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Karl Marx, Death and Apocalypse

Karl Marx, Death and Apocalypse

Joanna Hodge

Thoughts occasioned by reading Wayne Hudson,
The Marxist Philosophy of Ernst Bloch
(Macmillan, 1982) and Julian Roberts, Waiter
Benjamin (Macmillan, 1982)
There are five grand’ ‘o’ld me~ of’ twentieth-century
European Marxism: Adorno , Benjamin , Bloch ,
Lukacs , and Marcuse . Their works loom bulky and
ominous on the library shelves. Who can afford to buy them
for themselves? Who can claim, in all honesty, to have read
them all, with understanding? Looking again, three common
features appear: they are all men; they are all white; they
are all upper middle class: thrice privileged and thrice
blinded. They share a revulsion from narrow gauge political
economy, and, not coincidentally, they are all thrown into
confusion by the failure of the working classes in Europe
to produce the proletarian revolution on schedule. They do
not turn to political economy to provide an explanation of
that failure of Marx’s hypothesis. They therefore do not
set about uncovering the exploited and oppressed classes
behind the elite workers of Europe, women and the populations of the third world, who really provide the surplus
value for the makers of super profit. They are individualists, working on their own, with a strongly marked romantic
resonance. These romantic revolutionaries appeal to an original unreduced Marxism, before the fall into politicalnegotiation and calculation, and into economic management
and social administration. They identify in the Marxism of
the second international an undialectical reduction to the
second part of Hegel’s logical triad, a reduction to material
nature, at the expense of the idea and of the spirit, the
first and third parts of the triad. They seek to generate a
more properly dialectical understanding of society, and of
human existence, by reaffirming those other two moments.

There is an unnamed sixth in the list: Martin Heidegger
. He breaks ranks with the rest, by having culpably
stayed in Germany, during the Nazi period, teaching at
Freiburg University. Unlike the others, he was not immunised from Nazi enthusiasm by socialist beliefs and by
Jewish heritage. His commitment was to local community,
not to international communism; he objected to proscribing
Jews, but was not personally at risk. He has however a
good word for Karl Marx in his Letter on Humanism, composed just after the war, and his major work Being and
Time (1927), is clearly connected to that of both Bloch and
of Luka:Cs: the apocalyptic moment, bringing revelation and
authenticity is a common theme . Marcuse admits to
admiring Heidegger’s work; and Benjamin proposed, but

never presented, a systematic critique of Heidegger’s
account of temporality, indicating how that account
touches on and challenges his own understanding of temporality. What binds the six more firmly together is their
common pessimism with respect to installing morality on a
collectively constituted and validated ethic. They address
aesthetics, sometimes optimistically, sometimes pessimistic=ally, as the domain in which the echoes of natural law certainties about justice and self-determination may find articulation. Increasingly they sought in aesthetics a substitute
not just for ethics but also for politics. Heidegger sought
to criticise Nazism, in the late thirties, through, analysing
Holderlin’s work; it is more surprising that. Adorno, Benjamin and Luka:Cs seek to criticise capitalism through identifying the gaps in contemporary literary understanding, ·and
the incompletenesse~ of art forms in the capitalist world.

Benjamin’s work on Baudelaire, and Lukclcs’ on the historical novel are cases in point.

This common appeal to aesthetics marks a difference
between these romantic Marxists and the political economists: Kautsky, Lenin, Luxemburg and Marx himself. Marx
studied statistics; the romantic individualists sought to generate an interest in the work of Schelling, Kierkegaard,
and Schopenhauer, to supplement economistically reduced
understanding of society. Lukacs, in The Destruction of
Reason (J 954) (Merlin, 1980), discusses this attempted supplementation indirectly, identifying ScheJIing, Kierkegaard
and Schopenhauer as forefathers of the founding of irrationalism by Nietzsche, in the second part of the nineteenth century. Luka’cs describes his inquiry as an analysis
of Germany’s path towards Hitler, on the terrain of philosophy; but it was Luk{cs himself who argued the importance of Kierkegaard’s work to Bloch, in the years leading
up to the first world war. It was Bloch who introduced
Luk/cs to the work of Hegel. The impact of Hegel on
Luk{cs is clear, both in History and Class Consciousness
(1923) and in The Young Hegel, completed in 1938. In the
la tter, Lukacs attempts to show how Hegel’s earlier, more
radical social and economic analysis informs his later, more
clearly philosophical work, in an inversion of the argument
used by the romantic individualists, to show that Marx’s
earlier, more philosophical analyses inform his later, more
radical political economy.

