Ernst Bloch’s thought is largely unknown in Britain – Nyx, a noctournal decided to depart from this tremor of an as yet unknown adventure. The Bloch Series: sojourns with an heretic.
Nyx: Ernst Bloch stands firmly in the Marxist tradition and was named the philosopher of the October Revolution. I’d like to begin by asking you why the Bolshevik event was ascribed to Bloch in this particular manner; what does this tell us about Bloch’s philosophy?
PT: When you say that he stands firmly in the Marxist tradition then I have to ask what you mean by the “Marxist tradition”. What he did once say was that – and I think this was a sort of nod to Marx’s own position on whether he was a Marxist or not — he didn’t know what he was but he did know that he wasn’t a non-Marxist. His attitude to being a Marxist was of a piece with his attitude to Marxism itself in that he was very firmly of the opinion that it should be just one theoretical approach alongside lots of others. He did, of course, give it primacy alongside those other theoretical and philosophical approaches but when you read Ernst Bloch you can see he is very clearly also laced with Aristotle, Plato, Kant, Spinoza and Hegel – of course, above all Hegel. He goes back to Aristotle and Avicenna and also stretches forward to look at what we mean when we talk about a socialist/communist future and how it will emerge from present circumstances interacting with future possibilities. Too much of the “Marxist tradition” was, for him, a closed and hermetically sealed system and he was in favour of “open system” Marxism. I think there is much to be learned from him in this regard.
As far as being the philosopher of the October Revolution, as Oskar Negt called him, then this too is less than straightforward. For thinkers of that generation, the October Revolution came along as a shining beacon at the end of the First World War and many threw themselves into supporting it while it was still fresh. If one thinks of the Arab Spring today and the waves of perhaps unrealistic optimism that it unleashed in many of us, then you get some sense of the mood of the period in addition, of course, this event — in Badiou’s sense — was led by an explicitly Marxist revolutionary party. It is questionable that at the time, however, Bloch was even a Marxist. He was still heavily influenced by both eschatological religious thought and, paradoxically, a sort of Nietzschean vitalism. If you read the first edition of Spirit of Utopia from 1918, that comes across very strongly. I think it is important to remember that the First World War had a sort of apocalyptic feeling to it for many intellectuals and for Bloch, the end of that war seemed like the beginning of something very new.
What we ended up with of course is what Tony Kaes has called a “shellshocked society”, especially Germany, where the failure of the revolution in Russia to spark over into central and western Europe led to the disaster which was fascism. At the same time the isolation of the Bolshevik revolution also meant that it descended into bureaucratic Stalinism in which the defence of the Soviet Union became the only international duty of the Communist movement. This subordination of hope and openness towards the possibilities of revolution in the future to the interests of the Soviet bureaucracy went against everything that Bloch stood for. However, he also maintained a belief, until well into the 1950s that the Soviet Union needed to be defended, not because of what it was, but because of what it wasn’t. We also have to remember that as a Jewish, Marxist, Communist intellectual in Germany in the 1930s he was forced to take sides in a way that is difficult to comprehend today. The question for critical Marxists back then was “how do I support the Soviet Union without supporting Stalinism?”
There is also a historical dimension to this in that Bloch did not want to be like those supporters of the French Revolution of the 18th-century who ran away as soon as the blood started to flow and, more importantly, when the establishment of the Bonapartist state replaced the revolutionary fervour of the initial period, and who then threw their hands up in horror. It was Hegel who maintained his support for the revolution even after it had descended into Bonapartism and he welcomed Napoleon as “the World Spirit on horseback”. Bloch did not go as far as that but there was a certain degree of congruence there. “Freedom comes on the tracks of a T-34” would be the 20th Century equivalent. After his years of exile in the United States — not in the Soviet Union you notice – he returned to Germany and took up the post of Professor of Philosophy in the GDR in Leipzig. Again, like many other leftist intellectuals of the time, he thought that the new GDR would be the better of the two states and that socialism might be realised on German soil for the first time. Of course, he soon fell out of favour with the Party as the state became more and more subordinated to the interests of what was now an entirely bureaucratized regime in Moscow.
Bloch’s Open System was diametrically opposed to Stalinisation and he soon became the leading philosophical figurehead behind a democratic communist movement in East Germany. So, to come back to the original question, Bloch is not so much the philosopher of the October Revolution as he is the philosopher of what the October Revolution might have become. Again this fits in philosophically with his general approach which sees history not simply as a series of events but as something which carries within it all sorts of lost opportunities, traces of unrealised potential and sparks and dreams of future possibilities. This is why he talks of the “ontology of not yet being” as the central philosophical expression of our time. In other words, the process of the fermentation of world history will throw up all sorts of strange constructs that have to prove themselves in the world and we have to try to come to terms with them within what he calls the “darkness of the lived moment”. As we experience today, it is not always easy to get it right.
Nyx: In volume one of The Principle of Hope Bloch discusses what he conceptualises as the cold and warm streams in Marxism. What does each stream indicate for Bloch, and how are they related?
