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.

Stalin speaking 01