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The multidimensional nature of The Principle of Hope, Ernst Bloch’s most important work, cannot be comprehended without a closer look at his personal development and background. Born into the drab community of Ludwigshafen, the son of assimilated Jews, he experienced a youth lacking the more varied cultural opportunities of the neighboring city of Mannheim. The difference between these two cities of his youth would sharpen his perception of class distinctions in German society and would help him understand the appeal Fascist ideology held for the lower classes.

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In 1905, Bloch began his university studies. He first went to Munich to study philosophy and German literature; he then attended the University of Wurzburg, where he studied music, physics, and experimental psychology. He also became interested in the cabala and Jewish mysticism. In Berlin, he took up studies in sociology and later became interested in Christian mysticism. His intense interest in all areas of culture and his thirst for knowledge in many disciplines informed his philosophy and shaped the form and content of The Principle of Hope.

As a pacifist he went into exile to Switzerland at the outbreak of World War I. When the Nazi Party took power in 1933, Bloch, who was immediately blacklisted, left Germany to seek exile in Switzerland, France, and finally in the United States, where The Principle of Hope was written. His experiences in the United States thus also found entry into this extensive, multifaceted account of hope on all levels of political, cultural, and psychological experience.

In more than thirteen hundred pages divided into five major parts—“Little Daydreams,” “Anticipatory Consciousness,” “Wishful Images in the Mirror,” “Outlines of a Better World,” and “Wishful Images of the Fulfilled Moment”—Bloch explored the emancipatory powers of hope. He mapped out the genesis of what he calls the Not-Yet-Conscious in social, political, artistic, scientific, and individual psychological expressions. As an unorthodox Marxist thinker, he believed that anticipatory illumination within culture 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. As such, they encourage the recipient to determine the specific aesthetic formulation of lack, or want, and thus enable him to become involved in cultural development. In detecting the anticipatory illumination of a work of art, the reader or spectator is instilled with hope. This hope provides an impetus for change. Bloch’s belief in this potential for art, which illuminates the path toward a more humane future, is the central focus of the three volumes of The Principle of Hope.

As in his other works, Bloch was concerned with developing a philosophy that would go beyond the rationalism of the Enlightenment, providing at the same time a more subjective method for understanding one’s own experiences and historical situation and offering methods of dealing with such pressing problems of late capitalism as alienation.

The Principle of Hope

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Although Ernst Bloch is probably the least well-known of the Western Marxist thinkers outside his native Germany, his work has nevertheless not been without influence or partisans in the Anglophone world. The most notable is Fredric Jameson, who has dutifully carried the torch on behalf of Bloch’s call for Utopian thinking, arguing that the necessity to discover in even the most debased and apparently counterrevolutionary social practices positive figures of a better future world is at one with the philosophical and political project of Marxism. In The Political Unconscious (1980), Jameson writes of the dialectic of ideology and Utopia in a vein that can be traced directly back to Bloch’s lifelong project of maintaining hope in the face of disaster:All class consciousness—or in other words, all ideology in the strongest sense, including the most exclusive forms of ruling-class consciousness just as much as that of oppositional or oppressed classes—is in its very nature Utopian. . . . Even hegemonic or ruling-class culture and ideology are Utopian, not in spite of their instrumental function to secure and perpetuate class privilege and power, but rather precisely because that function is also in and of itself the affirmation of collective solidarity.

For Jameson, who cites Bloch in this context, the contemporary horror to be thought redemptively is the so-called consumer society, with its bland, lifeless commodities and its dreary, deodorized culture. The culture and social effects of late capitalism are certainly not marginal to The Principle of Hope (it was largely written while Bloch was a resident in the United States during the 1930’s and 1940’s and published in West Germany in 1959 as Das Prinzip Hoffnung), but the horizon of this text is rather different from that which has motivated Jameson’s work. The social, political, and cultural disaster of Nazism was the punctual occasion for Bloch’s philosophical opus magnum, and it is only against this background that its power and pathos can be fully comprehended.

