From the Other Side

David Drew writes about Ernst Bloch’s Utopia

Question: What is the basic idea in your philosophy?

Bloch: That I cannot see anything at very close quarters, anything that presents itself in front of my eyes. There has to be distance ... Proverbs express it very simply: ‘The weaver knows not what he weaves’; ‘At the foot of the lighthouse there is no light’; ‘The prophet is without honour in his own country.’


To venture a guess at what will for ever remain his secret, it is not entirely improbable that, in pondering his road and its destination, Erasmus arrived at conclusions which so filled him with fright that he preferred to lock them away in his heart. He may (or he may not) have surmised that in the last analysis he aimed at something beyond the pale of Christianity; that, thought to the end, his true design was once for all to wreck the wall of fixed causes with their dogmas and institutional arrangements for the sake of that ultimat unity which the causes mean and thwart.

‘Erasmus’ by Siegfried Kracauer,

in Ernst Bloch zu Ehren

Marx and Nietzsche are the last German philosophers to have captured the popular imagination outside the German-speaking world. If Nietzsche has lost – and lost perhaps to Freud – the dubious honour of being in that sense a household name, that is no reflection on his real achievement, but only on the fact that it was in his name among others that hitherto unthinkable crimes were, within living memory, committed against the entire household of Western culture and humanity.

With the notable exception of Heidegger, almost every German philosopher worthy of the calling joined the great emigration from Hitler’s Germany, whether literally or (like Jaspers until his removal) in spirit. For most, the traditional havens of Vienna and Prague, Basle and Paris, served their traditional purpose until, towards the end of the decade, circumstances called for a second and equally momentous emigration: westwards to America.

That it was the America of Roosevelt’s New Deal was generally influential. That it was also, for the Marxist Left, expressly or tacitly the chosen alternative to Stalin’s Russia became crucial: a crossroads, and even for some a kind of personal cross. Of the leading German Marxist thinkers, only George Lukacs had (immediately) chosen Moscow; and there he was to remain until the end of the Second World War, true to the party he had joined in 1918 and apparently at one with the Stalinist consequences of the Leninism to which he had fully committed himself by the early 1920s. His friend and antagonist, exact contemporary and truest counterpart, was Ernst Bloch, who took the more familiar path through Paris and Prague, and in 1938 sailed for New York. Bloch’s speech ‘Zerstörte Sprache – Zerstörte Kultur’ – delivered to the Association of German Writers in New York in 1939, and published in Moscow that same year – ended with four English words: ‘The Rights of Man’.

Unlike Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, and their colleagues from the Hegelian-Marxist Frankfurt School, Bloch arrived in the United States without clear prospects of a post, and predictably failed to find one. After two years of hardship in New York and New Hampshire, he moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he wrote most of his magnum opus, Das Prinzip Hoffnung. Apart from his address in 1939 to the Congress of American Writers, his appearances and his publications in the New World were confined to German exile circles. In 1948, his 64th year, he accepted the offer of a professorship of philosophy at the University of Leipzig, then in the Russian Zone and recently re-constituted as the Karl-Marx University. The following summer he and his family arrived in what had already been established as the German Democratic Republic. In his inaugural address at the university he spoke of the charts and the skills required in order to navigate ‘the ocean ... that lies before us’ – an ocean of ‘circumscribed possibilities’. Implicit in his ‘principle, Hope’ was the need to discriminate between short-term and long-term possibilities, and real rather than merely dogmatic limitations. For Bloch, in his public role as in his thinking, the problems of navigation were not simply a matter of enlightened confidence in the accuracy of existing charts – the Seekarte of his inaugural speech – but also of constant deep-water soundings.

A collision between Bloch and the Ulbricht regime was nevertheless at some point inevitable. That should already have been clear from any but the most cursory or selective reading of his post-1918 work – including, in their proper context, his notorious apologia for Stalin’s Moscow show trials. The event that indirectly precipitated the collision occurred in February 1956, when Khrushchev delivered to the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party his comprehensive indictment of Stalin’s errors, crimes and general misrule – and above all, because it was intended to explain all, of the ‘cult of personality’. Unwittingly Khrushchev had dismantled part of the fortress upon which Russia’s control of the Eastern bloc depended, and demolished ideological safeguards that have since proved irreplaceable.

Criticism of Bloch’s ‘revisionism’ had been voiced in party journals, intermittently, since the start of the 1950s. Yet his 70th birthday in 1955 – just six months before the epoch-making Congress – was marked by the kind of official celebrations that people’s democracies reserve for the blameless great. Despite his age there was no talk of retirement, and seemingly no thought of it: the official as well as the real sense of the celebrations was that he was still at the height of his prodigious powers. So it was very much as a public figure that Bloch addressed a distinguished audience at the Humboldt University in East Berlin in November 1956, on the occasion of the 125th anniversary of the death of Hegel. In tones that would have rejoiced the heart of Brecht – who had died three months before – he attacked party functionaries who sought to reduce the discussion of Marx and Hegel to the level of a ‘hatter’s competition’, and who seemed to believe ‘one could play the Ninth Symphony on a comb’. The fervour with which Bloch now reiterated his attacks on rigid dogma and his pleas for a wise tolerance was unmistakably heightened by events in Hungary, where Russian troops were at that moment crushing the uprising in support of the anti-Stalinist government formed by Imre Nagy. Among the members of that government – all of whom were exiled to Rumania – was Lukacs.

Lukacs and his colleagues in the ‘Petöfi circle’ had been the intellectual forerunners of the Hungarian uprising. Their connections with Wolfgang Harich, who together with Bloch had founded the highly respected journal Die Deutsche Zeitschrift für Philosophie (and who was also Bloch’s editor in the state-controlled Aufbau Verlag), were well known in the GDR. Soon after Bloch had delivered his widely reported Hegel address and returned to Leipzig, Harich was arrested, together with other members of a ‘revisionist circle’ that included three ex-pupils of Bloch. The end-of-the-year issue of Neues Deutschland contained an article by Ulbricht criticising research and teaching at the Karl-Marx University in Leipzig, but not mentioning Bloch by name.

The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in