(This article originally appeared in the Diario de Noticias (Lisbon), Historical Supplement, (March 18 1980)
There are few important currents in the history of the 20th century which are not influenced by an ideological oscillation between Marxian revolution and the ‘”conservative revolution” as it was conceived at the end of the nineteenth century by various thinkers, of whom Georges Sorel is perhaps the best known. And few examples of this oscillation, which Jean-Pierre Faye articulated in exemplary fashion in his book Totalitarian Languages, are more substantial than German National Bolshevism, a movement which, while small in numbers, played a critical role in the life of the Weimar Republic. The notes which follow are an attempt to present the general outlines of National Bolshevism, and it will be obvious that this oscillation goes well beyond the German framework.
1. The Prussian state, as the fundamental model of an autarchic, bureaucratic, mercantilist and nationalist state designed for the promotion of economic growth, the state which Fichte called der geschlossene Handel-staat, was also at the origin of the first nationalism tied to populist ideas, in the anti-Aufklaerung of Hamann, Herder, the Brothers Grimm, etc. French rationalism in the era of Louis XIV was also a statist mode of thought, but it was not nationalist. It was, on the contrary, cosmopolitan in a period when “cosmopolitan” and “French” were interchangeable. Germany, but especially Prussia, first set out on the path which, eventually, produced National Bolshevism: the mercantilist and populist state, articulated by F. List in political economy.
2. Marx characterized 19th century Germany as the country which took up within itself all the grandeur and poverty of world historical development, a kind of concrete universal in Hegel’s sense. Can it be an accident that all the currents of world historical importance in the 19th and 20th centuries were baptized in Germany? It is here that one finds the origins of the Social Democratic travesty, and of the welfare state (Lassalle-Bismarck), the origins of communism (Marx), and finally the origins, or at least the culmination, of fascism. It is thus quite natural that National Bolshevism, in that oscillation brilliantly described by Faye, anticipated so many monsters of the modern world: Bolshevism in decay, for its part, would take care of the rest.
3. It in this context that the debate between Lenin and Luxemburg over Polish nationalism assumes all its importance. On the question of Pilsudski’s status in the Second International, Rosa Luxemburg argues for a complete break, while Lenin hesitates and lines up with the center of the German Social Democracy, which wants an accord with Pilsudski at all costs. All this occurred in l908. The career of Pilsudski after 1918, which is well known, could not be a better confirmation of Rosa Luxemburg’s warnings. Lenin’s error foreshadowed the failure of orthodox Bolshevism on the national question, and there was no mere genuine National Bolshevik that Pilsudski. Nevertheless, it was Bela Kun, head of the Hungarian revolutionary government during its three months of existence in l918-19, who first used the term “National Bolshevism”.
4. National Bolshevism, which made its appearance in the German council movement in 1920, was initially created by two ex-militants of the American I.W.W., who played in Germany the same role as anarcho-syndicalism in Italian fascism, confirming once again that non-Marxist anti-capitalism, even within the working-class movement–or more precisely, particularly there–is a sine qua non in the development of fascism.
5. The Treaty of Rapallo, in 1922, was the point of contact between National Bolshevik “sentiment” in Germany, closely tied to the corporatism of Rathenau, and the Russian state after the world revolutionary ebb in 1921. The German National Bolsheviks saw in Russia nothing but a “geschlossener Handelstaat”, socialist and nationalist, at a time when the revolutionary, internationalist and cosmopolitan impulse of its early years was disappearing. On the Russian side, the figure of Radek was the adequate symbol of this convergence. In the oscillation of 1922-23, we see the simultaneous origins of the two great ideologies of the century: “anti-imperialist” nationalism directed against the metropolis of capitalism (U.S., United Kingdom, France) , and the nascent Stalinist state (1). The first was the precursor of all the Third World “development regimes” since 1945, or even before (Ataturk, Vargas, Peron); the second, precursor of the various “national Stalinisms” which today rule roughly fifteen countries.
6. Even more fascinating in National Bolshevism is the way in which it takes up the ideology of the “conservative revolution” as it was articulated, beginning with Nietzsche, by German thought. National Bolshevism is an aristocratic ideology, but one formulated by people who themselves were far from being aristocrats. What we see here is the program of 19th century aestheticism, when the moment of the imagination establIshed by Kant in the Critique of Judgement was removed from the larger edifice of his thought. Lukacs (in Destruction of Reason, Vol. I) already showed that all bourgeois philosophy in Germany after Hegel was a degeneration of Kantianism, and a development of fragments of Kant’s work. It suffices to think of Schopenhauer, or Nietzsche, but also of Lebensphilosphie and existentialism.
