Crisis, Justice, Messianism:
On Walter Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence”
In his last and most famous text, “On the Concept of History” (1940), Walter Benjamin would argue that “articulating the past historically does not mean recognizing it ‘the way it really was’”, but rather “appropriating a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger.”[i] It is a statement that departs quite sharply from the premises of Hegel’s own famous dictum, at the end of his Preface to The Philosophy of Right, according to which the “owl of Minerva” takes flight “only when the shades of night are gathering”: “Philosophy”, in Hegel’s own gloss, “always comes too late”, for it does not “appear until reality has completed its formative process”[ii], until a given epoch has fully unfolded in the totality of its contradictions.[iii] Unlike Hegel, who can be said to represent a conception of historical dialectics that has no place for any thought of catastrophe,[iv] Benjamin sees in historical retrospect neither the possibility of an objective knowledge of totality nor the stoic serenity of a philosophical gaze that knows itself as having come “too late”. He testifies, on the contrary, to the necessity of a fully subjective and subjectivizing grasp of determinate constellations of the past and, at the same time, to the unbearable pressure exercised on thought by the unrelenting urgency of redeeming social existence from the future the hegemonic configuration of this past prescribes.
But if it is “redemption”, rather than “knowledge”, that can be said to shape Benjamin’s conception of our relationship to the historical past, this conception can also be differentiated from that equally famous phrase Adorno was to use at the end of his post-Holocaust Minima Moralia (1951): “The only philosophy that can be responsibly practiced in the face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption. […] Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light.”[v] The difference between Benjamin’s and Adorno’s perspectives is encapsulated in the juxtaposition of their respective keywords: “moment of danger”, on the one hand, “standpoint of redemption” on the other. For Adorno (who in this sense stands at Hegel’s antipodes), catastrophe is something that has always already occurred, thus constituting the effective precondition and foundation of thinking (the subtitle of Minima Moralia, “Reflections from Damaged Life”, is quite ample testimony to this premise). For Benjamin, on the contrary, catastrophe is precisely that which a radical conception of history must seek to avert. While in Adorno, then, “messianic light” retains the Hegelian element of belatedness, retroactively restoring the negative truth of the catastrophic distortion of the world, Benjamin’s messianism has a decisively activist dimension, prescribing a “blasting out” of the continuum of a history viewed in the light of impending catastrophe.[vi].
It is, I believe, this activist and interventionist dimension in Benjamin’s thought, its profound attunement to crisis (both in the sense of a situation of exceptional disarray and in that of critical judgment and decision that arise in response to an exceptional situation) that makes him an urgently important thinker today, in our own, contemporary “moment of danger”. It is in the light of the constellation unexpectedly formed between his own hermeneutics of historico-political urgency and those imposed on us that I would like to briefly discuss his earlier, and abidingly enigmatic “Zur Kritik der Gewalt” (“Critique of Violence”, 1921) as a text that vitally configures the triad of concepts that figures in the title of this conference: crisis, justice, and utopia.
“Crisis” is first of all a concept that belongs to the historical conjuncture in which “Critique of Violence” was born. The essay was written in 1921 and published in the 47th issue of the Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik in the same year.[vii] It emerges then roughly in the middle of the first, intensely troubled period of the Weimar Republic, which can be said to begin with the October 1918 mutiny of sailors in Kiel and to end with Adolf Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch in November 1923. In between these five years, a revolution broke out and a Republic was declared in place of the monarchy (both in November 1918); Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were murdered by the Freikorps in the wake of the Spartacist uprising in Berlin (in January 1919); a Soviet republic was declared and quickly put down in Munich in the same month; and a virulent economic crisis, due in part to the destructive consequences of war and exacerbated by the odious reparation payments agreed upon in the Treaty of Versailles, hit the country, resulting in temporary debt default, invasion by Franco-Belgian troops, prolonged strikes in protest, and hyperinflation so extreme that by the month of Hitler’s failed putsch one new German mark was worth one trillion older (or Papier) marks and less than one fourth of a US dollar.[viii]
