Reclaiming Utopia: The Legacy of Ernst Bloch

— Tim Dayton

WE LIVE IN dark days; is there anyone on the left to whom this thought has not occurred? The darkness, though, does not come only from without  a third world ravaged by imperialism, denied the prospect of relief, a second world carved into servings for domestic and transnational predators, a first world dominated by the right, and reverting to pre-welfare state cruelty  but also from within: Increasingly, we can project no way out and nowhere to go.

In addition to all the historical burdens and present dilemmas the left faces, we also face a crisis of the future. This crisis of the future accounts for much of the despair, or its more mundane manifestation, listlessness, common on the left. We lack a meaningful sense of the future, and as a result we lack hope, because hope demands a future envisioned as the terrain on which it may be realized. Hope realized in the future: what is this but a formula for utopia?

Of course, utopia tends to be the target of derision. And yet, despite being subject to abuse and cyclical depressions, utopia never goes away, in part because the criticism of the present draws, often covertly and unconsciously, on the notion of a future which has eliminated the conditions of the present that make life so difficult, sometimes impossible, and unfulfilling for so many. Here utopia operates in disguise, not going by its own name but providing a resource against which to measure a present that fails to match up, either to its own ideal expression of itself or to the inspiring visions of the future for which people have struggled throughout history.

Recently, the concept of utopia has started to attract the attention of a section of the U.S. left, and a crucial element in this has been the dissemination of the work of Ernst Bloch. His rediscovery began in the early 1970s with the translation into English and publication of several of his works, the important section on Bloch in Fredric Jameson’s Marxism and Form, and the appearance of a number of articles on him in Telos.

Bloch has worked his way into the thought and writing of some figures of the academic left. It remains to be seen whether Bloch’s visionary Marxism can influence the practice and politics of the broader left.

An Unorthodox Marxist

Ernst Bloch was born in the German industrial city of Ludwigshafen in 1885. Bloch’s family were assimilated Jews; his father worked as a railway official.

By his mid-teens Bloch, like many young people of his era, had staked out a position opposed to the industrial civilization around him. In this opposition Bloch had already begun to develop his own thought, drawing on the work of such classic German philosophers as Kant, Fichte, Schilling and Hegel, as well as Marx, Engels, Bebel, and Luxemburg.

Significantly, to this august list Bloch would add Karl May, author of popular adventure stories, for whom Bloch had a lifetime affection, and to whom he would continue to refer in his writing.(1) In his adult life Bloch formed important, although sometimes stormy, friendships with fellow Marxist intellectuals Georg Lukacs, T.W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and Bertolt Brecht.

Bloch’s Marxism was from the start unorthodox as the result of his abiding interest in the notion of utopia. This notion was held in disdain by many orthodox Marxists, as the result of the economistic variant of Marxism developed by the Second International; the unavailability (until fairly recently) of many of Marx’s texts revealing the importance of utopian thought to the founder of Marxism; and a pervasive but partial  and to that degree wrongheaded  reading of Engels’ Socialism: Utopian and Scientii.

As a result, Bloch never joined the Communist Party, although he was a strong supporter of the Soviet Union until Khrushchev’s (1956) speech before the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party.

Up to the mid-fifties, Bloch seems to have balanced against his philosophical heresies a political posture which he saw as political maturity: the belief that history dictated that one support either the Soviet Union or the capitalist West. Therefore he chose the Soviet Union.

While this position does little to recommend Bloch politically, his philosophical and critical writing even during his pro-Moscow period remains of the greatest interest.(2) After exile in the United States during the Second World War, Bloch took up residence in East Germany (DDR) as a sort of semi-official philosopher of the new government, and he was awarded the National Prize of the DDR and made a member of the German Academy of the Sciences. Still, Bloch aroused opposition from vulgar Marxist opponents who attacked his rehabilitation of Hegel, his attacks on determinism, his defense of artists and his calls for a Marxist-Christian dialogue.

After 1956 Bloch’s apostasy became magnified as he called for the wholesale reconstruction of Marxism and the DDR. Bloch’s students were jailed or forced into exile, and he was barred from teaching and publishing. After several years of such treatment, Bloch happened to be visiting West Germany in 1962 when the Berlin Wall was erected, and he remained there, accepting a post at the University of Tubingen.