7. With this subterranean relationship between the aristocratic revolution and National Bolshevism (in France, Drieu Ia Rochelle is the best example) is linked the relationship of prewar German expressionism and certain currents issuing from Dada, particularly Hugo Ball. Our concern here is not to establish direct ties between individuals, but in pointing to a general cultural ambiance in which an anti-technological artistic avant-garde 1inked up with the cultural aristocratism of non-aristocrats, taking over “Bolshevism” understood strictly in terms of the “geschlossene Handelstaat”.
8. National Bolshevism is also linked to the mythological renaissance of the late 19th century, culminating in Nietzsche. This current of thought entered politics through the work of Sorel, who was simultaneously, and not incorrectly, an admirer of both Lenin (2) and Mussolini.
9. The great ideological inversion of this century is not only the blindness which claimed to see socialism where there was only Stalinism, but also– flowing from the same source– the myth of progressive anti-imperialism attributed to movements or to countries which, in contrast to the USSR, do not even make the pretense of abolishing capitalism. Is it not possible to trace an almost direct line of descent from National Bolshevism and the Treaty of Rapallo to the ties between the USSR and Nasser in 1957, or, at the level of the grotesque, the relations between China and various Third World Ubus (Pinochet, Jonas Savimbi, et al) ? Once again, the same oscillation. It is obvious that the triangle Germany- Poland- USSR played a role, in the twenties, similar to that of the Third World relative to the capitalist metropolis of today. The joke in all this is that the left of the advanced capitalist countries, through the persons of Nasser, Nkrumah, Sukarno, Peron, etc. has reimported the ideas of National Bolshevism in nearly perfect form. This reimportation of course meshes perfectly with its unabashed populism in Europe and the United States. (3)
10. Finally, since 1973 we have seen, in the advanced capitalist sector, the return, under the rubric of “ecology”, of another oscillation which can be intergrated into the National Bolshevik perspective. I cannot trace in a few lines the relations between the current ecology movement and the German Wandervogel of the 1900-1929 period, a youth movement whose members went over massively to fascism. Nor can I trace the links between Ernst Juenger and Mao tse-tung, but there is no question that there is a significant presence of ex-Maoists in the ecology movements of Germany, France and Portugal. It was not for nothing that Western European Maoism was recently characterized as the “last anti-industrial utopia”. The thinker who squares the circle of this movement is undoubtedly Martin Heidegger, whose lyricism on Being and power plants, written as early as the 1950’s, could easily be republished in the ecological manifestos of today. Heidegger’s musings are today taken up by many theoreticians of the Frankfurt School, who criticize classical Marxism for having no critique of the “domination of nature” by human technology. But Marxism already showed long ago that this “nature” is a human praxis, and that what dominates it is capital, a social relationship, and not a specific capitalist technology, which materializes that social relationship. Fichte and other German romantics would have easily seen themselves in the geschlossene Handelstaat of Schacht and Speer in 1933-45; today, in California and elsewhere, while Jimmy Carter calls for quasi- autarchy in energy, a whole series of Zen Buddhist and macrobiotic currents call for “zero growth” as an “anti- capitalist” movement.
Thus we have not left behind the oscillation between, on one hand, anti-technological lyricism and, on the other, the autarchic statism which, for the first time, announced itself, in Prussia, in approximately 1760.
(Footnote 1, Aug. 2000: See the excellent book of Joseph Love, Crafting the Third World (Stanford, 1996) on the tranmission of ideology from the German right (Sombart) to the interwar Romanian corporatists (Maniolescu) to the Third World “dependency theorists” (Prebisch, Cardoso) of the post-1945 period.)
(Footnote 2, Aug. 2000: This juxtaposition is hardly intended to imply that “Bolshevism = fascism”. Lenin was not exactly a theoretician of “myth”. The specifically “Russian” element which the Russian intelligentsia (and hence Lenin) brought to Marxism had its origins in 14th century Eastern orthodox monasticism (and culminated in the ex-seminary student Stalin); this stream has been uncovered by the works of Berdaeyev, and by the problematic but provocative book of the ex-Stalinist turned neo-liberal Alain Besancon, Les origines du leninisme. Besancon’s formulation is that Russian culture, in contrast to that of the West, “was not catechized but rather liturgized”, producing a monastic asceticism which was secularized in the Populists of the 1860’s and 1870’s and which Lenin encountered in his favorite novel (which he read repeatedly), Cherneshevsky’s What Is To Be Done?)
(Footnote 3, Aug. 2000: Once again–although the author does not seem aware of the full implications for the Western left of the genealogy he establishes– cf. the book of Joseph Love. The class of “progressive state civil servants”, in or out of power, which have set the tone for the left for over 100 years, recognize their own brethren in “authentic” “Third World” guise, blissfully unaware of the German romantic ideas they take over from these ideological “export platforms”.)