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


New book on Ernst Bloch: The Privatization of Hope

This one is due out soon with Duke University Press, edited by Peter Thompson and part of the renewed interest in Ernst Bloch:

Privatization of Hope a


The concept of hope is central to the work of the German philosopher Ernst Bloch (1885–1977), especially in his magnum opus, The Principle of Hope (1959). The “speculative materialism” that he first developed in the 1930s asserts a commitment to humanity’s potential that continued through his later work. In The Privatization of Hope, leading thinkers in utopian studies explore the insights that Bloch’s ideas provide in understanding the present. Mired in the excesses and disaffections of contemporary capitalist society, hope in the Blochian sense has become atomized, de-socialized, and privatized. From myriad perspectives, the contributors clearly delineate the renewed value of Bloch’s theories in this age of hopelessness. Bringing Bloch’s “ontology of Not Yet Being” into conversation with twenty-first-century concerns, this collection is intended to help revive and revitalize philosophy’s commitment to the generative force of hope.

. Roland Boer, Frances Daly, Henk de Berg, Vincent Geoghegan, Wayne Hudson, Ruth Levitas, David Miller, Catherine Moir, Caitríona Ní Dhúill, Welf Schröter, Johann Siebers, Peter Thompson, Francesca Vidal, Rainer Ernst Zimmermann.

And Fredric Jameson writes of the collection:

Late capitalism has been celebrated by its apologists as that stage of society in which nothing more, nothing new, will ever happen (except for wars, catastrophes, bankruptcy and Armageddon): the end of history as the death of the future. In this affluent desolation, at the tail-end of all thought, we confront the immense enigmatic figure of Ernst Bloch and that tangle of the Not-Yet-Conceived —the heritage of unfinished business, loose ends and tired aporias, in which new problems are somewhere hidden, new futures slumber, and a freshening and a renewal of history is promised. The present collection makes a start on renewing Bloch himself as a living multiplicity of themes and questions, and may even mark a beginning of that new beginning with which he tantalized us.

Stinky tofu … and the tension between vulgar and ruptural Marxism

‘Are you really sure you want to eat that?’ she asked.

‘Why not?’ I said, pointing to the picture menu. ‘It looks like a delectable dish of tofu’.

‘Stinky tofu?’ she said. ‘Not many foreigners like it’.

‘How can I not eat stinky tofu?’ I said.

I was about to engage in what is arguably one of the most pleasurable experiences in China: a meal with a colleague from Fudan University’s Centre for the Study of Contemporary Marxism Abroad. Why so pleasurable? Apart from the food, it is because my colleague has one of the quickest and sharpest minds I have encountered in a very long time, often leaving me floundering. We share many interests, so we push each other to new thoughts, dipping and weaving in a free play of the mind.

We spoke of Ernst Bloch (1885-1977) and the metaphysics of Marxism; of Anatoly Lunacharsky (1875-1933) and God-building in the Russian Revolution; of revolutionary enthusiasm and calm analysis; and of vulgar Marxism and its dialectical form. All this turned out to be a knot more complex than at first appears to be the case. How so? That knot presents a series of overlapping but apparently irreconcilable oppositions. These oppositions begin with the warm and cold streams of Marxism, but then move on to include fiery passion and careful reason, subjective and objective conditions, and vulgar and ruptural approaches to the dialectic. Let me begin with the warm and cold streams, which will then enable me to engage with the other oppositions.

Lunacharsky and Bloch (who is many respects the heir of the former, even though he was not aware of Lunacharsky’s work) were both proponents of the warm stream of Marxism. By the warm stream I mean the importance of revolutionary passion, of the appeal to the emotions, of a political myth in which one can believe despite the most devastating of setbacks, of a Marxist metaphysics that is able to bring about an Aufhebung of religion. Both Lunacharsky and Bloch were responding to what may be called the cold stream of Marxism, in which rational analysis of the objective conditions of history was the key. All one needed was a greater knowledge of the objectively existing laws of history, especially of the phases of historical development, so that the path to revolution was clear. For Lunacharsky, who was a central figure in the Russian Revolution and to the Left of Lenin, the Second International was the embodiment of this approach, in which Hegel was a bad influence and in which his residue needed to be excised from Marx’s thought. Bloch too found this mechanistic approach troublesome – he had lived long enough to know a little of the Second International, but then also the resolute ‘history is one our side’ approach that continued to bedevil Marxism into the midst of the twentieth century.

