Ernst Bloch

Ernst Bloch (1885-1977) was a humanistic interpreter of Marxist thought, justifying and amplifying the religious and philosophical appeal of the beliefs of Karl Marx.

Bloch was born in Germany July 8, 1885, and studied, taught, and died there, but he lived in exile from the Hitler regime after 1933 and in the United States from 1938 to 1948. Later, he became a professor of philosophy at the University of Leipzig, German Democratic Republic, and director of its Institute for Philosophy, 1948-1957, and, after 1961, honorary professor at Tübingen in the Federal Republic of Germany.

After studying philosophy, music, and physics in Munich and Würzburg and Berlin, Bloch became a private student of the social philosopher Georg Simmel in the German capital. Later, in Heidelberg and again in Berlin, Bloch associated with the most seminal thinkers of the German Empire (and later the Weimar Republic), among them Max Weber, György Lukács, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and Bertolt Brecht.

Bloch gained his fame as a humanistic interpreter of Marxist thought, explaining the thrust of Marx's historical materialism in terms of a tendency on the part of all things to become more and better than they are. The material origin of this tendency in human beings lies in human drives, and first of all in the drive to escape hunger; it evolves in the directions set by human hope. In this, humanity is at one with the material universe, which itself is as much shaped by what it has not yet become as by what it already seems to be: "possibility" is a characteristic of nature as such; and, indeed, so is "purpose," movement toward an end to history such that both movement and end will only be clear when complete. Human hope participates with nature in the striving toward this completion.

Nature itself may be said to be "aware" of, and lending direction to, this thrust, so that as long as there have been such dynamic "objects" in the world, there has also been this driving "subject." Where existentialists of the same period saw only anxiety (angst) emanating from the uprootedness of human beings, Bloch saw hope in their striving for completion. The future was thus a decisive category for Bloch. His major work was The Principle of Hope (Das Prinzip Hoffnung) in three volumes: 1954, 1955, and 1959.

Bloch believed he could discern the end goal of human hope in the society imagined by communists, a society no longer marked by its oppositions, contradictions, and antagonisms, but blessed with the absence of these and of human estrangement. The lack of completion in matter or nature itself expressed itself in human beings as nature became an "object" for human "subjects;" that is to say, as things notyet-what-they-could-be sparked and shaped the thinking of unfulfilled people, with the result that the latter were always at strife. The conditions of a communist society—e.g., total sharing—would presumably annul such limitations, fill in the gaps both materially and spiritually, and bestow peace.

It was Bloch's opinion that, in this treatment of matter and human history, he was taking the philosophy of Karl Marx a step or so further, justifying and amplifying its religious and philosophical appeal. The Communist Party where he taught in the German Democratic Republic, however, was annoyed by Bloch's inconsistencies: dialectical materialism had no room for such a "subjectivity" of "objective" matter, with the accompanying quasi-religious metaphysics. More centrally, Bloch was failing to see that not unfulfilled objects but a greedy "ruling class" taking over workers' products and their lives was the cause of alienation and strife in human affairs. The trouble was that Bloch's object-subject scheme was universal, making all people its prey and leaving all to settle subjectively for whichever remedies they preferred. If the real "object" to keep in view, however, was the class struggle, then the party was obviously the apt body of thinkers, or the best "subject," to show society the way.

These disagreements had their practical results as Bloch defended reformist aims behind the anti-Soviet uprisings in Poland in 1955 and in Hungary in 1956 while the party backed their suppression. The differences led to Bloch's departure for West Germany in 1961. Nonetheless, in the West Bloch continued to express his opposition to what he saw as capitalism, imperialism, and militarism; and he gave his support to "socialism with a human face" in Czechoslovakia in 1968.

On the other hand, Bloch's thinking made him of great interest to Christian readers, especially those who took modern political philosophy and notions of historical development seriously. Such Christians saw points of convergence with their theology. Both communist critics and Christians who welcomed Bloch spoke of his system as a "secular eschatology." This influence is explicit, for example, in Jürgen Moltmann and in works of the "theology of hope" appearing in the 1960s.

Some Bloch books were warehoused and not released for sale in the United States, where they are difficult to find. There are many commentaries in Europe, but almost none in the United States.

Works in German by Bloch include Freiheit und Ordnung (1946); Das Prinzip Hoffnung (1954, 1955, and 1959); Subjekt-Objekt, Erläuterungen zu Hegel (1951); Thomas Müntzer als Theologe der Revolution (1921); and Wissen und Hoffnung. Auszüge aus seinen Werken (1955).

Works in English by Block include Atheism in Christianity: the religion of the Exodus and the Kingdom (1972); Man on his Own. An essay on the Philosophy of religion (1970); On Karl Marx (1971); and A Philosophy of the Future (1970).


Further Reading on Ernst Bloch

Bloch's work is represented in J. Moltmann, Theology of Hope (1967) and W. Pannenberg, Theology and the Kingdom of God (1967). Many of the best references are in German: J. Habermas, "Ein marxistischer Schelling. Zu Ernst Blochs spekulativem Materialismus," in Theorie und Praxis (Berlin, 1963); Gottfried Handel, "Bloch, Ernst," in Philosophen-Lexikon, E. Lange and D. Alexander, editors (Berlin, 1982); and G. M. Tripp, Absurdität und Hoffnung. Zum Werk von Albert Camus und Ernst Bloch (Berlin, 1968).