Fire Alarm: Reading Walter Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History”

This illuminating study of Benjamin’s final essay helps unlock the mystery of this great philosopher.
Revolutionary critic of the philosophy of progress, nostalgic of the past yet dreaming of the future, romantic partisan of materialism ... Walter Benjamin is in every sense of the word an “unclassifiable” philosopher. His essay “On the Concept of History” was written in a state of urgency, as he attempted to escape the Gestapo in 1940, before finally committing suicide.

Michael Löwy argues that it remains one of the most important philosophical and political writings of the twentieth century, in this scrupulous, clear and fascinating examination. Looking in detail at Benjamin’s celebrated but often mysterious text, and restoring the philosophical, theological and political context, Lowy highlights the complex relationship between redemption and revolution in Benjamin’s philosophy of history.


  • “Sensitive to Benjamin’s profound anxiety and the tragic vision of the world, Löwy traces the unfurling of this 'revolutionary melancholia,' which is haunted by the recurrence of disasters... It is unusual to explore the depths of a text in this manner, but it is true that we have here the text of an exceptional thinker.”


  • Protesting in France could land you in prison

    The right to demonstrate is non-negotiable. But in towns and cities across France, society is being reordered in a way that criminalises social and political struggles.

    In Madrid, the opponents of the new Internal Security Act organized a demonstration of holograms in the Spanish Parliament.

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  • We Are Alive: A film about the thought, activism and legacy of Daniel Bensaïd

    A day after what would have been Daniel Bensaïd's 69th birthday, we publish this interview with Chilean director Carmen Castillo, whose film We Are Alive draws continuities from his writing and activism to contemporary struggle across two continents. Here she recounts her meetings with Bensaïd as a young activist and her experience making the film.

    Daniel Bensaïd in 2008.

    Carmen Castillo was born in Chile, and worked for the Allende government before entering the clandestine resistance together with her partner Miguel Enriquez after the Pinochet coup of 11 September 1973. Arrested and then expelled from her homeland (after an international campaign for her release), she recounted her tragic history in two books and then her 2007 film Calle Santa Fe.

    The director continues to be haunted by a number of questions. How can we pass on the memory of the defeated without suffocating it with nostalgia or bitterness? What can we do today to keep loyal to the ideas of friends, loved ones and comrades who are no longer of this world – a world that they were so passionate about changing? How can we hope, now that we know that nothing is written in advance (as some of us used to believe)?

    Castillo’s next film, We Are Alive, comes to French cinemas on 29 April. Making use of the thought of philosopher Daniel Bensaïd, Castillo portrays the daily struggles of all those across two continents who throw themselves into the ‘joyous passion’ of struggle – despite everything, and however ignored they are by the big media cartels.

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  • Michael Löwy: The Nicos Poulantzas I knew

    On the weekend of the international conference on Nicos Poulantzas’s work held at the Sorbonne on 16–17 January, Contretemps published this interview with Michael Löwy, who was for seven years the late Greek-French thinker’s assistant at the Université de Paris 8-Vincennes.

    Can you tell us about how you met Nicos Poulantzas?

    In the 1960s my Brazilian friend Emir Sader – who to this day remains one of the most important Latin American Marxists – was living in exile in France.[1] After my own move to France in 1969 I met with Emir one day and he said to me: ‘I have to leave for Chile’ (this was a few months before Salvador Allende’s Unidad Popular came to power, in 1970), ‘can you take my place as Nicos Poulantzas’s assistant at Vincennes university’? I said ‘yes, of course…’ That was when he introduced me to Nicos, who also agreed to this.

    At that time, Nicos knew nothing of my own theoretical and political pedigree. He had no reason to worry about that, since Emir had vouched for me. But we belonged to very different tribes of Marxists: he was an Althusserian whereas I was a Lukácsian, he was semi-Maoist and then a Eurocommunist, whereas I was a Trotskyist. And yet we got along marvellously well. Over the years we organised courses on the Third International, the national question, state theory, Lenin, Gramsci… And at the outset we had decided to do the courses together. The students loved this, because they heard two different points of view on each of these themes. Our little duo lasted for some years…

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Other books by Michael Löwy Translated by Chris Turner