Appendix III - Note on 'National Bolshevism'

The clarification of what is known as National Bolshevism1 does not serve merely a tactical or polemical purpose, in opposition to those who, since Lenin, have utilized this current to discredit the left. National Bolshevism also exhibited some of the ambiguities which have afflicted communism since the time of Marx and Engels: the revolutionary position to be adopted in regards to war once again posed a mass of problems.

The communist movement was effectively absorbed by the democratic and nationalist movement of 1848. This development had already been of considerable significance even before 1848. The movement in England had been submerged within Chartism, and then, after the 1840s, in its defeat. What the Communist League had gained in terms of theoretical precision in regard to the analysis of capitalism and the means for revolution (dictatorship of the proletariat), in comparison to its predecessors, the League of the Exiles and the League of the Just, it lost in regard to the depth of its affirmation of the content of communism.2 Unlike Engels’ initial project, the Manifesto does not mention the suppression of exchange. This development was a complex movement, and was simultaneously a process of the breakdown of social bonds as well as a manifestation of progress. The communitarian perspective was best rooted in the analysis of capital and was at the same time conceived of primarily within the context of its political dimension (the problem of power, relations with the bourgeois revolution). The course of events caused this contradiction to grow more acute. In 1848-1849, the League did not intervene in the revolutions under its own banners: it judged that it was more realistic to advise its members to act individually within the democratic organizations born of the bourgeois revolution.3 In France, the “neo-Babouvists” or “materialist communists”, like Dézamy, who were active before 1848, disappeared in the turmoil and were unable to assert themselves as such.4 The New Rhineland Gazette, led by Marx, became the “Organ of democracy”. It would be useless to try to explain this strategy, which has been justified countless times. It was not the unavoidable compromise with the still-ascendant capitalism which was in question, but the conditions under which this compromise was made. One cannot deny the objective effect of the pressure of circumstances on the communist movement. The reformist compromises made by Marx and Engels, as well as by other revolutionaries, predated the era of the IWA. The weakness of the movement led it to seek external factors which could revive the struggle, to replace the flagging proletariat. In 1848, Marx advocated a revolutionary war by a united Germany against Russia, just as he would, in 1870, consider a Prussian victory over France as favorable, since such a victory would unify the German revolutionary movement and undermine France enough to liquidate the Proudhonists. Marx continued to hope that the wars of his time would reactivate the revolutionary movement.

It is not enough to claim that, during Marx’s time, national wars could still play a subversive role, which role would terminate with the end of capital’s ascendant phase: the “national bolshevism” of 1919 would thus make no sense from the revolutionary point of view. We must also ask ourselves about the strength (and the possible influence) of the communist movement in the epoch in question: if it was as weak as it was in 1848-1849, then how would it have been possible to hope for an eventual German victory over Russia when such an outcome would exclusively strengthen the German bourgeoisie rather than the proletariat? It is surprising that Marx underestimated the counterrevolutionary force of nationalism. From this perspective, the “error” of Wolffheim and Laufenberg reproduced Marx’s error in an absurd form.

The idea of using such a war to reactivate the revolutionary movement, which is in itself insufficient, is inscribed within a much broader illusion, that of a “strategy” which would allow the supersession of the objective limitations of circumstances by means of ingenious alliances on a planetary scale. The notion of such a total strategy belongs to anti-materialist scientism. It presupposes the understanding of rational laws whose rule would provide the key and the means to action. Often practiced by Marx, and theorized in numerous works by Bordiga, it became a systematic pathology in the journal Le fil du Temps and in R. Dangeville, whose introductions and notes to his translations of Marx describe a Marx who was always right and who had foreseen everything: even when he was wrong, his error was still more profound than the apparent truth. . . . But it is not a question of counting errors, or of reconstructing an allegedly coherent system which revolutionaries do not need. Others, in an opposite sense, enjoy celebrating proletarian initiative and will to struggle, or theorizing irrationalism, which is only the symmetrical and worst product of bourgeois rationalism. To speak of “revolutionary reformism”5 is to take it for granted that Marx understood that the communist revolution was not the order of the day, and that he had limited himself to inciting capital to the next stage of capitalist development. Marx’s reformism is therefore justified in the name of the immaturity of the preconditions for revolution. This position is characterized by the intervention of hindsight. It projects the analysis of the causes of the defeats of bygone days (which is only possible today) upon the past, as if it would have been possible in that epoch to be certain that any revolution was condemned to defeat. This conception does not analyze the facts on the basis of their dynamic, and, as Marx said concerning the Historical School of Law, history can only be seen “a posteriori”.

