• Rowan Fortune

Bloch’s Limits

The fourth instalment of my close read of Ernst Bloch's The Principle of Hope. Every essay is a stand-alone piece, but if you want to read the previous essay, click here.

In the last essay on Bloch, I made some mild criticisms. Here, I want to look more closely at what I have come to see as his limitations as a thinker, but chiefly to argue that these foibles should not (and hence do not) change my fundamental appreciation of him as a theoretician of the utopian imagination, as well as an encyclopaedic intellect and one of the very few Marxists to fully stress the psychology of hope, historically situated in class, as a core part of any emancipatory project. That is, I want to strike a balance between my respect for his work and criticisms that nonetheless pertain.

Bloch is not a perfect thinker, in part because there is no such person. He has his assumptions, highly on display when he writes for example that ‘particularly women’ experience false instincts, ‘if not in love, then as caring mothers.’ It is not too difficult to disentangle such patronising nonsense from his broader ideas, especially since this thoughtlessness is not integrated into Bloch’s overall thesis. Still, it should not be ignored that even Bloch sometimes neglected what he terms the Not-Yet-Conscious (intimations of better future states) in favour of prejudices inarguably older than bourgeois society itself.

It might even be a weakness of Bloch that in being especially aware of the limits of bourgeois society, he can be tempted to neglect that it constitutes in many ways, often highly unevenly, an improvement on previous conditions (something Erich Fromm’s Marxian psychology grasps more easily). Bloch sometimes dips into sentimentality about the past too, and this in part comes from the fact that he fails to sufficiently stress the way in which alienation in Marxism is a part of the contingent maturing of humanity towards a potential state of freedom, on top of being a cause of distress. Being fair to Bloch, it is worthwhile also acknowledging that attending to the utopian is never in itself an antidote to all reactionary ideas (there is none), as the utopian literary tradition showcases.

All of that is to say that Bloch, in line with Bloch’s own Marxist understanding of the world, is to some extent a product of his time as well as someone capable of excising agency, and seeing beyond the scope of the ideas into which he was born. That excuse is often overused and misapplied. Certainly, there were many in Bloch’s own time who were ahead of him on the liberation of women, as just one example. But in general a member of the oppressor group is rarely, if ever, ahead of the oppressed’s own self-understanding. Similarly, his post-WWII hatred of Jung, while not very intellectually charitable, can be seen as understandable in the context. Bloch’s criticisms of Jung are hyperbolic, but his distrust of the intellectual culture that gave rise to Jung’s thought deeply well grounded.

That Bloch had prejudices as well as blind spots, and that these do not define his work, are worth being aware of in any reading. But they are not particularly insightful observations. There are, however, tendencies in Bloch that are a bit more particular to him as a thinker, that constitute limits to what he can offer us today and that need to be kept in mind when reading him. Foremost amongst these is something I recognise strongly in Bloch, because it is a quality my own thought frequently suffers from.

Bloch is a big picture thinker; that is not to say that his subjects are more important than other thinkers, but that he too readily likes to join up various data points, and that he does so sometimes spuriously. In this way he is the opposite of a thinker such as Marx. Whereas with Marx it can be hard to see the method from the analysis (Marx is always keener to apply his systematic thought than to unpack it, which has led some to struggle to even find a cohesive theory of class joining up his early and later contributions), with Bloch often the analysis gets subsumed by the method.

An example of this can be found when he links up Franz Brentano, Edmund Husserl, Soren Kierkegaard, Rene Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, Martin Heidegger, and Hegel on the subject of intention and finds that they are all explicating the same thing. This is a conclusion Bloch will come to again and again; he has a fascinating and speculative point about, say, how human consciousness is future orientated, and will find copious evidence for it everywhere. But when he proceeds in this way, it is hard to shake the feeling that you are learning more about Bloch than you are about Brentano, Husserl, Kierkegaard, Descartes, Spinoza, Heidegger or Hegel.

So what is valuable in Bloch? Hopefully the other essays in this series already give you a sense of my answer. As mentioned, he truly is an encyclopaedia of datapoints, especially for the often-neglected utopian imagination. (Much like Robert Burton and his three volumed The Anatomy of Melancholy, Bloch is by no means parochial and his chosen subject) Moreover, this collecting and bringing together of unique historical strivings for a better world is not a mere sampling of curios (something that perhaps elevated Bloch over Burton). Bloch is offering something rich, something that is powerfully relevant to us today.

That is because his futural psychology, which he finds in such strivings, even if it possibly lacks the sure footing he gives it, is still an intuitively appealing basis for revolutionary optimism. Bloch takes the subjective content of revolutionary psychology seriously, because he takes agency seriously. While Marx’s entire notion of class fundamentally pivots on collective agency, with gleaming exceptions (Rosa Luxembourg for example) Marxists have too often downplayed this aspect of what it means to be revolutionary. Sometimes lagging far behind anarchists. But it is in stressing the content of such agency that Bloch is special; if we have agency, then it must be like something to have it. Bloch’s focus on utopia is a way to uncover the subjectivity we need to make a better world.

Bloch offers us many speculative ideas, which need testing. His approach to psychology is refreshing, but cannot just be accepted on those grounds. Nonetheless, Bloch offers us something more, the certainty that without optimism, a political project such as Marxism cannot have a viable basis.

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