Ernst Bloch and Utopian Marxist Philosophy

ernst-bloch.jpgGerman Marxist philosopher, whose interest in Utopian thought has perhaps had as much, if not more, influence on theology (Moltmann 1967) than on philosophy or cultural theory. It is perhaps only a slight exaggeration to suggest that Ernst Bloch‘s (1885-1977) substantial and diverse output may best be understood as a gloss upon Marx’s observation that ‘religion is the opium of the masses’ (Marx 1975, p. 244). Marx may be interpreted as saying, not that religion is a mere narcotic that inures the oppressed to their oppression, but rather that religion is also the source of images (akin to opium dreams) of a better life. While such images should not be taken literally (so that the Christian ‘heaven upon earth’, for example, may never be realised), they can be taken seriously, for if read critically they express much of what is wrong with contemporary society, in a yearning for something better. Bloch’s most distinctive works, and especially his magnum opus, The Principle of Hope (1986b), explore in great scholarly detail the expressions of the human aspiration to a better, more just life, found throughout human culture (in religion, high and popular art, geography and exploration, and science and technology).

While Bloch’s philosophy is overwhelmingly concerned with the historical and political struggle towards a just society, unlike many more orthodox Marxists — and not least his sometime friend and contemporary Lukacs — he refuses to offer any concrete account of a just communist society. He has, as it were, no absolute account of the good, and thus no Archimedean point from which he can condemn the wrongs of existing societies. Bloch turns rather to culture as an expression of discontent. Ordinary people feel that something is wrong, that life could be better, and their cultural achievements express this yearning. The theoretical apparatus that Bloch develops to interpret this culture thus focuses upon the unfinished nature of humanity and human history. Concepts such as the ‘open system’, ‘nonsynchronicity’, ‘preappearance’ and his key logical operator, the ‘not yet’, all serve to challenge any presupposition of determinacy or completeness in the analysis of human affairs. ‘Open system’ confronts the closure of the Hegelian system (Hegel 1970, 1971, 1975a). While Bloch wishes to employ Hegelian dialectical logic, he is critical of the way in which Hegel closes off the dynamics of his thinking by the premature declaration of the attainment of absolute knowledge. (This is echoed in Lukacs‘s equally premature declaration of knowledge of the nature of communism.) Bloch’s open system is not simply open to new material, but rather recognises that new material, occurring as  human history unfolds and reflection upon it develops, can transform the very structure of the system itself, so that the system’s most basic categories may have to be rethought. Marxism as an open system must, therefore, be constantly revising itself. The Utopian future that justifies Marxist thought and practice is only glimpsed obscurely, in its ‘preappearance’. We are ‘not yet’ conscious of the future, in the sense that our conscious of the present contains, albeit problematically, an awareness of future possibilities and the means to their achievement. To realise that our consciousness is at once an obscure consciousness of the future serves to open the world to new interpretations and to new political practices.

Already Bloch’s first book, The Spirit of Utopia (1918), is critical of Marxism’s over-emphasis on economic analysis. The book is influenced by German expressionism, and its style is often characterised by opaque montages of clipped, gnomic utterances. Its subject matter embraces death (1970), the ornament — ‘We are down and out and no longer know how to play’ (1988, p. 78) — and a rhapsodic history of music (1985), as well as Marxist philosophy. Yet Bloch worries that economic determinism fails to leave room for the ‘the soul and the faith’ (1970, p. 39). Religion, in contrast, captures not simply the human motivation to struggle for a better world, but the pain at injustice that should give Marxism its content and purpose. In a remarkable passage he requires Marxism ‘to give every man not just a job but his own distress, boredom, wretchedness, misery and darkness; to give everyone’s life a Dostoevskyan touch’ (Bloch 1970, p. 60).

In Heritage of our Times (1991), the concept of non-synchronicity is developed by Bloch, not least again as a response to Lukacs’ defence of orthodox Marxism. While Lukacs understands contemporary capitalism as a totality, characterised by a clear conflict between the progressive proletarian class and the reactionary bourgeois class, for Bloch society is a fractured complex with many subtly anachronistic and progressive elements. He argues that the transition from one historical epoch to the next does not necessarily resolve all the tensions of the old epoch. Thus, there survive into the new age, not mere historical relics of the past, but politically significant forces and possibilities. Expressionist art is thus, for Bloch, an important source for understanding contemporary society, while for Lukacs it is merely a symptom of bourgeois reaction, and indeed decadence (Bloch et al. 1977). The use of montage and fragmentation, not least in the juxtaposition of radically new and archaic artistic techniques (borrowing for example from medieval and folk art), responds to the real non-synchronicity of capitalist society. In effect, while Lukacs relies upon his confidence in the completeness of his political theory, in order to use that theory as the standard by which to judge art as progressive or reactionary, Bloch looks to art (and culture in general) to reveal to theory the real nature and experience of society.

Source: Cultural Theory The Key Thinkers by Andrew Edgar and Peter Sedgwick, Routledge

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