Duy Lap Nyugen, Walter Benjamin and the Critique of Political Economy: A New Historical Materialism. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2022; 312 pages. ISBN: 9781350180437.

Cory McConnell, York University, and Paula Schwebel, Toronto Metropolitan University

In Walter Benjamin and the Critique of Political Economy: A New Historical Materialism, Duy Lap Nyugen makes a bold case for the continuity between Benjamin’s early putatively theological work and his later Marxist, materialist thought. The surprising locus of this continuity resides, for Nyugen, in Benjamin’s commitment to secularization from his early work on. Nyugen thus “proposes a strictly profane interpretation of both [Benjamin’s] early philosophy and his later historical materialism” (x). As Nyugen reads him, Benjamin’s materialism does not substitute a secular, or profane, idea of redemption for an earlier, theological one. Rather, Benjamin’s ostensibly theological early work already offers a thoroughly profane idea of redemption. Nyugen develops this central thesis through a careful analysis of texts from across Benjamin’s corpus, while also placing Benjamin in dialogue with some of his notable predecessors and contemporaries.

The book consists of seven chapters, plus a substantive Preface, Introduction and Conclusion. Chapters 1–3 are devoted to reconstructing Benjamin’s “Politics,” that is, his plans in the early 1920s for a large-scale study bearing the working title “Politik,” which Nyugen characterizes as a project of “metaphysical anarchism.” In Chapters 4–7, Nyugen develops Benjamin’s “new” historical materialism (referenced in the book’s subtitle). He argues that Benjamin’s later turn to Marxist historical materialism is not a materialist break, but is in fact the fulfillment of his earlier metaphysical anarchism, which brings to fruition a commitment to profanation that Nyugen sees as both implicit and explicit in Benjamin’s early work.

According to Nyugen, Benjamin always “embraced a completely secularized idea of salvation” (29). In the background of his thinking on this subject is the Kabbalistic idea of redemption as a return to origin, familiar to Benjamin through Gershom Scholem. For Benjamin, however, rather than a return to a paradisiacal state of perfection, the “primal state” of humanity is conceived of as a state of “profane imperfection…which does not yet desire religious salvation nor aspire to fulfill its moral ideals” (108). This profane idea of redemption is encapsulated in Benjamin’s definition of politics in “World and Time” (1919–20) as “the fulfillment of an unimproved humanity” (11, citing Benjamin SW 1:226). Accordingly, redemption would not perfect or purify humanity, but would signify a point in history when perfection and purity no longer appear to us as goals. Benjamin’s messianism would, thus, involve a kind of redemption of humanity “just as it is, without any moral improvement” (108). 

This account of the meaning of redemption in Benjamin dovetails with Nyugen’s account of the significance of justice in Benjamin: “Justice…is not an objective condition that conforms to morality. Rather, it is the return to a neutral state of the world that precedes moral judgements” (46). In other words, justice is not the result of cultivating a moral society, but signifies, rather, a state of the world preceding moral judgements, and thus devoid of the value relations which give rise to relations of subjugation in class society. In a general sense, this echoes the Marxist critique of the bourgeois idea of justice as equality, which is found to be dependent on the establishment of equal exchange under capitalism. As this critique suggests, a bourgeois, moralized conception of justice can only function according to the logic of class society and can never attain a truly human kind of freedom that genuinely does away with the strictures of capitalism. In this spirit, Nyugen suggests that a return to a pre-ethical state would correspond to the “future classless society”—a society which, according to his reading of Benjamin, is brought within reach not by the moral improvement of humanity, but by the development of industrial technology (154). This apparent optimism with respect to the utopian possibilities of technological development evokes its own narrative of progress, albeit not of a moral kind. This seems to run counter to Benjamin’s caution, in his theses “On the Concept of History,” that technological development is not a form of political progress, but may be accompanied by societal regress (SW 4:393–94).

A key feature of the “new historical materialism” that Nyugen attributes to Benjamin is the attempt to wed Marx’s “scientific criticism of capitalism” with the “‘pre-scientific’ utopian socialism of Charles Fourier” (10). Central to this project is the emancipation of machinery, or what Nyugen characterizes as a “slave revolt in technology,” on the basis of which humanity could abolish commodity fetishism in the “unfolding of work in play” (10, 153). At its core, this new historical materialism involves a revolution to liberate “labor as well as the emancipation of machinery from the fetters imposed upon it in bourgeois society, which produces ‘enslaved and enslaving objects’” (xii).

Nyugen finds this kind of revolutionary gesture anticipated in Benjamin’s concept of divine violence. His innovative reading of the “Critique of Violence” places it in the context of Benjamin’s early, critical engagement with Kant (as discussed in Chapters 1 and 2). Accordingly, Benjamin reads Kant’s “Doctrine of Right” in the Metaphysics of Morals as a species of “lawmaking violence,” which makes it possible for individuals to possess things as property and put them to use as they see fit. Rather than presenting an alternative, and more equitable, form of property and property relations, Nyugen reads Benjamin as looking to emancipate things from their subjugation as property. Thus, Benjamin posits an idea of “appropriation without property,” which opens a “real state of exception,” or a total withdrawal from the cycle of lawmaking and law-preserving violence anticipated in the general strike (46; cf. Benjamin SW 4:392 and SW 1:239–42, 245–47).

