The return of disposable time: time filled with the presence of the now

Book proposal: Marx’s Fetters and the Realm of Freedom: a remedial reading — part 2.9

by Tom Walker


Framing the revolution as being about disposable time brings Marx closer to Walter Benjamin’s remark about revolution being “the act by which the human race traveling in the train applies the emergency brake.” Benjamin’s “On the concept of history” was composed in the wake of Benjamin’s despair at the Hitler-Stalin pact that sealed his disillusionment with the Soviet Union along with the interpretation of historical materialism as a story of progress. “Why should we be the very generation with the luck to experience redemption?” Benjamin asked his friend Soma Morgenstern in 1939. 

One of Benjamin’s draft theses that didn’t make it to his final draft, the notion of revolution as an emergency brake to stop the runaway locomotive of history, has become axiomatic. In the subsequent omitted thesis, Benjamin criticized Marx’s notion that the classless society would come as the result of historical progress: “But classless society is not to be conceived as the endpoint of historical development. From this erroneous conception Marx’s epigones have derived (among other things) the notion of the ‘revolutionary situation,’ which, as we know, has always refused to arrive.” 

In yet another draft thesis, Benjamin praised Marx for secularizing “the idea of messianic time.” Benjamin could not have known of Marx’s discussion of disposable time in the Grundrisse. Benjamin was concerned with “time filled with the presence of the now” as opposed to the “homogeneous empty time” that characterized the concept of historical progress. This chapter will explore the possibility of a fruitful dialogue between Marx’s – and Dilke’s – disposable time and Benjamin’s now time (Jetztzeit).