At a second level, however, “crisis” is also a concept that informs the theoretical investigations of the essay’s explicit and implicit interlocutors, whether they be political allies or enemies—or indeed both at once. Benjamin bases much of his interrogation into the limits of both natural and positive law’s understanding of violence on Georges Sorel’s Reflections on Violence (1908), whose critiques of social-democratic parliamentarianism[ix], state militarism and bourgeois pacifism[x], and the political general strike[xi] figure prominently in Benjamin’s own argumentation, which certainly seems to link Sorel’s “proletarian general strike” to the “pure” violence of messianic justice.[xii] But Sorel’s investigation is in turn predicated on the belief that the bourgeoisie has itself entered a phase of terminal economic and moral crisis, which is taken to countermand Marx’s understanding of proletarian revolution as an event that would take place in the midst of conditions of capitalist “vitality”.[xiii] “The ideology of a timorous, humanitarian bourgeoisie professing to have freed its thought from the conditions of its existence” was, Sorel argued, part and parcel of a “degeneration of the capitalist economy”.[xiv] Whereas the “bourgeoisie with which Marx was familiar in England” was “animated by the conquering, insatiable and pitiless spirit”[xv] of creators and discoverers, the bourgeois had now become a decadent class, prisoners of their own “cowardice”, historically “condemned to death.”[xvi] In fact—and this was the fundamental assumption of Sorel’s broader approach—only proletarian violence could, however barbaric it itself might seem from a bourgeois perspective, save the world from barbarism, averting a relapse that would return Europe to its state after the fall of the Roman empire, in the era of early Christianity.[xvii]
The fact that jurist and political theorist Carl Schmitt, who was to infamously join the National Socialist party in May 1933, was Benjamin’s other—and less explicit—interlocutor in “Critique of Violence” has been established by a number of the essay’s contemporary interpreters.[xviii] Less attention, however, has been paid on the theoretical and practical import of “crisis” for this second, and less explicit, intertextual conjuncture: Schmitt’s On Dictatorship, published in the same year as “Critique of Violence”, argued for the importance of allowing recourse to effectively dictatorial decision (on behalf, at this stage, of the Reichspräsident) in periods of political crisis, when parliamentary legislative bodies proved too weak to take necessary self-preserving action. The jurist’s concurrent theoretical distinction between constituent and constituted power corresponds, as Agamben notes, to Benjamin’s own distinction, within “Critique of Violence”, between “law-making” and “law-preserving” violence (indeed, Benjamin’s reference to the “woeful” spectacle of parliaments that “cannot achieve decrees worthy” of “the revolutionary forces to which they owe their existence”[xix] resonates with Schmitt’s conservative anti-parliamentarianism almost as much as it does with Sorel’s radical counterpart).
Political Romanticism, published two years earlier—in the first year of the Weimar Republic’s brief life—had proleptically attacked a European philosophical and ethical tradition for which “a legal or a moral decision would be senseless”, a tradition that Schmitt saw as doomed to “complete passivity”, to an incapacity for “political productivity” in ways that also recall, though they are far from politically identical to, Sorel’s excoriation of bourgeois parliamentary decadence.[xx] Political Theology (1922), published in the year after the publication of Benjamin’s essay and in turn cited by Benjamin in his own 1928 book on the Origins of German Tragic Drama, cast the sovereign right to decide on the exception in terms, once again, of the dialectic between political crisis and sovereign krinein or judgment, which tautologically authorizes itself to determine the very existence of a situation that would justify a decision on the adoption of exceptional measures.[xxi] And The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, which followed in 1923, the last year of the first period of the Weimar Republic’s turbulent life, is, as its title suggests, a response to political instability which sharply contrasts a degraded liberal “parliamentarianism” with “democracy”, while also politically distancing itself from varieties of “Bolshevik” anti-parliamentarianism—both the classical Hegelian-Marxist precept of a “rational” or “educational” dictatorship and Sorel’s own more current, and hence more dangerous, revolutionary “irrationalism”, the advocacy of direct proletarian action which Benjamin’s “Critique” seems to embrace.[xxii]
But there is also a third level at which “crisis” signifies in Benjamin’s essay, and this will turn out to involve not simply the content of his argument on the crisis of traditional conceptions of legality and legitimacy, but also its form. For as both Jacques Derrida and Martin Blumenthal-Barby have pointed out, Benjamin’s argumentative procedure seems to consist in positing a proliferating series of binary oppositions (means and ends, natural and positive law, sanctioned and unsanctioned force, natural and legal ends, active and passive conduct, law-making and law-preserving violence, pure and violent means, political strike and proletarian general strike, mythic and divine violence, retribution and expiation, power and justice), which are in retrospect revealed to have been merely temporary and provisional, each in turn failing to offer an unequivocal path toward an “objective” and communicable knowledge of a politics that could be safely declared both just and revolutionary.[xxiii] Yet, if Benjamin’s mode of proceeding cannot be said to be properly dialectical (since conceptual antitheses are neither quite preserved nor consistently raised to a higher level in each new pair), it cannot be said to be aporetic either. For the “Critique” possesses a considerable amount of systematicity, constituting something like the centerpiece of a series of forays into the questions of pure means, fate, guilt, retribution and expiation, mythic violence and demonic prehistory, messianic violence and redemption which Benjamin was to undertake in a number of essays and essay fragments he wrote in the period between 1916 and 1922.[xxiv] Doing justice to the “Critique of Violence” would thus involve attempting to understand the ways in which its very understanding of justice is mediated by a sort of discursively internalized, formalized crisis, which nonetheless is not equivalent either to incoherence or to aporia.
