Notes on the Thought of Walter Benjamin: Critique of Violence

Key Concept


“Critique of Violence” (Zur Kritik der Gewalt)1 is no­torious for its ob­scurity, which, at least partly, is due to the im­possib­ility of trans­lating sev­eral of the key terms used by Benjamin into English. The im­me­diate en­cap­su­la­tion of the task of a cri­tique of vi­ol­ence con­veyed in the German title and the first couple of sen­tences is en­tirely lost in the English trans­la­tion. An ety­mo­lo­gical cla­ri­fic­a­tion is there­fore im­portant if we as­pire to un­der­stand what a cri­tique of vi­ol­ence con­sists of.

Critique (Kritik) should not primarily be un­der­stood as a neg­ative eval­u­ation or con­dem­na­tion, but in the Kantian tra­di­tion of judge­ment, eval­u­ation, and ex­am­in­a­tion on the basis of means provided by the cri­tique it­self. A more sig­ni­ficant problem is how­ever the trans­la­tion of Gewalt—which in German car­ries the mul­tiple mean­ings of (public) force, (le­git­imate) power, dom­in­a­tion, au­thority and vi­ol­encewith the English “vi­ol­ence” which car­ries few of these senses (par­tic­u­larly, in­sti­tu­tional re­la­tions of power, force and dom­in­a­tion or even non-​physical or ‘sym­bolic’ vi­ol­ence). That the task of a cri­tique of vi­ol­ence is to be un­der­stood as ex­pounding the re­la­tion­ship of vi­ol­ence (Gewalt) to law (Recht) and justice (Gerechtigkeit), is thus much less ar­ti­fi­cial and obscure.

Two fur­ther ety­mo­lo­gical cla­ri­fic­a­tions are how­ever ne­ces­sary to fully un­der­stand the task of Zur Kritik der Gewalt. Recht, as the Latin Ius, car­ries the meaning of both rights and law (as in the gen­eral system of laws), which is jux­ta­posed to spe­cific laws, Gesetz cor­res­ponding to the Latin Lex. Sittliche ver­hält­n­isse, trans­lated to “moral re­la­tions,” presents a more sig­ni­ficant problem in terms of trans­la­tion. In English it is not im­me­di­ately clear why the sphere of law and justice can be un­der­stood as the sphere of moral re­la­tions. Morality car­ries the Kantian tra­di­tion of an ab­stract uni­versal law (Moralität) in English, than the Hegelian tra­di­tion (Sittlichkeit). In Philosophie des Rechts, Sittlichkeit is the term used for the polit­ical frame­work of eth­ical life, that is, the family, civil so­ciety and the state. Violence is thus to be cri­tiqued on basis of its re­la­tions to law and rights within the frame­work of eth­ical life in the state (sit­t­liche Verhältnisse).“For a cause” Benjamin writes “be­comes vi­olent, in the pre­cise sense of the word, when it enters into moral re­la­tions” (p. 236). Benjamin is thus not in­ter­ested in force or vi­ol­ence of nature (Naturgewalt); but the vi­ol­ence present within the frame­work of the so­ciety, and ul­ti­mately, the state.

The cri­tique of vi­ol­ence can only be un­der­taken through the philo­sophy of the his­tory of vi­ol­ence (or we might add, in a “de­con­struc­tion” of the philo­sophy of the his­tory of vi­ol­ence), Benjamin ar­gues. In his “de­con­struc­tion” of the re­la­tion­ship between vi­ol­ence, law and justice, Benjamin erects sev­eral pairs of op­pos­i­tion. However, as Derrida pointed out, many of these de­con­struct them­selves.2 The first such pair of op­pos­i­tions is nat­ural law (Naturrechts) and pos­itive law (pos­itive Rechts), which even though they in gen­eral are un­der­stood as an­ti­thet­ical (nat­ural law is con­cerned with the justice of ends, pos­itive law is con­cerned with the jus­ti­fic­a­tion of means) share a fun­da­mental dogma, namely that a re­la­tion­ship of jus­ti­fic­a­tion ex­ists between means and ends. For this reason, the two the­ories agree that vi­ol­ence as a means can be jus­ti­fied if it is in ac­cord­ance with the law. Benjamin raises the fol­lowing ob­jec­tions against this dogma: if the re­la­tion of jus­ti­fic­a­tion between means and ends is pre­sup­posed, it is not pos­sible to raise a cri­tique of vi­ol­ence eo ipso but only ap­plic­a­tions of vi­ol­ence. Hereby, the ques­tion of whether vi­ol­ence in prin­ciple can be a moral means even to a just end is made im­possible to ad­dress. By in­sisting on cri­tiquing vi­ol­ence in it­self, Benjamin chal­lenges the fun­da­mental dogma of jur­is­pru­dence, namely, that justice can be at­tained if means and ends are bal­anced, that is, if jus­ti­fied means are used for just ends.

