[The] counter-blow against the oppressor is biblical, too.Bloch, Atheism in Christianity, 13.
The diverse and voluminous writings of Ernst Bloch (1885-1977) frequently invite comparison to his friends and fellow-travelers Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno. Like those authors, he was a Marxist cultural critic grounded in German literary and philosophical culture. Bloch and Benjamin shared interests in mystical traditions, alternative historiography, and popular culture. And, like Adorno, Bloch endured a long exile in America, emigrating in 1938 to escape the Nazis and only returning to Europe in 1949. He then taught in Leipzig, in East Germany, until his forced retirement in 1957.
Bloch is less read and studied than Benjamin and Adorno. Why? I’ve always believed that one answer is his incorrigible optimism, legible in the titles of his works from his first major work, 1918’s The Spirit of Utopia, to his three-volume masterpiece, The Principle of Hope, completed in the 1950s at Harvard’s Widener Reading Room during the course of Bloch’s lengthy exile in the US. Utopia and hope are Bloch’s great themes, and in The Principle of Hope the author compiles an improbable encyclopedia of revolutionary anticipations drawn from the most diverse corners of world art and culture, from daydreams to pantomime, and from William Morris to the Ku Klux Klan.
Another reason for Bloch’s relative desuetude is his preoccupation with religion. In recent decades, especially since the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the fall of the Soviet Union, philosophical and theological discourses linking Marxism and Christianity have become more commonplace. During the heyday of twentieth-century “actually existing socialisms” in Stalinist Russia and Maoist China, however, doctrinaire atheism and anti-clericalism was de rigueur (and often enforced by state terror). In this context, Bloch is noteworthy for his commitment to the view not only that religious visions of liberation anticipate the Marxist project of working-class freedom, but that in fact contemporary Marxists must study religious and eschatological visions as precursors of the completed socialist revolution. In many ways, Bloch’s work inverts the classic dictum of political theology advanced by Carl Schmitt, that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.” For Bloch, theological concepts are intimations of the freedom of the secular and revolutionary socialist society.
The closest orthodox Marxism got to countenancing Bloch’s kind of study was Engels’s Peasant War in Germany, written in the aftermath of the failed European revolutions of 1848. Engels’s specific claim in this study of the insurrections of 1525, which were spurred by the Protestant Reformation and led by radical reformers like the preacher Thomas Müntzer, was that “political and religious theories were not the causes, but the result of that stage of development of agriculture, industry, land and waterways, commerce and finance, which then existed in Germany.” Despite this claim, Engels’s work made the Peasants’ War and the question it posed about the relationship between religion and economic conditions a privileged (and proper) area of subsequent Marxist study, which Bloch himself took up in his own study, 1921’s Thomas Münzer as Theologian of the Revolution, and again in later writings.
Bloch’s books, no matter how widely they might rove, almost always led to Marx’s work and Marxism as the fulfillment of humanity’s utopian striving. In the last section of The Spirit of Utopia,“Karl Marx, Death, and the Apocalypse,” Bloch writes: “Within such a functional correlation of disburdening and spirit, Marxism and religion, united in the will to the Kingdom, flows the ultimate master system of all the tributaries: the Soul, the Messiah, and the Apocalypse, which represents the act of awakening in totality, provide the final impulses to do and to know, for the a priori of all politics and culture.” This extract not only provides a specimen of Bloch’s dense early style (often characterized as “Expressionist”), it illustrates his unique linkage between religious eschatology and political revolution. Here Bloch sets up the similarity between faith and Marxism as “the will to the kingdom”. The apocalypse of scripture is identified with insurrectionary uprise as “the act of awakening in totality”.
Similarly, after over thirteen hundred pages The Principle of Hope concludes with one of the most famous passages from Bloch’s writings, which also appeals to Marx’s thought as the apotheosis of “the working, creating human being who reshapes and overhauls the given facts.” Bloch writes, “Once he has grasped himself and established what is his, without expropriation and alienation, in real democracy, there arises in the world something which shines into the childhood of all and in which no one has yet been: homeland.”
Marx’s concern with the radical (the root of things) is shared by New Testament figures from John the Baptist, who declared that “the axe is laid unto the root of the trees” (Matthew 3:10), to Christ, who taught in the parable of the sower that certain plants “withered because they had no root” (Matthew 13:6). Part of the original Christian message was a radical revaluation of Israel’s legal and prophetic tradition and a thoroughgoing denunciation of the power of Rome and all other empires. But this core message has been buried under millennia of imperial hermeneutics and theology, and the consequence is that we latecomers must learn to read the Bible itself against the grain. As Bloch remarks in his most sustained engagement with Biblical faith, Atheism in Christianity, “Church and Bible are not one and the same. The Bible has always been the Church’s bad conscience.”