So far, this is relatively straightforward: they want a more vibrant, warmer Marxism that touches the heart as well as the mind. They wish to restore the enthusiastic, subjective and moral dimension of Marxism. At this point, one may object: is this not the stuff of demagoguery? Does not such an approach leave one open to the traps of deploying specific techniques to fire up the emotions of the masses? That is, does not this approach leave one open to the charge of ‘vulgar’ Marxism, especially if we understand ‘vulgar’ in its Latin sense of ‘crowd’ and ‘common people’?

Now our knot of problems becomes much more interesting, for Lunacharsky and Bloch (and indeed the Frankfurt School and their inheritors) were profoundly suspicious of ‘vulgar’ Marxism. It all turns on what one means by ‘vulgar’. For them, vulgar Marxism is precisely the coldly rational Marxism I mentioned earlier. Here is the mechanistic, causal understanding of history, which may be broken down into carefully defined stages that lead inexorably to a socialist revolution. But vulgar also operates with the slogan of ‘the base is to blame’. The base or infrastructure provides the real and material cause of all that is; all that is of the superstructure – culture, philosophy, politics, religion, ideology – may be regarded as excretions or epiphenomena of the base. These two elements work smoothly together, for once you know the mechanisms of the base, once you know the socio-economic causes of all that is, you may be able to predict the course of history.

A further question needs to be asked: who is responsible for this vulgar Marxism? Given that it is the exercise of reason over the emotions, the use of cold theory, of calm and calculated analysis and discussion, vulgar Marxism is actually the domain of intellectuals. In other words, this type of Marxism is an intellectualist development.

Its obverse is the warm Marxism I mentioned earlier, the Marxism of emotional engagement, of powerful political myth, of the heart rather than the mind. At this point, the dialectic comes into play. The intellectualist, cold stream of vulgar Marxism is a version that flattens the dialectic inherited from Hegel. Here we find the triads of thesis, antithesis and synthesis; here is the Hegel of the progress of history in grand stages. The other Hegel is somewhat different. Now he becomes the proponent of a ruptural dialectic, one of breaks in continuity. Here subjective intervention creates history, over against the objective unfolding of history. This is the complex and sophisticated dialectic that enamoured Lenin so and was a major factor in formulating the revolutionary strategy that led to the success of the October Revolution.

So we have arrived at an unexpected juncture: vulgar Marxism is the simplistic, intellectualist tendency; ruptural Marxism is the sophisticated, complex dimension. On the side of the former may be gathered cold theory, the exercise of reason and the mechanistic understanding of the stages of history. On the side of the latter do we find warmth, myth, inspiration, and above all the revolutionary break.

Do we then take sides, preferring one or the other in light of our predilections? No, for both are actually part of, and necessary to, the dialectical Marxist tradition. I speak not of an Aristotelian golden mean, with a dose of sober theory functioning to dampen too much revolutionary ardour; or perhaps some fire and zeal in order to counter the killjoy rationalists. Instead, I speak of a dialectical tension between them, the one needing the other in order to make the movement viable. In this tension may be found the classic merger theory of the Erfurt Program of 1891: socialism at an organisational level is the merger of intellectuals and the masses, both of whom learn from one another and are changed in the process.[1] It was certainly not a process of some advanced intellectual lifting workers and peasants to a new level of consciousness.

In this tension may Lenin’s thought and practice be located, between a mechanistic vulgar Marxism and a deep awareness of the ruptural possibilities of the dialectic. Lenin often moves between one and the other, but at his most luminous moments the two are juxtaposed against one another. And here do we find Marx’s own thought (let alone that of Engels), who could outdo the best of the vulgar Marxist themselves in his formulations. At the same time, he was by no means unaware of the depths and complexities of a ruptural appreciation of the dialectic.

What is the mark of a truly progressive theology?

Is it a commitment to social justice, to the inclusion of gays in the ministry, advocacy of refugees and ‘illegal’ immigrants, or perhaps the ideal of poverty in a world where the ostentatious display of wealth is deemed desirable? Possibly, but I suggest that the signal of a properly progressive theology may be found in the doctrine of salvation.

