Ernst Bloch on Thomas Muntzer
On the Marxist atheist who took religion seriously as the bearer of utopia.
Ernst Bloch (1885-1977), a German philosopher and wilfully heterodox Marxist, remains an obscured, but fascinating figure, one who retained an optimism of the intellect just as much as an optimism of the will, despite the disillusioning experience of the Russian Revolution’s descent, his own periods of enforced exile, and his predictably short-lived stint as a university professor in the German Democratic Republic. It was hope, both as an idea and a lived experience, that marked Bloch’s work out.
As Peter Thompson, a reader emeritus at the University of Sheffield and former director of the Centre for Bloch studies, tells the spiked review, Bloch was always prepared to take people’s aspirations, hopes and even daydreams, seriously. While his contemporaries in the Frankfurt School, notably Theodor Adorno, viewed contemporary culture contemptuously, Bloch could see the longing for a better life, the glimmer of the utopia, even in a lottery ticket. It was, however, in the religious sphere that Bloch, an atheist, saw the popular longing for a utopian future in its most powerful form. This was evident in his first significant work, The Spirit of Utopia (1918), and even more so in his second, Thomas Muntzer as the Theologian of Revolution (1924), a book which did nearly as much as Friedrich Engels’ The Peasant War in Germany (1850) to establish Muntzer (1489-1525) as the Reformation’s very own proto-communist. To tell us more about Bloch’s view of religion and Muntzer in particular, here’s what Thompson had to say:
spiked review: What role does the concept of utopia play in Bloch’s thought?
Peter Thompson: The first thing to note is that Bloch’s idea of utopia is very much non-teleological. For Bloch, who was always deeply Hegelian, the utopia you arrive at is the product of the process of getting there. So his idea of utopia is entirely processual. It doesn’t exist somewhere out there, as something we just have to find our way towards, with the wise leader guiding our way. No, utopia has an existence, but only as a spirit, as a drive, as a way forward, as a recognition of process. And, to capture this, he comes up with a term which is often misunderstood: concrete utopia. What he means by concrete is not what we usually think of as the meaning of concrete. Rather, he takes it in a philosophical sense, from the original Latin, con crescere, a growing together, which is of course where the word concrete comes from in the first place. So you take all these tendencies, potentialities and latencies, produced by human subjectivity’s intervention in material reality, and put them together, and they coalesce to create this solid substance.
For Bloch, then, the concrete utopia was the product of the gradual accretion of all the things human history is going through, and all the things human history is made up of. So it’s this, this historical growing together of tendencies and elements, that will eventually make up the utopia which you arrive at. In that sense it’s the very opposite of a teleological idea of utopia. Utopia has no existence other than as idea and way and process. And it is therefore entirely speculative. Hence it is often said that Bloch was a speculative materialist. The makeup of utopia will be entirely material, but in understanding utopia, we have to move into an entirely speculative dimension. Therefore Bloch was a speculative materialist long before the term’s recent vogue among those who believe they invented it.
review: How does Bloch’s view of religion fit in with his idea of utopia? Does he see it as the working out of desires for human liberation in theological form?
Thompson: He sees religion very much as part of both this speculative dimension, and the concrete utopia. Most materialists, certainly after the French Revolution, wrote off religion, and still write off religion as simply a delusion (think of Richard Dawkins!), as something that gets in the way, as a mental incapacity. But Bloch doesn’t do that. He sees religion and theology as important parts of understanding the utopian dimension to human existence, as a speculative apprehension of the future. In religion, you have what he calls an anticipatory consciousness. Indeed, for most of human history, Bloch contends, it is religion that has carried this consciousness of the future.
It’s often said, for example, that socialism and communism are simply religious concepts that don’t understand themselves as such. Bloch turned that on its head, and said that religion is simply communism that hasn’t understood itself. Within the sermon on the mount, within the Christian message, is an entirely socialist and communist message. Bloch even says at one point that the idea of the withering away of the state, coined by Engels and envisaged by Lenin, is actually the same thing as loving thy neighbour. So rather than having a state intervene and mediate your relations with others, and do it for you, you would look after each other in a communal way, but a way that was not predicated on any ideological understanding or myth or loyalty to a party.
