Introduction to Hope
Reading Ernst Bloch on Hope and Utopia.
Thinking means venturing beyond. But in such a way that what already exists is not kept under or skated over. (p.4, Ernest Bloch)
The Principle of Hope is an encyclopaedia of hope that attempts to catalogue the surplus of utopian thought from the early Greek philosophers to the present day. Bloch understands utopia not as an impossible ideal, but as a real and concrete final state which can be achieved politically. He sees the development of socialism as the modern expression of the utopian function which effects this change, the goal towards which the process of history is impelled by utopian thinking. (p.xxviii)
Thus writes Paul Knight, Neville and Stephen Plaice in their introduction to this singular book. An early friend of György Lukács and Walter Benjamin (as well as a close acquaintance at points with Bertolt Brecht and Theodor Adorno), Ernest Bloch is an unusual Marxist. His three volumed The Principle of Hope is a testament to that strangeness. Despite the phrasing above about a ‘final state’, Bloch is not determinist; history could arrive equally at a Nothing (a nullity) or a moment of In-Vain (a cul-de-sac) as it might in utopia, but utopia, the Not-Yet-Conscious that is also the future looking psychological surfeit of hope contained in history, remains possible. It is to that possibility to which we are enjoined to pay attention.
My aim here, and in future essays of this sort (which I will release every few weeks), is to do a close reading of the entirety of this great work. This first essay will be a look at the two introductions to the the MIT Press English edition published in 1986. It offers many clues and insights into the scope of Bloch’s lifelong project, as well as this specific set of books, and why it should still command our attention
Nothing about Bloch is unrelated to the project of hope. Even Bloch’s style works to reflect his philosophy, as the translator’s introduction puts it, he finds ‘the mutual presence of the past and future in each other.’ And to do this ‘blends archaisms, Latin and Greek terms, obsolescent usages, “Volksweisheiten’ (popular sayings or proverbs) with the language of Marxism, science and dialectical materialism to produce a kind of cultural lexicon of the German language.’ The result is a book where form and content come together; this unity is at the core of how Bloch envisages his writings, which is as much (or far more) about inspiring a utopian praxis—that is, utopian action in the world—as it is just charting his reflections.
In his own introduction, Bloch expounds on his core theme of hope, which he renders phenomenologically (that is, as it appears to consciousness directly). He describes it in terms of its relation to the world. ‘The work of this emotion requires people who throw themselves actively into what is becoming, to which they themselves belong.’ (p.3) He contrasts hope with fear, and with the intolerability of hopelessness, and offers a strong defence of the hopeful daydream. He sees daydreams, which will be returned to later in the first volume, as symptomatic of our times, as a response to the particular suffering involved in belonging to a capitalist society. One sees right away how grounded is Block’s project in that of Marx:
Since Marx, no research into truth and no realistic judgement is possible at all which will be able to avoid the subjective and objective hope-contents of the world without paying the penalty of triviality or reaching a dead-end. Philosophy will have conscience of tomorrow, commitment to the future, knowledge of hope, or it will have no more knowledge. (p.7)
It is in this part Bloch also starts to set out his critique of Enlightenment utopianism. A necessary stage in utopia’s development, it is also—in its contemplation of the world only as it is—ultimately abortive, deeply limited: ‘What Has Been overwhelms what is approaching, the collection of things that have been totally obstructs the categories Future, Front, Novum.’ (p.8) This is what Bloch aims to counteract within the living tradition of Marxism, outlining utopias ‘mediatable features and contents, to be taken up, explored and tested. ’ (p.11) That is what he plans to do in three volumes worth of material.
By utopia, Bloch is always keen to stress that his meaning is far broader than the word’s literary origins, ‘coined by Those More,’ rather he seeks to expand on ‘the philosophically far more comprehensive concept of utopia.’ (p.14) The ability to anticipate what has not been realised, which he finds as much in poetry as in the novel prose utopias. For him, ‘the whole totality of philosophy becomes necessary’, (p.15) and not one literary genre. Recalling the increasingly open expansiveness of Robert Burton’s similarly encyclopaedic The Anatomy of Melancholy, Bloch sees in his subject, in his grain of sand, a world. Or, perhaps, many possible worlds.
The Principle of Hope is, then, a project that seeks to restore to a social, anticipatory optimism its rightful philosophical seriousness, its historic weight, and its persuasiveness. It is an assortment of writings, sometimes elliptic and fragmentary, that still needs to be taken up today. In the context of the failures of capitalist society, the collapse of so many expressions of emancipatory agency, the threats to our species’ existence, this project has arguably become all the more urgent, crying to be read by contemporaries. The future has never seemed so bleak, and only an impassioned optimism can be a futile soil for overcoming the frightening impasses that confront an exhausted humanity. Bloch knew this well.
If you enjoyed my essay, subscribe to my monthly newsletter for similar pieces on writing, politics, utopia and horror.