The effect of Kierkegaard on Bloch, on Benjamin, and
on Adorno is clear. Adorno published a study of Kierke~aard in 1933, calJed Kierkegaard’s construction of the
aesthetic. For Kierkegaard, the aesthetic is strongly
counterposed to the ethical: the ethical prescribing behaviour in general; the aesthetic leaving space for individual
idiosyncrasy. They all mobilise his systematically anti-

systematic writing, as a defence against the authoritarian
implications of Hegelian conceptions of totality. The manoeuvre is theorised, not without self-contradiction, in
Adorno’s Negative Dialectics, but is clearly already in play
in the much earlier works of Bloch and Benjamin. Kierkegaard’s anti-system disrupts the philosophical will to system
in two ways. It disrupts the teleology in writing, through
which an argument is proposed, developed and concluded. It
also more radically disrupts the identity of the author of
the writing, by installing a series of semi-transparent
pseudonyms and substitute identities, as named author, and
as subordinate character actually appearing in the works
attributed to Kierkegaard, under the various pseUdonyms.

Kierkegaard’s anti-system is at least as important as
Nietzschean aphorism in the formation of Bloch’s antiteleological style of writing, and of Benjamin’s fragmented
sloganeering. Heidegger, too, shows signs of a deep and
enduring interest in Kierkegaard’s work in Being and Time.

It is striking thct all six show reservations about composing long continuous monographs. Lukacs’ earlier works
are compilations of essays; Heidegger’s Being and Time
remains a half completed torso. In the secondary literature,
however, while these various resonances between the six
are touched on, and the tendency to question written forms
noted, the example of fragmentation and experiment is not
imitated. Julian Roberts, in WaIter Benjamin, and Wayne
Hudson, in The Marxist Philosophy of Ernst Bloch, while
commenting intelligently on the complexities of their subjects’ thought and writing, do not address the paradox of
writing about these men in a style reviled and abandoned
by them. The fracturing of society and of social understanding, so painstakingly investigated and delineated by
Bloch and Benjamin, is surreptitiously glossed over by the
very style in which these commentators write. In that
style, Hudson and Roberts suggest either that society is no
longer fractured, a pious if inaccurate hope, or that writing and publishing is sufficiently independent of the fractures in society to permit the smoothing over of social
fractures ir, academic commentary. In their mode of presentation, then, Hudson and Roberts suggest a lack of
seriousness in their sympathy with the Marxian cultural and
philosophical critiques which Bloch and Benjamin undertook.

Lying behind the intimidating monument of the works
of the romantic Marxists there is a further monument of
works: those of Kant, Hegel, Schelling, Kierkegaard,
Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. In the early years of this cen:.

tury, the authors of the first named monument found themselves deflected back to those in the second. These grand
old men of European Marxism were not working to develop
political economy in order to be able the better to analyse
twentieth-century conditions; nor were they working
against the increasingly authoritarian politics of Germany,
Eastern Europe and Russia. They were acquiring philosophical culture. Lenin and Luxemburg, meanwhile, were developing theories of imperialism, as the logical extension of
.ximitive capital accumulation and expropriation. There is.

t1len a marked split between the political economists and
the romantics. The intellectual careers of Lenin and
Luxemburg were cut short by revolution and reaction; the
grand old men lived and worked to a great age, all, that is,
except Benjamin.

