive violence that establishes (rechtssetzend ) and maintains (rechtsherhaltend ) law—originating in the mythic violence of the Greek gods—with the divine violence (rechtsvernichtend ) that negates and destroys the legally sanctioned violence of the state. The direct analogue to this conception of divine violence in contemporary politics is explicitly acknowledged as Sorel's rendition of the proletarian violence of the General Strike. When Sorel exclaims that "the revolution appears as a clear, simple revolt," Benjamin adds that "against this deep, moral, and genuinely revolutionary conception, no objection can stand that seeks, on grounds of its possibly catastrophic consequences, to brand such a general strike as violent."177

In both the "Fragment" and the "Critique" the messianic idea stands outside of and opposed to any immanent historical activism that mightbring about its realization. Benjamin rejects both the natural right justification of revolutionary terrorism derived from the French revolution and the gradualism that seeks to replace one form of state power with another. At the same time, both essays have a decisive affinity to anarchism, the first in its Sorelian praise of violence opposed to power and the second in the idea that the quest for happiness, because it is doomed to bringing about unhappiness, aids the "task of world politics, whose method must be called nihilism."178

In both essays the conflict between the Jewish messianism that rejects politics and still sees language as the one "nonviolent sphere of human accommodation" and the new radicalism of the German revolution that embraces revolutionary violence are only roughly reconciled. These essays reveal an impossible dilemma: the attempt to find a point of continuity between Benjamin's abhorrence of the German reaction responsible for the death of a much admired and kindred spirit, Gustav Landauer, and the collapse of the Munich Räterepublik, and a Jewish messianism that situates redemption in language rather than in the vicissitudes of revolution, history, and the time-space continuum.

The dilemma reappears even more strongly in Benjamin's essay on Dostoyevsky's The Idiot, occasioned in part by his reading of a volume of Dostoyevsky's political writings published in Munich in 1917.179 Benjamin called the volume "the most important political work that he knew."180 Dostoyevsky was also the figure who tied Bloch (as well as Lukács) to the Russian revolution, albeit for different reasons. Bloch and Lukács greeted the Russian revolution as a profoundly Dostoyevskian event. As Bloch later recalled, "I myself participated in this general feeling when I wrote in Spirit of Utopia that the Russian revolution was the act of a new Praetorian guard who enthroned Christ as emperor for the first time." "For us," he added, "this was Russian Christianity, the spiritual universe of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky."181 For Lukács too it was the "ethical" implications of Dostoyevsky that convinced him of the higher morality—above all of the spiritual community and suffering—that the Russian revolution embodied.182 "If the revolution had broken out in France, it wouldn't have had the same impact on him," Bloch said of Lukács. "It would have been a simple affair of the brain. But Russia was an affair of the heart."183

Significantly, what interested Benjamin was not Dostoyevsky's essay on the Jewish Question, about which he is oddly silent, but rather the theme of the redemptive and pure humanity of the Russian people in its childlike youthfulness: "As the political doctrine of Dostoyevsky constantly declares the regeneration in the pure Volkstum to be the last hope, so the poet recognizes in this book (The Idiot ) the child as the only salvation for the youth of their land."184 Despite his clear differences with Bloch and Lukács about the problem of violence and the ethics of revolution, Benjamin shared their emotional attraction to Russia as the antithesis of Western rationalism with its ethical pantheism and primacy of economics over life. The revolution in Russia, he intimated, revealed a "proletariat with a child-soul," which paradoxically justified both a democratic communitarianism and a deep elitism, mirrored, for example, in Bloch's belief that the revolution would create a "spiritual aristocracy," or in Lukács's parallel view that the new higher ethic of the revolution would bring about a new moral caste.185 But for Benjamin it was not only the spiritual dimension of Dostoyevsky, but his perspective of the abyss that was paramount: "The immeasurable depth of the crater, out of which the most powerful forces of human greatness can release themselves with singular enormity, that is the hope of the Russian people."186 For that reason he applauded the far more pessimistic conclusion that "because nature and childhood are absent, mankind is destined to arrive at a catastrophic self-destruction."187


Both Bloch and Benjamin embodied what Leo Baeck once called "messianic irony," the certitude of redemption and the bleak pessimism that such certainty demands: "Only those who are imbued with this pessimism, this mockery, this protest and this irony are the really great optimists who hold fast to the future and lead the world a step further toward it."188 Yet the tensions in the messianic tradition are not easily suffered. Bloch and Benjamin ultimately represented the antinomies of messianic politics: on the one side, the rejection of the world and violence in an apocalyptic vision; on the other, a radical affirmation of the new and creative destruction of the old order in what Bloch called "a colorful explosion of forms."189 The tension here is not simply between action and passivity but between the normal politics of terrestrial beings and a politics that transcends any spatial dimension. Language is the medium of redemption, but history is the showplace of catastrophe. Esoteric intellectualism as a Jewish response to personal and political Zionism—and as a negative response to the war—could not complete with the demands of political culture in the revolutionary epoch. The claims of Jacobinism, with its dialectic of political disaster, were toostrong, the politics of "Eastern Marxism" too persuasive to resist. By 1920 Bloch had turned the messianic vision into a political identification with the revolutionary left, while Benjamin adopted a theocratic anarchism that upheld the ideal of "pure violence" not directed at specific political ends but rather at the destruction of all legal violence that is mythical and unjust. This is only a single step from embracing the sectarian messianism of the revolution, which Benjamin apparently took in 1924. Nonetheless, as his Moscow Diaries demonstrate just two years later, he never took that step unequivocally, and just as often stepped away from it.190

