The contemporaneity of non-contemporaneity: From Ernst Bloch to Stalin

I have become quite intrigued by the way Ernst Bloch’s ‘non-contemporaneity’ (Ungleichzeitigkeit) of the present, or in shorthand the ‘contemporaneity of non-contemporaneity’, enables one to understand philosophically the reality of successful socialist revolutions. These occurred of course in ‘backward’ countries outside ‘advanced’ capitalist ones – Eastern Europe, Russia and Asia. Bloch famously developed this philosophical category in Heritage of Our Times (see especially 97-116) to explain the rise of fascism in Germany. For Bloch, a mode of production such as capitalism always contains pre-capitalist traces, which exist at different levels and modalities simultaneously in the present. They are like a ‘cultural ground water’, which lies closer to or further from the surface, depending on the place. At the same time, they challenge and resist the present; they ‘contradict the Now; very strangely, crookedly, from behind’ (97). Here fascism finds room to arise, for it can construct such resistance in terms of its false myths and hopes, of the Blond Beast, of blood and soil.

But Bloch’s real insight is that such non-contemporaneity also creates the possibility for socialist revolution. Here the unattained hopes of earlier forms, which gain ‘additional revolutionary force precisely from the incomplete wealth of the past’, meet the expectations of a ‘prevented future’ and unleashed forces of production with which the present is pregnant (pp. 115-16). This is precisely why one would expect socialist revolutions to happen in culturally, economically and politically ‘backward’ places like Russia and China. Here the meeting between the incomplete wealth of the past and the prevented future is more potent and revolutionary.

At the same time, the contemporaneity of non-contemporaneity also applies after the revolution, if not in heightened form. I have developed this argument most fully in relation to China (soon to be published). But Stalin also has some insights that may be understood in this way. One of these is the extraordinary dialectical argument that only a proletarian revolution can complete the bourgeois revolution. He means not merely that the October Revolution completed and transformed the February Revolution of 1917, but also that the bourgeois revolution was completed after October, precisely when the bourgeoisie was defeated. He was certainly no slouch when it came to dialectical arguments. As a sample:

In point of fact, why did we succeed in securing the support of the peasantry as a whole in October and after October? Because we had the possibility of carrying the bourgeois revolution to completion.

Why did we have that possibility? Because we succeeded in overthrowing the power of the bourgeoisie and replacing it by the power of the proletariat, which alone is able to carry the bourgeois revolution to completion.

Why did we succeed in overthrowing the power of the bourgeoisie and establishing the power of the proletariat? Because we prepared for October under the slogan of dictatorship of the proletariat and poor peasantry; because, proceeding from this slogan, we waged a systematic struggle against the compromising policy of the petty-bourgeois parties; because, proceeding from this slogan, we waged a systematic struggle against the vacillations of the middle peasantry in the Soviets; because only with such a slogan could we overcome the vacillations of the middle peasant, defeat the compromising policy of the petty-bourgeois parties, and rally a political army capable of waging the struggle for the transfer of power to the proletariat.

It scarcely needs proof that without these preliminary conditions, which determined the fate of the October Revolution, we could not have won the support of the peasantry as a whole for the task of completing the bourgeois revolution, either in October or after October.

That is how the combination of peasant wars with the proletarian revolution should be understood (Works, vol. 9, pp. 284-85).

It’s almost like reading Ernst Bloch avant la lettre.

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Spirit versus Letter: On interpreting Marx

One of the more fascinating aspects of reading carefully through Stalin’s writings is what may be called the scriptural dynamic of spirit and letter. As 2 Corinthians 3:6 puts it, ‘the letter kills, but the spirit gives life’. Stalin is clearly on the side of the spirit through the letter in interpreting the texts of Marx and Lenin. Thus, Marx’s thought applies to emerging capitalism, while Lenin’s thought is Marxism in the age of imperialism. To emphasise his approach, he tells a story provided by Swedish socialists:

It was at the time of the sailors’ and soldiers’ revolt in the Crimea. Representatives of the navy and army came to the Social-Democrats and said: “For some years past you have been calling on us to revolt against tsarism. Well, we are now convinced that you are right, and we sailors and soldiers have made up our mints to revolt and now we have come to you for advice.” The Social-Democrats became flurried and replied that they couldn’t decide the question of a revolt without a special conference. The sailors intimated that there was no time to lose, that everything was ready, and that if they did not get a straight answer from the Social-Democrats, and if the Social-Democrats did not take over the direction of the revolt, the whole thing might collapse. The sailors and soldiers went away pending instructions, and the Social-Democrats called a conference to discuss the matter. They took the first volume of Capital, they took the second volume of Capital, and then they took the third volume of Capital, looking for some instruction about the Crimea, about Sevastopol, about a revolt in the Crimea. But they could not find a single, literally not a single instruction in all three volumes of Capital either about Sevastopol, or about the Crimea, or about a sailors’ and soldiers’ revolt. They turned over the pages of other works of Marx and Engels, looking for instructions—but not a single instruction could they find. What was to be done? Meanwhile the sailors had come expecting an answer. Well, the Social-Democrats had to confess that under the circumstances they were unable to give the sailors and soldiers any instructions. “And so the sailors’ and soldiers’ revolt collapsed.” (Works, volume 9, pages 97-98)

Stalin’s letter style

Stalin may not have had the acerbic edge of Lenin’s letter style, but he prided himself on going straight to the point. With that in mind, here is a letter template from Stalin, drawing upon various phrases from his correspondence:

Comrade …,

I am very late in replying. You have a right to be angry with me, but you must bear in mind that I am unusually remiss as regards letters and correspondence in general. Don’t scold me for being straightforward and blunt concerning your report. Yes, comrade, I am straightforward and blunt; that’s true, I don’t deny it!

It is very praiseworthy that you should have wanted to use your own brains. But just look at the result: on the peace issue you used your own brains, and came a cropper; then in the trade-union discussion you again tried to use your own brains, and again you came a cropper; and now, I do not know whether you are using your own brains or borrowing someone else’s, but it appears that you have come a cropper this time too. I have a notion that certain comrades are not all there in their upper storeys.

Although this fantastic report needs no refutation because of its obvious absurdity, nevertheless, perhaps it will not be superfluous to state that this report is a gross mistake and must be attributed entirely to the author’s imagination. Why, then, do you continue to circulate all kinds of nonsense and fable?

In short, your report is a frightful dream, but thank God only a dream.

Instead, you should emphasise that our country can and must become a land of metal. After all, the party has been forged out of hard steel and tempered in battle. Without such an approach, our work will become meaningless, criminal and futile, which will give us the right, or rather will force us, to go anywhere, even to the devil himself.

In closing, comrade, let me say that I do not undertake to prophecy.

God grant us a new year every day!

With communist greetings,

J. V. Stalin

(from Works, vol. 4, p. 288; vol. 5, pp. 100-1, 226, 386; vol. 6, pp. 36, 201, 285; vol 7, pp. 47, 133, 191-92, 372-73)

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