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 and not brought to it from without.

This is why in Bloch’s view there is in Judaism and Christianity a perpetual and deeply felt pressure to reform: ecclesia semper reformanda. The present state of affairs is provisional and remains under the judgment of that which is still to come. That is why both the prophets and Jesus see the world in eschatological terms, as drawing its meaning and its reality not just from what it is now, but from what lies hidden in the now, the great events that will be the realization of divine justice and human brotherhood. This is why the chiliasts of the sixteenth century are closer to the thought of the Bible than to the Church and the Synagogue, the theologians of the Schola, and the rabbinical commentators.

Bloch is thus a philosopher of religion who finds in the Messianic traditions of Judaism, in the eschatological perspectives of the New Testament, in the revolutionary thought of the sixteenth-century Protestant Radical Thomas Münzer, a kind of foreshadowing of revolutionary socialism. But for Bloch these and other religious thinkers are not mere forerunners who, once noted, can be forgotten. They represent the appearances in human history of what properly belongs to man’s efforts to overcome his alienation from his own nature and are thus a permanent source of nourishment.

Such are some of the themes of the essays written between 1918 and 1959 and reprinted in Man on His Own. All of them would have seemed very strange to the Marxists of the classic period (say, down to 1914). It will be remembered with what scorn and anger Lenin reviled those of his comrades (the so-called “God-builders”) such as Lunacharsky and Gorky who for a time flirted with the idea of grafting a syncretistic religion onto Marxism. There is Lenin’s famous letter to Gorky of 1913.

In the freest countries, countries in which an appeal “to the democracy, to the people, to the public and to science” would be entirely out of place—in such countries (America, Switzerland, and so on) the minds of the people and the workers are most assiduously blunted precisely by ideas of a pure and spiritual god, a god in the making.

Every religious idea, every idea of god, even every flirtation with the idea of god, is unutterable vileness, vileness that is greeted very tolerantly (and often even favorably) by the democratic bourgeoisie—and for that reason it is vileness of the most dangerous kind, “contagion” of the most abominable kind. Millions of sins, filthy deeds, acts of violence and physical contagions are far more easily exposed by the crowd, and are therefore far less dangerous, than the subtle, spiritual ideas of a god decked out in the smartest “ideological” costumes.

There is something frenzied about this; indeed, in an earlier passage in the same letter Lenin terms all forms of religion without exception “intellectual necrophilia,” that is, in the strictest sense any kind of sympathy with religion is equivalent to sympathy with a disgusting sexual perversion. Even though Bloch is—would insist that he is—strictly an atheist, it can scarcely be doubted that he admires what he thinks to be uniquely stated in the Judaeo-Christian religious tradition; and there are signs that he wishes to give the concept of god a certain content, though not that commonly associated with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob or with the god of the philosophers.


We may take as an example of Bloch’s religious concern and of his view that the religious (Judaeo-Christian) attitude is uniquely illuminating a passage from his essay “Karl Marx, Death and the Apocalypse.”

Certainly…there were grounds for repudiating the far too Arcadian, abstract utopian socialism that has repeatedly emerged since the Renaissance as a secularized mode of the millennium; often as a mere shroud without substance, an ideology for very sober class purposes and economic upheavals. Yet this helps us neither to comprehend the inherent utopian tendency, nor to grasp and judge the substance of its miraculous images—even less to dismiss primal religious desire. Throughout all the movements and goals of worldly transformation, this has been a desire to make room for life, for the attainment of a divine essence, for men to integrate themselves at last, in a millennium, with human kindness, freedom, and the light of the telos.

Again, a little later in the same essay (it is true, this essay belongs to 1918, though there seems to have been little fundamental change in Bloch’s thought), he argues that in a socialist society where “the private sphere” (that is, in economic life) has been abolished,

…real privacy and all the socially irremoveable problematics of the soul loom larger than ever…. Nothing else [other than a new Church] can create the space for community, for a freely self-chosen community above society (which merely lifts the burdens), and above a social economy thoroughly organized along communist lines, in a classless, and therefore non-violent, order.

But a changed Church is the carrier of widely visible goals; placed in a life beyond labor, it is the conceivable realm of the flow of traditions and a nexus with the end [that is, the eschaton, however this is to be understood]; and no order, however successful, can do without this last link in the relational series between the collective “we” and the problem of a final purpose. Then, at last, men will be free to deal with those uniquely practical concerns and questions which otherwise come only at the hour of death, after a lifetime of unrest has done little more than lock away the essentials.

It is as Baal-Shem says: the Messiah cannot come until all his guests are seated at the table—and this is first the table of labor, then the one beyond labor, but immediately after, the table of the Lord. The kingdom of brotherly love provides the organization of the world with its ultimate metaphysical guidance.

Marxist theoreticians have on the whole been harsh in speaking of the place of fantasies and dreams in political thinking. But for Bloch they are salutary. “The most private and ignorant wishful thinking is to be preferred to any mindless goose-stepping; for wishful thinking is capable of revolutionary awareness, and can enter the chariot of history without necessarily abandoning in the process the good content of dreams.”

Within this general approach, hope is clearly a fundamental revolutionary virtue. This explains why Bloch has been influential among the younger German theologians who are disposed to see hope as the virtue above all demanded by Christianity’s eschatological frame. It also explains why time and again Bloch recurs, with a tender sympathy, to the revolutionary Anabaptists of the sixteenth century whose hope remained, or so he supposes, invincible in the midst of the blood and filth into which the established powers thrust them.


Lest we give an unbalanced view of Bloch’s thought in these matters we should perhaps add a fragment from Das Prinzip Hoffnung.

