Ernst Bloch (1885-1977) was a German Marxist philosopher, social critic and utopianist. Bloch was born in Ludwigshafen, a German industrial city. His father was an official on the railroads and an assimilated Jew of modest means. Bloch studied philosophy in Munich and Würzburg, before making a definitive move to Berlin where he was mentored by Georg Simmel (their companionship finished at the point when Simmel supported Germany’s entrance to The Second Great War). Bloch also met Marxist literary critic György Lukács in Berlin and became close friends with him. Bloch and Lukács would later have very public disagreements about Expressionism, which he supported and Lukács did not.
Bloch, who was declared unfit for military service at the start of World War I, left Berlin and moved to Grünewald and Switzerland, where he made friends with cultural critic Walter Benjamin. He went back to Berlin after the war, where he was a member of the large group of intellectuals who lived there during the glory days of the Weimar Republic, including Theodor Adorno, Bertolt Brecht, Hanns Eisler, and Otto Klemperer. In order to avoid persecution under the Nazis’ new race laws, he moved back to Switzerland in 1933, followed by the United States, where he stayed out of the war. Interestingly, Bloch was not hired by Horkheimer’s Institute for Social Research for unknown reasons, and unlike many other German exiles from the same circle, he was forced to rely on his wife’s waitressing job to make ends meet. He went back to now-divided Germany after the war. At first, he lived in socialist East Germany, but he moved to the West and spent his remaining years at Tübingen after arguing with the authorities there.
His greatest work, the three-volume colossus Das Prinzip Hoffnung (1959), also known as The Principle of Hope, was started but not finished during his time in the United States. The Principle of Hope is a sprawling work that covers virtually every cultural form of its time. It argues that each historical age has its own horizon, or Front, over which the “Not-Yet-Conscious Spirit of Utopia” (or wish for a change) flows. As a result, “Vor-Schein,” which means “pre-appearance” or “shining ahead,” is said to be present in even the darkest periods of history. The inexplicable delay in translating Bloch’s works into English has hindered appreciation of his thoughts in the Anglophone world. However, it is now generally acknowledged that Bloch was one of the most significant utopian theorists of the 20th century. He changed the idea from one that was weak and related to dreams that never came true to one that was strong and related to the material reality of everyday life.