Mario Tronti, "Theses on Benjamin"

Theses on Benjamin
Mario Tronti

1. The workers’ movement was not defeated by capital. The workers’ movement was defeated by democracy. These are the terms of the problem that the century puts before us. The fact, die Sache selbst, we must now think.

2. The workers’ movement balanced its accounts with capitalism. The grand historical confrontation of the 19th and 20th centuries. Alternating phases. Reciprocal instances of victory and defeat. But the workers’ labour power, an internal part of capital, could not exile itself. This is the obscure depth of the failure of revolution. Reasonable and crazy attempts to change the world, all fallen. The long march of reformism had no more success than the assault from the sky. But the workers changed capital. They forced it to change itself. Their defeat was never on the social plane. It was on political ground.

3. The 20th century is not the century of social democracy. It is the century of democracy. Moving through the era of the wars, democracy imposed its hegemony. It is democracy that won the class struggle. The authoritarian and totalitarian political solutions functioned in the end as the demonic instruments of a democratic providentialism. Democracy, like the monarchy of the past, is now absolute. More than the practices of totalitarian democracy there emerged a totalised idea of democracy. Paradoxically, this occurred contemporaneously with the dissolution of the concept of the ‘people,’ which was foreseen by the genius of Kelsen. After the defeat of Nazism and the failure of socialism, democracy rose up twice as the choice of value. Neither in the east nor in the west did the workers’ movement elaborate or experiment with its own idea of democracy. It did not cultivate or move through it as a field of conflict. The workers’ movement of the 20th century could be nothing but democratic. But the century of democracy killed it. This trauma lies, and acts obscurely, in the collective unconscious of the European left – in its militancy, leadership and culture.

4. Tocqueville prophetically foresaw the antipolitical destiny of the modern democracies. Political demoralisation arrived punctually, reaching its completion at the end of the 20th century in political atheism. The great liberal saw the end of modern politics realised in democracy in America, a heavy announcement of the future of the world. Umberto Coldagelli has intelligently located in Tocqueville’s distinction between political science and the art of government the ‘substantial dualism’ between democracy and liberty. With this immediate consequence: ‘the safeguard of liberty comes to depend exclusively on the capacity of the art of government to oppose the spontaneous propensity of the political state to hide itself in the social state.’ And he reports this variation in the Democracy of 1840: ‘The social state separates people; the political state must bring them together again. The social state gives them a taste of wellbeing; the political state must give them grand ideas and emotions.’ The distinctive mark of bourgeoise modernity is a ‘natural’ subjectivity of social action and an ‘unnatural’ subjectivity of political action. ‘Conscience and ideas do not renew themselves, the soul does not expand and the human spirit does not develop, if not by the reciprocal action of men upon each other. I have shown that this action is near absent in the democratic countries; it must therefore be created artificially.’

5. The artificiality of political relations as opposed to the naturalness of social connections: this is not a Jacobin invention or Bolshevik imposition but the condition of politics in modernity. Another way of saying: political civilisation versus natural society. Today there is the possibility of translating this choice in the decision liberty/democracy. Contrary to what is commonly thought, Tocqueville teaches that the natural-animal element is democracy and the historical-political element is liberty. Now that political science describes the necessity of democracy, the task of the art of government is to introduce liberty. Another political liberty: after the liberty of the moderns, without returning to the liberty of the ancients. Quite paradoxically, while the dictatorships rekindled the passion for liberty, the democracies have extinguished it. If Le Philosophe lisant portrayed by Chardin bent down today over George Steiner’s No Passion Spent instead of over his own open page, I believe he would confirm Milton’s verse: ‘every passion spent.’ The century of democracy that in war defeated the dictatorships has not in peace given liberty. At the end of the 20th century, that historical conflict between dictatorship and liberty, which saw the defeat of totalitarianism and authoritarianism, leaves without passion the conflict between liberty and democracy, like an undecanted residue. To decode this passage is a challenge for thought, but no less for practice. The winning ideological apparatus, the accumulation of the dominant consensus, is thus the pouvior social that follows or results in the sign of liberal democracy. We must insert a wedge in the centre of this pratical-conceptual complex of liberal democracy. We must pull in opposite directions these two potentially contradictory terms. Politics can return only as a result of this good war.