What was intended in the great religions, instead of the many single hopes, was hope itself; it was to encompass and focus the many single ones, but not as an ens realissimum…. The only truth of the divine ideal is the utopia of the kingdom, and the premise of that utopia is that no God remains on high, where none is or has ever been anyway.

Even if we give the strongest emphasis to this last fragment there can be no doubt that this would have been considered by Lenin intellectual necrophilia, for Bloch is certainly engaged in a deeply sympathetic encounter with the phenomena of religion, whereas for Lenin the only appropriate response to these is disgust.

Perhaps the interesting question to put about the work of Bloch is whether we are to take it as a movement within Marxism, as Bolshevism may be thought to have been, or as a sign of the deliquescence of Marxism as both theory and Weltanschauung. We have already noted that Bloch has some sympathy for conservative Marxism. He recognizes that for the young today it is the early Marx, still vibrating with the excitement brought about by his reading, first of Hegel, then of Feuerbach, that most charms them; but he hopes to convince them that “the mature Marx, that great worker, is the truth of the young Marx, for he put his plan into action and turned his knowledge into operating instructions.”

In particular, Bloch still seems to believe that the industrial proletariat of capitalism is the Messianic class from which everything is to be hoped for; and in the books under review there is no serious effort to examine the historical evidence that tends to weaken or overthrow this belief. But to cross-examine Bloch on a question of this kind would be to expect of one genre, that of prophecy, what can only be expected of a quite different genre, that of social science.

One question, however, that has to be put about Marxism, and such a distinguished theoretician as the French Communist Althusser would wholly agree, is whether, as Engels put it after Marx’s death, Marx did for history what Darwin did for biology. Before Darwin, biology never rose far above taxonomy or at best remote and speculative hypotheses, as in Lamarck’s case. Only Marx, it has often been claimed, has advanced hypotheses that can be tested against the historical material and against what we know about contemporary society. Only Marx has solved the problem, insoluble to the older materialists, of the relation between social theory and social practice, so that revolutionary praxis is at once a way of understanding society and a way of changing it in a direction that proceeds not from arbitrary choice but from a grasp of the way in which history must inevitably, short of near-cosmic catastrophe, go.

If this is the claim Marxism makes, then so much in Bloch’s work wanders so far from it—his deep sympathies with Judaeo-Christianity are so bizarre from the standpoint of Marxism thus understood—that he is no more a Marxist in any sense definable enough for the purposes of discussion than the author of Love’s Body is a Freudian. Of course, the debt to Marx is enormous just as Norman O. Brown’s debt to Freud is enormous.

There is a substantial issue, not one of mere definition here. We can define Marxism, say, or Christianity, in such an inclusive way that almost everyone of any intellectual or moral interest falls within the definition. We are familiar with this process of confusing all definite issues and all classificatory divisions in the case of “democracy,” just as twenty years ago virtually all philosophers of any merit were found to be more or less suffused with “existentialism.” But all that follows from such confusions is, as was said of the ideas of the Holy Alliance, sublime mystification and nonsense.

If we wish to call Bloch a neo-Marxist, as we might wish to call the death-of-God theologians (if they still exist) neo-Christians, then this is perhaps harmless, for it indicates that Bloch stands in part at least within a certain intellectual and political tradition. The problem raised by the very existence of neo-Marxists whose writings have such power and charm is that of the state of the tradition itself. Scientific traditions have moral attitudes and built-in intellectual devices that offer fair guarantees of their intellectual vitality and their continuing importance. The particular conclusions of Newton and Dalton may diverge very considerably from those of Einstein and Bohr, but such divergences do not fracture the tradition within which they all stand.

But conclusions, methods, moral outlooks do not have the same role within traditions of social thought as they do in the natural sciences. If the social conditions are now very notably quite other than Marxism, considered as a putative science, would lead us to expect, then so much the worse for Marxism as science. It will have contributed immensely to a change and a deepening in our view of man in society, and the same could be said of Freud’s theories. But in this sense Saint Augustine, say, and Machiavelli are also indispensable to our understanding of our society and ourselves. Poeticized and ecstatic versions of Marxism of which Bloch’s work is such a splendid instance are signs of the end of Marxism as a would-be science of human history. The winds of thought they excite come from the beating of the wings of the owl of Athena, whose flight, as Marx himself loved to stress, happens only in the evening of what once was great.

It is curious and pleasant to be able to end with a small criticism of Bloch which is also a tribute to Stalin. About the only time in his life when Stalin backed a theoretical winner was when he issued an edict, On Linguistics. It had been Soviet orthodoxy that language was a class-bound phenomenon and that the formal logic of Principia Mathematica and the Polish school of logic was necessarily and fatally linked with bourgeois language and bourgeois concepts. For some reason not known to me Stalin suddenly proclaimed this to be the rubbish it is; and ever since then linguistics and formal logic in the Soviet Union have flourished modestly under the protection of Stalin’s monitum. Alas, for Bloch this is a deviation in the direction of idealism. This is a representative instance of a certain weakness we find in Bloch when purely technical philosophical issues come up for examination. It would be somewhat unfair to say that the weak side of Bloch sometimes suggests that he is to Marxism what Teilhard de Chardin is to Catholicism or the Transcendentalists are to the austere and strenuously lived religion of New England; but at times he excites similar discomforts.

George Steiner said of Bloch’s mature style that “there are pages we can set beside Hölderlin and Nietzsche for their subtle brightness. Like few other masters of German, he has broken the generically ponderous, clotted norms of German syntax.” It is perhaps impossible to expect translators of philosophical works in German to achieve what the Muirs did for Kafka and Broch. But the translations of these first works of Bloch to reach the Anglo-American public are mediocre. Man on His Own is workmanlike, but the translation of On Karl Marx contains some passages that seem to make no sense.

This Issue

June 29, 1972