It all hangs on the relation between those mythical first human beings, Adam and Eve, and Christ. Or rather, it depends on the way one reads the narrative of salvation that emerges from the texts: from prelapsarian paradise, through disobedience and the ‘Fall’ into sin, to the role of Christ in redeeming us from that sin. In order to distinguish between reactionary and revolutionary readings of that narrative, I would like to deploy Ernst Bloch’s distinction between two types of utopia. A conservative utopia is backward looking, seeking to restore a mythical Golden Age that is a construction of that conservatism. The evils of the present age will be overcome by returning to a world that was once upon a time much more ideal. By contrast, a radical utopia is forward looking. The function of the myth of paradise is not to look backwards but forwards, for it projects an image of what might be but has not as yet been achieved. It offers hope rather than despair, anticipation rather than nostalgia.

How does this work with the doctrine of salvation? A backward looking doctrine sees Christ as the second or ‘last’ Adam (1 Corinthians 15:45), who restores our prelapsarian state so that once again we commune with God. Christ thereby repairs the damage done by Adam and Eve. Irenaeus (second century) might have kicked off this theological tradition with his explicit mention of the ‘second Adam’ who restores humanity to the image of God, but it was the story the grew up around the tree of Good and Evil in the garden that gave full expression to this conservative understanding. That tree, after many trials, became the cross of Calvary, as Piero della Francesca’s (d. 1492) fresco depicts so well. In ‘The Story of the True Cross’ Calvary becomes the point at which the fateful events at the tree of the garden are overcome. In other depictions we find Adam buried under the cross, perhaps holding a chalice to catch the first drops of Christ’s blood. And of course John Donne and John Milton made much of the connection. For Donne, ‘Christ’s Cross and Adam’s tree, stood in one place’, while in Milton’s Paradise Regained the whole story is structured around the restoration of paradise.

The problem with these approaches is that they rely on the ‘Fall’ to get salvation moving. Without that baleful moment, Christ would not have had to save us at all (forget that a Bible full of the frolicking of Adam and Eve in the garden would have been a boring text indeed). Two theological traditions of which I am aware negate the centrality of the negative moment and the consequent reactionary version of salvation. One is Eastern Orthodoxy, for which the Fall is not an exclusive prerequisite for salvation. How so? After St. Maximus, it offers a reading of Genesis 1:26 that distinguishes between the image and likeness of God: ‘Let us make humankind in our image [tselem], according to our likeness [demuth]’. Adam and Eve may have been created in the image of God, which was thereby fractured and blurred with the first sin, resulting in the unnaturalness of death. However, the likeness was entirely missing. Christ’s task in salvation is then not a simple reactionary process of restoring our prelapsarian state, our image of God, but a new state that Adam and Eve did not possess. In salvation one becomes not merely the image of God, but also the likeness. This is theosis, or deification, which designates a closer fellowship with God than even the first human beings experienced. Christ may be the second Adam, but he is also much more. All of which means that the Fall is not a necessary requirement for salvation, for Christ would have had to be incarnated for the sake of enabling us to achieve the likeness of God.

The other tradition is Calvinism and its doctrine of double predestination. Rather than rely on an act of fragile human beings, or for that matter the devil, to get the narrative of salvation moving, Calvin held that the eternal divine plan has already designated those who are saved and those who are not:

We call predestination God’s eternal decree, by which he compacted with himself what he willed to become of each man. For all are not created in equal condition; rather, eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others. Therefore, as any man has been created to one or other of these ends, we speak of him as predestined to life or to death. (Institutes 3.21.5)

Much castigated, this doctrine actually has a radical core. It relegates the Fall to one moment in a much longer narrative, one that extends before the village idiocy of the garden and beyond the moment of salvation in Christ. It is none other than the grandest narrative of all, for it concerns eternity. Of course, it is a stark doctrine, challenging our pride in our abilities and in freewill, full of divine ‘history on our side’, but it also a source of immense hope and confidence – precisely those features of a progressive theology of salvation I noted earlier. No matter how tough it gets, no matter how hopeless the situation may seem, it will indeed work out. Plus, it ensures that you aren’t riddled with guilt.

