What Is the Importance of Political Violence? Walter Benjamin’s Take

Walter Benjamin describes violence as pernicious and problematic, but the divine violence he justifies instead is not without its own difficulties.

Dec 15, 2022By Moses May-Hobbs, BA Art History w/ Philosophy Concentration
walter benjamin importance political violence


Walter Benjamin’s ‘Critique of Violence’ is a notoriously knotty text, underpinned by a complex taxonomy of violence and an expansive eye on myth, theology, and organized labor. The text is by no means a straightforward analysis of the justification of violence in different contexts (though it has implications for everything from self-defense to revolution), nor does it directly defend or reject the use of violence (though it decries the ‘perniciousness’ of almost everything we would recognize as violence). The critique seeks to reveal the underlying functions of violence, and the ways in which it – and the threat of it – are foundational to the operation of the law and the state. Benjamin also, however, raises in the final paragraphs of the essay, the possibility of another kind of violence, which in its purity and absolute power escapes the faults and perniciousness of ordinary force: divine violence.


Walter Benjamin on Law, Means, Ends, and the Function of Violence

Walter benjamin photograph
Walter Benjamin at the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, 1937


Walter Benjamin begins his analysis with an understanding of violence and its justification that is deeply familiar. On the one hand we have ends, objectives and outcomes of our actions, and on the other we have means, the actions by which we pursue ends, and live our lives. Since ends are the effects of means, the justification of the two appears bound together, with one depending upon the justification of the other. Thus, Benjamin distinguishes between natural law – in which ends are first determined just or unjust, and any means are justified which attain just ends – and positive law, in which means are first judged legal and illegal, and their effects ruled just or otherwise depending on the legality of the means.


Walter Benjamin is concerned primarily with the latter, since positive law describes the actual legal system of most existing human societies, while he associates natural law with a state of nature – a pre-civilized and violent domain. Indeed, Benjamin identifies much of the law as we know it as being concerned with suppressing natural ends, where those ends might be pursued with violence, and substituting in their stead legal ends.


He limits, therefore, the subject of the critique to the realm of means, arguing that the blindness of natural law to means ignores the specific character and significance of violence. Since for Benjamin, violence is inextricably bound up in the operation of state and law (and also in its potential destruction), it warrants thorough and particular consideration as a means.


allegory of war and Law
Daniel Gran, Allegory of War and Law, 1730 via Wikimedia Commons.

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Positive law at first appears to be concerned with regulating violence by making it illegal, but both the motivation and foundation for this suppression is violence itself. It is not merely that the law substitutes legal ends for natural ones because natural ends might undermine the state, since Benjamin points out that this would still leave room for violently pursuing legal ends.


Rather, the law aims to attain a monopoly on the use of violence, suggesting that violence produces instability of its own accord – it is incompatible with the existence of states and laws. The reality, however, is that violence is vital for both the creation and maintenance of law itself, and the existing state therefore suppresses its illegal expressions for fear of being usurped, not by chaos but by new law.


Law-making and Law-preserving Violence

polish soviet propaganda poster
Stepan Mukharsky, Polish Soviet Propaganda Poster, 1920 via Wikimedia Commons.


Laws, treaties, borders, state, peace. All this, Walter Benjamin claims, rests upon a bedrock of violence and violent threat. Power, be it political or military, achieves victory not in the annihilation of the thing it opposes, but in gaining the right to create rules, rules which it then reserves the right to uphold by use and threat of violence. The former describes the law-making function of violence, the latter its law-preserving function.


As such, Benjamin thinks the arguments conventionally made by pacifists in opposition to conscription, war, and even to violence in general remain too narrow in their scope. After all, violence is not only foundational to law, it also tends both to produce law and to be produced by it; insofar as the state cannot impose or maintain its laws without recourse to the violent suppression of usurpers and law-breakers, and insofar as it is the use of legal violence that identifies the state.


Therefore, Benjamin argues, the critique of violence must coincide with a critique of the state and its law-giving function, rather than restraining itself only to the critique of war, which is only an expression of the law’s ordinary operation. Unlike the forms of non-violent agreement that may emerge between individuals, war and diplomacy rest on agreements that give conditions for the use of violence (breaches of treaties, trespassing of borders, and so on); they live and die with violence.


decamps turkish patrol
The Turkish Patrol by Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps, 1831, via the Met Museum.


Benjamin’s specific criticism of violence and of the state and laws that rely on it is elusive. Though he repeatedly refers to the ‘problematic nature’ of legal violence, it is hard to point out a single section that describes the problems that proceed from this violence. The answer, as we shall see, appears to be primarily a theological one.


There is however, a more straightforward indication of the problems that follow legal violence. The two functions of violence, Benjamin says, oscillate dialectically according to a dynamic in which law-preserving violence – which upholds laws established through law-making violence – gradually weakens that initial power ‘by suppressing hostile counter-violence’, thus paving the way for new law-making violence. In the institution of the police, however, this distinction collapses. Rather than merely upholding the laws of the state, the ‘law’ of the police represents for Benjamin:


“…the point at which the state, whether from impotence or because of the immanent connections within any legal system, can no longer guarantee through the legal system the empirical ends that it desires at any price to attain.”
Walter Benjamin, Critique of Violence, 1921


What results from this collapsed distinction, is an institution unchecked by the dialectic of law-making and law-preserving violence, and capable therefore of expansion, brutality, and censorship on a unique scale. Benjamin writes: ‘[I]ts power is formless, like its nowhere-tangible, all-pervasive, ghostly presence in the life of civilized states.’


The Political Strike and the Proletarian General Strike

strike death famine
Heinz Fuchs, Workers. Famine. Death Is Approaching. Strike Destroys. Work Nourishes. Do Your Duty. Work. 1919, via the MoMA.


