Bernard E. Harcourt | Epilogue on the Frankfurt School and Ernst Bloch

By Bernard E. Harcourt

The rich and provocative conversation with Rahel Jaeggi and Martin Saar on the Frankfurt School and utopian thought, at Utopia 10/13, underscored the productivity of Critical Theory’s ambivalence toward the concept of utopia—the productivity of its worries about the danger of utopian “blueprints” and their tendencies toward authoritarianism. Rahel Jaeggi argued that this ambivalence might productively lead us toward a concept of “determinate utopias,” as opposed to “concrete utopias” as I am using the term in these seminars. The concept of “determinate utopias” is founded on the theoretical move of “determinate negation” that is at the heart of Critical Theory—and that Theodor Adorno discusses in his debate with Ernst Bloch.[1] Determinate negation works through the internal contradictions to possibly prefigure the new and, thus, works with what might be possible. Martin Saar similarly embraced the ambivalence and negation—in effect, the dialectical nature of critical thought—but pushed in a different direction. Placing emphasis on the thesis of the “ban on images,” Martin Saar argued against the idea of making utopian thought in any way “smaller.” Somewhat paradoxically—perhaps dialectically—Saar rejected not only blueprints but also “smaller” concrete utopias, in addition, naturally, to Utopia (with a capital U), while nevertheless holding on to the need for utopian thought. For me, the rich conversation helped crystalize the concept of “concrete utopias” that I am proposing in these seminars.

“Concrete utopias”

What I am calling “concrete utopias,” with a gesture to Ernst Bloch and Étienne Balibar, nevertheless differs from those other uses of the term (and of the term “real utopias” as well). I am focusing on actually-existing political initiatives, projects, and experiments that relate to a possible utopian future. These instances of “concrete” utopias are not intended to capture fully the ultimate ambition or utopian vision that is envisaged; they are, rather, actual manifestations of efforts that are ongoing today, that have been realized (by contrast to some of the “real utopias” of Erik Olin Wright that have not been realized), and that can be considered successful in the sense of transforming a community and/or social relations, such as for instance Cooperation Jackson, ongoing union organizing efforts at Columbia, worker cooperatives, or eco-cooperatives like Longo Maï—all actually-existing experiments and initiatives that show the possibility of transformation.

I am using the term differently than Ernst Bloch’s distinction between abstract (wishes and dreams) and concrete utopias (praxis alternatives given a specific historical context, formulated within the framework a Marxist philosophy of history). The notion of concrete utopias that I am using is almost more concrete than Bloch’s, in the sense that they must be realized today, even if they are just as historically situated as Bloch’s concept. It is worth noting that since I do not fully embrace Bloch’s theory of history—insofar, at least, as it is outdated or no longer applicable to our era of hyper-advanced capitalism—it is likely that Bloch himself might have objected to my use of the term “concrete.” At least, in the 1964 debate with Adorno, Bloch decries the fact that “utopia is being relaxed by presenting it … only in instalments [Abschlagszahlungen], as already achieved.”[2] Bloch states that “Because utopias without series of purposes do not exist, in a non-teleological world, there is no such thing as Utopia.”[3] Well, sadly, I think it is clear that we live in a non-teleological world, and for that reason, differ from Bloch, but I nevertheless propose an updated concept of “concrete utopias” that can have traction today. This may be why Martin Saar referred to this proposal as “neo-Blochian”!

Now, I am by no means advocating, in any way, to not be critical or to withdraw from critical theory. I am instead trying to historicize, in a critical way, the ambivalence and determinate negation in order to find the right balance today. That balance changed over time, within Critical Theory, depending on changing historical circumstances. Again, within Critical Theory, there were shifts regarding the ambivalence toward utopianism at different historical conjunctures.

For Marcuse, there was a clear shift in the mid 1960s with the rising student and liberation movements. His argument for “the end of Utopia” is, in truth, an embrace of utopian thinking based on a historical analysis. For Marcuse, writing in 1967, there is a provisional feasibility for revolutionary change in the West. This is precisely why he speaks of the “end of Utopia” and the “end of history”; it is why he relegates the formal concept of Utopia to projects that contradict only the real laws of nature, like physical or biological laws.[4] Marcuse believed that “the material and intellectual forces for the transformation are technically at hand although their rational application is prevented by the existing organization of the forces of production.”[5] For Marcuse, the difference between the prior notion of continuous history and the break that he sees in 1967 has to do with technical transformations in economics. He writes that the end of Utopia “must be conceived in forms that signify a break rather than a continuity with previous history, its negation rather than its positive continuation, difference rather than progress.”[6] What he has in mind are technical transformations that have made possible the end of hunger and poverty, different from the crises of capitalism that were anticipated by more orthodox Marxism. Marcuse ultimately embraces the need for utopian thinking in 1967 as a way to fuel and promote the social movements for change.

