Review: Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope 3 vols.
(Cambridge: MIT Press, 1986.)
N. Plaice, S. Plaice and P. Knight, translators.
The translation of Ernst Bloch’s major work Principle of Hope into English, nearly 40 years after it was written in American exile and more than 25 years after a definitive, revised edition became available in German, constitutes an event in its own right in the consolidation of a serious Marxist current in the Englishspeaking world. The cause of such a time lag lies deeper than either Bloch’s relative international obscurity (compared to the betterknown Frankfurt School or the nowfaded luminaries of Parisian Marxism) or the difficulties posed in translating his expressionist German into the language of Locke and Hume without betraying its vibrant multi-dimensionality at every turn (a task at which these translators have succeeded rather commendably). A great deal had to happen to render Bloch “contemporary,” and in most respects he still remains more a contemporary of the 21st century. But of course what makes a work visionary is precisely that it is rendered comprehensible by the drift of history. When The Principle of Hope appeared in Germany in 1959 (two years before Bloch’s self-exile from East to West Germany), the weight of opinion throughout the West (and nowhere more than in the English-speaking world) conceived of Marxian materialism, whether in praise or damnation, as more or less indistinguishable from the bleak determinism of mid-19th century Manchesterism or the more recent Dzhanovism, the grey-ongrey world in which “the brain produces thought as the liver produces bile.” For nearly a century pamphleteers and ideologues, most recently in the employ of the Soviet state and the Western European communist parties, had earned a living in amplifying this view. Just as capitalist apology and Soviet raison d’*tat found a common interest in portraying the bureaucratic nightmare as “communism,” so did harried epistemologists of both sides of the Cold War enjoy shrouding Marxian thought with stock phrases such as “economic determinism” and “mechanistic materialism,” undergirded by “iron laws of history” grasped by the faithful in the “recognition of necessity.” It is not necessary to linger here over the relatively well-known history of publications and commentaries on one hand, and the events and climate heightening their “reception,” on the other, which relegated this view of Marx to well-deserved oblivion. From the international diffusion of the “1844 Manuscripts” through the decanting of the long-obscure Grundrisse to the clarification of the deep and life-long debt to Hegel evidenced in such “late” writings as the unpublished Chapter Six of Vol. 1 of Capital to the working-class upsurges of 1968-1973 and thereafter, it was as if two decades of history conspired to drive home the truth of the Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach in which Marx distinguished himself from all previous materialists by his emphasis on the active sensuous constitution of reality by real historical actors and on vulgar materialism’s failure “to understand activity as objective. As one of a tiny group of early 20th-century pioneers in the “recovery” of this view of Marx, Ernst Bloch came to international prominence in the Marxist renaissance of the 1960s and 1970s as someone finally in his own element. Until quite recently the dearth of Bloch translations available to the English-speaking world has been tantamount to a scandal which this edition of The Principle of Hope will do much to overcome. But it is far from sufficient merely to add Bloch as one more name in a galaxy that includes Lukacs and Korsch, or various fig- ures of the Frankfurt School (with which he is mistakenly identified) such as Adorno, Horkheimer, Benjamin, or Habermas, to say nothing of the withered and truncated scientism of an Althusser or a Coletti. In The Principle of Hope he shows himself to be both of a disposition different from any of these authors and of a Renaissance breadth in interests that few if any of them could rival. If Bloch does not go out of his way to differentiate himself from his Frankfurt School friends in the text, his outlook is a world apart from their re-establishment of the (Hegelian) dualism of Geist and Natur which Marx first overcame in an emancipatory fashion in 1843-1845. One hesitates to summarize a work so cosmic in scope as The Principle of Hope in a few pages. Once again, much of what was at the cutting edge of the international discussion of the 1950s and 1960s, alluded to above, has subsequently been absorbed in a way that makes its avant-garde quality less immediately striking. In a work that touches substantively on themes as diverse as Paracelsian alchemy, late medieval millenarianism, Kabbalah and Jewish messianism, modern physics, Indian and Chinese philosophy, opera, landscape painting, and architecture (to name only a few), it is necessary to extract certain main lines of a polemic and to situate it with respect to its principal adversaries. One might say that the three volumes of The Principle of Hope are a long footnote to Marx’s remark that “humanity has long possessed a dream which it must only possess in consciousness to possess in reality.” Bloch’s project, situated (in his language) in the “warm” as against the “cold” stream of Marxism, is to appropriate for the concrete, practical utopia of the future the broadest spectrum of historical creations of the human imagination, to show their this-sidedness and their truth. In doing this he is merely generalizing the Marxian critique of religion to a much broader array of such creations than most Marxists would care to take on. Indeed, most Marxists, and a fortiori most commentators of Marx, rather badly misconstrue Marx’s critique of religion, “the presupposition of all possible critique” as he put it, and its role in Marx’s work. Marx and Bloch do not criticize religion as “wrong” from the vantage point of some reductionist “science” that possesses the truth; the project of Marx and Bloch is to show the human truth of religion (as one of several products of the human imagination in society) and to prepare for the realization of that truth in social conditions that would no longer require the illusion of religion. Bloch looks to some of the late medieval millenarians, whose heresy went to the point of negating God as an obstacle to full realization of the earthly kingdom, as antecedents of this kind of atheism, as opposed to the conventional 18th-century Enlightenment atheism usually attributed to Marx. In The Principle of Hope Bloch extends this method of “appropriation” to a veritable alchemist’s vat of arcane creations. What is at stake in Bloch’s work is the meaning of the relationship of humanity and nature, a project aimed at the “humanization of nature and the naturalization of humanity,” to use his words. Virtually every mainstream current of “Marxism” and Marx interpretation is called into question by this view. Bloch shows that