It has rarely been noticed that the structure of the “Critique” is marked by a curious and exceptional asymmetry: the question of “class struggle” and the “revolutionary general strike” is broached twice and is the only one that returns in different sections of the essay. In the first occasion, the strike illuminates the indifference of the distinction between “natural” and “legal” ends, given the fact the mere acknowledgment of a right to use the strike as a means toward the attainment of “natural”[xxv] ends threatens the state monopoly on violence and hence posits a possible threat to the existence of law as such.[xxvi] The state concession of a right to strike putatively renders “organized labor” a formal internal antagonist of state sovereignty, for it makes of it an exception, “the only legal subject” “apart from the state” that is “entitled to exercise violence.”[xxvii] That the state concedes this right in view of perceiving it passively, as a right “to escape from a violence indirectly exercised by the employer”[xxviii], is unimportant; for even if it is conceived passively, the strike contains an element of “extortion” on the part of the striker, while its active deployment is violent in the different sense that it uses a legally conferred right to “overthrow the legal system that has conferred it”.[xxix] The “revolutionary general strike” thus produces a situation of “crisis” which compels the state to violent reaction against the exercise of a right it has itself conferred, and hence unveils an inner contradiction at the heart of the legal system.
For the conferral of the right to strike is, as the second reference to the question makes clear, itself part of an effort to forestall “violent actions the state is afraid to oppose”.[xxx] On the other hand, and here is the moment when Sorel’s argument enters the picture for the first time, the “proletarian general strike”, which provokes the state to violent response, is not quite violent in the same way.[xxxi] For though it certainly involves an active use of force, it is also one whose demand for justice is not a demand for anything in particular, for this or that policy or form of compromise and settlement. It is hence not a means toward an end that could in any way be fulfilled by the state; rather, it seeks the end of the state itself, setting “itself the sole task of destroying state power.”[xxxii] Hence, however much the proletarian general strike might seem violent at a merely phenomenal level, it is not so at the substantive level[xxxiii], where it functions as “pure” rather than “violent” means[xxxiv], that is to say as means without an end.
We have then two perspectives involved: one is predicated on appearance and linked to the standpoint of the state; the other concerns essence and linked to the standpoint of critique, of a reflective krisis on the truth claims of the first. When it comes to the questions of violence and the law, of violence and justice, and finally of law and justice, the ambiguities that haunt the essay from the beginning, from its very title (“Gewalt” is both “violence” and “force”)[xxxv] do not constitute signs of antinomy or aporia, as much as expressions of an implied difference in perspective, the latter being at once an epistemological and political affair. But matters are significantly complicated by the fact that, unlike Sorel, who argues squarely within this logic of a radical incompatibility between ideological and critical, bourgeois and proletarian perspectives on the question of violence, Benjamin will also ground his critique on what appears to be a theological ground—a gesture that becomes increasingly apparent in the last few pages of the “Critique”, where Benjamin will link the “pure” violence he first theorized in connection to the proletarian general strike to “divine” or “messianic” violence. In the fragment “World and Time”, written shortly before the “Critique”, Benjamin would thus note:
authentic divine power can manifest itself other than destructively only in the world to come (the world of fulfillment). But when divine power enters into the secular world, it breathes destruction. That is why in this world nothing constant and no organization can be based on divine power, let alone domination as its supreme principle.[xxxvi]