6. An idea of liberty in contrast to the practice of homo democraticus. An idea of democracy in contrast to the practice of homo economicus. Pushing on these two buttons with the finger of thought, we must to try to reactivate the search for new forms that are capable of giving sense back to political action. On one side are the moeurs and beliefs, on the other the gout du bien-etre material and the mollesse du coeur. Democracy secures and provokes the latter, while liberty needs the former. Choose. Because these are the alternatives. An unprecendented spirit of scission is necessary. Dividing the neutral citizen into two different kinds of being. And changing the modern individual back into a human being. The future can be reconnected to the past only if both are separated from the present. We can no longer consider, with Benjamin, the now (Jetztzeit) as the site of the dialectical jump of revolutionary Marxism. We are ever more constrained, with Heidegger, to consider the now-time (Jetzt-zeit) as Weltzeit, inauthentic worldly time. Also here, between time and the now, between the epoch and the present, we must hit with the red wedge of the living contradiction. The white circle is this already dead world.

7. Not liberty of and liberty from, positive liberty and negative liberty, liberty and freedom, liberty of the ancients and liberty of the moderns. Even less the political philosophy of liberty given to us by liberalism. But rather the philosophy of liberty that Marxism did not know how to give us. The object of the first is external liberty, at once juridical and social, the constitutional liberties of the market, public guarantees for the private individual, rights, at once precious and poor, precious for living together with others, poor for starting from oneself. The object of the second is the human liberty that Marx attributed to the ‘eternal nobility of the human species,’ the beyond-human Christian liberty, the Spinozan mentis libertas beatitudo, the nonsolitary solitude of the great spirit, as the philsopher of existence Luporini would say. The error of Marxism was not to have criticised libertas minor, but to have done it without a contemporaneous engagement, theoretical and practical, with libertas major. Here is the political disaster. Only in the name of a true human liberty can you criticise the false bourgeois liberties. A criticism that destroys the apparent human generality of these bourgeois liberties while taking postively the heritage of their modern foundation, which one can only move beyond. In Kantian terms, this is insufficiency of the Unabhangigkeit, of the individuality of individuals, but at the same time its condition of possibility, its transcendence, which founds liberty as the Autonomie of the human being, with the moral law inside him.

8. Homo democraticus, the isolated and massified individual, ‘paticularised’ as much as globalised, driven from the outside and from above while he cultivates his own garden, single in his crudeness, the last man described by Nietzsche, and by Goethe, as the subject of a time that saw the arrival of the ‘age of easiness’ – a very worrisome and dubious term, according to Thomas Mann. The age of easiness and vulgarity. That comment from 1830, Mann found in 1950 to have reached a vertigious and truly fantastic height. Meine Zeit, my time, ‘the epoch of technics, of progress and the masses’: ‘while I was describing it I was for the most part adverse to it.’ But he warns: ‘It is always risky to believe oneself privileged for the particular historical richness of one’s own epoch, because there can always come, and always does come, a more complicated time.’ Between the middle and the end of the 20th century, it is easy to see the unfolding of the tragedy of socialism but more complicated to discern the consumption of the drama of democracy. But it is here that democracy is definitively joined to the public function of homo economicus. Democracy of the interests: this is its ultimate name. In the last fifty years, democracy has corrupted or finished itself: according to those who see the problem from the viewpoint of radical democracy or the critique of democracy. I believe that it is spent. Is democracy irreformable, just as socialism was? It is the dubiousness of the defeated, I would say to Pietro Ingrao. To melt it, or to try to melt it, it is necessary to abandon intellectual easiness and to assume the hard complication of political intervention.

9. Of Musil’s hero ‘who makes a mirror of the world of his time,’ Ingeborg Bachmann wrote: ‘Ulrich understood at the time that the era is which he lived, possessed of a knowledge superior to any preceding era, of an immense knowledge, was incapable of intervening in the course of history.’ That which was understood at the time was also forgotten in time. To the point that nobody realised anymore that history is without eras. In fact nothing happens. There are no longer events. There is only news. Look at the people at the summit of empires. And reverse the motto of Spinoza. There is nothing to understand. Only to weep or to laugh at. Athens and Jerusalem look incredulously at the end of the millennium, the ancient as much as the modern. The end of communism and Christianity of the end, these two symbolic orders that we have yet to interpret, obscure layers in the folds on contemporary consciousness, close the times. But here is the novelty—without apocalyptic tensions and in the silence of signs. The desperate cry of padre Turoldo: ‘Lord, send prophets again/ … to tell the poor to hope again/ … to break the new chains/in this infinite Egypt of the world.’ The true God that failed, the true defeat of God in the century, is in the promise and the lack of realisation of human liberty, for anybody and for everyone. Here is the meaning of the discourse: this liberty in interiore homine, need and negation, go to seize it, to unveil it, in the tragic history of the 20th century. From here we depart: not from new beginnings but from interrupted paths.