In the years up to his death in 1977, Bloch remained active, supporting the various oppositional Marxist currents in the East, denouncing U.S. imperialism in the West, and bringing out many books that had remained in manuscript until this time.

Bloch, Utopia, and Fascism

Bloch’s interest in the notion of utopia is obvious from the title of his first book Spirit of Utopia (first edition, 1918). But Bloch’s particular notion of utopia, as it developed over his career, differs from those orderly delineations of a trouble-free world that immediately spring to mind whenever the subject of utopia is first broached.

For Bloch utopia is not just a subject for rational construction and projection into the future, but also something very much present in the here and now. Thus utopia is not the "no-place" of the word’s Greek origins, but rather something present in the now, although available only in glimpses or image-traces.

Furthermore, these utopian image-traces are not necessarily wed to "progressive" politics. Indeed, one of Bloch’s most acute analyses of the utopian dimension concerns its function in the appeal of fascism,(3) which is able to activate anti-capitalist imagery that works as an anticipation or prefiguration of utopia. Thus this reactionary movement appeals to longstanding popular traditions renounced by the overly rationalist left of the nineteenth and especially twentieth centuries.

By refusing to have any truck with "mystical" and "irrational" protests against the alienation and repressive rationalization of industrial capitalism, the left participated intellectually in the very same quantitative (and in its own way mystifying) logic as did its opponent, Capital, and ceded important terrain to the forces of reaction.

Bloch’s analysis of the Fascist appropriation of utopian imagery is evident in his account of the notion of a Third Reich, a term familiar to us now as the concise expression of political horror. But Bloch traces the notion back to origins in the Old Testament, and to its re-emergence in the Middle Ages among heretical Christians and as the social theology of the peasant revolts.

Here, the notion of a third epoch served to figure a world in which reigned freedom and solidarity in a kind of restored primitive communism. Such a vision continued to inform emancipatory movements into the nineteenth century.(4)

Marx’s breakthrough, famously, was to wed such utopian visions to a concrete, scientific analysis of the dynamics of capitalism and class struggle. But by the end of the nineteenth century the two-sidedness of the Marxian synthesis was lost, in part because Capital, in requiring its opponents to think according to its own logic, captured the consciousness of those very opponents.

As a result, the notion of a third epoch, which retained its appeal among great sections of the masses, fell into the hands of the right, whose objectively false anticapitalism was nevertheless subjectively true: Drawing upon a utopian image from the past, fascism struck a chord the left refused to hear. The masses were abandoned to a "swindle of fulfillment."

As his analysis of fascism reveals, Bloch argues that even the most ugly and reactionary moments in history have their utopian dimension, and it is the task of Marxism as the "concretely mediated utopia" both to ferret out these subterranean utopian elements and to make possible their actualization in the world.

Such a position earned Bloch much criticism, especially from orthodox "Marxist-Leninists." At the Seventh Comintern Congress delegates were supplied with Hans Gunther’s Der Herren eigener Geist, attacking Bloch for his sympathy with criticisms of capitalism which, Gunther asserted, because they are rooted in a past and surpassed epoch – feudalism  actually affirm capitalism.

Bloch’s sympathy for this kind of "romantic anti-capitalism," according to Gunther, made him little better than a critical apologist for capitalism, mired as he was in a bootless nostalgia.(5)

The criticism levelled at Bloch by the "Marxist-Leninist" orthodoxy was eminently predictable, because he challenged not only the prevailing understanding of fascism, but also a number of key theoretical features of Marxist theory as understood within the Stalinized Communist movement.

Bloch and Subjectivity

Of these challenges, two stand out most compellingly at present: his understanding of history and time, and his development of a role for subjectivity.

Bloch’s challenge to the orthodox understanding of history and time takes to task the understanding of history as purely objective, developmental progress, even by such sophisticated figures as Lukacs. Instead, Bloch announces, in a statement typical in its cryptic surface but underlying clarity: "Not all people exist in the same Now." Of course all living people at any given time may be said to co-exist physically. "But this does not mean that they are living at the same time with others."(6)

This statement needs to be explained in two stages: first, in terms of Bloch’s conception of the lived moment, "now;" and secondly, in terms of his understanding of history. For Bloch, the fundamental feature of eve reveals itself, not in only in what is past or in what is present, but also in what is absent.