Benjamin distinguishes between two main kinds of workers’ strike, a split he attributes to political theorist Georges Sorel. The distinction introduces the question of revolution, and of revolutionary violence, whose justification is the most obvious and contentious issue touched by Benjamin’s overarching question. The ‘political strike’ describes the familiar and quotidian kind of industrial action: the employees of a particular company, or within a given industry, withdraw their labor and agree to resume work when their demands are met (in this category Benjamin also includes the ‘abortive’ German revolution of 1918). The demands – usually for better conditions, hours, or pay – are hoped to be granted, in part or in full, by owners and managers.


For Benjamin this is an undoubtedly violent act, insofar as it entails a threat of destruction to the company, and by this threat pursues the workers’ natural ends. It is particular and novel, therefore, as a legal form of violence beyond the monopoly of the state.


Benjamin attributes this surprising concession to two factors which elucidate the nature of the law. First, that the gradual weakening of law-preserving violence, described above, means that the law no longer trusts its own capacity to forcefully suppress usurpers, and so grants the right to strike out of desperate necessity. Second, the law prefers (and this will again prove relevant to Benjamin’s concluding thoughts on divine violence) to assimilate counter-violence, and thus preserve the legal stranglehold on violence, which it then relies upon in the case of the general strike.


The general strike, when workers across industries cease work not with specific demands to be granted by their existing bosses, but with the intention of overturning the nature of work and power at large, is instead law-destroying. The general proletarian strike promises only to resume a ‘wholly transformed work’: forms of work and life not to be granted by existing masters, and thus containing no extortive demands.


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Photograph of the Amherst General Strike, 1919 via Wikimedia Commons.


In discussing the proletarian general strike, Benjamin also reveals the most radical implications of the essays opening paragraphs. He relies upon a complete separation not only between the justification of means and ends, but also between the character of means and effects. Thus, he upholds the proletarian general strike as non-violent, even if its effects involve widespread violence, because it consists of pure means, and its character is unaffected by its effects.


Meanwhile the political strike is definitively violent because it involves extortion: the promise that work will resume once the strikers’ demands are met. In other words, the political strike is defined by law-making violence, even if that violence remains virtual: a threat implied by the act of extortion. By contrast, the proletarian general strike, or the onset of revolution proper, is ‘pure means’, unconcerned with ends or effects.


Where the political strike imposes new laws – new wages or working conditions – and thereby consolidates the power of the law-giving state, the proletarian general strike is, for Benjamin, positively anarchistic, concerned not with manipulating the handles of law-making power but with destroying them altogether. The law-destroying character of the general strike, combined with its status as pure means, points us in the direction of divine violence, with which Benjamin concludes his essay.


The Mythic and the Divine

levites carrying the tabernacle
Unknown Author, The Levites Carrying the Tabernacle, 1873 via Wikimedia Commons.


Benjamin does not, however, believe that violence can or should be done away with altogether. Although the bulk of the critique concerns legalistic violence, and its constant struggles with power and threat, and condemns this violence as pernicious and problematic, doomed to an endless insolubility and a cycle of weakening and violent overthrows, there is another kind of violence, too. This other kind is crucial, since Benjamin nevertheless thinks some violence essential both generally for solving problems and specifically for political transformation. He writes:


“Since, however, every conceivable solution to human problems, not to speak of deliverance from the confines of all the world-historical conditions of existence obtaining hitherto, remains impossible if violence is totally excluded in principle, the question necessarily arises as to what kinds of violence exist other than all those envisaged by legal theory.”
Walter Benjamin, ‘Critique of Violence’, 1921


The violence he opposes to mythic violence (the essential structure of which is exhibited in law-making and law-preserving force) is divine violence: bloodless, absolute, and completely other.


The looming purity of divine violence, it becomes clear in the critique’s closing passages, is what underpins Benjamin’s condemnation of legal and mythic violence (the two being ‘fundamentally identical’). The perniciousness, the guiltiness, and the bloodiness of legal violence find their opposites in God’s absolute force. This violence should not be construed as violent only in name, divine violence (which Benjamin illustrates through the story of God’s judgment of the Levites) is more completely annihilating than mythic violence, striking without warning and leaving no trace. In this annihilation, Benjamin sees the expiation of guilt, and the transcendence of ‘mere life’: divine violence is above all cleaner and more powerful than the violence we know.


Photograph of Jacques Derrida; Derrida’s critique of Benjamin’s essay calls it ‘too Heideggerian, too messianico-Marxist or archeo-eschatological’ (via Wikimedia Commons).


The problem, of course, is that this violence is so utterly different that we may not recognize it where we find it. Worse, Benjamin warns that legal violence, where it finds the edges of the divine, will try to assimilate and contaminate divine violence with guilt, threat, and blood. But there is another problem: if we step outside the theological foundations of Benjamin’s thinking, divine violence does not – perhaps – seem less worthy of condemnation than legal violence.


In a response to Benjamin’s essay, Jacques Derrida raises a discomfiting question: if complete annihilation is what distinguishes divine violence (the only kind of violence Benjamin appears to justify), what acts might we inadvertently commend? Was not, Derrida asks, the Holocaust – by this definition – an exemplary instance of divine violence? The unrecognizability of this new violence, its quasi-mystical quality, is as terrifying in possibility as it is a comforting escape from the bind of legal violence.

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By Moses May-HobbsBA Art History w/ Philosophy ConcentrationMoses May-Hobbs is a recent graduate of Cambridge University. His writing focuses on aesthetics, the philosophy of art, and film criticism. He is currently working as a contributing writer and editor, while writing in his spare time on the philosophy of language, perception, and affect.