Neither Marx nor Moses

Man on His Own: Essays in the Philosophy of Religion

by Ernst Bloch, translated by E.B. Ashton
Herder and Herder, 240 pp., $5.50

On Karl Marx

by Ernst Bloch, translated by John Maxwell
Herder and Herder, 173 pp., $5.95

Ernst Bloch
Ernst Bloch; drawing by David Levine

In his useful Foreword to Man on His Own Harvey Cox points to some of the difficulties the Anglo-American world will come across in trying to understand the work of Ernst Bloch and—though this too is a problem of understanding—still more in trying to “place” it in relation to the work of Marcuse, Garaudy, Althusser, and other Marxists or neo-Marxists. The difficulty is brought out when we have to note that the Festschrift published for Bloch’s eightieth birthday (in 1965) had among its contributors not only Marxists but many young European theologians. His major work, Das Prinzip Hoffnung (The Principle of Hope), was written in exile in the United States in the ten years after 1938, but it was not published in West Germany until 1959. After the war, Bloch lived in East Germany but he was too tempestuous a spirit for the regime; and one of the ironies of our times is that he should now live and work in Tübingen, as Marcuse does in California.

Bloch would wish to call himself a Marxist and there are some surprising sentiments in On Karl Marx—extracted from Das Prinzip Hoffnung (1959)—which apparently accept Marx’s theories quite literally. He seems sometimes to think of Marxism as a “science” in some way analogous to the natural sciences, though the general balance of his thought is against this. For him, Hope is the attitude and disposition that is constitutive of man’s unique nature. He therefore implicitly holds that political action lies outside the limits of that kind of certainty to be found where the natural sciences are applied to their proper subject matters. For Bloch, an aspect of the concept of Hope is that it has its own pathos, for Hope may be defeated. It is at any rate totally uncharacteristic of Marxism, even in its most revisionist versions, to place religious concerns so much at the center of thought as Bloch does.

We may conjecture that what has saved Bloch from the certainties of vulgar Marxism has been his persistent and, in his generation, singular conviction that the content of Judaism and of Christianity (in so far as the two can be separated) provides the heart for an otherwise heartless world. By this he does not mean that the religion of the Bible provides consolation of the kind Marx had in mind, the people’s opiate, though such consolation is to be found in the Bible. Rather, that religion represents in its purest form the belief that human justice and human hope are present within and become increasingly constitutive of the process of history. And in so far as there is a decisive criticism of religion, of polytheism, of magical rites, of “the taking of things casual for prognostics” (as Hobbes puts it), of a debilitating other-worldliness, of the religious particularism of a nation or a culture, then this decisive critique is within Biblical religion…

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