- Wm Shakespeare, "Julius Caesar"
"And Caesar's spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Atë' by his side come hot from Hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch's voice
Cry "Havoc!" and let slip the dogs of war, ...
At first sight, then, Benjamin is in perfect accord with Stalinism concerning this 'perspective of the Last Judgement': but here we should follow the same advice as with 'love at first sight': take a second look. If we do it, it soon becomes clear how this apparent proximity only confirms that Benjamin has touched the real nerve of the Stalinist symbolic edifice - he was the only one to question radically the very idea of 'progress' implied by the accountancy of the big Other of history and - precursor, in this respect, of the famous Lacanian formula that development 'is nothing but a hypothesis of domination' - to demonstrate the uninterrupted connection between progress and domination: 'The concept of the historical progress of mankind cannot be sundered from the concept of its progression through a homogeneous, empty time' (Thesis XIII) - that is, from the temporality of the ruling class.- Slavoj Zizek, "The Sublime Object of Ideology"
The Stalinist perspective is that of a victor whose final triumph is guaranteed in advance by the 'objective necessity of history'; which is why, in spite of the accent on ruptures, leaps. revolutions, his view on past history is evolutionary throughout. History is conceived as the continuous process of replacing old masters with new: each victor played a 'progressive role' in his time, then lost his purpose because of unavoidable development: yesterday, it was the capitalist who acted in accordance with the necessity of progress; today it's our turn... In Stalinist accountancy, 'objective guilt' (or contribution) is measured by the laws of historical development - of continuous evolution towards the Supreme Good (Communism). With Benjamin, in contrast, the 'perspective of the Last Judgement' is the perspective of those who have paid the price for a series of great historical triumphs; the perspective of those who had to fail, to miss their aim, so that the series of great historical deeds could be accomplished; the perspective of hopes deceived, of all that have left in the text of history nothing but scattered, anonymous, meaningless traces on the margin of deeds whose 'historical greatness' was attested to by the 'objective' gaze of official historiography.
This is why, for Benjamin, revolution is not part of a continuous historical evolution but, on the contrary, a moment of 'stasis' when the continuity is broken, when the texture of previous history, that of the winners, is annihilated, and when, retroactively, through the success of the revolution, each abortive act, each slip, each past failed attempt which functioned in the reigning text as an empty and meaningless trace, will be 'redeemed', will receive its signification. In this sense, revolution is strictly a creationist act, a radical intrusion of the 'death drive': erasure of the reigning Text, creation ex nihilo of a new Text by means of which the stifled past 'will have been'.
To refer to the Lacanian reading of Antigone: if the Stalinist perspective is that of Creon, the perspective of the Supreme Good assuming the shape of the Common Good of the State, the perspective of Benjamin is that of Antigone - for Benjamin, revolution is an affair of life or death; more precisely: of the second, symbolic death. The alternative opened up by the revolution is that between redemption, which will retroactively confer meaning on the 'scum of history' (to use this Stalinist expression) - on what was excluded from the continuity of Progress - and the apocalypse (its defeat), where even the dead will again be lost and will suffer a second death: 'even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins' (Thesis VI).
We can thus conceive the opposition between Stalinism and Benjamin as that between evolutionary idealism and creationist materialism. In his Seminar on The Ethic of Psychoanalysis, Lacan pointed out how the ideology of evolutionism always implies a belief in a Supreme Good, in a final Goal of evolution which guides its course from the very beginning. In other words, it always implies a hidden, disavowed teleology, whereas materialism is laways creationist - it always includes a retroactive movement: the final Goal is not inscribed in the beginning; things receive their meaning afterwards; the sudden creation of an Order confers backward signification on to the preceding Chaos.
A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.--Walter Benjamin