PT: Of course this relates back to the previous question. For Bloch, cold stream Marxism was the way in which revolutionary and workers’ parties were forced to deal with “that which is possible” – Aristotle’s Kata to dynaton – whereas warm stream Marxism relates to “that which might become possible” — Aristotle’s Dynamei on. For example, in Heritage of our Times from 1934 he recognises that the Communist Party was partly responsible for the rise of fascism because it concentrated on cold stream questions and did not offer any sort of warm stream possibilities. You will find very little socio-economic analysis in his work because he took Marxist economic theory as a given. What he was more interested in was the way in which we understand both the utopian moments we constantly experience as well as our dreams for the future. The cold stream merely provided the solid ground in which our dreams could take root and flourish. Of course, this inability or unwillingness to deal with socio-economic questions is, for me, one of the greatest weaknesses in his work and I think a far greater appreciation of the dialectical interplay between the cold stream and the warm stream would have served him much better. It is also what we need today.
Nyx: Bloch draws attention to the fact that many Marxists after Marx took what the latter said of religion in a very narrow sense, distorting its significance. How does Bloch revive the depth of what Marx thought about religion?
PT: He often quotes Marx’s letter to Arnold Ruge from 1843, where he says that we are not starting a new project, but realising the dreams which humanity has always had. Of course, given that human history had and still has always been influenced if not dominated by religious thought, then it is absolutely necessary to understand properly what religion actually stands for. The full quote from Marx is that religion is the heart of a heartless world and the sigh of the oppressed creature and that the flowers of religion and ideology have to be plucked from the chains of oppression so that the chains become clear. What Ernst Bloch does it is to look at nature of the flowers that we have used to hide our oppression and to see whether there are any blossoms there that can be used for both the breaking of chains as well as the establishment of a new and different world beyond exploitation and oppression.
Whereas most Marxists, and indeed most rationalists, tend to think you can just throw away the flowers, Bloch believes that they actually tell us something important about both our current psychology as well as our dreams for the future. He had no time for people who saw religious belief as a simple “delusion”. One always has to ask what form this delusion takes and why and, more importantly, whether it is actually useful in helping us to understand what we really want. For example, he says that the idea of the “withering away of the state” in Engels is actually a description of the cultural and psychological changes which have to happen in order for one to really be able to fully love ones neighbour. “From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs” – which sums up Marx’s view (in the Gotha Programme) of what a future communist society would look like — is, in the end, a religious idea with a long history. What he also pointed out constantly was that the best thing about religion was that it created heretics. If we look in his book Atheism in Christianity, we find quite clearly that attitudes to Jesus separate into two different categories: those who see him as the son of God and are therefore on the side of authority and control through the church, and those who see him as the son of man and who are therefore on the side of man against authority and oppression. So, even though he was an atheist he was constantly asking how we might maintain the liberationist Christ impulse after the death of God.
We can see from this how his ideas about religion became very influential in the 1960s and 70s amongst liberation theologists. This is the reason, for example, that one finds his works translated more into Spanish than into English. Bloch saw religion, or rather the religious impulse, as belonging to the warm stream of the Marxist tradition. Rather than trying to destroy religion (rather than church authorities) in some sort of crazed hyper-rationalist frenzy, it was necessary to harness its power for the purposes of liberation. In Atheism in Christianity, he also points out that the descent of the workers movement into Stalinism was very much like the descent of the Christian message of liberation into the Catholic Church, in which the son of man was replaced by the son of God. The parallels are quite clear I think.
Nyx: Finally, you’re currently writing a monograph on the contemporary relevance of Marx; I wonder, though, what you think the contemporary relevance of Bloch is for Marxist theory.
Marxism, if it is to survive at all, must stop being a set of dogmas and must become an open system that is prepared to engage fully with all those interested in the abolition of oppression and ignorance. I am not saying that Marxism must give up the fight for ideological clarity in favour of some sort of post modernist theoretical egalitarianism — some truths are more equal than others, after all — but it must be prepared to admit that it might not have all the answers. I open my book on Marx with the statement that Marxism is the depleted uranium of political philosophy in that its hard-headed ideological clarity cuts through the cant and hypocrisy of bourgeois liberalism but at the same time it has no fire left to melt the frozen ground of the dialectic. The only way in which Marxism will be able to play a role in future political developments is for it to get out of the snowglobe of its own doctrinal discussions and engage with real people and their real concerns. In many ways we are back in 1934, where forces who speak dangerous rubbish, but speak it to the people — history, the first time as tragedy, the second time as Farage – are winning out over those who speak sense, but only about things. Anyone who has sat in endless Marxist conferences is well aware of the limitations of this.
Peter Thompson is Director of the Centre for Ernst Bloch Studies and Reader in German at the University of Sheffield. He has published widely on the history of the German workers’ movement, German politics and philosophy and recently co-edited, with Slavoj Žižek, The Privatization of Hope. Ernst Bloch and the Future of Utopia, (Duke University press, 2013).