It did not spare Niekisch. The 23rd of June, he was condemned to two years in the fortress for “complicity in high treason.” He was also expelled from the teaching profession. The 5th of May, while he was conducted to prison, he sent his resignation from the SPD and the same day joined a socialist minority group, the USPD (Unabhängigen Sozialdemokratischen Partei Deutschlands), which, according to him, did not show the same weakness during the events as the SPD did.
Successively incarcerated in Ebrach and in Niederschönfeld, Niekisch used his time in prison to deepen his education. He mainly read Spengler, Leopold von Ranke, and Machiavelli. The first struck him with a primary idea of foreign policy: he deduced that social revolution implies beforehand national liberation. The second convinced him of the value of the Prussian spirit. The third, whose influence would be the most lasting, taught him that politics implies realism and doesn’t confound itself with morals. His ideas began to slowly evolve, while his sympathies continued to go to the USPD. In March of 1921, while still imprisoned, he was elected a member of the Landtag, the regional parliament, of Bavaria as an independent social democrat. Released on the 29th of August, he became president of the USPD group in the Landtag, at the same time operating one of the organs of the party, the weekly Die Umschau. The following year, he found himself once again a member of the SPD, following its reunification with the USPD and the socialist center.
In November 1922, Niekisch left Bavaria, which he decidedly felt little affinity with, and moved with his family to Berlin. Some months earlier, his wife had also received a menacing letter from an extreme right group “Das Schwarze Hundert.”
In the capital of the Reich, Niekisch had difficulty earning a living as the secretary of the youth organization of the German Association of Textile Workers (Deutsche Textilarbeiterverband), an important syndicalist organization which counted no less than 750,000 members. But equally within this cadre he could develop the ideas that had matured at home during the preceding years. Niekisch expressed himself especially in the organ of the young socialists, the weekly Der Firn. Sozialistische Rundschau, where he was editor between October and December 1924, and where he could critique with virulence the “reformism” in the direction on the party. Der Firn would cease to appear in 1925, but Niekisch would find the time to found, in the margins of this publication, a collection of brochures whose declared objective was “to prepare a new intellectual orientation for the party.” Besides these, he wrote elsewhere the first two parts.
The first of these brochures, Der Weg der Deutschen Arbeiterschaft zum Staat (Berlin 1925), is a violent critique of the “revisionist” current then embodied by German Social Democrats of Eduard Bernstein. With touches sometimes evoking Georges Sorel, Niekisch pleaded for an identification of the working class in the state against the politics of capitulation in regard to France, against the Dawes Treaty, an expression of American financial meddling in German affairs. He affirmed that the working class would begin to open the way to the Volksstaat of all the Germans, while the Socialist Party would become the champion of the “spirit of resistance of the German people” against Western capitalist imperialism. “To have the moral right to manage the state”, he concluded, “we must first be its prime servant.” This importance accorded to the state betrays an evident Hegelian influence. Some years later, Niekisch would write, “Only the state is original, imperial, absolute, implacable, because it is a unity across the changing times, because it doe not represent a single generation, but all the following generations, it is this precisely pure characterization of politics that the character of bourgeois liberal politics is incapable of comprehending.” In parallel, the notion of the “working class” was more Lassallian than Marxist: it tended to designate “all of those who work” and not only the proletariat. It was the immense majority of the nation, excluding the “thin layer” of bourgeois exploiters. Therefore, Niekisch could proclaim the quasi-identity of the people with the state. The working class “presents a natural disposition to support the state,” he will explain beforehand, “because they have always submitted to collective necessity and never possessed much, they escape egoistic motivations.” And yet: “It’s just because the working class doesn’t possess private property for their diversion that they are more suitable than the propertied classes to become a purer organ for the reasons of the state.”
Like its title indicates, the second brochure, Grundfragen deutscher Aussenpolitik (Berlin 1925), was devoted to the problems of foreign policy. There Niekisch defended the idea that class struggles, in the measure in which they were relevant to internal politics, are secondary compared to the domain of international relations, where the privileged actors are states. The “orientation towards the West”, he added, was a lure, for never had the West accepted the relevance of German power. Rather, Germany should draw all the possible advantages from the “median” position it occupied in Europe, and recognizing that the 1917 Revolution had at least the merit of cutting ties with the West. “One disregards the essential Russian development,” he then wrote, “as long as we consider it elusively as a revolutionary social event. We can only comprehend it from the point of view of foreign policy.” Certainly, in the era, it does not go away. “The salvation of Germany, “ he then said, “is not to be drawn from the Russian example and Bolshevize out of desperation, it is to be supple and flexible enough to give it a political constitution, a social order, an economic organization of a form that corresponds to the laws of the Volkstum and permit it to wield a maximum force of resistance on the outside.” This text attests that some of the kind of ideas he would develop were already present in him: the conviction that the German people must be moved before all by a spirit of resistance, the idea that foreign policy is the most decisive instance, the necessity of giving a content at once national and revolutionary to socialist aspirations, and finally the conviction that total “orientation towards the West” may contrary to the interests of the German people.
These positions led to lively discussions within the SPD. As might be expected, Eduard Bernstein accused Niekisch of adopting a “nationalist” point of view. The latter would reply to him: “Only by conquering and guarding the power of the state will class put itself in the most effective service of the state. Such is the origin of my enterprise: to bring the working class closer to the state… Bernstein is mistaken if he thinks that I want to amend social democracy to cope with the German nationalists… On the contrary it is social democracy that contributes to reinforce the German capitalist tendencies, by favoring an orientation towards the West.”