Faced with the war, Lenin only saw a change at the level of political structures and the failure of a particular orientation, but not the failure of a whole type of workers activity and organization. In his text published in 1915, Gorter discerned the end of an epoch in 1914, which also implied, he said, the death of art. He considered 1914 to be a profound, crushing defeat for proletarians. Without being able to explicitly express it, he had intuited capital’s power, its expansion over the previous few years, which was only disrupted by the war of 1914-1918. Characterized by the introduction of the assembly line, the scientific organization of labor, rationalization, mass consumption, the “commodification” of social life and large-scale mechanized industry, this dynamism suffocated the proletariat: the very strict integration of the workers organizations was only one of its consequences.6 Gorter thus proved to be relatively pessimistic concerning the revolutionary dawning of the postwar years.

From the beginning, the position of Laufenberg and Wolffheim was different. Laufenberg, originally from the Rhineland, was at first a militant of the SPD center. He came to Hamburg in 1907 on Mehring’s recommendation to write a history of the workers movement. An anti-reformist, he was deprived of all party employment in 1912, and met Wolffheim, a Jewish journalist who had recently returned from the United States. Their hostility to the sacred union (Burgfrieden) during the war presaged their later evolution. Democracy and Organization, which they published in 1915, emphasized the bourgeoisie’s inability to solve the national and democratic questions: “Germany has by no means become an authentic national state. It is proletarian politics which will assume the task of achieving national unity.” But they pronounced themselves in favor of the abolition of national borders. In this connection, L. Dupeux speaks of a mixture of “scientism”, “spontaneism” and Lassallian reminiscences. They advocated a multi-stage movement: the dictatorship of the proletariat could not be installed “at one blow”. Combining Kautsky-style determinism with the Luxemburgist idea of the mass strike, they conceived of a cautious policy on the economic and social plane, since holding on to political power was of the essence. We have seen at the end of Chapter 6 that Luxemburg was to develop a similar position in November-December 1918.

It is likely that Wolffheim and Laufenberg were to adopt the councilist thesis because the councils could progressively integrate the whole population. The trade unions and the parties would be superseded. The particular organizations of distinct social groups must give way to mass organizations which transcend divisive class lines.

While admitting that the aggressor-victim distinction had lost its meaning within the context of imperialism, they accepted national defense in some cases, when a war threatened “the social economy” as an expression and precondition of the life of the people. Other revolutionaries did not notice, at that time, these aspects which anticipated their later evolution.

Even so, these aspects had no practical application at all during the first six months following November 1918. As related above, Laufenberg, at the head of the Hamburg Council, demonstrated great prudence, even trying to enlist the help of the bourgeoisie: “we are the only ones who can guarantee a peaceful transition”, he declared in a speech on November 30. Judging that the Russian revolution had little chance of success, he made everything depend on Germany, where he intended—because the proletariat had already demonstrated its weakness—to avoid a civil war and, consequently, to not proceed too hastily, to nationalize, of course, but to limit instances of socialization. He did not, therefore, advocate abstentionism and even desired, in addition to the councils, an assembly elected by universal suffrage, in which the bourgeoisie could express itself and “exercise an influence on the course of events in proportion to its economic position”. Laufenberg, a member of the KPD Central Committee until August 1919, thus appeared as the defender of factory organizations, alongside the rest of the left, although he supported them for different reasons.7

On October 25, 1919, Wolffheim and Laufenberg held a conference in Hamburg to create a new party. It was only at this time, and thus after the Heidelberg schism, that Radek discovered (“with surprise”, according to Dupeux8) their nationalist positions. He attacked them and called them “nationalist Bolsheviks” (the term “national-bolshevik” would not make its appearance until the spring of 1920).