Bloch’s philosophical career had commenced with a gesture similar to that repudiation of despair (embraced by so many during the Nazi era) which The Principle of Hope proclaims. In the midst of World War I, as slaughter in the trenches and propaganda at home dominated the consciousness of everyone in Europe, Bloch wrote his first major treatise, Spirit of Utopia (1918), which set the tone for his entire subsequent oeuvre. Already committed to Marxism as a philosophical and political project, Bloch united the most modern and scientific of the major systems of European social thought with its most archaic and, in the view of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin themselves, most reactionary precursor: religious belief. To the extent that Bloch’s thought remained squarely fixed upon the common ground shared by Marxism and traditional religious conviction, his work would seem to regress from the rigor of classical Marxist thought back to that peculiarly German ideology of religio-philosophical speculation denounced in some of the earliest works of historical materialism—for example, The German Ideology (written 1845-1846, published 1932) and The Holy Family (1845). The enigma of Bloch’s writings lies here, in his utter repudiation of the charge that religion (or advertising, or mass culture) is only an opiate of the people. This can be seen most clearly in a crucial section from the first volume of The Principle of Hope, which gives a detailed exposition of Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach.

The provenance of this text by Marx has been a crux for contemporary Marxist theory at least since Louis Althusser’s controversial reinterpretation of the Marx canon during the early and middle 1960’s. Bloch dates the Theses on Feuerbach from April, 1845, assigning them to “the burst of preparatory work for ’The German Ideology.’” He follows the canonical tradition, inaugurated by Engels (who published them in an appendix to his own Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philosophy in 1888), in locating the germ of the materialist conception of history in this text, most directly in the famous aphorism of thesis 11: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” Carved on the monument over Marx’s grave in London’s Highgate cemetery, this terse deprecation of philosophical speculation would seem immediately to privilege political action, praxis in the jargon of contemporary Marxism, over analytic thought. One can readily see how problematic such a conception of the relationship between thinking and doing would be for a professional philosopher.

Bloch’s handling of the Theses on Feuerbach and of their apparent summary call to arms against speculative thought was highly original at the time when he wrote The Principle of Hope. He organizes the text’s conceptual logic thus: Theses 5, 1, and 3 are the “epistemological group,” dealing with the relationship of perception to activity; theses 4, 6, 7, 9, and 10 form the “anthropological-historical group,” elaborating the Feuerebachian theme of self-alienation along materialist lines; theses 2 and 8 make up the “theory-practice group,” in which problems of proof and validation are outlined. Finally, there is thesis 11, which Bloch dubs “the password.” It “not only marks a final parting of the minds [between Marx and Feuerbach], but with whose use they cease to be nothing but minds.”

Marx’s definite break with Feuerbach is already apparent in the development of thoughts in the first two groups. Whereas for Feuerbach human perception is a given (that is, roughly it is a consequence of biological inheritance), for Marx the way in which human beings take in the phenomena of the world alters over historical time as a result of mankind’s differing modes of productive activity. The antirationalist implications of Marx’s view may seem at first astonishing—when we wonder how it was that, say, medieval people looked up at the sky and did not see what we see—until one realizes that Marx is claiming, on one level, nothing more controversial than a certain cultural relativism concerning the different ways in which various human societies organize the world. Given the wealth of modern ethnographic evidence for the fact that perception does vary from one culture to another, Marx’s intuition should appear, if anything, rather old hat.

The second major divergence of Marx from Feuerbach concerns the concept of mankind. Bloch is unequivocal in asserting that Marx did not abandon the “value-concept of humanity,” citing thesis 10 as definitive proof that Marxism retains, at its base, a notion of the distinctively human. Where Feuerbach limits his own “real humanism” to the self-alienating activity of mankind in relation to the material world, Marx, according to Bloch, saw this very activity as moving toward “the real removal of [mankind’s] self-alienation as its goal.” Thus, the true concept of mankind that Marxism proposes is not the eternally recurring struggle between the individual and material existence—Marxism is not, pace Jean-Paul Sartre, reconcilable with the various forms of existentialism—but, rather, it is the transcending of the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom through the self-activity of human social labor: “The truly total explanation of the world from within itself, which is called dialectical-historical materialism, also posits the transformation of the world from within itself. Into an other world beyond hardship.” This theme returns in the closing section of volume 3 of The Principle of Hope, where Bloch quotes Marx’s projection of the realm of freedom out of the realm of necessity in Capital, Vol. III (1894), asserting that this distant ideal remains the goal of Socialist politics as well as the guiding star for all forms of Utopian or hopeful thought.