the active human constitution of the world through historical activity separates Marx from any previous “Democritean” materialism. Bloch does not merely follow Marx’s lead in taking over “the active side developed by idealism” (Theses on Feuerbach which takes most students of Marx no farther than Hegel and Schelling; he shows figures such as Giordano Bruno, Paracelsus, and Jacob Boehme to have actually elaborated, in the Renaissance and Reformation periods, a view of humanity-in-nature as the reconciliation of natura naturans and natura naturata as discussed in theology and philosophy from Erigena to Spinoza, a conception of an active, living matter infused with imagination that was buried by GalileanNewtonian physics. We can see at what antipodes Bloch actually stands to the Frankfurt School and its Weberian notion of “domination” as the principle characteristic of the human relationship to nature. In some ways at the cutting edge of the 20th-century Hegel Renaissance, the Frankfurt School generally took the road “from Marx to Hegel,” as George Lichtheim put it; in recoil against the vulgar materialism of the official workers’ movement of the Second and Third Internationals, they embraced “the active side developed by idealism” by relegating the whole domainof nature and science to “domination” and “instrumental thought,” in keeping with their essentially Mandarin world outlook. Bloch’s approach was quite the opposite; instead of demarcating a world of “Geist” from the “instrumental” world of nature and natural science, Bloch follows Bruno and Paracelsus into a view of nature itself as part of the “active” side, cutting the ground from beneath vulgar, mechanical materialism in its very stronghold. Indeed, in his final posthumously’-published work,Experimentum mundi, Bloch comes close to attributing a kind of subjectivity to nature itself. Bloch’s book, however ahead of its time, also necessarily shows the markings of his time. His periodic asides on the achievements of the Soviet Union, particularly to illustrate some concrete realization of utopia, make one wonder where these lofty conceptions actually touch earth. Concrete political analysis was never a strong point of either Bloch or some of the other 20thcentury pioneers in restoring Marxian theory to its real stature (his essay “Jubilee for Renegades,” written as a backhanded defense of the Moscow Trials, shows that even a highly conscious Hegelianized Marxism can be used to justify just about anything). The question of Bloch’s relationship to the contemporary Green movement in West Germany is a complex one which would require an essay in its own right. Critics of Bloch would be quick to point out that the minor tidal wave of interest in shamanism, witchcraft, Steinerian anthroposophy and the revival of the German romantic tradition of nature mysticism which has found a home in the orbit of the Greens (as perhaps best articulated in Hans Peter Duerr’s brilliant if idiosyncratic Dream Time is on a continuum with Bloch’s concerns. To show the falseness of this view would take us far afield. But there can be no question that the ecology crisis, the question of nuclear power, the high-tech restructuring of industry and many other issues have put the “politicization” of nature and science on the social agenda in a fashion unknown to previous political generations. The “humanization of nature and naturalization of humanity” is more than ever before at the center of politics in a fashion that even traditional political parties cannot ignore. Indeed, this reality has posed a challenge to most of “Western Marxism” (to use the current label for the ferment of the 1960s and 1970s inspired by Lukacs, Gramsci, Korsch, Althusser, et al.) which it has failed miserably to take up. In the 1950s and 1960s, the battle to displace Dzhanovian orthodoxy was such that many of the best energies went into the “recovery” of the Hegelian sources of Marx alluded to above. But a perhaps unintended side effect of this polemic was to place all central questions on the very philosophical plane from which Marx had labored to free them, as though everything could be settled on the level of method. In an era when “economic crisis” seemed relegated to the museum of an earlier phase of capitalism, where it could be viewed as the very prerogative of “mechanistic Marxism,” it was far more interesting to talk about cultural criticism, psychoanalysis, symbolic anthropology, semiotic approaches to literature, and so on. The questions of economics, technology, and science had not only become the domain of “vulgar Marxism”; these subjects frankly bored most of the “Western Marxists.” Such realms could be disposed of with a few incantations of a code word like “instrumentalism.” Quite a contrast to Marx’s approach in the very 1844 Manuscripts on which this current claimed to base itself! Much of the creative Marxism of the early 20th century — the work of Luxemburg, Trotsky, or Bordiga — or of the later generation formed in the black years of Stalinist ascendancy such as C.L.R. James or Paul Mattick, Sr. came out of the heady international upsurge of 1917-1921 and its aftermath. Even the “professors” Korsch and Lukacs drew the inspiration for their most important work from the experience of the soviets and workers’ councils that had sprung up from Glasgow to Moscow at the end of World War I. The proliferation of “Western Marxism” after 1968 similarly owed its impetus to the return of working-class militancy in 19681973. But the rise of this international “left academy” tended to make “Western Marxism” a Marxism of junior professors and greatly reinforced the powerful tendency of such a social stratum to rearticulate the Geist-Natur dualism built into liberal arts education since at least the 19th century. We do not criticize the “Western Marxists” for being professors or for not having lived in 1917-1921. Ernst Bloch was a professor for most of his life, and the Stalinist political commitments 6f his middle years, as we indicated, show that creative originality in certain spheres is no guarantee against banality in others. The challenge posed by Bloch to the contemporary left intelligentsia, as articulated in The Principle of Hope and elsewhere, is his affirmation of a single unitary science which sees nature, matter, and the cosmos itself as a sensuous, living, and historical process which human history continues The appearance of this translation, combined with the multiple economic, social, and environmental crises of the present and future, shows a way forward for Western Marxists, currently in disarray after having, consciously or unconsciously, reproduced the errors of the Young Hegelians and, taken the step back to “critical criticism” to which they were invited by Adorno at the beginning of Negative Dialectics Against the current gentrification of Marxism, to say nothing of post-Marxism and post-modernism, Bloch’s work opens up a path to the domain where “thought must not only seek its reality, but reality must also seek its thought.”