The ques­tion, thus, is how vi­ol­ence and law re­late to one an­other? Benjamin ar­gues that the in­timate re­la­tion­ship of vi­ol­ence and law is two­fold. Firstly, vi­ol­ence is the means by which law is in­sti­tuted and pre­served. Secondly, dom­in­a­tion (vi­ol­ence under the name of power (Macht)) is the end of the law: “Law-​making is power-​making, as­sump­tion of power, and to that ex­tent an im­me­diate mani­fest­a­tion of vi­ol­ence” (p. 248). Benjamin dis­tin­guishes between law­making vi­ol­ence (recht­set­zend Gewalt) and law-​preserving vi­ol­ence (recht­ser­hal­tende Gewalt) on basis of whether the end to­wards which vi­ol­ence is used as a means is his­tor­ic­ally ac­know­ledged, i.e., “sanc­tioned” or “un­sanc­tioned” vi­ol­ence (named re­spect­ively “legal ends” and “nat­ural ends”). If vi­ol­ence as a means is dir­ected to­wards nat­ural ends — as in the case of in­ter­state war where one or more states use vi­ol­ence to ig­nore his­tor­ic­ally ac­know­ledged laws such as bor­ders — the vi­ol­ence will be law­making. This vi­ol­ence strives to­wards a “peace ce­re­mony” that will con­sti­tute a new his­tor­ic­ally ac­know­ledged law; new his­tor­ic­ally ac­know­ledged borders.

The es­tab­lish­ment of bor­ders after a war is a clear ex­ample of the in­sti­tu­tion­al­isa­tion of a re­la­tion of dom­in­a­tion in­herent in all law­making vi­ol­ence. In guise of equality be­fore the law, the peace ce­re­mony is a mani­fest­a­tion of vi­ol­ence in the name of power; “in a de­mon­ic­ally am­biguous way,” Benjamin writes, the rights are “‘equal’ rights: for both parties to the treaty, it is the same line that may not be crossed” (p. 249). This de­mon­ic­ally am­biguous equality of the law, Benjamin writes, is ana­logous to that which Anatole France satir­ic­ally ex­pressed when he said: “Rich and poor are equally for­bidden to spend the night under the bridges” (Ibid.). In con­trast hereto, if vi­ol­ence as a means dir­ected to­wards legal ends — ex­em­pli­fied by com­pulsory gen­eral con­scrip­tion where the state forces the cit­izens to risk their lives to pro­tect the state — the vi­ol­ence will be law-​preserving. The dis­tinc­tion between law­making vi­ol­ence and law-​preserving vi­ol­ence is how­ever de­con­structed in the body of the po­lice and in cap­ital pun­ish­ment, whereby the “rotten” core of the law is re­vealed, namely, that law is a mani­fest­a­tion of vi­olent dom­in­a­tion for its own sake. In both cap­ital pun­ish­ment and po­lice vi­ol­ence the dis­tinc­tion between law­making and law-​preserving vi­ol­ence is sus­pended. Capital pun­ish­ment is not merely a pun­ish­ment for a crime but the es­tab­lish­ment of a new law; po­lice vi­ol­ence, though law-​preserving can for “se­curity reasons” in­ter­vene where no legal situ­ation ex­ists whereby the po­lice in­sti­tute new laws through de­crees. In cap­ital pun­ish­ment and po­lice vi­ol­ence alike, the state re­af­firms it­self: law is an im­me­diate mani­fest­a­tion of vi­ol­ence or force and the end of the law is the law itself.