In the “Critique”, where this duality of perspectives returns in the guise of the seemingly untraceable difference[xxxvii] between the Greek Gods’ destruction of Niobe and the Jewish God’s destruction of Korah, between two sorts of divine annihilation[xxxviii], Benjamin admonishes that “it is never reason that decides on the justification of means and the justness of ends” but “fate-imposed violence” and “God” respectively,[xxxix] and the essay closes with the remark that it is both hardly possible and hardly urgent to “decide when unalloyed [that is, pure] violence has been realized in particular cases.”[xl] Indeed, he adds, “only mythic violence, not divine, will be recognizable as such with certainty […] because the expiatory power of violence is invisible to men.”[xli]
Thus, although the “Critique” readily concedes that no “conceivable solution to human problems” is possible “if violence is totally excluded in principle”[xlii], it also refuses to substantialize proletarian violence, to bastardize pure means by rendering them something that could be converted back to standardizable and generalizable positive law.[xliii] Indeed, the proscription of such a gesture that would annul the singularity of pure means—and thus destroy their very status as pure means—is one of the vital concerns of the last section of the essay, and occurs precisely in the name of justice: to regard just ends “as capable of generalization”, Benjamin notes, “contradicts the nature of justice.” Ends “that in one situation are just, universally acceptable, and valid are so in no other situation, no matter how similar the situations may be in other respects.”[xliv] The divine commandment against killing “becomes inapplicable, incommensurable”, once it has been violated, for no “judgment of the deed can be derived from the commandment”. The condemnation of all violent killing of one person by another on the commandment’s basis is thus “mistaken”, for the divine commandment is not law, merely a “guideline for the actions of persons or communities who have to wrestle with it in solitude” or to “take on themselves the responsibility of ignoring it”.[xlv] The theoretico-political implications of these prohibitions against conceptual reification and legal instrumentalization are articulated with considerable force in the text that most directly leads to the “Critique”, Benjamin’s notes on “The Right to Use Force”:
no contradiction in principle can be discerned between force [Gewalt] and morality, and on the other hand […] a contradiction in principle is perceived between morality and the state (or the law). An exposition of this standpoint is one of the tasks of my moral philosophy, and in that connection the term “anarchism” may very well be used to describe a theory that denies a moral right not to force as such but to every human institution, community or individuality that either claims a monopoly over it or in any way claims that right for itself from any point of view, even if only as a general principle, instead of respecting it in specific cases as a gift bestowed by a divine power, as absolute power.[xlvi]
It will then have been a fundamental dimension of Benjamin’s argument in the “Critique” that though there exists no fundamental contradiction between Gewalt and justice, there does exist one between justice and the juridical institutionalization of Gewalt. Institutionalization—the re-conversion of Gewalt into law, general principle, standard—is the enemy of justice, which is itself divine in the sense that it is properly non-instrumental, without measure and incalculable[xlvii], and which for that same reason always presupposes the assumption of ineluctable responsibility, including the responsibility to decide on the commission of acts of force (such as would no doubt be necessary in a “dictatorship of the proletariat”), but without recourse to any certainty over whether they authentically constitute forms of “pure” or “divine” violence. If the “Critique” refuses to “freeze” the numerous conceptual antitheses it evokes, if it refuses to convert them to a simple and usable means toward the definition of a violence that would escape both lawmaking and law-preserving functions and therefore deserve the name of justice, it is because it would rather do justice to justice itself. Doing justice to justice involves both taking sides (as Benjamin decidedly does in siding with the proletariat against the capitalist state) and refusing to re-convert this taking of sides into law, into abstraction and generality, into a mechanical and perniciously theological faith in the justice of any self-proclaimed new order that would still be based on violence—on the domination, let us say, of bureaucrats, nomenclatures, party commissars, all of whom would doubtlessly seek to legitimate their existence in the name of the need to safeguard and consolidate social justice.