10. Walter Benjamin to Stephan Lackner, 5 May, 1940: ‘One asks oneself whether history is not by chance forging an ingenious synthesis between two Nietzschean concepts: the good European and the last man. What could be produced as a result is the last European. We are all struggling not to become this last European.’ A timely reflection. This is prophetic political thought. The incarnation of the last man in the good European is occurring before our disenchanted eyes, programmed in the deadlines of a democratically decided economic-financial calendar. Here everything happens. The event becomes a naked fact. Europe is born as the century dies: without passion, with the breakdown of states and for the interests of individuals. History synthesizes what there is. It has no regard for what should be. Politics has the task of knocking down, instead of representing, the last man. But as we have said: modern politics is at an end. And that’s fine for everyone. Everyone is struggling to become the last European. The struggle takes place in the marketplace: where you hear ‘the noise of the great comedy’ and, at the same time, ‘the buzz of poisoned flies.’ This history without eras leaves us with the choice between two anthropological prospectives. Bloch said: man is something that must still be discovered. Nietzsche said: man is something that must be overcome. The first is an alternative prospective, the second an antagonistic one. Until sometime ago we would have said: one is politics and the other is theory. No longer. Everything must be resolved in thought. If the decline of the West occurs, as Spengler said, ‘in the first centuries of the next millennium,’ the decline of politics will occur in the first decades of the next century. The task of thought is to speak in the name of those vanquished by history. The superman must be totally rethought.

11. The ideal successor of Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach, or rather its 20th century reformulation, is the twelfth of Benjamin’s ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History.’ Let’s take a look. ‘Not man or men but the struggling, oppressed class itself is the depository of historical knowledge. In Marx it appears as the last enslaved class, as the avenger that completes the task of liberation in the name of generations of the downtrodden.’ A conviction that has always been scandalous for social democracy. This assignation ‘to the working class the role of the redeemer of future generations, in this way cutting the sinews of its greatest strength. This training made the working class forget both its hatred and its spirit of sacrifice, for both are nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than that of liberated grandchildren.’ Rarely can one subscribe to every word of such a thought. But this is the case. This is what it means to change one’s point of view. ‘The avenging class,’ the last enslaved class but also the one possessed of the necessary force. The motivations for adhering to this viewpoint are not ethical but political. To avenge an eternal past of oppression. This past then is the new subject of history, the only one that can now act politically. The fire to come was this passion, felt and conserved in the struggles of one’s own past. But this passion was extinguished by the dogmatic pretense, typical of social democratic theory and practice, of an ‘interminable’ and ‘unstoppable’ human progress—as if history proceeded in ‘empty homogeneous time’ (see Thesis XIII). Hatred and the spirit of sacrifice, two communist and Christian virtues, were forgotten. The sinews of strength, of that which counts in conflict, were cut. Disturbing the sense of action: which is Bild not Ideal: images of defeated comrades not the ideal of redeemed brothers. Here redemption applies only to the ‘oppressed past’ and does not concern the radiant future. It is great, or given to greatness, only that historical movement or political subject, capable of translating the contents of that which has been into the forms of that which is coming, always, always, always, against the present.

12. ‘In the concept of the classless society, Marx secularized the concept of the Messianic Age. And that was as it should be. The disaster results from the fact the social democracy elevated this idea to an ‘ideal.’ In neo-Kantian doctrine, this ideal is defined as der unendliche Aufgabe (‘the unending task’). And this doctrine was the scholasticism of the social democratic party’ (Benjamin, ‘Notes to the Theses on History’). Homogenous empty time became an antechamber in which one could wait for the revolutionary moment. ‘In reality there is not a single moment that does not carry with it its own revolutionary potential.’