In On the Concept of History, philosopher Walter Benjamin put forth a novel conception of history. He rejects the ‘historicist’ notion of history as one continuous stream of events, filling up a ‘homogenous and empty time.’ His concept of history, which he dubbed ‘historical materialism’ is but a singular entity, a singular history that serves political ends. The past is, to Benjamin, a catastrophe: the culmination of all the oppressions that have spanned human history. Furthermore, the historicist narrative, which views history as a continuous stream, is a product of the historical victories of the oppressors. The ‘progress’ of time wrenches us away from this past.
History is important because social orders are built from the past, and traditions emerge from conflicts throughout history. These traditions are intertwined with historicist narratives to justify the status of the oppressors and the oppressed. But historical materialism offers a way out. Benjamin advocates for a history in which time does not continuously flow, but rather ceases in the ‘zero-hour’ of the present. The defining feature of historical materialism is the explosion of the present out of all time: that the present is distinguished by the capacity for change.
The present holds such an exalted place precisely because it is the moment in which we live. Therefore, those who live in the present, in the epoch removed from time, must look backwards and not forwards. If one looks back, like the Angelus Novus above — a painting which Benjamin has interpreted as an allegory of his theory — they see the horror of the past and gain the perspective needed for radical change. This distinguishes Benjamin from other radicals; to him, the victims of past injustices continue to suffer so long as historicism sets them in a distant history. For Benjamin, in order for one to be spurred into real change, one must believe that they wield the messianic power to reach through time and put to rest the dead and wounded on the battlefield of every preceding generation. It is this orientation backwards that forms the foundation of the belief in radical change.
It is through remembrance that history can build and maintain social orders. To Benjamin, history is an act of remembrance of the past. History is extraordinarily potent and susceptible to change precisely because memory can influence politics, and indeed can define individuals’ political preferences. Thus the break from historicism promised by historical materialism calls for a radical change in memory. But this history need not be materialist. It merely indicates an oppressed group and the oppressors, placing history at the center of the system of oppression. The oppressed in the past are not only the proletariat, but also slaves, women, and Indigenous peoples, and others.
This is to recognize that history is not the telling of what happened in actual fact. It is the superimposition of a narrative onto the past. Through even the smallest acts of selective emphasis, understood as the determination of what is important in history, ideology becomes foundational to history. The recognition of that fact is the first step in seeing beyond the status quo of historicism.
By interpretation, this is the call to action that Benjamin wrote as he neared his death. Those who seek to better this world cannot be swept up in the current of time. It is incumbent on every conscious being to recognize the zero-hour in which we live. After all, those who are aware of an unjust social order are, by some arguments, obliged to change it. The injustice of social orders that arise from an unjust past, according to Benjamin, is doubly so. These social orders must be ended, not simply because they do wrong to present victims, but because they continue to do wrong to victims of the past.
To know and to act often go hand-in-hand. The rights of Indigenous people, for instance, to build social structures that are both anti-colonial and anti-capitalist is a vital exercise in rejecting the ‘naturalization’ of colonial dynamics — such as access to Indigenous lands — as benign facts of life. The cultivation of a radical anti-colonial history is critically intertwined with the politico-economic struggle for Indigenous survival. To suggest that Indigenous peoples’ struggle is merely part of the social ‘progress’ of history is to justify the status-quo as a morally legitimate basis for progress.
Thus the rejection of historical ‘progress’ demands that social orders of the status quo, built upon historical oppression and sustained through tradition, are not accepted as the norm. Instead, the zero-hour is one of contention over historical remembrance. As such, this expands the possibility for change by challenging the historic legitimacy underlying existent social orders.
Take the case of Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. territory. Since 1898, Puerto Rico has been a possession of the U.S., yet to this day citizens living in the territory are denied federal voting rights. One might conceive of a ‘historicist’ narrative in which Puerto Ricans’ struggle for enfranchisement is part of a larger ‘progress’ towards greater prosperity within the United States. This narrative suggests that the struggle for Puerto Rican statehood ought to occur solely within the legal apparatus of the U.S. government. Such historicism justifies Puerto Ricans’ current disenfranchisement as the product of social ‘progress.’ The more radical approach would consider Puerto Rico’s history as a singular catastrophe of undemocratic occupation. This new narrative undermines the legitimacy of the United States’ treatment of Puerto Rico, and demands more substantial and immediate change. It does not necessitate any particular course of action, but legitimizes the possibility for more radical justice.
The intersection between our historical memory and the social orders we tolerate, is critical to the scope of change we view as possible. Through the eyes of the Angelus Novus one might recognize the extraordinary power to seize history. In the process, they might see a moral duty to fight for history, not solely for the sake of the present or future, but for the past itself.
Edited by Neelesh Thakur
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.