Between Prophecy and Apocalypse: Buber, Benjamin, and Socialist Eschatology

Published date01 June 2021
Date01 June 2021
AuthorAsher Wycoff
Subject MatterArticles
Political Theory
2021, Vol. 49(3) 354 –379
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0090591720939044
Between Prophecy and
Apocalypse: Buber,
Benjamin, and Socialist
Asher Wycoff1
Martin Buber’s political thought has enjoyed renewed attention lately,
particularly his concept of “theopolitics,” a type of political practice that
recognizes God as the ultimate political authority. In Buber’s biblical
exegesis, theopolitics is a condition of everyday life in premonarchical Israel,
but following the installation of the monarchy, it becomes a specialized
activity of prophets, consisting chiefly in divinely commanded intercession
against state actions. Buber suggests that a version of this prophetic activity
is manifest in present-day socialist cooperatives, especially the kibbutzim.
Indeed, for Buber, these cooperatives can be seen as laying the groundwork
for messianic redemption. This essay probes some potentially troubling
implications of Buber’s theopolitical framework, taking objections raised in
Walter Benjamin’s correspondence as an entry point. A central concern for
Benjamin is Buber’s nationalist articulation of Jewish identity, which appears
all the more problematic when considered in tandem with the teleological
view of history evident in Buber’s framework.
eschatology, Martin Buber, messianism, political theology, socialism, Walter
1Department of Political Science, The Graduate Center, CUNY, New York, NY, USA
Corresponding Author:
Asher Wycoff, Department of Political Science, The Graduate Center, CUNY, 365 Fifth
Avenue, Ste. 5202, New York, NY 10016, USA.
939044PTXXXX10.1177/0090591720939044Political TheoryWyco
Wycoff 355
In his postwar treatise on socialism, Paths in Utopia, Martin Buber posits a
provocative dichotomy. All socialist movements, he writes, can be categorized
under one of “two basic forms of eschatology”: the “prophetic” or the “apoca-
lyptic.”1 Prophecy is the province of utopian socialists, whose efforts at social
renewal take the form of voluntary communities, and who thus privilege
human agency in the redemption of the world. Apocalypse, meanwhile, is the
province of Marxist socialism, a doctrine of grand historical tendencies, the
reality of which is revealed to preordained revolutionary agents at decisive
moments. Buber’s prophecy–apocalypse distinction refracts Engels’s distinc-
tion between utopian and scientific socialisms through a theological lens,
inverting the value judgment to favor the former over the latter. If “prophetic”
socialist projects often fail, at least their failures are less catastrophic and their
achievements less ambiguous than those of “apocalyptic” socialism. In the
epilogue to Paths, Buber locates the best hope for “an experiment that [will]
not fail” in the kibbutzim. The postwar choice for socialists, he concludes, is
not between Washington and Moscow, but between Moscow and Jerusalem.2
Buber’s political thought has attracted renewed attention in the past
decade, as many find in his “theopolitics” a radical corrective to the poten-
tially reactionary formulations of “political theology.”3 Particularly attractive
in this reading is Buber’s “prophetic” emphasis on human agency and atten-
dant libertarian impulse toward voluntary cooperation. While Buber presents
his socialist theopolitics as a form of eschatology, he is neither a “reaction-
ary” who wants to return to a prelapsarian state4 nor a dogmatic revolutionary
bent on curing all the world’s ills in one stroke.5 His “prophetic” utopian
socialism achieves its ends through voluntary association and nondomination
rather than revolutionary terror. From a present-day vantage point, three
decades after the end of the Cold War, this type of voluntary, decentralist
socialism can appear quite attractive.
Some of Buber’s contemporaries did not share this appreciation. Walter
Benjamin, for instance, greatly disliked Buber’s politics, a disposition he ini-
tially held on the basis of Buber’s support for Germany in World War I and
that would only deepen over the next two decades. In his personal correspon-
dence, Benjamin proclaims an “insurmountable mistrust” of Buber, which he
attributes to Buber’s ostensible capitulations to nationalism and appropria-
tions of racial terminology.6 Absent attention to this private animosity, the gulf
between Benjamin and Buber could understandably be missed. Although the
two authors’ methods and writing styles differ unmistakably, if one takes them
independently as theological-political authors, it is clear they overlap in theo-
retical priorities and influences. Both Buber and Benjamin develop sophisti-
cated theologies of history informed by eclectic syntheses of socialist, German
romantic, and Jewish messianic concepts, and both share a commitment to

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