U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Bloch Party, Part III: On Heritage of our Times (1935)

For a certain subpopulation, the recent addition of Sophia Fiennes’s documentary collaboration with Slavoj Zizek, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, to Netflix’s instant-streaming service, is cause for delight, or at very least, the pretext for a salubrious break from binge-watching whole seasons of The Rockford Files and Quincy, M.E. in one sitting. The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology also provides an occasion to revisit some of Zizek’s most provocative arguments.

No section of the film is more striking than that in which Zizek speaks over a clip from Bob Fosse’s Cabaret: the scene in which the transition from Weimar decadence to Nazi closure is allegorized by way of a quivering blonde Hitler Youth member singing “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.” The camera stays on the boys’ face for much of the scene, and the viewer might as plausibly imagine that he is a young Communist: the ideological content of the song is not fixed (in fact, as Zizek notes, “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” was composed for Cabaret by the Jewish songwriting team of Kander and Ebb; to my ears it sounds more like the sort of red-tinted lied around which Paul Robeson used to organize concert programs than anything else–more on this below).

At a certain point in the song, the camera moves to reveal the boy singer’s swastika armband. The indeterminacy of fantasy gives way to certainty: we (let’s say a “we” that is stumbling across this scene fresh, not the viewer of Cabaret, who, of course, is more prepared for the “reveal”) now know that we are in the presence of fascist affect. What matters most, Zizek suggests, is that we not allow ourselves to forget our earlier confusion (what in psychoanalytic terms is called the “time of understanding”), nor its political implications.

If we cannot tell a “fascist” from a “communist” song before we see the armband, then the analysts of “totalitarianism”—usually anti-communists, and often those most suspicious of mass politics of any sort––must be acknowledged to have been, in a certain sense, correct to recognize affinities between radical Right and radical Left formations.

In Zizek’s work, this concession to the critics of “totalitarianism” is a ticket with which the project of radical Leftism might be redeemed. After all, if the alternative is also a “totalitarianism”—the rule of the market and the fantasies of the “social contract”––then the dream of a “Third Way” escape from the aestheticization of politics and deferral of ideological commitments is rendered inert.

Here is the text of Zizek’s discussion of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” from The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology:

We should be here very precise not to fall into the usual trap of disqualifying all elements out of which the Nazi ideological edifice is composed, to disqualify all of them as fascist. We should never forget that the large majority if these elements which we today associate with fascism were taken from the worker’s movement. This idea of large numbers of people marching together, this idea of strict bodily discipline as our duty; the Nazis directly took this over from social democracy, from the Left.

Let me just take some other central concepts of the Nazi world to you; the solidarity of the people. My God, there is nothing bad in this notion as such. The problem is solidarity to what kind of people? If by people you mean Volksgemeinschaft, the organic community of people where then the enemy is automatically the foreign intruder, in this case we are in Nazism.

The crucial thing is to locate ideology where it belongs. Let’s take a clear example. The well known song “Tomorrow Belongs To Me” from the film Cabaret… Some of my friends after seeing the film, Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, thought that after they heard this song they finally understood what at it’s deepest emotional impact, what fascism is.

But I think this precisely is the mistake to be avoided. This song is rather ordinary popular song. Incidentally it was composed while they were shooting the movie by a Jewish couple. Nice irony. If you look not only at the music, at the way it is sung, but even at the words:

“Awakening of a nation,

Tomorrow belongs to me…”

One can well imagine with a slight change of words radically leftist, communist song.

Throughout his career, Zizek has tended to favor the structural and the synchronic, and thus one thing that interests us about this fragment from The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology is that here his argument is unusually historical. To understand the relationship between communism and fascism requires, Zizek suggest, special attention to historical time, to “before” and “after.” The source of this turn to history, without question, is Ernst Bloch—a figure with whom we have been engaging over the past several weeks.