In Atheism in Christianity, we encounter Bloch as theologian, wading in to scriptural interpretation, speculative relations between early Christianity and Hellenistic mystery-religions, and “Bible criticism as detective work.” It’s a volume that can sit comfortably on the shelf with the documents of what’s been called the “Pauline turn” in Continental philosophy —Jacob Taubes’s Political Theology of Paul, Giorgio Agamben’s The Time That Remains, and Badiou’s Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism. Like these books, Bloch’s provocatively-titled work seeks to dialectically extract a core of hope from the faith of the Christian tradition, believing that this “hope is able to inherit those features of religion that do not perish with the death of God.” On the final pages, Bloch declares:
When Christians are really concerned with the emancipation of those who labor and are heavy-laden, and when Marxists retain the depths of the Kingdom of Freedom as the real content of revolutionary consciousness on the road to becoming true substance, the alliance between revolution and Christianity founded in the Peasant Wars may live again—this time with success. Florian Geyer, the great fighter of those wars, is reputed to have had the words “Nulla crux, nulla corona” scratched on the blade of his sword. That could be the motto of a Christianity free, at last, from alienation. And the far-reaching, inexhaustible depths of emancipation in those words could also serve as a motto for a Marxism aware of its depths.Bloch, Atheism in Christianity, 256.
We’re back to the German Peasants’ Wars, as “the alliance between revolution and Christianity,” here figured by the historical figure Florian Geyer, who Bloch esteems as something like a sixteenth-century Lenin. But Bloch also raises a central point of tension in the relationship between Christianity and Marxism: the issue of violence.
In addition to Bloch’s optimism, I suspect that one reason Bloch is often overlooked is his very late break with Stalinism. He remained one of the faithful after Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” denouncing Stalin, and after the events of 1956 in Hungary. His version of Marxism is not separable from the revolutionary violence and state terror advocated as instruments of policy by Lenin, and turned into a despotic nightmare by Stalin. Those of us who today claim the name of communist must reckon with the legacy of the twentieth-century “actually existing socialisms,” just as those of us who claim the name of Christian must confront centuries of colonialism, imperialism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and religious intolerance. In both cases the question of violence sits squarely at the center.
Finally, there is the question of faith itself. Ernst Bloch was an atheist Marxist who fervently believed that Christianity and other religions held the key to a liberated society in this life. In a volume entitled On Karl Marx which was, like Atheism in Christianity, published in 1968, Bloch announced that the “inhumanity of our world certainly has many reasons to fear the final celebration of Marxism, and the cancellation, once and for all, of any bondage—of any master-slave relationship.” But what if a belief in the actual teachings of revealed religion is a precondition of their liberating power? What if Jesus is Lord, and God is not dead?
Bloch cites the legend on Florian Geyer’s sword, Nulla crux, nulla corona, and seems to read it as a precursor to the anarchist slogan “No gods, no masters.” But the Latin admits of another reading, familiar to some of us from church and providing the title of a 1669 work by William Penn: No Cross, No Crown —meaning that Christians will not receive the “crown of life” (Revelation 2:10) unless they “take up the cross” (Luke 9:23) of suffering, including the struggle against unjust worldly powers enacted by believers like Thomas Müntzer or, closer to our own time, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Franz Jägerstätter. Might there be something indispensable to religious belief as such? After the disenchantments of the twentieth century, we are now in a position to ask whether religious belief, rather than being a supplement to radical thought, may turn out to be more radical than all the secular Marxism in the world.
Bloch, Ernst. Thomas Münzer als Theologe der Revolution. Wolff, 1921.
Bloch’s early monograph on the radical theologian of the German Peasants’ War remains untranslated. Following the historical work of Friedrich Engels on this tumultuous period, Bloch examines Münzer’s theology as an anticipation of subsequent revolutionary upheavals.
Bloch, Ernst. Geist der Utopie. Paul Cassirer, 1923. English translation: The Spirit of Utopia. Stanford, 2000.
This early publication, characteristic of the “Expressionist” style of Bloch’s first publications, foreshadows the author’s lifelong preoccupation with utopian transformation of social conditions. The Spirit of Utopia bears comparison with some of the more experimental writings of Bloch’s friend Walter Benjamin.
Bloch, Ernst. Das Prinzip Hoffnung. Suhrkamp, 1959. English translation: The Principle of Hope. Basil Blackwell, 1986.
Bloch’s three-volume magnum opus was largely written during his period of American exile after flight from the Nazis. It’s an encyclopedia of myths, fantasies, artworks and daydreams, conceived as the “anticipatory consciousness” pointing humanity towards its liberated future.
Bloch, Ernst. Atheismus in Christentum. Suhrkamp, 1968. English translation: Atheism in Christianity. Verso, 2009.
This late text is Bloch’s most sustained engagement with Christianity. By turns historical and speculative, it seeks to extract the revolutionary core from an often-reactionary tradition.