The spectre of Hitler, and mass complicity in genocide,
threaten to overwhelm these grand old men, driving one of
their number, Benjamin, to suicide in 1941. In different
ways, they identify an excessive emphasis in Marxism on
rational materialism as leaving the emotional and the
spiritual prey to the anti-politics of fascism. The individual’s fear of isolation and death is soothed by the collective anonymity and irresponsibility of fascist organisation,
and is then exacerbated by its terroristic mode of organisation, thus continually regenerating the need for consolation. The communist sense of collectively marching in the
vanguard of history is to be gained only after undergoing
the rigours of analysing the contradictions of capitalism
and recognising the need for a decisive break with previous
modes of social organisation. That sense of membership in
the vanguard had often to be bought at the cost of deep
familial and communal disapproval, police harassment and
political imprisonment. Articulating and endorsing principles
for individual and social conduct is a radically individuating
I1rocess, as Heidegger seeks to show in Being and Time.

Thus, while Nazism offered a comforting collective
anonymity, without responsibility and acceptance of rational argumentation, Marxism seems to have offered an unwelcome radical individuation and a sense of personal responsibility for the success or failure of the revolution.

Bloch therefore sought to complement reductive Marxism
with a neo-romantic sense of enthusiasm. Luka’cs attempted
to complement the scientistic excesses of the second international by proposing in History and Class Consciousness
the centrality of revolutionary activity to Marxism, although his own career is marked, after the late twenties,
by a series of strategic withdrawals from the domain of
political contestat.ion. Parallel to Heidegger’s analysis of
Holderlin, he attempted to criticise Stalin and Stalinism
through aesthetic reflection and cultural critique. The failure of the working classes to form a revolutionary proletariat, and the mass appeal of fascism is a central theme
for both Adorno and Marcuse, the one retreating into nihilism, and the other positing students as a potentially revolutionary group. Benjamin, in attempting to theorise revolutionary cultural organisation, tries to show how it is not
just/members of the working classes who can resist fascism.

The impotence of revolutionary thinking without mass support remains however one of the stark lessons of the twenties and thirties. The absence of collective revolutionary
activity fractures the writings of these romantic individualists, and leads them to postulate a mending of those
fractures only in a far-flung utopian future.

Eschatological and chiliastic utopian ism are present in
the writings of all six: Adorno, Benjamin, Bloch, Heidegger;
Lukacs, and Marcuse. They are all still engaged in the
traditional philosophical quest of making time space, of
neutralising the disjunct ions and discontinuities generated
by temporal process. Discussing possible forms for future
societies is utopian, that is not in space: the future is conceived in spatial terms. This is the quest of Plato’s repubJ..!£, and of Augustine’s City of God. It is the theme of
Benjamin’s- Theses on the Philosophy of History, which, with
more time at his disposal, might have grown to the proportions of the earlier works. Hegel’s philosophical project is
perhaps the most ambitious attempt to show how the pure
concept is inherent in temporal and historical process, thus
neutralising disjunction and discontinuity. Hegel theorises
the fulfilment of world history in absolute spirit, and the
fascina tion exerted by his work over the six thereby becomes explicable. Of the six, it is Heidegger who offers a
revised version of the four last things of eschatology:

earth, sky, mortals, divines. The original four, heaven, hell,
death and judgment, are not, however, far from the surface
in the writings of the others. By confronting these eschatological themes, comfort for the isolated individual is
sought. These themes in part add to,’ but in part derive
from Marxist orthodoxy. The Communist Manifesto is clearly chiliastic, announcing the coming of good government,
when human beings cease to be at the mercy of historical
developments, and take over the direction of events. The
Manifesto is eschatological in offering an end to history,

and a judgment of all that has gone before. It offers a
barely secularised version of the belief in the milJenium,
the coming of Messiah, to reign on earth in peace and
plenty for a thousand years, a theme which brings these
Marxists into uncomfortable proximity with Hitler’s thousand y’ear Reich. Revulsion from Nazism led both Bloch and
Luklcs, both passionately awaiting the period of good
government, great happiness and general prosperity, to conceal from themselves the dimensions and implications of
Stalin’s purges and of the Gulag. Bloch stayed in East Germany until the building of the Berlin Wall, in 1961. Luka’cs
left Hungary for a brief period in 1956, but returned to die
in Budapest. Their position is not unlike that of Heidegger,
quietly dissenting from Nazism in Freiburg, from 1934 to

