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Walter Benjamin and “the feminine”: a survey departing from Bertolt Brecht’s Die Mutter

Käthe Kollwitz, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons

Working Woman (with Earing), 1910. Käthe Kollwitz 
(No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons).

By Anna Migliorini

While approaching “Epic Theatre” from a concrete standpoint in a short commentary on the premiere of Bertolt Brecht’s play Die Mutter [The Mother] in 1932, Walter Benjamin addresses the figure of the mother – then of the woman – in leftist struggle, and writes: “The mother is praxis incarnate” (SW 2.2, 561) [“Die Mutter ist die fleischgewordene Praxis” (GS II, 513)]. As this quote suggests, this essay (SW 2.2, 559-62) [GS II, 511-14] is only at first glance a piece of literary criticism. The context of Benjamin’s writing is, in fact, always multi-layered; we can distinguish, namely, the levels of commentary and critique, as well as those of material and truth content [“Sachgehalt” and “Wahrheitsgehalt”] (see Goethe’s Elective Affinities, SW 1, Goethes Wahlverwandtschaften, GS I, 125). Hence, while approaching concrete material, including, of course, in the field of original artistic production, he places the value of writing on a high theoretical level. In other words, one should read Benjamin’s interventions as always philosophically implicated.

In this case, we are dealing with one of the crucial instances where, according to commentators, Benjamin discusses “the feminine” [das Weibliche] in modern and contemporary society, doing so with a peculiar accentuation. In other passages, like those on the prostitute and prostitution (see esp. PW, Konvoluten “J” and “O” and the texts that make up Charles Baudelaire. Ein Lyriker im Zeitalter des Hochkapitalismus, as well as Das Leben der Studenten from 1915) or those on feminist Saint-Simonianism (see Claire Démar in PW, Konvolute “p”), and on the androgyne and the lesbian, the importance of the “female” seems strictly political (cf., for instance, Buci-Glucksmann 1984, 26-7). In his commentary on Die Mutter, in turn, Benjamin emphasises the positive relationship between the mother and the “communist” cause, i.e., class struggle and revolution, more directly and specifically. The mother is not a generic figure, but a concrete woman. The text has, in this regard, prompted commentators to raise the question of Benjamin’s position on feminism (see, for instance, McCann 2014, 100) and his political adherence (or distance) to it (see Buck-Morss 1986, 119-20). How his intellectual and everyday life come to bear on this issue, including the very rare, but undeniable presence of embarrassingly misogynist remarks in his work (see Benjamin’s words against Eva Fiesel in 1927-28, in Buck-Morss 1986, 122 who quotes from PW, B10, 2; GS III, 96-7 and GB III, 341-43) is something I will not address. Such instances do not pertain to the strict theoretical dimension of Benjamin’s work, which is generally free from the excessive influence of biographical and otherwise contingent elements.

While Benjamin’s commentary on Die Mutter falls doubtlessly outside any Marxist-Feminist frame as we now understand it (see Haug 2016), its emphasis on the protagonist of the play, i.e., on Pelagea Wlassowa, “widow of a worker and mother of a worker” (SW 2.2, 559 and 560) [“Witwe eines Arbeiters und Mutter eines Arbeiters” (GS II, 511)], arguably shares a common terrain with a contemporary intersectional analysis that aims to simultaneously interrogate the family, gender relations and capitalistic dynamics of oppression, making evident the power-multiplying effect of the “convergence of struggles”.

As “praxis incarnate” (SW 2.2, 561; “fleischgewordene Praxis”, GS II, 513), Pelagea’s role in class struggle is in the foreground. But that role is the result of a metamorphosis: she first appears on the scene as a “mere” mother, who cares and fights just for her son’s sake, literally from the raw material standpoint of securing food and basic comfort to Pavel, simply because she is a mother, and he is her son. Yet, because the son is politically engaged, the mother helps his cause indirectly while trying to protect his life and care for him. Bare [bloß] life comes first in a mother’s heart. On the other hand, the son is also the fruit of a woman’s body and, even if an only child, “incarnates” the proletariat. The mother, therefore, suddenly takes on the image of the means of production (and reproduction) of labour power (SW 2.2, 560; GS II, 512), though not consciously, or at least not immediately in her own eyes.