This vi­ol­ence of the law — the os­cil­la­tion between law­making and law-​preserving vi­ol­ence vis­ible in po­lice vi­ol­ence — is ex­plained by Benjamin with ref­er­ence to the Greek myth of Niobe. Niobe’s boastful ar­rog­ance to­wards Leto — she having four­teen chil­dren and Leto only two — chal­lenges “fate,” (Schicksal). The never defined concept of “fate” seems to refer to a re­la­tion of power (Macht). What Niobe chal­lenges is not the law, but the au­thority or the le­git­imate power of Leto. When Apollo and Artemis kill her sons and daugh­ters, it is thus not a pun­ish­ment but the es­tab­lish­ment of a law (“neue Recht zu statuiren”) (p. 242). Niobe is turned into a crying stone (a statue) which is a phys­ical mani­fest­a­tion of the law (the statute) as the power of the gods in­sti­tuting “a boundary stone on the fron­tier between men and gods” (p. 248). For this reason, Benjamin writes, power (Macht) is “the prin­ciple of all mythic law­making” (Ibid.).

Having now ex­pounded the re­la­tion between law and vi­ol­ence, the ques­tion of the re­la­tion­ship between law and justice can be raised. Benjamin is not only speaking in meta­phors when he writes: “Justice is the prin­ciple of all di­vine end­making, power the prin­ciple of all mythic law­making” (Ibid.). Justice is an end which in prin­ciple cannot be reached within the realm of law: justice be­longs to the realm of re­li­gion and it is not some­thing we can ob­tain de­lib­er­ately through law or reason: “For it is never reason that de­cides on the jus­ti­fic­a­tion of means and the just­ness of ends: fate-​imposed vi­ol­ence de­cides on the former, and God on the latter” (p. 247). Benjamin is how­ever fun­da­ment­ally in­ter­ested in justice; Zur Kritik der Gewalt is the closest we get to a Benjaminian “theory of justice”. The im­possib­ility of justice within the im­me­diate mani­fest­a­tion of violence/​force in the mythic “power-​making” of law makes the de­struc­tion of law in prin­ciple “ob­lig­atory” (p. 249). The polit­ical gen­eral strike that merely aims at a coup d’état is there­fore in­suf­fi­cient; the “force of law” can only be over­come if law in prin­ciple, and hereby state power as such, is des­troyed. What is called for is there­fore a pro­let­arian gen­eral strike that aims at the de­struc­tion of all state power. A para­dox­ical per­spective in Benjamin’s text is that even though justice is tran­scendent (it is God who de­cides upon the just­ness of ends) it does not mean that human ac­tions cannot be an ex­pres­sion of di­vine justice. The problem, as Derrida saw, is that we can never know whether ac­tions have been a mani­fest­a­tion of di­vine violence.

Justice is pos­sible (but not know­able) through an act of di­vine vi­ol­ence, which in all re­spects stands in com­plete op­pos­i­tion to the mythic vi­ol­ence of law: “If mythic vi­ol­ence is law­making, di­vine vi­ol­ence is law-​destroying; if the former sets bound­aries, the latter bound­lessly des­troys them; if mythic vi­ol­ence brings at once guilt and re­tri­bu­tion, di­vine power only ex­pi­ates; if the former threatens, the latter strikes; if the former is bloody, the latter is lethal without spilling blood” (Ibid.). Divine vi­ol­ence is ex­em­pli­fied by God’s judge­ment on the com­pany of Korah, who without warning or threat and without blood­shed is an­ni­hil­ated by God: the earth opens be­neath them, swal­lows them, and closes again without leaving any mark. In con­trast to mythic vi­ol­ence, di­vine vi­ol­ence does not as­pire to in­sti­tute as law a re­la­tion of dom­in­a­tion: di­vine vi­ol­ence ac­cepts sac­ri­fice. This is not sac­ri­fice for its own sake like the murder of Niobe’s chil­dren, but “for the sake of the living” (the com­pany of Korah is an­ni­hil­ated not for the sake of God but for the sake of those who are spared) (p. 250). “In an­ni­hil­ating” Benjamin writes, di­vine vi­ol­ence “also ex­pi­ates” (entsühnend) (Ibid.); it is how­ever not the “guilt” (Schuld) that is atoned for by the di­vine vi­ol­ence; di­vine vi­ol­ence pur­i­fies the guilty, not of their guilt but of the law.

