Walter Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence”, published in 1921, is an analysis of violence as it relates to the law, as means and as ends. He thinks that typical analyses of violence depend too much on its relation to ends, as in “the ends justify the means.” Here, he is trying to describe violence in itself, as somehow abstracted from particular legal frameworks or ends.
The essay works through several pairs of terms. First, he describes natural and positive law. Natural law is primarily concerned with its ends, either God’s justice or Darwinian evolution, while positive law is primarily concerned with means. However, they both agree that justified means and justified ends are related. Since Benjamin is primarily concerned with violence as means, he focuses on positive law. The legal system distinguishes between sanctioned and unsanctioned violence, and this pair turns out to depend on the difference between lawmaking and law-preserving violence. Finally, he shows how law making/preserving violence infects a wide variety of social relations and political causes, and attempts to find a kind of violence that is “outside” the law (and so outside typical social relations, in a revolutionary sort of way): divine violence.