Theses on Benjamin

by Mario Tronti

I. It was not capitalism that defeated the workers' movement. The workers' movement was defeated by democracy. This is the problem that the century sets before us. It is the fact, die Sache selbst, that we must now think.*

II. The workers' movement confronted capitalism as an equal. A confrontation, between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, within great history. Alternating phases. Reciprocal outcomes of victories and defeats. But workers' labour-power, as internal part of capital, could not escape it. The murky depths of the failure of the revolution are to be found here. Attempts, reasonable and mad, to change the world, all fell. The long reformist march has not had any more success than the storming of heaven. But the workers changed capital. They forced it to change. The workers' defeat took place not on the social terrain. It happened on the political terrain.

III. The twentieth century is not the century of social democracy. It is the century of democracy. Traversing the age of wars, it imposed its hegemony. It is democracy that triumphed over class struggle. Authoritarian and totalitarian political solutions, over the century, functioned as demonic instruments of a democratic providentialism. Democracy, like the monarchy of yore, is now absolute. It was not the practice of totalitarian democracies that advanced, but the totalising idea of democracy itself. Ironically, it did so at the same time as the dissolution of the concept of 'the people', foreseen by Kelsen's genius. Following the defeat of Nazi-Fascism and of socialism, twice over it became the value chosen. The workers' movement did not develop its own idea of democracy, let alone put it to the test– neither in the east nor in the west. It did not grasp it, did not traverse it as a field of struggle. The workers' movement of the twentieth century could only ever be democratic. But the century of democracy killed it. This trauma lies, and acts in obscurity, in the collective unconscious of the European left – its militancy, leadership and culture.1

IV. Prophetically, Tocqueville glimpsed the anti-political future of modern democracy. The demoralisation politique arrived promptly, and – at the end of the century – ­the athéisme politique achieved completion. The great liberal saw the end of modern politics realised in American democracy, a powerful statement of the world's future. Umberto Coldagelli acutely grasped in Tocqueville's distinction between the science of politics and the art of government, the 'substantive dualism' of democracy and freedom. The direct consequence was that 'the safeguarding of freedom comes to depend exclusively upon the capacity of the art of government to oppose the spontaneous propensity of the "political state" to flatten itself onto the "social state"' ('Introduzione' to A. de Tocqueville, Scritti, note e discorsi politici (1839-1852), Bollati Boringhieri, Milan 1994, p. xvi). He then quotes the following version of the 1840 Démocratie: 'Sentiments and ideas are renewed, the heart grows larger and the human mind develops only by the reciprocal action of men on each other. I have demonstrated that this action is almost nil in democratic countries. So it must be created there artificially. And this is what associations alone are able to do' (A. de Tocqueville, Democracy in America. Historico-Critical Edition, Liberty Fund, Indianapolis 2010, p. 900).

V. The artifice of the political relation in contrast to the naturalness of the social relationship: this is not a Jacobin invention, nor a Bolshevik imposition – it is the condition of the political in the modern [era]. It is another way of saying: political civilisation versus natural sociality. Today there is the opportunity to translate this choice into a decision between freedom and democracy. Contrary to what one might think, Tocqueville teaches that the natural-animal aspect is democracy, and the historico-political one is freedom. Now that the science of politics describes the necessity of democracy, the task of the art of government is to introduce freedom. Another political freedom, after the liberty of the moderns, without falling back into the liberty of the ancients. It is not so ironic that while the dictatorships have rekindled the passion for freedom, democracies have extinguished it. If Le Philosophe lisant depicted by Chardin, was bent over the book by George Steiner rather than over his folio, I believe he would confirm Milton's verse: 'all passion spent' (cfr. G. Steiner, No Passion Spent, Faber and Faber, London 1996). The century of democracy that triumphs over dictatorships in war, does not provide freedom in peace. At the end of the twentieth century, the historic clash between dictatorship and freedom, which saw the defeat of both of totalitarianism as well as authoritarianism, leaves – passionless ­– on the field, as if it were an unexploded bomb, the political conflict between democracy and freedom. To decipher this passage. The challenge is for thought but practice finds itself equally interrogated. The winning ideological assemblage, the cumulative ideological consensus and so the 'pouvoir social' that follows from it, are now all inflected by liberal-democracy. To insert a wedge into this practico-conceptual whole 'liberal-democracy'. To force into opposed senses the two potentially contradictory terms. Great politics can only return on the front of this good war.

