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Western Marxism refers to the broad current of theoretical innovation by a number of Marxist-oriented political theorists and activists, beginning in the period immediately following the end of World War I and the 1918 Russian Revolution, enduring through the rise of European fascism in the early 1930s, and continuing in multiple versions to the present day. With a remarkable range of theoretical creativity, Western Marxists effectively recreated Marxism as an object of philosophical analysis, and rededicated themselves to the idea of Marx’s thought as worthy of theoretical reconstruction. In the process, they broke sharply from the rigid and simplified vision of Marxist theory and practice espoused by the official Party hierarchies.
Amnesty provisions offered by states as components of peacemaking or of longer term transitional processes are surely among the most controversial aspects of contemporary transitional justice. The offer of immunity from criminal prosecution to perpetrators of the most heinous of crimes is undeniably at odds with the demand for retribution, an affront to victims and survivors, and potentially a blow to the longer term prospects of establishing and strengthening legal institutions and the rule of law in transitional states. And yet amnesties have also undeniably proven themselves important components of negotiations that have resolved protracted conflicts or restored democracy after periods of authoritarian rule.
Arguments for and against domestic amnesties for serious crimes under international law are many and complex, in keeping with the remarkable number and diversity of amnesty policies and measures that have emerged in transitional contexts around the world over the past several decades. However, since the 1990s at least, an anti-impunity position has taken hold across a wide spectrum of international legal and political bodies such as the United Nations Secretariat and the IACHR, as well as international NGOs and academics. According to this position, as Kathryn Sikkink discusses in her chapter in this volume, individual criminal accountability for serious crimes under international law is a cornerstone of a global human rights community. Domestic amnesties that waive prosecution of individuals for designated acts are thus at odds with the basic values of such a community, and for this reason should be interpreted as contrary to states’ commitments under international law. The position, in other words, entails the project of removing amnesties, especially in relation to international crimes such as genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, from the political and legal tool kits of transitional states.
It is not unusual, when reading about the lives and works of influential philosophers, to encounter the view that their work transcends the times that the authors live in; that the most influential philosophers think and write about highly abstract metaphysical or universal ideas and problems that are not specific to any particular historical or social context, and that for this reason they and their texts are “in conversation”, not with their own contemporaries but with their philosophical predecessors, however historically remote they may be. One implication of this view is that there are other philosophers, perhaps those who have less of an interest in abstract, metaphysical, or “timeless” questions, who therefore have a correspondingly thicker and more influential relationship with their own historical context; they're “in conversation” with those among whom they live, rather than with the great figures of the history of philosophy.
If this view is correct, then the first set of context-transcending philosophers may sacrifice their relevance for their own contemporaries, but they are rewarded by the timeless and universal significance of what they think and write about. Conversely, the context-immanent philosophers may not age especially well, since they think and write about problems that may be specific to their own times, but they are rewarded by the relevance and influence they can assert within their own society. It is easy to see how this view implies a conclusion about the difference between these two types of thinkers: timeless philosophy is serious or important philosophy, the real work of the perennial search for transcendent truth.
It's not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on the past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation. In other words, image is dialectics at a standstill. For while the relation of the present to the past is a purely temporal, continuous one, the relation of what-has-been to the now is dialectical: is not progression but image, suddenly emergent. – Only dialectical images are genuine images (that is, not archaic); and the place where one encounters them is language.
“Awakening” (Arcades, 462; n2a, 3)
Reading this well-known entry from the “N” convolute of Benjamin's Arcades Project, even the most seasoned Benjamin expert might be forgiven a feeling of helplessness in the face of such a powerful and enigmatic array of claims. The breathtaking evocation of an alternative temporality that this quote contains in characteristically elliptical and compacted form, the glimpse at an entirely new conception of historiography that breaks with previous categories of interpretation, the notion of an image-based historical sensibility as the genuine mode of historical interpretation – these are as fascinating and compelling as any moment in modern philosophy. But, at the same time, one cannot avoid the feeling that this quote, and others like it in Benjamin's Arcades Project, is a theoretical promissory note that would prove difficult if not impossible to redeem. What possible philosophy of history could explicate the difference between the past and “what-has-been,” between the present and the “now”?
It has long been a curious feature of Jürgen Habermas's reception in the English-speaking world that, for all the intense and exhaustive scrutiny of his critical social theory, Habermas's role as a politically engaged intellectual, polemicist, and essayist in the political public sphere has received relatively little attention. Given the consistency with which Habermas himself has worked toward a normative theory of political participation - and also given the fact that, over the last decade or so, Habermas has rather unobtrusively emerged as Germany's most prominent intellectual as well as its most influential social theorist - this lack of interest in Habermas's “moonlighting role as an intellectual” seems difficult to explain.
In what follows, I would like to sketch in very broad strokes the major focus of Habermas’s activity as a politically active intellectual over the past few years, in order to suggest that, to an unrivaled degree, Habermas has single-mindedly worked to bring his theoretical and his political writings into a steadily closer relation with each other. The universalism that lies at the heart of Habermasian theory remains an empty abstraction unless it can be reconstructed within the context of a concrete lifeworld; it thus cannot be disassociated from the particular fate of universal mentalities - what Habermas calls “constitutional patriotism” - in the Federal Republic. Conversely, Habermas’s political writings on the Federal Republic are unified by the single-minded project of protecting and cultivating a form of republican commitment that only makes sense insofar as there is a corollary theoretical justification of moral-political universalism.
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