Thus, what most truly characterizes the lived moment is its inadequacy, the sense that "something’s missing," which is the way in which people register the real lack of freedom and fulfillment in their lives. But this sense of inadequacy or lack generates its opposite, a vision of a world that is adequate  utopia.

The utopia that any group of people project depends to some extent upon the exact material conditions in which they exist. Bloch would argue, however, that you cannot simply read off people’s consciousness from their material conditions, nor can you really understand people unless you understand their particular utopian projections – because such projections, while they are not material, are a real component of people’s lives, part of t in which they live.

Second, Bloch’s understanding of history is an enriched and elaborated version of the theory of combined That is, the principal features and contradictions from which people draw their relationship to society are not uniform, but rather a mosaic of elements finding their origins in an amalgam of historical and cultural moments.

Into this mosaic Bloch would figure that which is not there, the various notions that "something’s missing" held by different groups. These two principles, the inadequacy of the lived moment and a version of the theory of combined development, provide the basis for Bloch’s theory of "nonsynchronism."

Nonsynchronous Contradictions

Bloch’s theory of nonsynchronism opens the way to seeing a given historical moment as a co-presence of elements derived from both the contemporary social order, and those past orders which, though no longer dominant, still retain both material and (although the term is not entirely appropriate) ideological power.

Such is the case with those nonsynchronous, mid-twentieth-century German peasants who, although they live in a nation enmeshed in the contemporary world of industrial capitalism, live in defined by the determinations and utopian desires of earlier historical moments. Such people live in an authentically nonsynchronous contradiction with capitalism.

In addition, the power of the images radiated by these nonsynchronous social groups complicates the temporal and ideological schema of any historical moment. Urban industrial or office workers may be attracted by the utopian images generated by peasant modes of life, even though they themselves certainly cannot simply take up a peasant life, to say nothing of immediately realizing its utopian urges.

Nonsynchronous contradictions exist alongside synchronous contradictions, such as that between a class-conscious proletariat and a technocratic-capitalist ruling class – the kind of contradiction made famous in Marx’s brief outline of historical materialism in the 1859 "Preface to A Critique of Political Economy."

A synchronous contradiction, that is, is one whose origin lies in the developing conflict between the relations and forces of production. Bloch forthrightly affirms the reality and importance of the synchronous contradiction, but he also asserts that "nevertheless, it is not the only one there."(8)

To be properly understood, every moment must be seen to contain a variety of lived "nows." The form of oppression and exploitation suffered by the working class is accompanied by parallel, but nonsynchronous, oppressions suffered by other groups whose historical roots and imagination lie in the past, or rather, in what the synchronous contradiction declares to be the past.

Given this framework (which, despite its heretical character at the time Bloch developed it, would seem true to Marx’s goal of seeing society as a "rich totality of many determinations and relations"(9)), the political task of the Marxist left then becomes to bring into the arena of the present conflict not only the proletariat, but also the nonsynchronous groups.

This requires more than simply forging a political alliance; it requires also that the left "extrapolate the elements of the nonsynchronous contradiction which are capable of antipathy and transformation, that is, those hostile to capitalism and homeless in it, and to refit them to function in a different context."(10)

A crucial part of this extrapolation, for Bloch, is to summon forth the utopian images and desires locked away in the imaginations of those nonsynchronous groups and so far unfulfilled in the world. Here Bloch develops what could be seen as the subjective counterpart to Antonio Gramsci’s assertion that in order for a class to lead other classes (to exert hegemony), it must surpass its own strictly "corporate," narrowly-defined interests.(11)

Not only did Bloch’s theory of nonsynchronous contradiction challenge the linearity of the Communists’ "orthodox" view of history, it also challenged their political response to fascism. Bloch, by revealing their failure to capture the revolutionary imagination of all potentially revolutionary classes, implicates the Communists in the triumph of fascism.

In a curious way, then, Bloch’s very hopefulness, the fundamental feature of his thought in general, made his work unacceptable to the Stalinists because it suggested 1) that the success of fascism indicated an opportunity missed by an underdeveloped left, and 2) that the utopian dreams and images of the past have not lost their power and cannot be rejected simply because of their "contamination" by their outmoded social origins.