VI. A practice of freedom in contrast to the practice of homo democraticus. An idea of democracy in contrast to the practice of homo oeconomicus. Pressing these two buttons with the fingers of thought, we should try to start anew the investigation into new forms able to give meaning to political action. On the one hand, there are the 'moeurs' and the 'croyances', on the other, the 'goût di bien-êtremateriel' and the 'mollesse du coeur'. Democracy guarantees and brings about the latter; freedom needs the former. Choose. Because they are alternatives. An unprecedented spirit of division is required. Dividing the neutral citizen into two differently gendered beings. For each man and woman, converting the modern individual into a human person. Reconnecting the past to the future, this can happen only if each is separated from the present. No longer can we consider, with Benjamin, 'now' (Jetztzeit) as the location for the Marxian revolutionary dialectical leap. Ever more with Heidegger, we are forced to consider 'now-time' (Jetzt-zeit) as Weltzeit, inauthentic worldly time. Here too, between time and the hour [l'ora], between the epoch and the now [l'adesso], 2 one must strike with the red wedge 3 of the living contradiction. The white circle is this world that by now is dead.

VII. Not liberty to or liberty from, positive freedom or negative freedom, 'liberty' or 'freedom', 4 liberty of the ancients and liberty of the moderns. Not even political philosophy of freedom: this was provided by liberalism. But: philosophy of freedom, what Marxism was unable to provide. The object of the former was, at once, external, juridical, and social liberty; the constitutional freedoms of the market, the public guarantee for the private atom; rights which are precious and poor; precious in order to live together with others; poor if one is to exist setting out from oneself. The object of the latter, human freedom itself, that which Marx attributed to the 'eternal nobility of the human species', the beyond-human Christian freedom, Spinoza's mentis libertas [seu] beatitude, 5 the non-lonely solitude of the great spirit, to put it in the terms of the Luporini of the philosopher-of-existence period. The error of the Marxian perspective was not that of having critiqued the libertas minor, but to have done so without contemporaneously taking on, theoretically and politically, a libertas major. This was the political disaster. Only on the basis of a true human freedom was it possible to carry out a critique of false, bourgeois liberty. The destructive critique of their supposed human generality and a positive assumption of their modern foundation, only from here was it possible to move on. In Kantian terms, the insufficiency of Unabhängigkeit, of the independence of individuals, but at the same time its condition of possibility, its transcendentality, to found freedom as the Autonomie of the human being, with the moral law within.

VIII. Homo democraticus, the isolated and massified individual, the more globalised the more 'particularised', guided from outside and from above until and while it cultivated its garden; the individual in the herd, the last man, described first by Nietzsche, by Goethe, as the subject that they saw arriving, 'the age of ease', a 'very anxious and doubtful' term, Thomas Mann will say. The age of ease and vulgarity. Mann rediscovers the suggestion of 1830, having reached fantastical and vertiginous heights, in 1950. Meine Zeit, my time, 'the epoch of technology, of progress and of the masses'; 'while I expressed it, I was largely hostile'. But he warned: 'It is always risky to believe oneself privileged for the particular abundance of one's epoch, because a more complicated time can come, and it always does' (Thomas Mann, Romanzo di un romanzo, Mondadori, Milan 1964, p. 243). 6 Between the middle of the nineteenth century and the end of the twentieth century, it is easy to see the tragedy of socialism; more complicated is it to glimpse the exhaustion of democracy's drama. But it is here that democracy definitively bows to being a public function of homo oeconomicus. The democracy of interests: this is its final name. In the last fifty years, democracy has become corrupted or has reached its completion – depending on whether one sees the problem from the standpoint of a radical democrat or from that of the critic of democracy. I believe it has reached completion. Is democracy incapable of reform in the same way as socialism was? I would like to say to Pietro Ingrao, 7 this is the doubt of the defeated. To solve it, or to attempt to, intellectual facileness must be abandoned, and one must take on the harsh complexity that has intervened in politics.

IX. Ingeborg Bachmann wrote of Musil's character, 'he gives a mirror image to the world of his time': 'Ulrich understood in time that the epoch in which he lives, which is endowed with more knowledge than any earlier epoch, an immense knowledge, seems unable to intervene in the course of history' (I. Bachmann, Il dicibile e l'indicibile, Adelphi, Milan 1998, pp. 21-2). 8 What was understood in time, was in time forgotten. To the point that no one notices that history is without epoch anymore. In fact, nothing happens. Events, there are no more. There is only news. Look at the characters at the summit of empires. And reverse Spinoza's motto. There is nothing to understand. Tears only, or laughter. Athens and Jerusalem watch with incredulity at the end of the millennium, of the ancient as of the modern. The end of communism and Christianity of the end, these two symbolic orders that still need interpreting; dark reservoirs in the folds of contemporary consciousness that themselves bring time to a close; but – and here's the novelty – without apocalyptic energies and with silence of the signs. The desperate cry of Father David Maria Turoldo: 'Lord, still send prophets – … to say to the poor to continue to hope – … to break the new chains – in this infinite Egypt of the world'. The true God failed, the real defeat of God in the century is in the unkept promise of human freedom for every man and woman, for all men and women. This is what we mean: this freedom in interiore homine, need and negation must be grasped, unveiled, in the tragic history of the twentieth century. From here we set out again: not from new starting points, but from paths interrupted.