The consequences of Jewish messianism for the legacy of critical theory are not difficult to imagine. Adorno summed up Benjamin's impact: "As a critic of violence, Benjamin as it were breaks down the unity of the subject into mythic turmoil in order to comprehend such unity as itself being only a natural condition; with his philosophy of language oriented on the Kabbalah, Benjamin saw subjective unity as scribbling of the Name. That links his materialistic period with his theological one. He viewed the modern world as archaic not in order to conserve the traces of a purportedly eternal truth, but rather to escape the trance-like captivity of bourgeois immanence."191

In the 1920s and 1930s, Bloch and Benjamin represented the warm current in the cold sea of an increasingly Sovietized European Marxism. The "anarchic breeze" of Jewish messianism blew fresh air into the house that Lenin built. True to tradition, of course, they both ended up as Marxist heretics. Bloch and Benjamin were practically unique in recognizing that orthodox Marxism could not be genuinely concerned with the fate of European culture because it was unable or unwilling to envision the possibility of its destruction. As the heir to the Enlightenment, the Marxism of the Second and Third internationals was tied to a view of history that could not admit that a total eclipse of reason was possible. Marxist productivism participated in the cultural hegemony that it claimed to contest, even more uncritically embracing the industrial ethos than did the bourgeois ideologists of the nineteenth century.

For Benjamin and Bloch, only an authentic messianism, which did not see history as the progressive unfolding of the rational, which was attuned to the poverty of experience that they maintained Enlightenment left in its wake, and which accepted the possibility of apocalypse could recognize in fascist politics a false reenchantment of the world. For this reason it was clear to both Bloch and Benjamin that fascism could not be defeated by denouncing it as false consciousness, that as asocially powerful myth of redemption it could fill the "hollow space" that a Marxism divested of utopia could not even imagine.192

Nor did Bloch and Benjamin join Lukács and other orthodox Marxists in a rationalist rejection of aesthetic modernism.193 They understood that expressionism (Bloch) or surrealism (Benjamin) represented genuine challenges to the false promise of autonomous art—the creation of a world of beauty above labor or violence. A decade later the messianism of these thinkers was subsumed into aesthetics by the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, which retained from the messianic idea only the premise that art was the repository of utopian images. Benjamin, and later Adorno, clearly understood that the tragedy of the modern was its condemnation to the "eternal recurrence of the new as sameness," the leitmotiv of Benjamin's unfinished work on the Paris of Baudelaire. For Benjamin, the modern, unlike classical antiquity, represented the "new in opposition to the eternal return of the same."194 Baudelaire, Blanqui, and Nietzsche discovered, each in his own domain, the secret of the modern, that the promise of the new was eternal sameness, a substitution of a transitory Erlebnis for real experience. The result was the melancholia of the modern, the price of reinventing itself at every moment. The promise of modernism was only the ephemeral fleeting moment of redemption that is consumed instantly.

It is its openness to catastrophe that gives modern messianism its fire and its urgency about culture. Redemptive critique is never personal, always universal and historical, since only a true reading of the past can present the image of the future—even if the present is bent on destruction. But precisely because of its radical utopianism, the messianic idea is fundamentally unreliable in the world of "facts and exigencies." Its political claims are dubious because of its propensity to "otherworldly" esoteric reflection, on the one side, and the magnetic draw of revolution, on the other. For this reason the messianic idea always threatens to subvert itself into a Machiavellian disregard for civil liberties or ethical norms in the name of virtue. As Ferenc Féher observed in his perceptive comments on the young Lukács, but which applies to Bloch and Benjamin as well, "Without the norm of Enlightenment—which includes respect for dissenting opinions, so marked in Luxemburg and so totally lacking in Lenin—there is no way of forecasting whether the romantic rebellion will follow Lukács' or Heidegger's political path. Without this norm it can only result in destructive consequences, however different they may be."195 In this sense both Bloch and Benjamin never resolved the dilemma of the early 1920s: how to transform a fundamentally Janus-faced vision of utopia into a clear program of political emancipation. This is the negative side of utopia, one which parallels the negative side of Enlightenment so clearly diagnosed by the messianic vision.

If messianic Jewish philosophers like Bloch and Benjamin have become out of date, it is not because the "culture of redemption" is exhausted, or because the reparative project of art requires a devaluation of experience.196 The philosophical currents represented by Bloch and Benjamin in the first part of the century contemplated all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption, because they conceived of the apocalypse as a historical event. They believe, as Adorno pointed out, that "knowledge has no light but that shed on the world by redemption." From that perspective, "the reality or unreality of redemption itself hardly matters."197 It may well be the case that because we have learned to live with the apocalypse, messianic thinking is not radical any longer. And if the apocalypse is no longer terrifying, there is no point in creating an image of what might come afterward. As Nadezhda Mandelstam once wrote, "Fear and hope are bound up with each other. Losing hope we lose fear as well—there is nothing to be afraid for."198


Excerpted from In the Shadow of Catastrophe by Anson Rabinbach Copyright © 2001 by Anson Rabinbach. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Apocalypse and Its Shadows 1
Pt. I World War I
1 Between Apocalypse and Enlightenment: Benjamin, Bloch, and Modern German-Jewish Messianism 27
2 The Inverted Nationalism of Hugo Ball's Critique of the German Intelligentsia 66
Pt. II 1946-1947
3 Heidegger's "Letter on Humanism" as Text and Event 97
4 The German as Pariah: Karl Jaspers's The Question of German Guilt 129
5 The Cunning of Unreason: Mimesis and the Construction of Anti-Semitism in Horkheimer and Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment 166
Conclusion 199
Notes 209
Index 255
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