Because there is something still shocking in this line of inquiry, it seems useful to look closely at Ernst Bloch’s studies of National Socialism, and in particular his 1935 text Heritage of our Times (Erbschaft dieser Zeit)––written in exile in Zurich as Nazism consolidated its legal, economic, and affective regime––a text that might be summarized by way of a Bloch quip (which has an unmistakable proto-Zizekian tinge):“what the Communist Party did before the victory of Hitler was fully correct, only what it didn’t do, was false.”

In what follows, I look at Heritage of our Times, with the help of an excellent essay by Anson Rabinbach: “Unclaimed Heritage: Ernst Bloch’s Heritage of Our Times and the Theory of Fascism,” (New German Critique, No. 11 [Spring, 1977]). Rabinbach describes Heritage of our Times as an “expression of the author’s double exile: from a Germany with fascism in power and from a Stalinism powerless to comprehend it.”

Heritage of Our Times, Rabinbach writes, “is particularly concerned with those ideological remnants of past epochs that have been appropriated by fascism not, however, to reveal their illusory character, but to restore them to their genuine place in a powerful, but fragmentary anti-capitalist heritage.”

Bloch “stood practically alone amid his Marxist contemporaries by taking seriously the power of fascism as a cultural synthesis,” and “saw clearly that to call fascism a phenomenon of capitalist class rule could not account for how it arose as a mass movement independent from, and often contradictory to the interests of that class.”

As Rabinbach explains, this mediation leads Bloch to two extremely heretical questions: 1) given the “Left” provenance of the constituent elements woven together by Nazism, (including the radical dreams of Joachim of Fiore and Thomas Münzer, and even the very idea of a “third Reich”) did not the Left’s refusal to engage its own affective, phantasmatic, and aesthetic resources––its cooperation in turning over its raw materials to the other side, in other words––render the Left complicit in its own defeat?; and 2) might Marxist class analysis need a substantial renovation, in the direction of recognizing the power of “nonsynchronous contradictions”––“between those social strata tied to an older but historically by no means obsolete mode of production and consciousness, and those that are identified with capitalist modernity?”

Bloch’s aesthetic and poltical theory, then, is unusually programmatic. Confronting the reality of Hitlerism, Bloch suggests that there was no alternative polity to whom a “utopia of völkisch community in nature” would register, automatically, anachronistic kitsch: the very same people who might be swayed to Nazism might also be swayed to some form of mass Leftism. The failure to do so, Bloch wagered, would be catastrophic. In this respect Bloch was undeniably a prophet.

On the other side of “Bloch’s heresy” (his “heresy,” that is, against, Party orthodoxy)––lurked a certain optimism: that Bloch wrote an optimistic book in an otherwise grim situation, Rabinbach emphasizes, was “completely consistent with his entire philosophical project: a critique of nihilism and a restoration of utopia to its original meaning as an immanent force, a ‘waking dream’ of the possible.”

In this cockeyed dialectics, Bloch anticipates Michael Dummett’s question (“can an effect precede its cause?”) and answers: “Yes.” “Tradition,” for Bloch, as Rabinbach stresses, is not the “handed-down relic of past generations, but an image of the future which, though geographically located in a familiar landscape, points beyond the given.”

On which, much more, soon.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Kurt, thanks for this post. On this section —

    If we cannot tell a “fascist” from a “communist” song before we see the armband, then the analysts of “totalitarianism”—usually anti-communists, and often those most suspicious of mass politics of any sort––must be acknowledged to have been, in a certain sense, correct to recognize affinities between radical Right and radical Left formations.

    — do you (or Zizek) see these affinities as primarily “affective”? IOW, only the affect of the Left is appropriated by the Right (or vice versa) — or are there affinities of thought that get carried along with the affect? Or is thought/affect not a useful distinction?

  2. LD, thanks for this comment.

    I think that for both Zizek and Bloch, there is both “thought-content” and “affect-content,” which overlap, but are not identical.