X. Walter Benjamin to Stephan Lackner, 5 May 1940: 'We ask ourselves whether history might not by chance be forging an ingenious synthesis of two of Nietzsche's concepts, that of the good European and of the last man. As a result, there might issue forth that of the last European. All of us are struggling against becoming that last European' (W. Benjamin, Sul concetto di storia, Einaudi, Turin 1997, p. 11). 9 This is an extremely timely reflection. This is what a prophetic political thought is. Before our disenchanted eyes, the incarnation of the last man in the good European is being realised, programmed according to the schedule of a democratically chosen economico-financial calendar. Here everything happens. The event becomes naked fact. Europe is born as the century dies: without passion, due to the exhaustion of states and because of individual interests. History synthesises what there is. What ought to be is not its concern. Politics had the task to overthrow the last man, not to represent it. But we have said: the end of modern politics. And all are happy with that. Everyone fights to become the last European. The competition takes place in the marketplace: where one hears 'the noise of the great actors' and, at the same time, 'the buzzing of poisonous flies'. 10 Before us, this history without epoch leaves us the choice between two anthropological perspectives. Bloch said: humanity is something that still needs to be discovered. Nietzsche said: humanity is something that needs to be overcome. The perspectives: the former, alternative; the latter, antagonistic. Up and till quite recently, we would have said: one is politics, the other theory. No longer. Everything leads to a solution in thought. If the decline [tramonto] of the West is accomplished, as in Spengler, in the first centuries of the next millennium, the twilight [tramonto] of politics will be accomplished in the first decades of the next century. 11 To thought falls the task of pre-dicting, to speak in the names of history's defeated. Of humanity, meanwhile, there is nothing to discover. The Overman is entirely yet to be thought.

XI. The ideal continuation to Marx's eleventh Theses on Feuerbach, that is, its twentieth century reformulation, is Benjamin's twelfth thesis from Über den Begriff der Geschichte (see 'On the Concept of History', Selected Writings, vol. 4, The Belknap Press, Cambridge 2003, p. 394; but see also 'Lemmi: Futuro [Zukunft]' and 'Immagine [Bild]', Sul concetto di storia, pp. 160ff). Let's see: 'The subject of historical knowledge is the struggling, oppressed class itself [die kämpfend, unterdrueckte Klasse]. Marx presents it as the last enslaved class ­– the avenger class [die rächende Klasse] that completes the task of liberation in the name of generations of the defeated'.12 This is a fact of consciousnessthat has always scandalised social democracy. It 'preferred to cast the working class in the role of a redeemer of future generations, in this way cutting the sinews of its greatest strength. Schooled in this way, the working class forgot both its hatred and its spirit of sacrifice, for both are nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than by the ideal of liberated descendants'. It is rare to be able to subscribe to every word of a thought. This is one such case. This is the reversal of a standpoint, of one's side [parte]. 'Avenger class', the last enslaved one but also the first to possess sufficient strength. A motivation, political not ethical, for taking that side [parte]. To avenge an eternal past of oppression. This past is therefore the new subject of history, which alone can affect new political action. The rising sun was this passion, experienced and preserved in the body of one's past struggles. This passion was extinguished by the dogmatic presumption, typical of social democratic theory and practice, of an 'interminable' and 'unstoppable' progress of humanity, as if history proceeded 'through a homogeneous, empty time' ('On the Concept of History', p. 395). Having forgotten hate, having forgotten the will to sacrifice, two virtues that are communist and Christian. Having cut the sinews of strength, which is what counts in struggle. Upsetting the meaning of action: that is Bild, not Ideal: the image of defeated comrades, not the ideal of redeemed brothers. For redemptionconcerns the 'oppressed past', not the radiant future. Only that historical movement, or that political subject is great, or is summoned to greatness, which can translate the contents of what has been into the forms that are about to come, always, always, always, against the present.