The whole of The Principle of Hope turns on this fundamental conception of the necessity for forward thinking and on the concept of mankind as precisely that creature which has imaged a better future world throughout history. The wealth of examples adduced to show the persistence of Utopian thinking can at times overwhelm the reader, as Bloch ranges over evidence from philosophy, science, literature and the arts, as well as over ethnographic data, the history of religions East and West, and contemporary forms of cultural production such as advertising and Hollywood film. Luminous pages on the difference between dreaming in one’s sleep and daydreaming (only the latter is properly Utopian in scope and function) open the first volume, while long discussions of such major figures from world literature as Faust, Don Quixote, Don Juan, and Hamlet appear later in the text. In all of these examples, Bloch discovers the ineluctable desire for Utopia, the fundamentally religious conviction that the travails of the world we inhabit will be absent from another which we could inhabit. On this foundation Bloch’s humanism rests. Sheer hopefulness, however, what Bloch calls “wishful thinking,” is not the end of the matter either.

Bloch’s overall conception of the Theses on Feuerbach is governed by a set of principles which, in the contemporary West, have generally been considered in rather bad odor. It is certainly no longer fashionable—indeed, in many circles on the Left it is barely permissible—to cite Lenin with favor. Nevertheless, this is precisely what Bloch does on numerous occasions, nowhere more pertinently than in refutation of the pragmatist misinterpretation of thesis 11: “In Marx a thought is not true because it is useful, but it is useful because it is true. Lenin formulates the same idea in the pithy dictum: ’Marx’s doctrine is all-powerful because it is true.’. . . In other words: real doctrine cannot take a single stride without having consulted theory economically and philosophically, a theory advancing with great strides.” This is why the Theses on Feuerbach as a whole, and thesis 11 in particular, cannot be construed as a repudiation of philosophy tout court. On the contrary, the theses precisely articulate a new conception of philosophy, one that recognizes (and accounts for) the practical effects which philosophy as a form of knowledge production achieves in the world. It is but a short step from this realization to the slightly more radical formulation of Althusser that philosophy is, in the last instance, the class struggle waged on the level of theory.

It is somewhat surprising to read in Bloch precisely those formulations which Althusser would make so famous only a few years after the publication of The Principle of Hope, and yet, one should not be entirely astonished at this coincidence in the philosophical programs of two so otherwise different figures. Rather, it may be seen to testify to a kind of independent verification of a common hypothesis on distinctly different political and ideological terrains. (The context of Althusser’s theoretical work was not the rise to power of European Fascism, but the stultifying legacy of entrenched Stalinism across postwar Europe, along with the weight of Cold War ideology which helped to sustain the Stalinist fervor in the Soviet Union and elsewhere.) The hypothesis both propose is that Marx’s break with idealism and abstract humanism, with what became popularly known in the late 1950’s and through the 1960’s as the philosophy of praxis, was definitive and was already at work in his texts of the mid-1840’s. If Marxism is an empirical science of the history of social formations, and if knowledge is a social product (“It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but rather their social being that determines their consciousness,” Marx observed in 1859), then the knowledge Marxism claims to produce should be susceptible to description and verification by the very principles Marxism itself establishes for the production of knowledge in general. As Perry Anderson has maintained, Marxism is unique among contemporary social theories in containing within itself principles for its own self-criticism. This task both Althusser and Bloch undertook in different ways. The success of their enterprise will ultimately be determined, they would have to admit, by the course of human history, which is ultimately the laboratory where all theories of human social existence are tested.

Yet if Bloch’s work were simply a reaffirmation of the claims made on behalf of a scientific socialism, interesting and necessary as this work undoubtedly is, The Principle of Hope would scarcely merit the labor required to plow through its fourteen hundred pages of often densely argued and occasionally sibylline prose. The claim of Marxism to establish an empirical science of the history of social formations cannot be sustained on the ground of philosophy alone, and Jameson is thus certainly correct to stress the eccentricity of Bloch within the Marxist tradition—precisely to the degree that Bloch is not merely suspicious of scientific rationalism but actually in open warfare against many of its contemporary forms, above all against the technologizing of all aspects of modern society in the false Utopia of the Fascist state. The distinctive feature of Bloch’s thought is its alliance with the spirit of religious belief, its unashamed avowal that while the grounds for envisioning an ideal future for mankind are not without material substance, neither are they demonstrable according to the rigorous demands of scientific proof. Bloch’s point about the persistence of the Utopian impulse within the scientific theory of historical materialism is aptly summarized in Jameson’s recommendation in Marxism and Form (1971) for an effective Marxist politics: “The value of religion for revolutionary activity lies therefore in its structure as a hypostasis of absolute conviction, as a passionate inner subjective coming to consciousness of those deepest Utopian wishes without which Marxism remains an objective theory and is deprived of its most vital resonances and of its most essential psychic sustenance as well.” This motivation of the subjects of history toward a future that per definition has no determinable content is what Bloch calls the Not-Yet-Conscious, which is opposed both to memory and to the tradition of all the previous generations that weights like a nightmare on the brain of the living. It is what produces the figure of the “red hero,” the individual who is able to negate death, not through the mystical ideal of eternal salvation, but in his consciousness of class solidarity, his faith in the ultimately irresistible force of the Communist cause.