Heidegger, in Being and Time, seeks to naturalise history; Bloch, in The Spirit of Utopia, seeks to historise
nature. Both seem to attempt to homogenise difference in
theoretical form, in response to a disastrously fragmented
contemporary political situation. Despite their attempts to
disrupt the natural expectation of smooth, complete models,
through their style, their terminology, and the nature of
their inquiries, they nevertheless seek to eliminate difference, and to reduce incompatibility. They attempt to give
an overall view of human existence. This attempt turns into
a refusal to recognise the ineliminable nature of rupture
and of disjunction in human existence. This failure of
recognition returns to wreak revenge in the inarticulable
appeal to inexplicable apocalyptic interruptions of human
life, through which order and meaning are suddenly intro-

duced into it. Adorno’s theorising of fragmentation in Negative Dialectics reproduces the paradox of attempting to
totalise fragmentation, to give an orderly presentation of
the disparate, disorderly elements which make up human
existence. The origin of the paradox, is the attempt to
impose order on this disorder through writing, rather than
through political and revolutionary activity.

These grand old men, all six of them, reflect on their
relations to the great philosophical, Marxist and creative
traditions of Europe, and attempt to reconcile themselves
to their sense of isolation, through the brilliance of their
writing and of their analysis. They fail to produce a collective account of their collective situation, and are thus_
subject to that situation. They fail to provide an account
of their social and political circumstances, in political economy. Still less do they analyse domestic economy, the
exploitation of women, through marriage, in the home. They
do not analyse imperialism and neo-colonialism. These grand
old men, white, middle class, and European, write for those
who share, or seek to share, the privileges of white middle
class men. The rest of us should be too busy with exploitation and expropriation, called international aid and marriage, with the threat of the new holocaust, called nuclear
deterrence. The imminence of collective death has eliminated the space in which romantic revolutionaries flourish,
with their individualist responses to death. There is no
room for their utopian eschatology, and their chiliasm looks
sadly optimistic. And who dare admit to having the time to
read them?



Adorno, Theodore Wiesengrund 0903-1969), Minima Moralia, Negative
Dialectics; GiUian Rose, The Melancholy Science: an introduction to
the thought of Theodore W. Adorno, MacmiHan, 1978.

Benjamin, Waiter 0892-1940), One-Way Street, Charles Baudelaire: a
lyric poet in the era of high capitalism; Julian Roberts, Waiter
Benjamin, MacmiHan, 1982.

Bloch, Ernst 0885-1977), The Spirit of Utopia, The Principle of Hope;
Wayne Hudson, The Marxist Philosophy of Ernst Bloch, MacmiHan,

Lukacs, Georg (1885-1970, History and Class Consciousness, The
Historical Novel; G.H.R. Parkinson, Lukacs, RoutJedge and Kegan
Paul, 1977.

Marcuse, Herbert (1898-1979), Eros and Civilisation, Reason and
Revolution; Barry M. Katz, Herbert Marcuse and the Art of liberation: an inteHectual biography, Verso, 1982.

Heidegger, Martin (1889-1976), Being and Time, On the Way to

See Lucien Goldmann, Lukacs and Heidegger, for an account of the
overlap between these two on the priority of the practical over the

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W. Outhwaite, Concept Formation in Social Science,
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George Pitcher, Berkeley: The Arguments of the
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K. Popper and J. Eccles, The Self and Its Brain, RKP, l7.95
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Stewart Richards, Philosophy and Sociology of Science – an
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Manfred Reidel, Between Tradition and Revolution: the
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The Dora Russell Reader, Pandora Press, l3.95 pb
Dora Russell, The Religion of the Machine Age, RKP,
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M. Sarup, Education, State and Crisis – A Marxist
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