The extraordinary quality of the German Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch (blawk) is his unrelenting quest to fuse theory and practice. He refused to make a sharp distinction between philosophy and the arts, and he saw his writings as political acts pointing toward a society without oppression.
Ernst Bloch, the son of Max and Berta Bloch, was born into a proletarian community in Ludwigshafen. In 1905, Bloch took up the study of philosophy and German literature at the University of Munich; he then attended the University of Würzburg, where he studied music, physics, and experimental psychology. In Berlin, he became interested in sociology and was befriended by Georg Simmel, whose interests ranged from philosophy, sociology, and metaphysics to poetry. Even more important for his intellectual development was his friendship with the critic and philosopher Georg Lukács. Through Lukács, Bloch was introduced to the sociologist Max Weber. In Zurich, he met Walter Benjamin. Under the influence of these leading figures of intellectual life in Germany at that time, Bloch produced Spirit of Utopia.
During the 1920’s, Bloch turned toward Marxism, and his second major work, Thomas Münzer als Theologe der Revolution (Thomas Münzer as theologian of revolution), combined Marxist thought with religious mysticism. When the Nazi Party took power in 1933, Bloch, who was immediately blacklisted, left Germany to seek exile in Switzerland. There he completed Erbschaft dieser Zeit (heritage of this time), an exploration of the attraction of fascism. He maintained that “progress” had been accompanied by a severe disorientation of the lower classes, which, in turn, created gaps in people’s lives and produced a longing for the past. Using his categories of synchronism and nonsynchronism, he explained the failure of modernism, which had left the masses vulnerable to the lure of fascism.
After his expulsion from Switzerland, Bloch and his wife, Karola, spent brief periods in exile in France, Austria, and Czechoslovakia before finally settling in the United States. There he wrote his most important work, The Principle of Hope. As an unorthodox Marxist thinker, Bloch believed that “anticipatory illumination” provides the possibility to transform the material base through the superstructure. Art illuminates the missing qualities of contemporary life as they are experienced by the individual artist.
In 1949, Bloch received an offer to assume the chair of the philosophy department at the University of Leipzig. He accepted the position under the condition that he be granted absolute freedom to teach independently from the official party line of the new Communist Party of the German Democratic Republic. In 1956, encouraged by Nikita Khrushchev’s criticism of Stalinism, Bloch considered the time to be ripe for more democratic reforms within the Eastern Bloc and began to criticize the state openly. In 1957, he was prevented from lecturing and forced into retirement. He turned to lecturing in what was then West Germany, and in the summer of 1961, when the German Democratic Republic officially closed itself off from the West through the Berlin Wall, the Blochs decided not to return to Leipzig. He was offered a professorship of philosophy at the University of...
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