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Educated Hope: Ernst Bloch on Abstract and Concrete Utopia

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  • Educated Hope: Ernst Bloch on Abstract and Concrete UtopiaAuthor(s): RUTH LEVITASSource: Utopian Studies, Vol. 1, No. 2 (1990), pp. 13-26Published by: Penn State University PressStable URL: .Accessed: 01/09/2014 13:00

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  • Educated Hope: Ernst Bloch on Abstract and Concrete Utopia


    In so far as Ernst Bloch's work has been incorporated into Utopian Studies, it has been seen as a justification and celebration of utopianism, and welcomed because of the ever-present need to defend utopia against those who regard it as trivial or dangerous. This article1 argues that, while this celebratory theme in Bloch's work is important, there is an equally im portant, though deeply problematic, distinction between abstract and concrete utopia. As with the distinction made by Friedrich Engels between

    Utopian and scientific socialism, or that made by Karl Mannheim between

    ideology and utopia, its epistemological basis is dubious. Nevertheless, it remains an important issue. Indeed, a parallel problem arises in recent commentaries on William Morris, which similarly attempt to assert the virtues of dreaming and hence of utopianism while preserving a distinction between 'disciplined' and 'undisciplined' dreaming. Some distinction between abstract and concrete utopia, despite its difficulties, can conse

    quently be seen to be fundamental to the relationship between utopia and Marxism?or, indeed, to the relationship between utopia and any political orientation involving a commitment to social transformation. Otherwise

    Utopians can only continue to imagine alternative worlds; the point, how ever, is to create one.

    In developing this argument, the article first examines Bloch's overall

    project and the role of the distinction between abstract and concrete utopia within it. The distinction is then compared first with Mannheim's dichotomy between ideology and utopia, and secondly with the discussion of the

    relationship between Marxism and utopia elaborated by Edward Thompson in William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary. The parallel between Bloch's 'docta spes,

    ' educated hope, which arises from the abstract/concrete dis

    tinction is set alongside the idea of the 'education of desire' which Thompson draws from Miguel Abensour. We then return to Bloch, and the conflict between the epistemological difficulty of differentiating abstract from concrete utopia and its political necessity.

    Bloch's central project in his magnum opus The Principle of Hope is the rehabilitation of the concept of utopia. In attempting this, he draws attention to the Utopian element in a wide range of cultural forms. He includes day-dreams, fairy-tales, myths, travellers' tales, the sea voyages of

    medieval Irish monks, and the alchemists' attempts to synthesize gold,

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    besides the more conventional field of literary descriptions of ideal societies.

    Utopia is not necessarily conceived of as a literary genre or even a written work of any kind, although such definitions remain current. For example, Dar ko Suvin has defined utopia as:

    the verbal construction of a particular quasi-human community where sociopolitical

    institutions, norms and individual relationships are organized according to a more

    perfect principle than in the author's community, this construction being based on

    estrangement arising out of an alternative historical hypothesis. (Moylan 33)

    For Bloch, such a definition is far too narrow. Not only a broader field of literature, but also architecture and music may be important vehicles of

    utopia. What binds this diverse mass of material together is that all of it can be seen as embodying 'dreams of a better life.' All of it ventures beyond the present reality, and reaches forward to a transformed future. It embodies both the act of wishing and what is wished for.

    Wishing is a crucially important human activity, not just because the range and variety of the content of wishes is an interesting aspect of cultural

    anthropology. The importance of Utopian wishes hinges on the unfinished ness of the material world. The world is in a constant state of process, of

    becoming. The future is 'not yet' and is a realm of possibility. Utopia reaches toward that future and anticipates it. And in so doing, it helps to effect the future. Human activity plays a central role here in choosing which possible future may become actual: 'the hinge in human history is its producer' (Bloch 1:249). Utopia is the expression of hope, but that hope is to be under stood'not . . . only as emotion . . . but more essentially as a directing act

    of a cognitive kind' (1:12). Bloch's discussion may be read as a celebration of the range and

    tenacity of Utopian wishing. Yet because the function of utopia is not just to

    express desire, but to reach forward and be the catalyst of a better future, he is also critical of the content of these wishes. As Fredric Jameson argues in

    Marxism and Form, we may locate within Bloch's work a system of positive hermeneutics whose project is the restoration of lost or hidden meanings, the recovery of the genuine element of aspiration and anticipation which is at the heart of these various Utopian expressions; but there is also a

    philosophical system, which is more critical, and which is concerned not with recovery but with distinguishing between truth and falsehood (125). The way in which Bloch is being incorporated into contemporary Utopian studies emphasizes the celebratory and prophetic aspects of his work, rather than its more critical elements. But the question of the evaluation of Utopian wishes is also essential, because Bloch did not seek merely to rehabilitate the

    concept of utopia, but to rehabilitate utopia within Marxism as a neglected Marxist category. Thus although Bloch remains adamant that all forms of

    Utopian venturing beyond are better than anti-utopian or pragmatic attitudes which close off the future, not all Utopian imagining is as good as

    any other.

    Fundamental to this more critical project is the distinction which Bloch makes between abstract and concrete utopia. Abstract utopia is fantastic

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  • Educated Hope 15

    and compensatory. It is wishful thinking, but the wish is not accompanied by a will to change anything. In the day-dream, it often involves not so much a transformed future, but a future where the world remains as it is except for the dreamer's changed place in it?perhaps by a large win in a lottery. Thus Bloch says, 'Most people in the street look as if they are thinking about some

    thing else entirely. The something else is predominantly money, but also what it could be changed into' (1:33). Or, if a transformed future is imagined, it may be one which could never be effected. For although the future is open, in that there is a range of real possibilities, it is not unconstrained. Concrete

    utopia, on the other hand, is anticipatory rather than compensatory. It reaches forward to a real possible future, and involves not merely wishful but will-full thinking: There is never anything soft about conscious-known

    hope, but a will within it insists: it should be so, it must become so' (1:147). Concrete utopia embodies what Bloch claims as the essential Utopian func

    tion, that of simultaneously anticipating and effecting the future. And not all dreams of a better life fulfil this function. While abstract utopia may ex

    press desire, only concrete utopia carries hope. Thus despite Bloch's general project of recovery and rehabilitation, he

    makes some harsh comments about abstract utopia. He regards the cus

    tomary sense of derogation associated with the term as appropriate, although it should not be allowed to outweigh the positive connotations of concrete utopia: 'the category of the Utopian, beside the usual, justifiably pejorative sense, possesses the other, in no way necessarily abstract or un

    worldly sense, much more centrally turned towards the world: of overtaking the natural course of events' (1:12). The problem of abstract utopia is described by Bloch as one of immaturity, and a consequent tendency to become lost in fantasy and memory rather than being oriented to real

    possibility: . . . the thus determined imagination of the Utopian function is distinguish