Paradise lost

Julian Alford reviews ‘Not yet: Reconsidering Ernst Bloch’ by Jamie Owen Daniel and Tom Moylan

Famously, Marx and Engels abjured utopia - or at least the fantastic, speculative ‘blueprints’ of the utopian socialists. Marx and Engels’ elaboration of the modalities of proletarian revolution marked a definitive break with the prevailing socialist ‘theory’ of the day. Henceforth, socialism - now irrevocably bound to proletarian emancipation - would no longer be secured by conspiracy (Blanqui) or utopia (Owen, Fourier), but rather grounded in an objective capacity of the working class to overthrow the bourgeois order and driven by its subjective interest in doing so.

Yet this summary judgement was never so final as the subsequent denigration of utopia within the Marxist tradition would suggest. If Marx and Engels regarded “concrete utopia” (Ernst Bloch’s synonym for communism) as immanent in the real struggles of the working class then the advent of the Second International saw the end displaced by the means. In this context, Bernstein’s heresy in the ‘revisionist’ debate within the major party of the International - the German SPD - was merely to vocally demand the conformity of theory with the existing practice of the SPD.

Thus, a pre-critical enlightenment faith in progress, married to a belief that the working class would inevitably inherit the future, issued in a pacific strategy of colonising Wilhelminian society.

Similarly, the beleaguered character of the October Revolution generated a utilitarian, productivist view of socialism within the Third International. So the author of State and revolution could characterise communism as “soviet power plus electrification”, while Gramsci’s militant asceticism was reflected in a eulogy to Fordism which praised Ford’s attempt to regulate the sexuality of his employees as prefiguring the sobriety of a nascent communist moral order.

By contrast, The communist manifesto argued the ‘blueprints’ of the utopian socialists and communists were “full of the most valuable materials for the enlightenment of the working class” and expressed “the first instinctive yearnings of that class for a general reconstruction of society”. Indeed, against Dühring,Engels defended the rational core lodged in the utopias of Fourier, Owen and Saint-Simon.

This uneven collection of essays focuses on the Marxist philosopher, Ernst Bloch, who attempted to marry an ontology of hope to the precepts of historical materialism and whose life work was devoted to the hermeneutical task of quarrying the cultural superstructures of capitalism and the quotidian for the presence of an anticipatory, not-yet-conscious desire for the ‘good life.’ In this endeavour, Bloch was not only attempting to rehabilitate utopia but touch a fuse that would once again illuminate the emancipatory horizons of the Marxist tradition.   

Bloch has long had something of a reputation for utopian promiscuity. Thus, a tendency to regard the latent desire for utopia as ubiquitous - sedimented in a culture and tradition inherited from a past, blown open and nourished by the Novum (the new) of a now which opened out to the future - led Bloch to search for the utopian impulse in fairy tales, dreams, detective stories, architecture, jurisprudence and religion (which he sought to ground in the material struggle for the earthly kingdom of heaven while messianising Marxism).

Yet the best of these essays remind us that Bloch was also an astringent critic of a compensatory wishful thinking cannibalised today by a commodified object universe. So Douglas Kellner’s essay restating Fredric Jameson’s elegant argument in ‘Reification and utopia in mass culture’ (sadly not printed here), which recommended Bloch as a model of ideology critique, does at least underscore Bloch’s belief that the utopian impulse was irrevocably united to the emancipatory project of the revolutionary Marxist tradition.

Thus, Bloch’s distinction between abstract and concrete utopia rejected Karl Mannheim’s assimilation of utopia to the sphere of the sheerly ideological. Drawing on a secondary distinction between ‘empty possible’and ‘real possible futures’, Bloch argued utopia was a real movement, immanent in reality while the historical content of a future-orientated doctra spes (educated hope) was an ‘act content’uniting the locus of praxis whose agent was the proletariat to the utopian horizon.

However, Bloch never discussed the relationship of his ontology of hope to the transitional process to communism or attempted to outline the actual institutional lineaments of communism. Instead, the teleological impulse at the heart of Bloch’s ontology of hope and a failure to integrate it with Marxism led to his accommodation to Stalinism.

It is hardly surprising that, having argued in 1918 that revolutionaries should be “guided tactically by Jesus with the whip, and only teleologically by the Jesus who loves mankind”, Bloch could also defend the Moscow show trials of 1936-37. Indeed, Bloch’s trajectory mirrored that of other intellectuals drawn to the banner of the October Revolution such as Georg Lukács, who argued that the struggle to realise the end of communism necessitated a “teleological suspension of the ethical”. The rise of Stalinism saw both move from the revolutionary messianism of 1917-23 to the ‘realism’ of the latter 1920s and 1930s.

Even so, such a turbulent spirit as Bloch could not be contained by Stalinism while his defence of the utopian impulse remained a rebuke to the reality of ‘actually existing socialism’. In the 1950s Bloch was removed from his academic post and left the GDR for West Germany shortly after.

Today there is a sense in which Marxism has become utopian - if only because   Stalinism’s dystopian impact (the source of the profoundest ideological disorientation of the global working class movement) has occluded the emancipatory core of Marxism.

Nonetheless, if it is true that the revolutionary left’s instrumental praxis paralleled a loss of the utopian perspective, then it is also true that the reintegration of the dialectical circuit between theory and praxis, grounded in the re-emergence of the working class as an independent political agent, will be essential in re-animating the project for concrete utopia and open the path to summits not yet conquered.

Julian Alford