So he’s a communist, but in a way that leaves communism in an open-ended historical system. So there is no dogma, nothing laid down, no hard and fast truth. There is simply a tendency, a latency in history which will take us to communism, but through this speculative and open dimension. And the central idea for Bloch here is that of the ‘not yet’, which sounds very simple, but is actually extremely complex. So it’s not that we are ‘not yet’ able to have communism because of the objective historical development of the productive forces, relations of production and all the other things that Marx writes of. No, we are ‘not yet’ capable of even understanding what it means, therefore it is not yet possible. So although he was in favour of revolutions where they happen – Oskar Negt called Bloch ‘the philosopher of the October Revolution’ – he saw them as part of the process, rather than the end product.
So religion plays an important role in this process, because it carries for Bloch a lot of these utopian ideas – but they appear out of time. And that’s where another important idea comes from: Ungleichzeitigen (non-synchronicity, or non-contemporaneity). It means that ideas can appear out of time, taken from the future in an anticipatory way.
So the idea of the Third Reich, for example, is not a Nazi invention. It’s not even a construction based on the fact that the first reich was the Holy Roman Empire and the second was Bismarck’s Kaiserreich (proclaimed in 1871). It actually goes back to an Italian medieval mystic, called Joachim of Fiore, who talked about the Third Reich, which meant the return of Christ. This would liberate us as a people, and Bloch turned that around, and said the return of Christ would be a properly communist future. So Joachim borrowed these ideas from the future, in an anticipatory way.
We also dredge up stuff from the past, too, to illuminate the way forward. This can be positive or negative. It could be argued that what we’re going through right now, with the return of various nationalist movements, involves a harking back to some supposed Golden Age, in which everything was beautiful and nothing hurt, as Kurt Vonnegut put it.
This is where Thomas Muntzer comes in. A harking back to Muntzer is a harking back to someone who was harking forward to the possibility of communism, even though the relations of production were not sufficiently developed for its realisation in 1525, with the Peasants’ Revolution. So there is this constant interplay of temporal elements in Bloch’s thought, so that you’re constantly shifting between future events that haven’t yet happened, but which you imagine might be the way forward, married with past events that have happened, and which have led in certain directions. His work on fascism from 1934, for example, conceived of it as a dual-headed monster that was looking back all the time to a previously unblemished German idyll, but also as an extremely modernising, fast movement that wanted to push things forward.
So we live with that contradiction all the time and religion provides us with a framework through which we can put all that into practice. Because all religious belief is both a harking back and a harking forward at the same time, a harking back to the time when Christ or Muhammed was around, and a harking forward to salvation. And then we have the fall, which is what we’re going through now, and out of this fall will come a new resolution, a new revelation, an eschatological dimension which will put everything right again. And everyone has that in their own lives, as well as socially and historically, an alpha, a way and a fall, and an omega in which everything will be resolved. And that’s there in all revolutionary movements.
review: What did Bloch make of Martin Luther and the Reformation?
Thompson: In Thomas Muntzer, Bloch showed that Luther was both a progressive and a reactionary force. He quotes Luther’s words attacking the landowners and laying down the ground for a religious revolution, and then pulling back at the last movment and turning against the revolution. It’s very much a political analysis about how revolutions become distorted and can turn in on themselves. And Luther played that kind of role in the Peasants’ Revolution in 1525, when he famously said that the peasants were ‘mad dogs’ that needed slaying. So it was left to Muntzer, in Bloch’s eyes, to see the revolution through to its logical conclusion. It was Muntzer who took it beyond the stage of just a reformatory, Church-bound change and towards an actual social revolution. Hence Muntzer worked with and preached to miners and weavers at the time, and was attracted to the idea that the subaltern classes, would be the ones in whose interest it was to revolutionise this peasants’ revolution and turn it into a workers’ revolution, to the extent that there were workers at the time.
So this nexus between Luther and Muntzer is important to Bloch. Luther lays some of the groundwork for reformation and revolution, but pulls back at the last moment, and Muntzer tries to see it through, with his slogan ‘Omnia sunt communia‘ (everything should belong to everyone) – there should be equality in terms of the ownership of the means of production, not simply religious freedom, but social and economic egalitarianism.