What, finally, of utopia? Following in the path of Sorel’s own pronounced anti-utopianism in Reflections on Violence[xlviii], and perhaps finding in it a stance compatible with a Judaic proscription against the envisioning representation of the future and of the divine[xlix], Benjamin seems to identify “utopia” with “program” and hence with “lawmaking violence”, inevitably opposing it to his conception of justice. Yet this does not prevent him, in the passage I’ve cited from “World and Time”, from suggesting that “authentic divine power”, the power he putatively locates in the “pure means” of the proletarian general strike, could operate non-destructively only “in the world to come.” Nor does it prevent the “Critique” from envisioning, however circumspectly, “a new historical epoch” founded on the “breaking” of the “cycle maintained by mythic forms of law”, the end of the “dialectical rising and falling” of “lawmaking and law-preserving forms of violence”, and “the suspension of law with all the forces” on which it depends, “as they depend on it.”[l]
In the “Critique”, the negation of utopia as program or blueprint is thus not a form of anti-utopian pragmatism but a prerequisite of politically inflected messianism: Benjamin seeks to convert theology into the secret ally of historical materialism, as the first thesis of “On the Concept of History” was to propose nineteen years later.[li] In this respect, he steers clear of both the theologically inflected, statist, and Hobbesian anti-utopianism embodied in Schmitt and of the vitalist voluntarism of Sorel’s own denunciation of utopia in the name of direct proletarian action. Ironically, it may be more difficult to distinguish the “Critique of Violence” from Lenin’s own seemingly incongruous The State and Revolution (1917), whose fifth chapter, on the “withering away of the state”, envisions communist society as a society in which not simply violence and the state but also democracy will have withered away, leaving behind them nothing but a redeemed and redemptive version of that staple of the utopian imagination, a society steeped in blissfully forgetful habit.[lii] Post-historical (or post-prehistorical) “habit”[liii] is Lenin’s name for that which nonviolently ends the need for recourse to revolutionary counter-violence, leading to the supercession of the dialectic between lawmaking and law-preserving force and hence to en era marked by what Giorgio Agamben would call the “deactivation” and “inactivity” of law[liv]. This is a utopian prospect, certainly, but it is also one that the “Critique”, which lays an otherwise inexplicable emphasis on the significance of the “unalloyed means” of the “nonviolent resolution of conflict” in relationships among “private persons”—“courtesy, sympathy, peaceableness, trust”[lv] —seems to me to secretly invest much in.
[i] Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History”, trans. Harry Zohn, in Selected Writings, vol. 4, 1938-1940, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Cambrridge, MA: Belknap: Harvard University Press, 2003), 391.
[ii] G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right, trans. S.W. Dyde (Mineola, NY: Dover Philosophical Classics, 2005), xxi.
[iii] See Stathis Gourgouris, “The Concept of the Mythical (Schmitt with Sorel)”, Cardozo Law Review 21 (1999): 1495-1496.
[iv] See Carl Schmitt, The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, trans. Ellen Kennedy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988), 56: “Hegel’s philosophy contains no ethic that could provide a foundation for the absolute distinction of good and evil. According to this philosophy, the good is what is rational at the current station of the dialectical process and thereby what is real […] Evil is unreal and only conceivable insofar as something out-of-date can be thought, and thus perhaps explicable as a false abstraction of reason, a passing confusion of a particularity closed in upon itself.”
[v] Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, trans. E.F.N Jephcott (London and New York: Verso, 1996), 247.
[vi] See Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History”, 396 (Thesis XVII).
[vii] See Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, trans. Kevin Attell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 52.
[viii] See Peter Gay, “A Short Political History of the Weimar Republic”, in Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), 147-155.
[ix] See Georges Sorel, Reflections on Violence, trans. Jeremy Jennings and T.E. Hulme, ed. Jeremy Jennings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 48-49, 67, 103, 220-223.
[x] See ibid., 62-63, 65, 75-78, 92, 105-108, 243.
[xi] See ibid., 143-173, 201-202,
[xii] See Carlo Salzani, “Violence as Pure Praxis: Benjamin and Sorel on Strike, Myth and Ethics”, Colloquy: Text Theory Critique 16 (2008): 20-24, 35-37.
[xiii] See ibid., 79-80.
[xiv] Ibid., 71-72.
[xv] Ibid., 75.
[xvi] Ibid., 62-63
[xvii] Ibid., 82-85.
[xviii] See Agamben, State of Exception, 52-53; and Jacques Derrida, “Force of Law”, trans. Mary Quaintance, in Acts of Religion, ed. Gil Anidjar (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), 259-261, 263, 281-283. However, Derrida’s claims that Schmitt congratulated Benjamin on the “Critique of Violence”, or that there was “correspondence” between them other than Benjamin’s infamous letter to Schmitt in 1930 are historically unfounded. See Jan-Werner Müller, “Myth, Law and Order: Schmitt and Benjamin Read Reflections on Violence”, History of European Ideas 29 (2003): 460.