The mother reveals herself as doubly locked into the dynamics of capitalism; in Benjamin’s words she is “someone who is doubly exploited: first, as a member of the working class, and, second, as a woman and mother” (SW 2.2, 559) [“also eine zweifach Ausgebeutete: als Angehörige der Arbeiterklasse einmal, als Frau und Mutter ein zweites Mal” (GS II, 511)]. In which ‘order’ this oppression takes place is an interesting question. From her standpoint it is above all – and especially at the beginning – a matter of personal suffering (in Brecht’s text, moreover, Pelagea seems to always be able to reactivate her motherly and caring manners). And while she slips into the struggle in a non-voluntaristic manner, “Not in order to help Communism, but in order to help her son” (SW 2.2, 560) [“Nicht um dem Kommunismus zu helfen, sondern nur ihrem Sohn” (GS II, 512)], the results are still effective.

Her collaboration to the party line is, hence, pure from any ideological, acritical adhesion. “Yet she would not be reliable if she had not, at first, raised objections against Communism” (SW 2.2, 561) [“Und die Mutter wäre nicht zuverlässig, wenn sie nicht, anfangs, Einwände gegen den Kommunismus hätte” (GS II, 513)]. Her contribution to the struggle – driven by a “salutary common sense” (SW 2.2, 561, trans. mod.) [“gesunden Menschenverstand” (GS II, 514)] – is that much greater because her ambiguous position allows her to evade actual and potential enemies as well as comrades in arms’ doubts: she cleverly pushes other mothers to reflect and fight for the party’s cause with the argument that they should do it for their sons (SW 2.2, 560; GS II, 512) and escapes police controls because she appears to be, after all, just a mother, i.e., caring, illiterate and simple-minded, but in fact crafty – and she actively plays with this ambiguity.

Even if the plot’s unfolding objectively moves it in the direction of a higher level of consciousness and theoretical reflection, Benjamin’s critical appraisal goes further, by inquiring what seems evident in Brecht’s claim: “Can this social function [i.e., motherhood] become a revolutionary one, and how?” (SW 2.2, 559) [“Kann diese soziale Funktion zu einer revolutionären werden?” (GS II, 511)]. Departing from this question, Benjamin first underlines that Brecht uses simplification (GS II, 511-12) as a method for the exposition, yet with no critical aim. Brecht himself spoke of simplification as a general method for Epic Theatre.

Benjamin then points out the real movement inside the play between theory and praxis: the mother incarnates materiality, then praxis, but at the end also theory; the son comes to the scene as an agent of theory, but ends up performing reproduction practices, like cutting bread (SW 2.2, 561; GS II, 514). The power of this roleplay consists in the fact that the figure of the mother appears to follow the path of reason itself (through the form of “common sense”). She first fights in order to save and help her own son, then she fights for the proletarian cause and all the sons: by politicising peasants, workers and mothers – up to all the “Vlassovas” of all countries. This underscores the legitimacy and solidity of her actions, as well as the political cause and structure that lays behind it. “With all her forty years’ experience”, the mother, whose adventures are followed for several years (1907-1917) in the piece, “will confirm Marx and Lenin” (SW 2.2, 561) [“mit den Erfahrungen einer vierzigjährigen Vergangenheit Marx und Lenin bestätigt” (GS II, 514)]. In other words, she embodies both theory and praxis.