Similarly, regarding the Eastern Bloc, Ernst Bloch—as well as Adorno and Marcuse—argued that there was a pressing need for utopian thinking within Soviet-style socialism. Note that Bloch himself was careful to add that the problem in the East also affected the West. Bloch was unwilling to simply criticize the Eastern Bloc, as he emphasized, “West and East are in accord and sit in the same unpleasant boat, in agreement in the point that ‘there should be nothing utopian.’”[7]

Adorno agreed with Bloch about the need to infuse Eastern Bloc Marxism with utopian thinking. Adorno stated “it is certainly the case that the horror we are experiencing in the East today is partly connected to the fact that, in the wake of Marx’s criticism of the French utopians and Owen, the idea of utopia has disappeared from the conception of socialism altogether, so that the apparatus, the how, the means of a socialist society, take precedence over any possible content because the possible content cannot be spoken about and should not be spoken about. And that, as a result, the consistently anti-utopian theory of socialism now really tends to become a new ideology for the domination of people.”[8]

Marcuse as well joined Bloch and Adorno in this, writing that, “today the notion of the end of utopia implies the necessity of at least discussing a new definition of socialism.”[9] In fact, for Marcuse, it is what he called a “categorical imperative”: “I believe that the Utopian is today not only an historical concept, but also an historical imperative—a categorical imperative that must serve to prevent the fossilization of socialism under new forms of rule.”[10]

Adorno’s decision to edit the work of the French utopian socialist Charles Fourier in 1966 can also be interpreted as a response to the situation in the Eastern Bloc—and a recalibration of that ambivalence toward utopianism. As Adorno wrote, “Because the political and power interests of the Eastern Bloc have made the theorems of socialism into a dogma, there is a renewed interest today in concepts that emerged earlier and elsewhere, before they were stigmatized as Utopian.”[11]


In the very same way that these critical theorists were being careful about the historical context, and calibrating their discussion of utopia to their times, I too believe that the historical dimension is key and calls for recalibration today. The degree of ambivalence is not a constant in Critical Theory, it has to be calibrated to the times—it does not have a fixed essence, it is a by-product of historical contradictions. It needs to be calibrated. And, of course, it needs to be calibrated differently today than in the 1930s or the 1960s because our conception of history today is different. It is non-teleological. It does not suppose, as Rahel Jaeggi emphasized, an eventual end to contradictions. It does not embrace an end to history.

In these times of crises, for these times of crises—global climate change, perilous migration, extractive capitalism—at a time when there seems to be no way forward through the electoral process, we need to identify the “concrete utopias” that are actually changing communities and parts of society in order not only to show that change is possible, but to encourage, incite, and embolden social action and praxis.

In a way, the problem today is that, on the one hand, calls for revolution feel too utopian (and somewhat dangerous, given that the far-right is much better armed and equipped) and, on the other hand, liberal progressive policy-making has become too anti-utopian and ossified, much as Soviet-style socialism had become in the 1960s. Faced with these kinds of historical contradictions, we may need to return to Bloch, Adorno, and Marcuse’s position regarding the former East—but this time, as applied to the liberal policy-makers in the West. The historical times have changed once again. And I have no doubt that today, in these times of crises, there is an urgent need to refocus on “concrete utopias”—in fact, a categorical imperative to do so—as a way to shake radical thought out of its complacency and simultaneously challenge liberal policy-making.

Bloch brilliantly observed that there was a tectonic shift in the idea of Utopia “from space into time”—from the spatial realm of geography (e.g. utopia was originally discussed in relation to a spatial other, the island for Thomas More in the 16th century) to the temporal realm of history (e.g. in the 18th and 19th century, utopias became a temporal matter about the future of a just society).[12] Laëtitia Riss discusses this in her essay “Utopier le présent” that we turn to next at Utopia 11/13. It could be that today, for the 21st century, we need both a spatial and temporal dimension to “concrete utopias”: we need to think “concrete utopias” through the lens of both place and time. This is reflected, for instance, in the case of Cooperation Jackson, with its emphasis in the Jackson-Kush Plan on the specific region of Western Mississippi understood through the lens of the long history of racial oppression. Perhaps in the end, it is time, indeed, to think like a neo-Blochian!


[1] In their debate, Bloch and Adorno agree that the essential function of utopia is “a critique of what is given! [am Vorhandenen]” as Bloch says, or, as Adorno says, “determinate negation [bestimmte Negation].” Ernst Bloch and Adorno, “Possibilities of Utopia Today,” trans. and ed. by Jonathan Roessler, Radio Debate, Südwestrundfunk, 1964, p. 13.

[2] Ernst Bloch, in conversation with Theodor Adorno, “Possibilities of Utopia Today,” trans. and ed. by Jonathan Roessler, Radio Debate, Südwestrundfunk, 1964, p. 12.

[3] Bloch, in conversation with Theodor Adorno, “Possibilities of Utopia Today,” p. 13.

[4] Herbert Marcuse, The End of Utopia, trans. Jeremy Shapiro and Shierry M. Weber, in Psychoanalyse und Politik, Lecture delivered at the Free University of West Berlin in July 1967, p. 2.

[5] Marcuse, The End of Utopia, p. 2.

[6] Marcuse, The End of Utopia, p. 3.

[7] Bloch, in conversation with Theodor Adorno, “Possibilities of Utopia Today,” p. 15.

[8] Adorno, in conversation with Bloch, “Possibilities of Utopia Today,” p. 14.

[9] Marcuse, The End of Utopia, p. 1.

[10] Marcuse quoted in Alexander Neupert-Doppler and Charles Reitz, “Critical Theory and Utopian Thought,” in The SAGE Handbook of Frankfurt School Critical Theory (2018), at p. 18 of 26.

[11] Adorno quoted in Neupert-Doppler and Reitz, “Critical Theory and Utopian Thought,” at p. 5 of 26.

[12] Bloch, in conversation with Theodor Adorno, “Possibilities of Utopia Today,” p. 4.