How can we un­der­stand the puri­fic­a­tion of the guilty of the law by di­vine vi­ol­ence? What is “pure” (rein) about di­vine vi­ol­ence (die göt­t­liche reine Gewalt)? The German rein as the English pure car­ries the double meaning of some­thing clean, and some­thing ab­so­lute and un­al­loyed. Firstly, di­vine vi­ol­ence is pure (meaning clean) be­cause it has not been bas­tard­ized with law; it is pure as be­fore the fall of man; it is pure from the guilt of the law (the guilt Niobe feels for the death of her chil­dren). Secondly, di­vine vi­ol­ence is “pure” (meaning ab­so­lute or un­al­loyed) be­cause of the way it relates as a means to­wards an end. Where mythic legal vi­ol­ence does not dif­fer­en­tiate between me­diate vi­ol­ence (vi­ol­ence as a means to­wards and end) and im­me­diate vi­ol­ence (a mani­fest­a­tion of anger, or a re­la­tion of dom­in­a­tion), di­vine vi­ol­ence is “pure” and im­me­diate be­cause it puts for­ward in­de­pendent cri­teria for means and ends. Where mythic vi­ol­ence con­flates means and ends, di­vine vi­ol­ence sep­ar­ates means and ends. As Benjamin ar­gues, just ends can only be de­cided by God, and no law can be given for jus­ti­fied means; what we have is only a guideline (Richtschnur).

The sixth com­mand­ment, “Thou shalt not kill,” is an ex­ample of such a guideline. Benjamin’s use of the word Richtschnur is very telling in this con­text: “Thou shalt not kill” is ex­actly not a law (Recht) but a guideline (Richt-​schnur). A Richtschnur (which in German also is known as a Maurerschnur) is a mason’s line: a string (schnur) which is used to measure or cor­rect (richten) out a plane for a building by the ma­sons or brick­layers. A Richtschnur is an ap­prox­im­a­tion used prac­tic­ally to build a house. To build a good house the ma­sons, in gen­eral, would have to follow this Richschnur but some­times, be­cause of a broken ground, a good house could only be built if the Richtschnur is ig­nored. By sub­sti­tuting law (Recht) with the al­most ho­mo­phone Richt, Benjamin es­tab­lishes the fun­da­mental dif­fer­ence between mythic power (myt­ische Gewalt) and di­vine power (göt­t­liche Gewalt). The com­mand­ment is not law but a guideline which in gen­eral would have to be fol­lowed for human be­ings to live a good life, as the ma­sons in gen­eral have to follow it to build a good house. There might how­ever be situ­ations where it would have to be ignored.

Neither is the com­mand­ment law in the sense that a judg­ment of an act that ig­nores the guideline can be de­rived from the com­mand­ment: “No judg­ment of the deed can be de­rived from the com­mand­ment,” Benjamin ar­gues “and so neither the di­vine judge­ment nor the grounds for this judg­ment can be known in ad­vance. Those who base a con­dem­na­tion of all vi­olent killing of one person by an­other are there­fore mis­taken” (Ibid.). This mis­un­der­standing has to do with the gen­eral mis­un­der­standing, ar­gues Benjamin, that just ends can be the “ends of a pos­sible law” (p. 247). This mis­un­der­standing is grounded in the be­lief that just ends are cap­able of “gen­er­al­iz­a­tion,” that it, in other words, is pos­sible a priori to dis­crim­inate between right and wrong. This “con­tra­dicts the nature of justice,” Benjamin ar­gues, “for ends that in one situ­ation are just, uni­ver­sally ac­cept­able, and valid are so in no other situ­ation, no matter how sim­ilar the situ­ations may be in other re­spects” (Ibid.). For this reason, no law can in­cap­su­late justice. The only thing we have is the “edu­cative power” (erziehriches Gewalt) of the com­mand­ment “Thou shalt not kill” which can edu­cate us how to live a good life in the same way the ma­sons can learn from their Richtschnur. The com­mand­ment “ex­ists not as a cri­terion of judge­ment, but as a guideline for the ac­tions of per­sons or com­munities who have to wrestle with it in solitude and, in ex­cep­tional cases, to take on them­selves the re­spons­ib­ility of ig­noring it” (p. 250).

