Monday, 27 January 2020

Book Review - Momme Brodersen, Walter Benjamin: A Biography (1999)

Book review: Momme Brodersen, Walter Benjamin: A Biography (Verso, 1998)
Written By: Dave Renton
Date: January 1999
Published In LSHG Newsletter: Issue 5: Lent 1999 

In 1968, students at the Institute for German Studies occupied the University of Frankfurt. They briefly renamed it the “Walter Benjamin Institute”. For these students, Benjamin was one of the best-known of the many Marxists who opposed Hitler and were forced into exile after 1933. More recently, though, another image of Benjamin has come to the fore. On cultural studies courses, and in the citadels of academic Marxism, Walter Benjamin is a translator, a critic, but no longer a socialist. Which of these interpretations of Benjamin is correct? What stance should socialist historians take towards his work?

Momme Brodersen’s Walter Benjamin: A Biography (Verso, 1998) is a very detailed history of Benjamin’s life, from his birth in 1892 to his death, which was probably suicide, fleeing from Hitler in 1940. It offers hints of a Benjamin that could be reclaimed for the socialist tradition. At a time when Marxism was becoming more ossified by the rituals of orthodox Stalinism, Benjamin was clearly committed to a dialectical Marxism, which he learned through revolutionaries, Vladimir Lenin, Georg Lukács and Bertolt Brecht. He believed that workers could run society, and genuinely hoped that his work would bring that moment closer.

Unfortunately, although this book is well-written, admirably clear and beautifully illustrated, Brodersen does not engage fully with Benjamin’s Marxism. Much of the weakness of his account can be blamed on the Benjamin estate, which denied Brodersen the right to reproduce any of Benjamin’s work. It does make for a strange biography, when the subject's own books cannot be quoted! Benjamin’s works are slowly being translated into English. The first volume of his collected works came out last year, while his major essays can be read in various collections. If anyone wants to read more about him, they are the place to start.

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