[xix] Walter Benjamin, “Critique of Violence”, trans. Edmund Jephcott, in Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Vol. 1, 1913-1926, ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 1996), 244. See also Agamben, State of Exception, 54; Derrida, “Force of Law”, 281-282.
[xx] Carl Schmitt, Political Romanticism, trans. Gary Oakes (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986), 124-125.
[xxi] Carl Schmitt, Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, trans. George Schwab (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 5-15, 31-32; and Agamben, State of Exception, 54-55.
[xxii] See Carl Schmitt, The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, trans. Ellen Kennedy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988); Schmitt, Political Theology, 43; and Gourgouris, “The Concept of the Mythical”, 1489-1490, 1492-1500.
[xxiii] See Derrida, “Force of Law”, 264-265, 272; and Martin Blumenthal-Barby, “Pernicious Bastardizations: Benjamin’s Ethics of Pure Violence”, MLN 124.3 (April 2009): 729-730.
[xxiv] Hence, the notion of a “pure means” is explored in relation to a non-communicative theory of language in “On Language as Such and the Language of Man” (1916); the concepts of fate, guilt, mythic prehistory and mere or natural life are prominent in “Fate and Character” (1919; pub. 1921), “Capitalism as Religion” (1921), and “Goethe’s Elective Affinities” (1919-1922; pub. 1924-1925); divine or messianic violence is a central concern in “World and Time” (1919-1920) and “The Meaning of Time in a Moral Universe” (1921), where the distinction between retributive and expiating violence is also made. The “Critique”, finally, is preceded by an immediately related number of notes on Herbert Vorwerk’s essay “The Right to Use Force” (1920). Though a number of Benjamin’s deconstructive readers (Derrida and Hamacher especially) pay much attention to the import of the first of these texts—hence assimilating the “Critique” to a reading that tends to privilege its linguistic dimensions over its historico-political ones— they tend to underestimate the import and significance of many of the others. Yet the existence of a dense network of sources implicated in the conceptual vocabulary of the “Critique” suggests that the latter is a far more systematic and synthesizing attempt than it might appear at first glance.
[xxv] “Critique of Violence”, 240.
[xxvi] Ibid., 238-239.
[xxvii] Ibid., 239.
[xxviii] Ibid., 239.
[xxix] Ibid., 239-240. For an elucidation of the semantic complexities involved in Benjamin’s use of the notions of “active” and “passive” versions of the right to strike see Salzani, “Violence as Pure Praxis”, 23-24.
[xxxi] “Whereas the first form of the interruption of work [the political general strike] is violent, since it causes only an external modification of labor conditions, the second, as a pure means, is nonviolent. For it takes place not in readiness to resume work following external concessions and this or that modification to working conditions, but in the determination to resume only a wholly transformed work, no longer enforced by the state, an upheaval that this kind of strike [the proletarian general strike] not so much causes as consummates. […] the violence of an action can be assessed no more from its effects than from its ends, but only from the law of its means. State power, of course, which has eyes only for effects, opposes precisely this kind of strike [the proletarian general strike] for its alleged violence, as distinct from partial strikes, which are for the most part actually extortionate. Sorel has explained, with highly ingenious arguments, the extent to which such a rigorous conception of the [proletarian] general strike per se is capable of diminishing the incidence of actual violence in revolutions”. Benjamin, “Critique of Violence”, 246.
[xxxiii] See Benjamin, “Critique of Violence”, 236; and Derrida, “Force of Law”, 265.
[xxxv] See Derrida, “Force of Law”, 234; and Werner Hamacher, “Afformative, Strike”, trans. Dana Hollander, in Walter Benjamin’s Philosophy: Destruction and Experience, ed. Andrew Benjamin and Peter Osborne (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), 127. For a comprehensive treatment of the term in western political theory see Étienne Balibar, “Reflections on Gewalt”, trans. Peter Drucker, Historical Materialism 17 (2009): 99-125.
[xxxvi] Benjamin, “World and Time”, trans. Rodney Livingstone, Selected Writings Vol. 1, 226.
[xxxvii] On the difficulty of differentiating between the two, see Blumenthal, “Pernicious Bastardizations”, 742-744; and Tracy McNulty, “The Commandment Against the Law: Writing and Divine Justice in Walter Benjamin’s ‘Critique of Violence’”, Diacritics 37.2-3 (Summer-Fall 2007): 42.