The added power of this roleplay resides at the theoretical level, and for two reasons. On the one side, there is the reflection on the role of “the female”; on the other, it allows Benjamin to approach the problem of empathy and identification. What seems then at stake here, even if one cannot simply superpose Benjamin and Brecht without reservations, is an extremely powerful figure of “the feminine” but expressed in a peculiar form. The Mother’s adhesion to communism, as mentioned above, is not ideological, but rather “functional”, practical. Even if driven by maternal love, her pathway to it is politically “objective” – from praxis to theory – rather than based on empathy or identification [Einfühlung]. Pelagea’s attitudes relate, in this regard, de facto to Benjamin’s anti-“Einfühlung” position as well as, intentionally, to Brecht’s “Verfremdung” mechanism. If “Einfühlung” is to be avoid because it nullifies critical thinking and enables adhesion to fascist positions/outcomes, “Verfremdung” can be read as having a technical correspondence to this disassociation in the theatrical context, but aimed at a better understanding of the popular, proletarian (communist) political cause. The rejection and interruption of identification between the actor and the character, as well as between the public and the actor, resonate in Benjamin’s philosophical-political position: if decisions are not based on “empathy”/identification, a change of position – political, historical and critical – is always possible. Because Pelagea lacks an identification with communism, she hence does not fall into a rigid ideological perspective.

This peculiar female subject is not Benjamin’s last word on “the feminine”. Nonetheless one could take its elements to rebuild a female emancipative subject that, while based on Benjamin’s work, potentially goes beyond it. With the reminder that this consists in a work of “deduction”, rather than a reconstruction of a somehow fully fledged theorization inscribed in Benjamin’s writings (see Weigel 1990, 24, who distances herself from the main thesis of Buci-Glucksmann 1984). Benjamin’s key suggestion appears to be that female power resides in women’s marginal positioning in modern-capitalistic society; the mother can thus substitute the prostitute as a form of “the feminine”, and the prostitute could also function as an allegorical figure, i.e. beyond the dialectical or ambiguous image, related to the commodity and the “Einfühlung” onto it (see: Buck-Morss 1986, 120; Buci-Glucksmann 1984, 21. cf: GS I, Anmerkungen to the Baudelaire’s Essay, 1151; PW, J60, 5).

Departing from Benjamin’s reflections on Die Mutter, we thus have to go back to how other forms of the feminine emerge in his work in the hopes of a more fleshed out viewpoint; this is, in turn, a long journey in space and time.

Anna Migliorini (Florence) received her PhD in Philosophy in 2021 from the Universities of Florence and Pisa. Her dissertation, titeld “Walter Benjamin e il ‘wirklicher Ausnahmezustand’” sets off and concludes with Thesis VIII of Über den Begriff der Geschichte (1940) and attempts to define the different conceptions and uses of  “exception” employed by Benjamin (often indirectly or under other keywords). She previously studied at Ca’ Foscari University as well as at Paris 1 – Panthéon-Sorbonne and at the University of Verona. Her engagement with Benjamin’s work began in this period as she approached his particular use of  the “eternal return”, comparing it with F.W. Nietzsche’s and L.-A. Blanqui’s usage of the concept.


W. Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften. R. Tiedemann and H. Schweppenhäuser (eds.). Frankfurt am Main 1972-1999 (GS I, II, III, V PW – Das Passagen-Werk).

id., Gesammelte Briefe. Vol. III 1915-1930. C. Gödde and H. Lonitz (eds.). Frankfurt am Main 1997 (GB III).

id., Selected Writings, Vol. 1, 1913-1926. M. W. Jennings and Marcus Bullock (eds.). Cambridge/London (SW 1).

id., Selected Writings, Vol. 2, part 2, 1931-1934. M. W. Jennings (ed.) Cambridge/London (SW 2.2)

B. Brecht, Die Mutter. Leben der Revolutionärin Pelagea Wlassowa aus Twer, Berlin 1970 [1931].

C. Buci-Glucksmann, Walter Benjamin und die Utopie des Weiblichen, Hamburg 1984.

S. Buck-Morss, “The Flaneur, the Sandwichman and the Whore: The Politics of Loitering”, New German Critique 39 (1986), 99-140.

F. Haug, “Marxism-Feminism”, in: Historical Materialism, vol. 24, n° 4 (2016), 257-270.

A. McCann, “Walter Benjamin’s sex work: prostitution and the state of exception”, Textual Practice, vol. 28, n° 1 (2014), 99-120.

S. Weigel, Topographien der Geschlechter: Kulturgeschichte Studien zur Literatur, Hamburg 1990.