Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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.

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...

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The Principle of Hope

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

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...

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(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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.