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The relevance of Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch’s message in the context of the debates of today.

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Cover of Verso Book
Cover of Verso Book
By Peter Thompson

Ernst Bloch (1883-1977) was a Marxist philosopher whose main objective in all his work from his 1918 Geist der Utopie to Experimentum Mundi, published in 1975, was to trace the presence of the desire for human liberation in all social, cultural, political and religious aspects of human existence. His main operator in doing so was the concept of Not Yet, the idea that everything which we do and have done in the past is simultaneously constrained but also pushed forward by a combination of objective social conditions – Aristotle’s kata to dynaton, or that which is possible – and human utopian desire for a better world – dynámei on, or that which may become possible.
 
As a Hegelian Marxist, he went beyond both Hegel and Marx as most of the world understood them. He maintained that, in a sense, all history is counterfactual, in that there are many contingent factors which come together to make the moment of our existence but none of them are laid down in advance as some sort of blueprint by either the world spirit or economic necessity. What he tried to do was to maintain a commitment to the relative autonomy of historical development so that it is seen as a product of neither voluntarism nor determinism but the outcome of the interplay between the two.
 
For Bloch this ontology of the Not Yet meant that in addition to what he called the ‘Cold Stream’ of Marxist socio-economic analysis (which he saw as correct and necessary but limited), there needed to be added a ‘Warm Stream’ which investigated the surpluses of human desire and the Vorscheine, or pre-illuminations, of utopia which were to be found in all ages and aspects of human culture. This warm stream has to be based not in a purely rational and scientific analysis of a situation but in a leap of faith, a wager in the hope of a good outcome on the basis of a trust in our utopian desires. As Adorno said, ‘Ernst Bloch is the one mainly responsible for restoring honour to the word “utopia”.’
 
His magnum opus, the threevolume, Das Prinzip Hoffnung (The Principle of Hope*), published in 1959, is an exhaustive and detailed attempt to document these utopian dreams of a better life. In July 2009, Verso re-issued Bloch’s 1968 work Atheism in Christianity (translated by J. T. Swann) in an attempt to get a new hearing for an old angle on the role of religion in society which breaks out of the sterile debate about whether or not a belief in God is a delusion. A brief glance at any online discussion of religion today will make clear just how polarised this debate has become. On the one side reductionist rationalism feels itself under attack from the creeping theologisation of society and on the other those with belief fear the descent into valueless utilitarianism and individualistic hedonism. What results is largely a dialogue of the deaf. The value of Ernst Bloch’s work is that he takes on both the reductionists and the transcendentalists and tries to discern what can be gained from a dialectical synthesis of the two which would provide us with a proper understanding of our desire for ‘transcendence without the transcendent’. This highly messianic and even eschatological version of Marxism opened him up to severe criticism in his own lifetime but now, with the return of religion as a significant social and political force, the time has come to reappraise Bloch’s work and to ask whether it has anything to offer the current debate.
 
In Atheism in Christianity, Bloch provides an original historical examination of Christianity in an attempt to find its social roots. He pursues a detailed study of the Bible and its longstanding fascination for ‘ordinary and unimportant’ people. In the Bible stories’ promise of utopia and their antagonism to authority, Bloch locates the appeal to the oppressed. Through a close and nuanced analysis he explores the tensions within the text that promote atheism, against the authoritarian metaphysical theism imposed on it by priest interpreters. At the Bible’s heart he finds a heretical core and claims, paradoxically, that ‘only an atheist can be a good Christian but only a Christian can be a good atheist’.
 
Further translations of Ernst Bloch’s work are now underway, with Thomas Münzer as Theologian of the Revolution to appear with Duke University Press in 2010 and Avicenna and the Aristotelian Left appearing as part of a volume on Islam and Modernity with Columbia University Press in 2011. It is also hoped that Verso will be publishing Experimentum Mundi in 2011.
 
 
* Of this work George Steiner has written: ‘Ernst Bloch’s Principle of Hope is one of the key books of our century. Part philosophic speculation, part political treatise, part lyric vision, it is exercising a deepening influence on thought and on literature ... No political or theological appropriations of Bloch’s leviathan can exhaust its visionary breadth.’
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Dr Peter Thompson
is Director of the Centre for Ernst Bloch Studies and Senior Lecturer in German at Sheffield University. He has written the introduction to Verso’s recent publication of Bloch’s Atheism in Christianity.
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