The Power of Experience

The above outline of Bloch’s analysis of fascism also reveals the importance of subjectivity for Bloch.  Against the austere (and self-serving) rationalism of the Stalinist Communists, Bloch stresses the importance of the lived and felt experience of people.

As Jesse Lemitch and Naomi Weisstein argue in "Cornucopia Isn’t Consumerism" (ATC 36) such degraded pleasures as shopping provide people with fragmentary access to those greater pleasures and fulfillments only to be realized in a revolutionized, post-capitalist world. (Bloch’s monumental, three-volume work The Principle of Hope is in part a catalog of fragmentary image traces of utopia).

Of course, in so far as these pleasures are enmeshed within capitalism, they are irrational: The very terms of the contract by which we enjoy them ensures the continued life of the system that blocks the path to a greater future.

But this does not mean that we should simply ignore or deride such experiences. Rather, we should grasp both the reality of such experiences and their limits, and then "refit them to function in a different context."

Because Bloch asserts that what can be seen (with some justice) as "irrational" experiences and feelings are important, he is easily caricatured as a full-blown irrationalist. Rather, he should be understood as someone who perceives both the rational located within the irrational, and the irrational within the rational.

Bloch and Today’s Left

While the current the situation of the U.S. left is undoubtedly quite different from that in which Bloch operated, there is still much to learn from this often idiosyncratic but highly original and powerful thinker. A number of features of the political scene might well yield opportunities rather than sheer obstacles for the left if approached, at least speculatively, in the manner of Bloch.

This implies searching, even in the most repellent of political movements, for the utopian images that animate their adherents. For example, the expansion of the neo-right and the religious right need not only to be combatted, but – prior to this – also understood. Part of what these movements react against, with the "pent-up anger" Bloch analyzes so well, is the contemporary face of capitalism.

A movement such as home-schooling, an intense expression of the broader "family values" movement, might appear simply reactionary. And certainly there are such elements within it: Racism and the abandonment of those who must rely on public education spring immediately to mind. Yet at the same time, home-schooling expresses the desire for the safety of one’s children (an old dream indeed) and the insulation of them from an increasingly commercialized and sensationalized public world.

Bloch would counsel us that the left must find the means by which to detach these potentially progressive (even revolutionary) elements from the reactionary elements with which they are currently articulated.

Of course, one cannot simply apply Bloch’s methods wholesale.(12) Still, in Bloch’s tenacious adherence to the utopian principle lies an important part of the basis for leftist renewal. We must not be afraid of utopian projections: They provide what Bloch refers to as the "theology" of the left.

This of course entails that we not fear such a theology. There are any number of good reasons not to. First, any movement that challenges the status quo, from any standpoint other than that of utter nihilism (and probably even then), implicitly constructs a notion of a better life, whether it acknowledges this or not, and it is better (and more rational) to see this than to wear blinders.

Second, the left needs to be aware of the degree to which it has conformed to the quantitative and instrumental reason of Capital. Without going over into mysticism and irrationalism, the left must make a determinate break with the thought-forms of its antagonist.

Synthesizing Science and Utopia

Here, it seems to me, the best and least polarizing way of conceiving of the problem is as follows.

At its best, the "scientific" tendency within Marxism provides us with excellent tools for dissecting capitalist society, including its origins, current state and possible future mutations, and for assessing what practical steps can be taken to construct social institutions more conducive to the full development of human beings.

The "utopian" tendency, at its best, provides us with an understanding of not only the "heroic" element in history (those visions of a better world that people have been fighting for and will continue to fight for), but also the fragmentary and distorted glimpses into a possible future  often presented as a yearning for the past  that are the image-traces of utopia.

The left needs both of these tendencies, and it will be a sign of its increasing maturity if it can begin to synthesize them, rather than project them outward as competing methods and factions.(13)

Finally, although I do not want to be alarmist, the important place of fascism in the formation of Bloch’s thought should be sobering for a U.S. left that continues to live on the margins of its own society.

A nation in economic decline, ridden with racial conflict and oppression, given to warmaking, and saddled with a dysfunctional political system  this characterization of contemporary U.S. society would be accepted by many people not consciously on the left.

