Walter Benjamin

When Charles I became increasingly autocratic, John Milton, the poet, became a pamphleteer. Timothy Snyder, the author and Yale history professor, just became one, too: he published On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. The New Yorker, at least, calls On Tyranny a pamphlet (Gopnik). It’s 128 pages, but the book’s dimensions are so small that I read it in an hour.

I thought blogging had replaced pamphleteering, but maybe pamphlets are coming back. Distributing tactile, three-dimensional pamphlets goes along with On Tyranny‘s Lesson 13, “Practice corporeal politics”:

Protest can be organized through social media, but nothing is real that does not end on the streets. If tyrants feel no consequences for their actions in the three-dimensional world, nothing will change.

And pamphlets are fast – fast to write, publish, and read. (Not always so fast to reprint or ship, though: my hard copy of On Tyranny is on backorder for up to two months. But my Kindle version looks a bit like a pamphlet.)

Thomas Paine followed in Milton’s footsteps, of course, writing the pamphlet Common Sense and the pamphlet series The American Crisis. Paine was as much action as he was words: he moved to America in time for our revolution and then moved to France in time for theirs. Like Paine himself, the pamphlet – as a genre as much as a means of publication – seems like a healthy mix of action and writing. Walter Benjamin, whose political ideas made him a Gestapo target, thought so, too:

Significant literary effectiveness can come into being only in a strict alternation between action and writing; it must nurture the inconspicuous forms that fit its influence in active communities better than does the pretentious, universal gesture of the book – in leaflets, brochures, articles, and placards. Only this prompt language shows itself actively equal to the moment.

I think Benjamin would have found Snyder’s twenty lessons “equal to the moment.” Snyder reduces some of the material I read in his 2015 book Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning and, I suppose, his other writings to something like plainness – plain in the sense of direct, pithy, and relevant. One could read snatches of it to one’s friends in “the three-dimensional world.”

Snyder has taken some guff in the past for his subjectivity. The left-leaning magazine Jacobin complains that “his prose is white hot” (Lazare). Snyder joins “History” and “Warning” as if the past had something to teach us. But most pamphlets make little pretense at objectivity. The prospect of the president’s election, after all, caused over 350 political science professors at American colleges and universities to shed their objective mantle and sign a joint letter – about as long as a short pamphlet – warning the public about him. (The letter opens: “Political scientists seek to understand politics, not engage in politics. Yet . . .”)

I like what the German political scientist Eric Voegelin says about the impossibility of objectivity in his profession:

Whoever seeks to interpret, noetico-critically, the order of man, society, and history finds that at the time of his attempt the field is already otherwise occupied. For every society is constituted by the self-understanding of its order. (144)

Voegelin, another refugee from Nazi-occupied territory, made it his life’s mission to understand the last century’s political violence (3). I’m not really sure, though, if his predicate – “finds that at the time of his attempt the field is already otherwise occupied” – counsels subjectivity or haste.

In the case of the pamphlet, and to us in our present circumstances, probably both. Democracy and republicanism aren’t objective norms, and as Snyder writes in Lesson 2, democratic institutions don’t “automatically maintain themselves.”

Works Cited

Abramsom, Scott F., et al. “Political Scientists’ Statement of Concern about Donald Trump, Text and Signatures” Google Docs, 6 Nov. 2016, Accessed 11 Mar. 2017.

Benjamin, Walter. One-Way Street. Cambridge, MA, Belknap Press, 2016.

Gopnik, Adam. “The Words We Use About Donald Trump.” The New Yorker, Conde Nast, 10 Mar. 2017, Accessed 11 Mar. 2017.

Lazare, Daniel. “Timothy Snyder’s Lies.” Jacobin, 9 Sept. 2014, Accessed 11 Mar. 2017.

Snyder, Timothy. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. New York, Tim Duggan Books, 2017.

Voegelin, Eric. Anamnesis. University of Missouri Press, 1990.