There are dangers in this position, to be sure. One that Bloch late in life had to confront was the possibility that Communist consciousness could itself be as false an image of Utopia, as mystifying an ideology in its own right as that Fascist nihilism against which The Principle of Hope was initially ranged. While it is difficult to know the precise date at which the following passage was written, were it even as early as 1945, Bloch seems to exhibit an astonishing naïveté about the reality of Soviet life under Joseph Stalin and a comparable innocence concerning the postwar trajectory which Soviet foreign policy would follow:The Soviet Union is still in the process of an act of construction, and consequently still a state, even a harsh one, but simply one without an economy based on capital. Thus, for the purpose of the abolition of all private ownership of the means of production, there can at worst so to speak be state socialism there, but never in the long run genuine, regular state capitalism. And even state socialism, in so far as it appears, is in the process of an act, and consequently temporary and for demolition; for the goal at work in the act is the dying away of the state. The October Revolution of 1917 posited for this goal the proletarian dictatorship, the epoch after Lenin’s death established the strongest state-and military power as a safeguard: nevertheless the end of force in this kind of force is inescapably immanent. . . . The Soviet Union was the very troublesome contemporary of fascism at Stalingrad; a Soviet Union in inviting maturity will put an end to this state capitalism everywhere.

Such illusions were not permanent: Bloch emigrated from East Germany after the construction of the Berlin Wall to become a harsh critic of the Ulbricht regime and its successors and allies.

Even here, where Bloch the unregenerate Stalinist, more consistent (one might even say more principled) in this than Georg Lukács, appears without disguise or deception, one could draw the necessary lesson from axioms established elsewhere by Bloch himself. For what is wrong with the passage cited above is not merely what subsequent history has demonstrated—that the Soviet state was far from withering away in the late 1940’s and is perhaps further away than ever from doing so in the 1980’s—but what Bloch himself persistently attacked as the enemy of the authentic Novum: the Utopian future as the really new and unpredictable content of those deformed and inchoate wishes for a better life and world than have in all epochs and cultures been part of the human inheritance. Bloch errs here precisely by proclaiming the demise of the militarized state as “inescapably immanent”; that is, as an inevitable outcome of forces and conditions which are entirely within the grasp of present comprehension. In short, Bloch veers dangerously here in the direction of that mechanical materialism which he correctly saw was the ever-present enemy to historical and dialectical materialism. It might be said that Bloch’s subsequent flight from the confines of actually existing socialism proved his own case: Who could have foreseen his repudiation of the regime that had sheltered and supported him for fifteen years only two years after the publication of The Principle of Hope? Nor would it be correct to lump Bloch together with other defectors and recent converts, such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Leszek Kolakowski, to the creed of capitalist democracy. Bloch’s criticism of the Socialist states of Eastern Europe during the final decade and a half of his life was less an expression of disillusionment than a plea for reform; in this, too, Bloch sustained the principle of hope, a longing that he, like mankind as a whole, would one day arrive where he never had truly been—in his homeland.


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Buhr, Manfred. “Critique of Ernst Bloch’s Philosophy of Hope,” in Philosophy Today. XIV (Winter, 1970), pp. 259-271.

Furter, Pierre. “Utopia and Marxism According to Bloch,” in Philosophy Today. XIV (Winter, 1970), pp. 236-249.

Habermas, Jurgen. “Ernst Bloch: A Marxist Romantic,” in Salmagundi. X/XI (Fall, 1969/Winter, 1970), pp. 311-325.

Hudson, Wayne. The Marxist Philosophy of Ernst Bloch, 1982.

The New York Times Book Review. XCI, November 23, 1986, p. 44.

Oliver, Harold H. “Hope and Knowledge,” in Cultural Hermeneutics. II (May, 1974), pp. 75-87.

Times Literary Supplement. August 22, 1986, p. 923.

Wren, Thomas E. “The Principle of Hope,” in Philosophy Today. XIV (Winter, 1970), pp. 250-258.

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