An underground history of revolution
Bloch condemned the rule of the machine and the “technical coldness” of the modern era. He contrasted the ethos and aesthetics of industrial capitalism with those of the Middle Ages, whose Gothic art was an “elevating spirit” which turned into “organic-spiritual transcendence”. (1)
In his book on Müntzer, an early Protestant radical, Bloch judged the uprising of the early Reformation as “the most spiritual revolution that the world had known up to that point”. (2)
He regarded it as drawing on ancient roots and representing essentially “the breaking out and the expansion of the old heretic movement”. (3)
However, he regarded the Reformation as a whole as having paved the way for an entirely new faith – “that of capitalism, now elevated to the status of religion and become the Church of Mammon”. (4)
Luther’s dry and authoritarian creed “denies human freedom in all its possible forms”, he wrote. Protestantism as we knew it today was craven in its obedience to worldly authority and eager to promote submission and slavery in the name of Christian pacifism – dismissed by Bloch as a “fake goodness” designed to lull people into compliance with a “dictatorship of injustice”. (5)
The Camisard Protestant revolt in southern France, around 1700, had been a last hurrah for spiritual radical Protestantism, he said. After that point, people increasingly adapted and conformed to the established order: “From now on there will only be room for man such as he is, for homo œconomicus, and not for the true man guided by spirit, homo spiritualis”. (6)
The demise of the authentic revolutionary spirit was unfortunately only made worse by the narrowness of Marxism, Bloch wrote. He deplored “the positivist spirit in which Marx tore communism out of the theological domain to limit it to the one and only terrain of political economics, thus depriving it of all its millenarianist aspects, both those that have come to it from history and those which are innate to its substance”. (7)
Although a Marxist himself, Bloch preferred to seek inspiration from a broader “underground history of revolution” taking in the likes of the Cathars, the Free Spirit movement, Meister Eckhart, the Hussites, the Anabaptists, Rousseau and Tolstoy. The aim of this deeply radical tradition was to do away with “fear, the state and all inhuman power”. (8)
Unsurprisingly, this did not go down well with fellow Marxists and he was distrusted as a rather obscure, over-idealistic writer, too immersed in metaphysical speculation and not welded closely enough to a materialist economic analysis. (9)
Bloch’s revolutionary spirit led him to rebel against any sense of pessimism, of powerlessness in the face of overwhelming adversity.
He wrote that while we might recognise the existence of circumstances that stand in the way of the future we would like to see, there was no reason why we must therefore accept that their influence would prove decisive.
It was always possible to replace the fatalism of a “because” with the determination of a “despite everything”, he stressed. (10)
1. Ernst Bloch, Geist der Utopie (1923 version), (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1973) pp. 20-21.
2. Ernst Bloch, Thomas Münzer, théologien de la révolution, trans. by Maurice de Gandillac, (Paris: Les Prairies ordinaires, 2012) p. 96.
3. Bloch, Thomas Münzer, p. 89.
4. Bloch, Thomas Münzer, p. 182.
5. Bloch, Thomas Münzer, p. 167.
6. Bloch, Thomas Münzer, p. 140.
7. Bloch, Thomas Münzer, pp. 88-89.
8. Bloch, Thomas Münzer, pp. 298-99.
9. Thierry Labica, ‘Un contretemps nommé Thomas Münzer’, Bloch, Thomas Münzer, p. 17.
10. Bloch, Thomas Münzer, p. 204.