    So, for example, Bloch writes in Principle of Hope about the utopian phenomenology of exercise: the pleasures of straightening the back, jumping high, swimming, etc. This would be primarily affective material. He also writes about the dreams of a Thomas Münzer–that would be primarily intellectual material.

    His thesis is that in both cases, the origins lie in plebeian social movements (that is, in some sense, the Left)–modern “sports” come from ordinary people testing the limits of their bodies, for reasons external to production or reproduction for the market; the chiliastic religious strivings for freedom, equality, etc. similarly can be traced back to bottom-up formations.

    For a thinker like Alain Badiou, this kind of thinking leads to a theory of “communist invariants”–a transhistorical hypothesis that all the “good stuff,” as it were, comes from the Left or proto-Left. (This is a thesis that many here would not like, I think).

    A subtler form of this argument, I think, could be derived from Corey Robin’s work–in other words, that the Right tends to borrow its resources from the Left (bracketing, for the most part, the question of whether the Right has any resources of its own upon which to draw).

    That leads us to the real question: does the Right have its own affective and intellectual resources that: a) might appeal to anyone outside the Right, and b) would not lead in the direction of berserker social mayhem?

    The answer to this question is more complex than Zizek allows in this segment of the film (although in his work on anti-Semitism, Zizek suggests that this is exactly the function of ethnic hatreds in modern states), but Bloch and Franz Neumann and Adam Tooze all seem to agree that, in the case of Nazism, the ideology that allowed Hitler to take over was not some deep-rooted Wagnerian passion that gradually permeated all of German society, but rather a cobbled-together, shoddy, ad hoc synthesis–largely of Left-origin elements. (That creates a historical and political conundrum: does that thereafter render these elements “fascist” forever?)

    The case of Hitlerism also reveals a crucial problem for far-Right ideology–the most authentic, autochtonous affective/theoretical resources (like the hypermasculine, royalist, misogynist, colonialist militarism of the Freikorps, later the SA) tend to make governance impossible–thus the “Night of the Long Knives,” in the case of Germany (in which the radical hooligans were targeted for elimination as the Nazis consolidated power), or, more subtly, the way in which the GOP is trying to finesse the Ted Nugent faction of the Tea Party today (the contradiction of the Cliven Bundy ranch faithful is that they generate huge enthusiasm and attention, but what do you do once you gain power as a “party of order” and your constituents are raving anarchists?)

  3. And the party continues! Kurt, a concept that perhaps ties these affect formations in both the left and the right is populism. Here is where a certain leftist romanticization of the people, popular culture, and “plebeian social movements” runs into trouble, for it ignores how so-called popular affects are not inherently democratic, freedom-driven, or even egalitarian. This form of leftist populism continues to march on (see chavismo in Venezuela), taking for granted how history has shown the ways in which these protean flows–the nomadic war machine Deleuze and Guattari alude to in A Thousand Plateaux–can turn into the spread of the affect of terror.

    • Yes, Khalil, as always, on the money.

      What I would like to do is a careful analysis of Bloch vis-a-vis contemporary democratic theory–primarily Lefort and Laclau/Mouffe, as well as Jodi Dean and Jacques Ranciere. I will definitely make “populism” a key section. Can you think of others I should read to put this together? (This would also be a good place, I think, to finally deal with Chakrabarty’s critique of Bloch…)

      • I am not familiar with Chakrabarty’s critique of Bloch; is it in Provincializing Europe? Hmm, I would like to know your take on Jon Beasley Murray’s Posthegemony, especially the chapter where he takes on cultural studies, hegemony, and populism. I have some issues with the book, but it is a useful synthesis and critique of these theoretical approaches (not so much against Gramsci, whom he sadly doesn’t discuss, but Laclau). It reads quite fast and the way it is written one can easily jump the sections on Latin America (not that you should!). And speaking of the old Z, there’s Zizek’s critique of Laclau too.

      • And oops, I have left out Mouffe! Perhaps because she has never been invested in populism; but Beasley-Murray’s critique of Laclau also includes her work.

Comments are closed.