Benjamin, Brecht, Hume, and Marx: The Communistic Self

by Shaun Terry

“‘Communism is not radical. It is capitalism that is radical.’” — Bertolt Brecht, quoted in “A Family Drama in the Epic Theater,” (Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Vol. 2, p. 559)


(note: I may use gender-neutral “they,” “them,” “their,” and/or “theirs” to refer to anonymous imagined persons)


Benjamin saw the individual as contingent, composed of a kind of palimpsest of constituent parts, all changing and shifting about one another. In “Notes from Svendborg,” he says, “For you have to divide up the traveler, as well as the journey. And since in doing this you abolish the unity of life, you likewise do away with its brevity. However short it may be. This doesn’t matter, because the man who started out on his journey is different from the man who arrives.” (Vol. 2, p. 788) Benjamin supposes that we have to divide up the individual in order to try to understand them, but as we divide up the individual, we must also divide up the individual’s activities. Benjamin is concerned both with time and place, and he sees them as linked in the individual’s experience. Who a person is depends both on time and space, and the individual that appears in those moment-places is always producing a new iteration of the individual. The apparent brevity of life is subverted by the fact that the individual changes from moment-to-moment. What might otherwise seem like a brief encounter is—for any particular iteration of the individual—that individual’s entire existence. This conception bears relationships to David Hume’s critique of the notion of the self[1], as well as Marx’s conception of the tension between self-interest and altruism, as described in his discussion of the alienation of the species-being[2].

The comparison to Hume’s self is clear: both Hume and Benjamin see the self as lacking a permanently static, essential component.

The comparison to Marx’s alienation of the species-being is less clear. Marx states that capitalism forces people to choose between caring for themselves and caring for the collective. In Benjamin’s “From the Brecht Commentary,” he says, “The victor must not allow the defeated the experience of defeat. He must snatch this, too; he must share defeat with the defeated.” (Vol. 2, p. 375) If we consider Benjamin’s quotation above, along with this one, the relationship between Benjamin’s writing and Marx’s alienation of the species-being becomes clearer. In the earlier quotation, Benjamin sees the individual as contingent. The individual is partly contingent on social relations, as well as on other factors. Proletarian victories, as Benjamin talks about in “From the Brecht Commentary,” require that victors also appropriate defeat. The necessity of this appropriation is what leads to the overcoming of Marx’s problem: in order for society to come into a situation by which one’s self-interest is aligned with the interest of the collective, no one can win or lose more than anyone else. By appropriating defeat, equity of classes appears where there was inequity.

[1] Hume says, “For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception. When my perceptions are removed for any time, as by sound sleep; so long am I insensible of myself, and may truly be said not to exist. And were all my perceptions removed by death, and could I neither think, nor feel, nor see, nor love, nor hate after the dissolution of my body, I should be entirely annihilated, nor do I conceive what is farther requisite to make me a perfect non-entity.” Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature. Oxford: Clarendon Press.1888. 252.

[2] Marx, Karl. “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts.” Early Writings. New York: Penguin Books. 1992. 327-9.

Benjamin, Walter. Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Vol. 2. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 1966.