So Luther is important to Bloch. Indeed, to the extent that Bloch has any religious identification at all – Bloch was from an assimilated Jewish family, yet he was an atheist but one of the very few atheists who took religion seriously – Lutheranism is hughey important to him, especially with regards to Russia. Here it’s interesting to remember that both Luther and Muntzer thought there was going to be a marrying up of Protestantism in eastern Prussia with Russia. And this was the great hope – that you could marry Russia up with Germany, and this would be the nexus that would spread Protestantism around the world.
review: Muntzer is famous for his apocalypticism (and his coarse turn of phrase). How did Bloch interpret Muntzer’s millenarian, last-age vision?
Thompson: The apocalyptic, the eschatological, the chialistic idea of the end times, was certainly very resonant in early Bloch – in The Spirit of Utopia and in Thomas Muntzer. It was the idea that you would be leading the last revolution, the last struggle, the last battle against reaction and oppression, writ large not just in Muntzer, but in all religious ideas – that there will come a time when the problems of the world will be sorted out. It’s there even in ISIS, because in their texts there is the name of the village in which its struggle will be resolved. Muntzer was the same. He saw this apocalyptic moment in which all problems would be resolved with the return of Christ, who would come back on chariots of fire, and smite everyone, and all oppression would be abolished, and we could live in harmony and peace. It’s there in all religion, but it’s there in all revolutionary moments, too, and Bloch went along with it to a certain extent. It’s slightly contradictory, because he sees human history as processual, with utopia emerging out of this process, this concreteness, this growing together of tendencies that would eventually lead to some sort of utopia. But there were in this processual dynamic points at which revolutions take place, like the biological idea that evolution proceeds in leaps. Nothing happens and then there’s this sudden leap.
And you have to commit yourself to that leap – a leap into the unknown. And once you commit yourself to that leap, you have to stick with it. It’s what the French thinker Alain Badiou calls the fidelity to an idea. A very, very difficult concept, and one that hasn’t been very fruitful in the past. But what would the French Revolution have amounted to without this sticking to the idea through the lakes of blood. You have to make a decision at some point to stick with it, even if it looks terrible.
review: From Engels’ The Peasant War in Germany onwards, Müntzer was celebrated in Communist circles. How did Bloch’s interpretation of Muntzer differ from Engels’?
Bloch had to be careful. He couldn’t be too divergent. In the Communist Party, Muntzer was seen as part of an ineluctable movement from Catholicism through Protestantism and the East German tradition to Communism. Bloch really didn’t believe that. He simply saw Muntzer as part of this anticipatory consciousness of the future, of the possibility of communism. He saw it as evidence that it can pop up at any time. It can pop up in Jesus, it can pop up in early Islam. (Bloch wrote a book about the 10th-century Persian polymath Avicenna and the Aristotelian Left, arguing that without early Islamic theology around Avicenna in particular, the Enlightenment would never have happened in the West, because it was through Islam that Aristotelian and Greek thinking came back into Europe through Cordoba and southern Spain, through the multi-religious makeup of Spain at that time, before the expulsions in 1492.)
So Muntzer was seen as part of this great Communist tradition, as part of this revolutionary movement against authority from above. Where Bloch sees Muntzer diverge from Luther is that Luther merely establishes a new authority from above. His 1924 take on Muntzer and the Reformation could be read very much as a critique of Stalinism, of a revolutionary dimension that turns into its opposite. Bloch’s portrait of Protestant discipline, Lutheran discipline through an absolute belief in the correctness of the path, is very reminiscent of Stalinism. Whereas Muntzer was more like an early Lenin-Trotsky archetype – someone who believed in permanent revolution.
Religion functions in early Bloch as the carrier of hope. It’s central to Bloch’s work. No matter how bad things get, there is always this anticipatory principle of hope, which will carry things through. Even if it carries them through in a negative way, you have to be committed to these changes, because they might come right in the end. This led Bloch down difficult pathways, including supporting Stalin for a long period right up until Bloch got into trouble with the GDR authorities after 1949. But it took Bloch down that path where he had to make a choice. And for a Jewish Marxist Atheist living under the Nazis, there weren’t really very many choices. But Bloch never gave up on the not-yet, on the utopian dimension to human consciousness.
Peter Thompson is a reader emeritus at the University of Sheffield, and the former director of the Centre for Ernst Bloch Studies. He is the author of The Crisis of the German Left (2006), and he co-edited The Privatisation of Hope: Ernst Bloch and the Future of Utopia (2013).
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