From Political Theology to Utopia, or from China to Romania

I may not be able to post as often as I would like over the next few weeks, since I am off:

To Fudan (in Shanghai) at the Centre for the Study of Marxism Abroad, where I will lead a seminar on Marxism and religion for a month:

At Fudan I will meet an old friend:

And take part in a conference on Political Theology in Taiwan, which I have had a hand in organising:

And then it’s a stint as keynote at a conference on utopias in Baia Mare, in the Maramureş in Romania, where I will speak on Ernst Bloch:

Cave Droppings: Nick Cave and Religion

As I sink into my two main projects for 2011 – Lenin and Theology and The Sacred Economy – a brief intro to the book I have just completed on Nick Cave, with a preface written on the Trans-Mongolian train, somewhere in Siberia …

Over 2010 I wanted to engage in some other material that has interested me for a while – the Fleshly Readings book, which has managed to piss off a goodly number of people, and the one on Nick Cave. The latter is called Cave Droppings, looking at things like his engagement with the Bible, the novels and total depravity, death, apocalypse, love, Jesus and a big chapter on the philosophy of music and musical form, via Ernst Bloch and Theodor Adorno. The best bits were listening again and again to all of the music (back to 1977 and the Boys Next Door), engaging deeply with Bloch and Adorno on music, and reading through some 300 or more interviews, unpicking the narratives he spins about himself. And that’s where you find some pretty good turns of phrase, like:

I’ve got to stop quoting from the Bible because it’s irritating.

A chilly thing. The Bible. Sometimes.

All they wanted was the usual holiday snap of hell.

To eat at the same ball of vomit year after year.

When the big bomb goes off, all that’s going to survive are goths and cockroaches.

Two abiding passions – crime and theology.

Death looms large because it should.

And the decomposing lover says …

Jesus only loves a man who loses.

When those two things get together, love and violence, it makes for some nasty song-writing.

But he [Blixa Bargeld] was always more concerned with making his guitar sound like a dying horse, more than anything else.

Sometimes it [Cave’s voice] sounds like the moaning of a dying insect

And the TOC:


Chapter One: Searching the Holy Books.

Synopsis: Nick Cave and the Bible.

The Life of Nick.

The ‘Word’ of Cave.

Conclusion, or, Strategies of Containment.

Chapter Two: The Total Depravity of Cave’s Literary World.

Cave World.

That House on the Edge of Town.

A Slug of White Jesus.

Rain in the Valley.


Lamentations of Woe.

The Calling of Eschatological Madness.

Conclusion: The Dialectic of Redemptive Depravity.

Chapter Three: Some Routine Atrocity, or, Apocalyptic.

Three Modes.

God’s Anger: The Flood.

Murder, Mayhem and Atrocity.

Glimpses of Redemption.


Chapter Four: Death.

From Form to Content: The Sinister Song.

Death Inflicted.

Death Suffered.

Individual Annihilation.

Collective Destruction.

Death Overcome.

Conclusion: Death Is Not the End?

Chapter Five: God, Pain and the Love Song.

Secular Soppy Songs: No Pain, No God.

Painlessly Divine: No Pain, With God.

Painfully Secular: With Pain, No God.

Brutally Divine: With Pain, With God.

Chapter Six: Jesus of the Moon, or, Christology.

Volume and Noise.

Sex and Seduction.



Chapter Seven: Hearing Round Corners: Nick Cave Meets Ernst Bloch.

Hearing around corners.

Concerning the Wandering Path of the Note, or, Forms of the Song.

Anarchy …

… and Discordancy.


Hymn (and Lament)

Sinister Song.

Dialectical Song.


Conclusion: The Dialectics of Theo-Utopian Hearing.

Conclusion: Gates to the Garden: The Search for Redemption.

Quote of the day: tasting Marxist criticism vs ideological hogwash

Once one has tasted Marxist criticism, all ideological hogwash forever becomes repulsive (Ernst Bloch, Literarische Aufsätze, p. 137)

I was reminded of this great  quotation by Benjamin Korstvedt’s odd book on Bloch’s philosophy of music, a book that should be subtitled: How to Pussyfoot Around Bloch’s Marxism. It makes me wonder whether a neo-McCarthyist era is unfolding in the USA, from where Korstvedt hails (with all the bullshit about healthcare and socialism and the t-shirts that put Obama in line with Marx, Engels, Lenin and Mao).