If a terrible specter lurks within this era, so too – potentially  does another, altogether more appealing. It is the task of the left to realize this second potential, forestalling the appearance of that night in which long delayed hopes would find yet another "swindle of fulfillment."


  1. Biographical information on Bloch may be found most conveniently in Wayne Hudson’s The Marxist Philosophy of Ernst Bloch (New York: St. Martin’s, 1982), 4-19; Jack Zipes, "Introduction" to Ernst Bloch, The Utopian Function of Art and Literature: Selected Essays, trans. Jack Zipes and Frank Mecklenburg (Cambridge, MA: MIT UP, 1988), xi-xliii; and Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice, and Paul Knight, "Translator’s Introduction" to Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope 3 vols. (Cambridge, MA: MIT UP, 1986), xix-xxxiii. I have made use of background information found in all three of these sources.
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  2. About Bloch’s political positions, especially his support for the Moscow Trials, one should of course be critical when necessary and appropriate  it is tempting otherwise to make Bloch into a Marxist saint. At the same time, it would be wrong to see Bloch as a "Stalinist henchman" until his break with East Germany. In any case, whatever Bloch’s lapses of political judgement, his theoretical work retains the greatest interest  although, as Mike Fischer has pointed out to me, the lack of a "cold stream" in Bloch’s thought  one might even say in his character  might well be seen to have contributed to his political failings. For a sense of Bloch’s political perceptions after his departure from the DDR, see "Postscript, in Heritage of Our Times, below.
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  3. For Bloch and Fascism see Anson Rabinbach, "Unclaimed Heritage: Ernst Bloch’s Heritage of Our Times and the Theory of Fascism," and Ernst Bloch, "Nonsynchronism and the Obligation to Its Dialectics," New German Critique 11 (Spring 1977), 521; 2238. Heritage of Our Times, of which "Nonsynchronism and the Obligation to Its Dialectics" is a part, has recently become available in English (Trans. Neville and Stephen Plaice, Cambridge, UK: Polity, 1991).
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  4. Heritage of Our Times, 5663; 128132.
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  5. Rabinbach, 18. Hans Gunther was a student of Lukacs.
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  6. Bloch, "Nonsynchronism," 22.
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  7. A classic expression of the theory of combined development may be found in the first chapter of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution. Perry Anderson’s Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism and Lineages of the Absolutist State might offer empirical and material backing for Bloch’s analysis. Anderson argues that any concrete social formation is a mixture of elements proper to the dominant mode of production, as well as elements understood to be proper to "surpassed" modes of production. Thus "earlier" modes of production live on in fragmentary form. Such a complex notion of historical periods concurs with Anderson’s criticism of Gunther’s teacher, Georg Lukacs, in "Modernity and Revolution" [New Left Review 184 (1984)].
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  8. Bloch, "Nonsynchronism," 35.
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  9. Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, trans. Martin Nicholaus, (NY: Penguin, 1973), 100. To be fair, the Grundrisse still existed only in manuscript until 1939, and was not widely available until the German edition of 1953 (Nicholaus "Foreword" to Grundrisse, 1).
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  10. Bloch, "Nonsynchronism," 36.
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  11. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, trans. and ed. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith, (New York: International, 1971), 161; 181-82.
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  12. The element of truly nonsynchronous contradiction at work in the present is almost certainly much less than was the case in the Nazi movement. In addition, the objective side of the equation needs to be worked out carefully  not just in terms of economics, but also in terms of the role of media, radio and television especially, in helping to form the distinct modes of consciousness we now see.
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  13. A powerful Marxist critique of utopian political thinking recently appeared in the form of Andrew Collier’s "Ideals and Contradictions" (Chapter One of his Socialist Reasoning: An Inquiry into the Political Philosophy of Scientific Socialism. London: Pluto, 1990.). While Collier and Bloch certainly work different sides of the fence, they are not utterly antagonistic: Bloch accepted much of the scientific critique of utopianism. His rehabilitation of utopia proceeds after this critique. Wayne Hudson’s outline of this is excellent (The Marxist Philosophy of Ernst Bloch 51-52).
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ATC 62, May-June 1995