What are these ex­cep­tional cir­cum­stances? For Benjamin, the de­cayed mythic vi­ol­ence of the law of the modern state seems to make up such ex­cep­tional cir­cum­stances: the de­struc­tion of all legal vi­ol­ence and the state be­comes an “ob­lig­atory” task for the pure im­me­diate vi­ol­ence; di­vine vi­ol­ence. The pro­let­arian gen­eral strike and the ab­ol­ish­ment of state power which con­sti­tutes a break with the os­cil­la­tion between law­making and law-​preserving vi­ol­ence will lead to a found­a­tion of a new his­tor­ical epoch (neues geschicht­liches Zeitalter) (p. 252). Here we see why Derrida sum­mar­izes Benjamin’s po­s­i­tion as “messianico-​marxist or archeo-​eschatological” (Derrida, Force of Law, p. 1045).  The Critique of Violence is Benjamin’s polit­ical de­mand for a re­volu­tion: “the ex­ist­ence of vi­ol­ence out­side the law, as pure im­me­diate vi­ol­ence,” Benjamin writes, “fur­nishes proof that re­volu­tionary vi­ol­ence, the highest mani­fest­a­tion of un­al­loyed vi­ol­ence by man, is pos­sible, and shows by what means” (p. 252).

Benjamin is “messianico-​marxist” in that he ar­gues that di­vine vi­ol­ence sig­nals the coming of the Messiah in form of the re­volu­tionary gen­eral strike which will bring a new his­tor­ical epoch. He is “archeo-​escatological” in that he ar­gues that the eschat­o­logy of the re­volu­tionary gen­eral strike, mani­fested in the true war (wahrend Kriege) or the multitude’s Last Judgement on the crim­inal (Gottesgericht der Menge am Verbrecher).3 The multitude’s judg­ment on the state, will “ex­piate” the crimes com­mitted by the mythic vi­ol­ence of law and re­turn us to the time be­fore the decay (Verfall) of the law: “Once again all the eternal forms are open to pure di­vine vi­ol­ence, which myth bas­tard­ized with law” (p. 252).

In Benjamin’s final con­dem­na­tion of mythic vi­ol­ence, the Judaeo-​Christian con­nota­tions be­come ap­parent: “Verwerflich aber is alle myth­ische Gewalt” (p. 204). Verwerflich meaning un­right­eous, some­thing that has to be con­demned, comes from the verb Verwerfen, to dis­miss or to ab­olish, which again comes from the verb werfen meaning to throw: the law is thus as the Fall of man: an un­right­eous and con­dem­nable (Verwerflich) deed that has dis­missed (ver­werfen) the guilty from Paradise. Divine vi­ol­ence, how­ever, has the power to purify the guilty of the law. In this way, Benjamin calls for a re­volu­tion, which also car­ries the ori­ginal as­tro­nom­ical meaning of the com­ple­tion of a cycle: the re­volu­tion which con­sti­tutes a new his­tor­ical era will re­turn human kind to the time be­fore di­vine power was bas­tard­ized with law; in a word “archeo-​eschatology.”

Show 3 foot­notes

  1. In this art­icle I will refer to the fol­lowing trans­la­tion of Zur Kritik der Gewalt: Walter Benjamin. 1996. Critique of ViolenceSelected Writings; Volume 1;1913 – 1926. London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. For the ori­ginal German text see: Walter Benjamin. 1999. Zur Kritik der Gewalt in Walter Benjamin Gesammelte Schriften, vol. II. 1. Frankfurt am Main.
  2. Jacques Derrida. 1989 – 1990. Force of Law: The “Mythical Foundation of Authority” in Cardozo Law Review vol. 11p. 981.
  3. In Edmund Jephcott’s trans­la­tion trans­lated to ”di­vine judge­ment,” which, though not wrong, is mis­leading. See Benjamin, Violence, 252.

  1 comment for “Notes on the Thought of Walter Benjamin: Critique of Violence

  1. Elaine
    20 February 2014 at 12:47 pm

    I found this very helpful in aiding my un­der­standing of Benjamin.
    Thank you for posting this.

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