XII. 'In the idea of a classless society, Marx secularized the idea of messianic time. And that was a good thing. It was only when the Social Democrats elevated this idea to an "ideal" that the trouble began. This ideal was defined in Neo-Kantian doctrine as an "infinite task" [der unendliche Aufgabe]. And this doctrine was the school philosophy of the Social Democratic party' (thesis XVIIa from 'Paralipomena to "On the Concept of History", Selected Writings, vol. 4, pp. 401-2). Homogenous and empty time became, here, the antechamber in which one had to await the revolutionary moment. 'In reality, there is not a moment that would not carry with it its revolutionary chance' (p. 402). What matters is a given political situation, but 'it is equally grounded […] in the power of the keys 13 which the historical moment enjoys vis-à-vis a quite distinct chamber of the past, one which up to that point has been closed and locked. The entrance into this chamber coincides in a strict sense with political action' (ibid.). What is essential is to recognise a sign of 'a revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past' ('On the Concept of History', p. 396). And here too it is a good thing. But what of the times without signs? When history sleeps, must politics awaken it, or should it slumber beside it, abdicating all vital acts? Even the Christian Giuseppe Dossetti14 told us that politics was contingency, it is chance, occasion; and not every so often, but always, day in day out. And so, one does not await the revolutionary chance,15 one takes it; it does not arrive, it is already there, in heterogenous and full time. Politics can regenerate itself, it can surpass its modern character, only if it takes up 'the power of the keys' in a different sense, opposite to that which enabled it to operate as a future-oriented project, implicit in the present and issuing from it. It must decide to modify the past, to change everything that has been, open the closed room of history and produce the moment in which what always takes place does not cease. Not await the signs of the times but create them. For signs do not reveal the event; the signs are the event. To demonstrate in the contingency of daily action that everything that you are binding to the earth 'will be bound in heaven'; and everything that you lose on earth 'shall be loosed in heaven' (St. Matthew 16, 19). The end of the politics of the moderns is not the end of politics, and it is not the return to the politics of the ancients. It is the occasion of that discontinuum in politics that the given situation does not offer but that the revolutionary chance can impose.

XIII. A revolution in the idea of politics: this is the first power of the keys bestowed upon us by the oppressed past and the generations of the defeated. Revolution as political praxis: this must be set before the eyes of critique. There is no longer a distinction between revolutionary act and revolutionary process. Chance is neither the one nor the other. We no longer need to ask whether the revolutionary subject is the class or the party. The halting of what occurs does not take place because of the will to power. Marx's '[dialectical] leap in the open air of history' ('On the Concept of History', p. 395) has crashed, its wings broken on the arid terrain of politics. The point of differentiation is no longer between reformist gradualism and revolutionary rupture. It is between continuity and discontinuity. And since within continuity no reformist practice is possible, so discontinuity is no longer identifiable with revolutionary action. The revolutionary chance is not revolutionary action. It is a standpoint, a way of political being, a form of political action, it is the now, always, of political behaviour. In the face of, against the 'reified continuity of history', politics is practised in nature in 'intermittent bursts' of actuality, where 'all that is past […] can achievea higher level of actuality than at the moment of its existence' (See 'Lemmi: continuum Kontinuum', Sul concetto di storia, p. 155). Amongst the preparatory materials for Benjamin's theses, one encounters piercing shards of thought: 'The history of the oppressed is a discontinuum', i.e., 'The continuum is of the oppressors' (p. 153). The concept of the 'tradition of the oppressed' must be seen 'as the discontinuum of the past in opposition to history as the continuum of events' (ibid.). But: should the point of catastrophe be located in the continuity of history, as the later Benjamin appears to think, or should it be cultivated in the discontinuity of politics, as the end of the century appears to suggest? Here lies the in-decision of research, that looks to the extreme aspects of the horizon of problems, no longer with the hope of finding solutions, but rather with the responsibility of escaping the sickness of time, which consists in being subordinate to a present future.