Stress on the nationalist aspect became more acute, but coexisted for a long time with a class analysis. In June of 1919, the Hamburg KAZ asserted that the community of language, culture and nationality must be taken into account, especially in a time of proletarianization. It was not therefore a matter of either absorbing the workers into the people, or of describing Germany as a “proletarian nation”9 in the sense of the Italian use of the term, but, on the contrary, of adding the majority of the non-working layers to the proletariat. Ultimately, only the big bourgeoisie was excluded. In 1863, Lassalle had already opposed between 89% and 96.25% of the population to the bourgeoisie. It was workerism which was behind this nationalist concept. The “working masses” of the large factories would dominate the dictatorship of the proletariat. Where such factories did not exist, the councils were to have a territorial structure.

“The councils system groups together all the workers . . . behind the class interests which are the interests of socialism and the nation. The factory councils will become an element of national unity, of national organization, of national fusion, because they comprise the basic element and original cell of socialism.”

One week later, another editorial called for a “proletarian Wehrmacht”, formed by a workers militia and a Red Army under the command of the councils, in order to “continue” the war. But the KAZ was against any national bolshevism on the part of the army high command. It reproached Spartacism for its putschism: “the revolution will break out like a natural phenomenon”, “not by means of rebellions and putsches”. It expected that, in the context of the second revolution and the continuation of the war, there would not be a social peace (Burgfrieden), as in 1914, but a revolutionary union, this time to the benefit of the proletariat and the whole people, rather than the bourgeoisie. In effect, the war was necessary because Versailles prevented the development of the German economy (hence the conflict with France and England) as well as union with Russia (hence the conflict with Poland). Although Wolffheim and Laufenberg did not hesitate to expound their thesis to soldiers, they made no contacts at all with the right-wing press. At the end of 1919, they began distance themselves from the Russian revolution which, they wrote, was not a “universal model”.

The official history of the KPD, published in 1929, did not include the accusation that Laufenberg and Wolffheim carried out “negotiations” with the military. According to this history, several thousand Hamburg workers initially supported Wolffheim and Laufenberg as opposed to a few hundred who backed the KPD. The Sailor’s Union’s politics was at once “national” and working class (defense of the instruments of labor); it refused to staff the ships which Germany was obliged by the terms of the Versailles treaty to surrender to England. Wolffheim and Laufenberg also enjoyed solid support among the Berlin communists who were associated with Wendel.

Their Appeal to Proletarians, published in May of 1920, was issued in the name of the Central Committee of the KAPD, which immediately declared that it had not been consulted regarding the publication of this pamphlet. The ship hijacked by Jung for his journey to Russia in 1920 was re-christened the Laufenberg (it had previously been known as the Senator Schröder). Until early in 1920, despite the crucial divergence over the national question, it seems that the majority of the KAPD’s members still considered the Wolffheim-Laufenberg tendency to be a current within the communist left. Despite the scandal which broke out in April of 1920 around a “National Bolshevik” plot, no member of the KAPD was implicated. Wolffheim and Laufenberg were excluded from the KAPD at the end of May and then, in August, by the full KAPD Congress, but they participated alongside the KAPD in the actions in support of Russia in its war against Poland (July-August). National Bolshevism subsequently disappeared as a revolutionary tendency after the summer of 1920. It is significant, however, that Rühle’s Dresden journal, Der Kommunist, still included, in the fall of 1920, Wolffheim and Laufenberg’s Appeal to the German Proletariat among the books and pamphlets which were being read by militants.