In line with the idea of “appropriation without property,” Nyugen’s proposed “slave revolt in technology” seems to suggest a possible world in which humanity does not simply own the means of production in common (following an orthodox Marxist line), but would rather suspend systems of property altogether. In this utopian vision, Benjamin seems to extend the Marxist critique of class society from a concern with class antagonisms to include the emancipation of the tools owned by each class. There seems to be an implicit critique of the notion that we will be liberated from class society through the victory of the proletariat over and against the bourgeoisie, since such liberation would remain embedded in the same logic of property which underlies class society in the first place. Without property, according to this utopian vision, the abundance produced by society may be freely used at will by everyone, thus providing everyone with a share of pleasurable experiences to be taken up at any time. The notion of the future classless society to be brought about by the “slave revolt in technology” is conceived as a fulfillment of the turn to a pre-ethical state, liberated from all value relations. This pre-ethical state is explicitly opposed to a set of Kantian ideas, including Kant’s formulation of property rights in the Metaphysics of Morals, but also the neo-Kantian notion of redemption as the culmination of extended moral progress, formulated by Hermann Cohen as an “infinite task.”

Given Nyugen’s emphasis on amorality in his reading of Benjamin’s concept of redemption as total profanation, one wonders why the book is laden with moral language. This is all the more striking considering that the Marxist vocabulary (with which both Benjamin and Nyugen are familiar) could be used instead to maintain a non-moral critique of capitalism. It is notable, in this vein, that in his discussion of the subjugation of technology under capitalism, Nyugen invokes the language of a “slave revolt of technology,” rather than using the more conventional Marxist terms of a contradiction in capitalism between the innovative tendency in technology and its limitation in industrial mass production, as all technology is forced to serve the profit motive. By referring to a slave revolt of technology (alluding, presumably, to Nietzsche’s expression of the will to power in Judeo-Christian morality), it would seem that Nyugen’s view must at some level involve an ethical critique of capitalism, or at least the thought that a slave revolt in technology would lead to a new ethical superstructure emerging in accordance with the new economic base. This would not pose a problem for Nyugen’s argument were he to restrict his critique of morality to Kantian morality under capitalism, since the new morality would conceivably be radically different from all hitherto existing ethical systems. But it stands in tension with a reading of Benjamin as a critic of morality as such. 

Likewise, Nyugen makes repeated references to Benjamin’s language of the “good-right of the good” (45–47, 173–74; cf. Benjamin 2021). Picking up on Benjamin’s critical revision of Kant, Benjamin’s language of the “good-right of the good” marks a rejection of the notion that ownership is a necessary prerequisite for the use of things (14). According to Nyugen’s reading of Benjamin, every “good” has the “right” to not be owned, thus exposing property as such to be rooted in an original, unjust, violence against things. Goods, insofar as they are valued as good, are the kind of things that deserve the sort of moral consideration that would prohibit their subjugation as property. This is a clear instance of Benjamin employing explicitly moral language in his critique of capitalist appropriation. This critique gains momentum in the case of technology, where this good-right of the good takes the form of what Nyugen calls technology’s “right to co-determination of the social order” (18–19). Accordingly, machines not only have the right to not be owned, but they are also deemed to be autonomous entities that play a seemingly equal role in structuring society. In this sense, it would seem that Benjamin is not so much rejecting morality as such (or even the bourgeois, Kantian discourse of rights) but is rather radically expanding it to treat machines as autonomous beings deserving of moral consideration. If Nyugen is right that Benjamin is articulating a slave revolt of technology against its subjugation as property, and if this implies that technology asserts its “good right” to be a co-determiner of society, then this would, first of all, be a decidedly moral critique of capitalism; second, it would seem to contradict or at least complicate Nyugen’s central claim that Benjamin is seeking a return to a state of the world prior to the imposition of moral judgments.

Another line of questioning opened up by Nyugen’s argument revolves around his provocative framing of Benjamin’s “new historical materialism,” and its viability as a contemporary political project. In a book that is distinguished by its careful, historically sensitive reading of Benjamin in comparison with some of his key intellectual influences and contemporaries, one wonders why the book seems relatively unconcerned with Benjamin’s relationship to socialist politics in its historical and contemporary forms. Why, for instance, is Benjamin’s historical materialism not interpreted in light of his comments on the concrete political practices of the early USSR and the German Social Democratic Party? Moreover, it is not clear what makes this reading of Benjamin either “new” or a “historical materialism.” The most distinctive feature of this approach to Benjamin is the inclusion of Fourier as an essential reference point for Benjamin’s politics. The project might thus be more accurately characterized as a re-reading of Benjamin’s politics in line with this particular constellation of sources. Given that the dialectical critique of historical materialism is already a part of the historical materialist method, it is unclear, on the one hand, why this should be considered a “new” historical materialism, rather than a development of Marxist theory. On the other hand, the elements which Nyugen picks up on from Fourier, while interesting in their own right, seem to conflict with historical materialism, threatening to slide back into the same utopianism that Benjamin praised Marx for overcoming. Hence, with its provocative title promising a “new historical materialism,” the reader longs for a more pointed discussion of the political project at stake.

Additional Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. (1996–2003). Selected Writings [SW], Vols. 1–4, Michael Jennings et al, eds. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press). 

Benjamin, Walter. (2021). “Notes toward a Work on the Category of Justice” [1916], 65–66 in Toward the Critique of Violence: A Critical Edition, Peter Fenves and Julia Ng, eds. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press).