[xxxix] Ibid., 247. Compare with Benjamin’s roughly contemporary essay on “Goethe’s Elective Affinities”, trans. Stanley Corngold, Selected Writings Vol. 1, 342: “true reconciliation exists only with God. Whereas in true reconciliation the individual reconciles himself with God and only in this way conciliates other human-beings, it is peculiar to semblance-like reconciliation that the individual wants others to make their peace with one another and only in this way become reconciled with God. […] true reconciliation with God is achieved by no one who does not thereby destroy everything—or as much as he possesses—in order only then, before God’s reconciled countenance, to find it resurrected” (emphases mine).
[xl] Ibid., 252.
[xliii] See “Critique of Violence”, 252: “all the eternal forms are open to pure divine violence, which myth bastardized with law. […] all mythic, lawmaking violence, which we may call ‘executive,’ is pernicious.”
[xliv] Ibid., 247-248.
[xlv] Ibid., 250.
[xlvi] Benjamin, “The Right to Use Force”, trans. Rodney Livingstone, Selected Writings, Vol. 1, 233 (the last emphasis is Benjamin’s own, the preceding ones are mine). See also One Way Street (1923-1926; pub. 1928), trans. Edmund Jephcott, Selected Writings, Vol. 1, 481: “The killing of a criminal may be moral—but never its legitimation.”
[xlvii] See Derrida, “Force of Law”, 244: “Law is not justice. Law is the element of calculation […] but justice is incalculable, it demands that one calculate with the incalculable […] the decision between just and unjust is never insured by a rule.”
[xlix] See Salzani, “Violence as Pure Praxis”, 33; Udi E. Greenberg takes a sharply different view, arguing that the relationship of the “Critique” to the Jewish messianic tradition is tenuous at best, if not directly oppositional (see “Orthodox Violence: ‘Critique of Violence’ and Walter Benjamin’s Jewish Political Theology”, History of European Ideas, 34 (2008): 324-333. McNulty’s ingeniously Kantian “The Commandment Against the Law”, on the other hand, actively dissociates Benjamin from Pauline antinomianism, arguing for the significance, within the “Critique” of a Talmudic emphasis on the preservation of the relative and limited character of the written law in opposition to the Pauline tendency to absolutize both law and its negation.
[lii] V.I. Lenin, The State and Revolution, in Essential Works of Lenin: “What is to be Done” and Other Writings, ed. Henry M. Christman (Mineola, NY: Dover Books, 1987): 338: “Only in communist society, when the resistance of the capitalists has been completely broken […] when there are no classes […] [o]nly then will really complete democracy, democracy without any exceptions, be possible and be realized. And only then will democracy itself begin to wither away owing to the simple fact that, freed from capitalist slavery, from the untold horrors, savagery, absurdities, and infamies of capitalist exploitation, people will gradually become accustomed to observing the elementary rules to observing the elementary rules of social life that have been known for centuries and repeated for thousands of years in all copy-book maxims: they will become accustomed to observing them without force, without compulsion, without subordination, without the special apparatus for compulsion which is called the state. […] Only habit can, and undoubtedly will, have such an effect: for we see around us millions of times how readily people become accustomed to observing the necessary rules of social life if there is no exploitation, if there is nothing that causes indignation, that calls forth protest and revolt and has to be suppressed.”
[liii] In a brief and hitherto unpublished essay titled “Lenin and the end of violence”, I have demonstrated that the “habit” of which Lenin speaks in The State and Revolution cannot be assimilated to habit tout court, since it is explicitly posited as something that can arise and operate as a principle of negating law, violence and the state only after not simply a successful proletarian revolution, but its fulfillment, via the passage to the stage of actual communism. I have consequently observed that Lenin’s reference to the observation, in the communist future, of “the elementary rules of social life that have been known for centuries and repeated for thousands of years” is extremely curious, for it is sharply incompatible with a Marxist perspective that would cast all human history as the history of exploitation and domination. The only way in which such a reference can make logical sense is within the context of a history performatively recast “from the standpoint of redemption”: the violent and exploitative nature of social relations in the past has simply been forgotten, as it is imagined to be in many a utopian novel, so that the Marxist understanding of history has itself effectively “withered away.”
[liv] Agamben, State of Exception, 64: “What opens a passage toward justice is not the erasure of law, but its deactivation and inactivity—that is, another use of the law.”