XIV. Ex praeterito – Praesens prudenter agit – Ni futuru(m?) actionem deturpet (On the basis of the past – the present acts prudently – lest it spoil future action): this is the inscription, divided into three according to a triad of men and animal heads, at the top of the 'Allegory of Prudence', or 'Allegory of Time governed by Prudence' that the aged Titian executed between 1560 and 1570. The wolf of the past, the lion of the present, and the dog of the future. Panofsky says that the painting glorifies Prudence as able to wisely utilise the three Forms of Time, associated to the three Ages of Life. Titian did not depart from a well-established 'tradition – except that the magic of his brush imparted a semblance of palpable reality to the two frontal heads in the centre (that of the man in the prime of life and that of the lion) while dematrerializing, so to speak, the two profile faces on either side (those of the old man and the wolf on the left, those of the youth and the dog on the right): Titian gave visible expression to the contrast between that which is and that which either has been or has not yet begun to be' (E. Panosfky, Problems in Titian: Mostly Iconographic, New York Press, New York 1969, p. 103; see also Panofsky's Meaning in the Visual Arts, Doubleday Anchor Books, Garden City 1955, pp. 146ff). 'Prudence', a great category of modern politics (see Filosofia politica, Il Mulino, Bologna, 2, 1987), has marked twentieth century success [fortuna] and failure [sfortuna], and produced the century's victories and tragedies. It is the 'dismal science' of the doctrine of state at the time of the absent sovereign (see G. Marramao, 'IL sovrano assente: la dottrina dello Stato come "triste scienza"' in Dopo il Leviatano, Bollati Borringhieri 2000, pp. 23-47). The present must know from the past above all what should not happen in future. This is the gap that current events [l'attualità] impose upon us: to defend ourselves from the form of the future that all the contents of the present are constructing. Current events [l'attualità]: Father Time without Great Epoch, the 'lion' without the 'fox', strength without prudence, politics without politics, which is to say history left to itself, minor history, cyclical, the eternal return of the always the same, accelerated, modernised, via inner conservative revolutions. The old wolf's face is the tiger leap into the past of which Benjamin speaks. The mature face of the lion is the great twentieth century that has been extinguished in the current reified continuity of history. This brings about a virtual, abstract, domesticated form of future. One must act now lest the after spoils this action. But does the criterion of the political still have a chance, whether revolutionary or otherwise, in the current contingency of historical events?

XV. Kultur and Zivilisation: taking up again the broken thread of a debate, picking it up at the end of the century from the location of its beginnings. With our words, suited to today, the distinction is the following: Zivilisation is modernity; Kultur is civilisation. One could speak of bourgeois modernity and human civilisation. But this would be too emphatic and no longer acceptable. One cannot inflect the bourgeois and the human according to nineteenth century rules. Today's bourgeois is the 'last man'. And the man of today has nothing to do with that of yesteryear. As the Bürger in Thomas Mann, 'our' Mann, the one from before 1918, is the opposite of the bourgeois, in the same way that he Arbeiter, not Jünger's but Marx's, is the opposite of the citoyen. Our dream: the rugged pagan race containing great bourgeois culture, 'that great, severe, tormented bourgeoisity of the soul' (see 'I saggi di Thomas Mann, una custodia per i Buddenbrooks', in T. Mann, Nobilità dello spirit e altri saggi, Mondadori, Milan 1997, p. x). However, between those two, modernity/civilisation, there has been an eternal, historic conflict, as well as a provisional political consensus. In the various passages of the twentieth century, consensus and conflict expressed themselves in various forms. The age of war radicalised the contradiction between Kultur and Zivilisation, but the time of peace that ensued did not even ask itself the question. We must whether one can take up again the civilising function that the workers' movement had before war pushed it into the trenches. The wars and peace of the twentieth century leave this legacy. But for it to be gathered up, one would need heirs: a movement of ideas and forces able to insert into the body of the modern the soul and forms of a Kultur, of a Civilisation, it does not matter that it is new, it can even be ancient, what matters is that is that it exhibits the signs of a contrast when compared to the current barbarisation of human social relations. To civilise modernisation: this is the task within which everything else must situate itself – struggles, organisation, government, projects, tactics. Insert Kultur in the unstoppable organisational projects of globalisation, digitalisation, virtualisation. The greater the danger of modern barbarism, the more what saves can intervene to withhold, messianically arresting what occurs. After the end of modern politics, I see katechon more than eschaton in the what is to be done?

XVI. 'Aber Freund! Wir kommen zu spät' (Hölderlin, Brot und Wein, 1801) 16 . Freely translated: 'My friends, we have arrived too late'. This is the Stimmung that binds the figures and the motifs, the passages and the pauses, the prestos, and the adagios of reflection. The century of great opportunities was transformed, in the course of its history, into the century for small occasions. Possibility, in politics, is always tragic. The comedy of probability leaves everything as it is. It was possible to not do what was done. But it was also possible to carry out what was not. Research has a long way to go along these tracks. No longer in the dark. Although: this is a strange light that the twilight of politics throws on recent history. 'Aber das Irrsal hilft', 17 helping to roam, to err, error (?)