In Moscow and the German Revolution, a Critical Refutation of Bolshevik Methods, Wolffheim and Laufenberg for the first time directly attacked Lenin and the Bolsheviks: “State capitalism” reigns in Russia. At the end of July, they founded the Communist League, which rejected any kind of party and considered itself to be a “propaganda association”. “The League regrouped most of the KAPD’s northwest district, its two strongholds being Hamburg, with its shipyards, and Wendel’s group in Berlin. . . .”10 The rightist tendency gained ground. A Free Association for the Study of German Communism was founded, concerning which Laufenberg would say that it fought for a Volksgemeinschaft (a term used by the Nazis to designate the community of the people). One of its members wrote a pamphlet supporting the policy of the conservatives who favored an alliance with Russia: Communism: A National Necessity. Henceforth, the accent would be put on nationalism rather than socialism. Communism, this pamphlet asserted, is not social democratic reformism: the critique of social democracy is utilized to reject socialism. The social base shifts: Wolffheim and Laufenberg cultivate their connections with the officers of the Hamburg merchant marine, who embrace national-communism. They maintain numerous contacts in Hamburg and Berlin, but reject joint action with the most reactionary publications (such as the Orgesch) as well as with the Spartacists. The movement stagnated after 1921. Laufenberg became ill and withdrew from political activity. Wolffheim was active in “national bolshevik” groupuscules and died in a concentration camp.

From a nationalist perspective, National Bolshevism represented a process of becoming conscious of the capitalist tendency to dissolve the middle classes and the proletariat into a mass of wage “workers” (which, in a way, achieves the abolition of the bourgeoisie-proletariat distinction).

From a workerist perspective, National Bolshevism is also a process of becoming conscious of the revolution as a fusion and transcendence of classes and categories. Any ruling class, Laufenberg wrote in April 1920, tries to present its interests as common interests, and this applies to the proletariat as much as to the bourgeoisie, but the former is much more justified in doing so, since it represents the “majority of society”. This is why he did not hesitate to invoke the “whole people” and the “whole nation”. Once again we encounter the workerism and the preoccupation with the criterion of majority rule which were at the core of the German revolutionary movement. This formalism manifests the weakness of the communist perspective: that the latter should take refuge in art (Die Aktion) or in various marginal social experiments (communes, etc.: cf. Appendix I) is significant.

  • 1. See, also, the author’s new updated comments on “The National-Bolshevik Aberration and its Meaning”, included in the “Epilogue” to this revised English language edition. (Translator’s note).
  • 2. Cf. Un monde sans argent: le communisme, Part 2.
  • 3. Cf. Marx-Engels, Correspondance, Êd. Sociales, Vol. I, 1971, p. 539, Note 1.
  • 4. Le néo-babouvisme d’après la presse (1837-48), in Babeuf et les problèmes du babouvisme, Êd. Sociales, 1960, pp. 247-276. See also: A. Maillard, La Communauté des Egaux, Ed. Kimé, 1999.
  • 5. A topic discussed in several issues of Invariance.
  • 6. Cf. the upcoming issue of Lutte de classe devoted to this theme.
  • 7. Stratégie communiste et dynamique conservatrice…., p. 86. Chapter V (pp. 84-144) is devoted to “A communist nationalism”, the would-be “Hamburg national-bolshevism”. The author is correct to emphasize the importance of the middle classes, whose national-bolshevism he takes into account in trying to define a strategy, wanting to utilize the advancing proletarianization (when it actually derived from the communist parties). He fits perfectly into a wide range of such phenomena as the Popular Fronts, Popular Unions of France, Popular Unities, States of the whole people and other historical compromises. But the national-bolshevism of Hamburg also was just one of the “deviations” of the international “revolutionary” movement and is hardly any more aberrant than many others.
  • 8. Dupeux, p. 98.
  • 9. As Broué does, p. 317.
  • 10. Dupeux, p. 136.