The expression “National Bolshevik” bears numerous ambiguities, arising from putting side by side, two notions totally opposed in appearance, used to define often very different political experiences.
The different interpretations of the phenomenon, far from bringing a clear definition, have lead, on the contrary, to numerous confusions . In the case of Heinrich Laufenberg and Fritz Wolffheim, the appellation of “National Bolshevism” was accorded to them by their adversaries to discredit them. The two interested parties, for their part, never accepted it, because it did not transcribe the true meaning of their movement, which is more a national-communism and we will see that the difference is important.
The Birth Of A National Communism
The two comrades met in 1912, they each already had a long proven militant career in the combat of the socialist movement before the war.
Laufenberg was considered as one of the best experts of the German worker movement. Engaged in the socialist revolutionary ranks, he refused the reformist and parliamentary line of the left wing organizations of the epoch. He played an active role in the revolutionary formation of radical groups in Northern Germany, in particular Hamburg, where he had numerous support. The growing menace of a European war, lead him to collaborate with a journalist freshly returned from the United States, Fritz Wolffheim. He was profoundly impacted by its mode of operation and convinced of the obsolescence of the old forms of worker’s organizations (above all of the purely arbitrary division of tasks between a central committee and the party avant-garde).
The two men resolutely engaged against the war, refusing to rally to the “Sacred Union,” that lead in Germany, like France, to the left associating itself with the vast folly of the First World War. If their activism against the conflict pressed them to call for the immediate cessation of the hostilities and a just peace between the belligerents, they showed themselves hostile to any form of an appeal to sabotage of the national defense, which for them simply played into the game of enemy imperialism against “national imperialism.” We will remark that neither of the two comrades would refuse to be mobilized and fight on the front.
The period of the war ripened among them, the idea that the nation is a “whole,” that is to say, a community linked by a culture, a language, but also by the economy.
Heinrich Laufenberg and Fritz Wolffheim distinguished two functions of the economy: the first is a function of exploitation, by a minority, of the majority, and the second is a vital function concerning the existence of the “Totality,” that is to say the Nation. The role of socialist revolutionaries is to vanquish the capitalist exploitation so that the national community can blossom. In the case of Germany, they considered the national unity lead by the force of the bourgeoisie to be a failure, because it could not give birth to a spirit of national community. It is therefore for the working class to realize German unity around the socialist principle.
In the context of the war, the proletariat, who thus had a national vocation, could be lead to accept the fact of being enrolled in a “national” army, despite the bourgeois characteristics of the state. The proletariat, because it is the nation, must thus defend its interests.
But military subordination is not political subordination, because the goals of the proletariat are totally different from those of Capital. The people is the enemy of imperialist wars: “Although its own economic domain is safeguarded by the defense of its frontiers, the proletariat should take part, without reservation, in favor of peace.”
It’s in the opposition to the war that the new approach of socialism would be forged by Laufenberg and Wolffheim. It will find its ground of application in the upheavals that would strike Germany after the armistice of 1918. This new idea, it’s this council of workers, to which they will rally in 1917.
It would be the central element of their politics. The councils permitted a direct participation of the people in the decisions concerning them, it permits them to surpass the parliamentary game and reject the bureaucratic organizations of the type found in the parties and classical unions. For the “Hamburgers,” the center of the revolution finds itself in this enterprise. The bureaucratic form of the party is pretty much be surpassed and becomes a simple structure of propaganda in the service of the council idea.
This approach is in total opposition with the Bolshevik model. They propose a decentralization towards the base and a direct democracy as much in the struggle as in the socialist society of the future. “If, in the imperialist era, the masses are the object of executive power,” wrote Wolffheim, “in the socialist mode, they will be the executive power themselves.”
They participated in the foundation of the radical left tendency that regrouped all the revolutionary groups of Northern Germany. Wolffheim met with, as the representative of the group, the Berlin Spartakists to prepare the insurrection of 1918. He intervened so that it did not lead to a general catastrophe following the chaos in Germany and insisted on the necessity that the front should not be broken. He was violently opposed to the order of mass desertion launched by certain Spartakist leaders.
The Revolution in Hamburg
The 6th of November 1918, the revolution broke out in Hamburg and Wolffheim, then mobilized there, immediately played a role of the first first order. The mutinous soldiers, encouraged by the radicals of the left, proclaimed for the first time in Germany, the Socialist Republic. Wolffheim participated in the constitution of the “Council of Workers and Soldiers” that assured control of the city. Following his return from the front, Laufenberg was proclaimed president of the council, he then knew that “the entire fate of the European revolution rests in the hands of the German working class.”
For him, the immediate need of the revolutionaries was to consolidate their gains, to make them irreversible and avoid civil war. He preached reconciliation of the classes under the auspices of the triumphant socialist revolution and insisted on a rapid return to peace.
The socialization of the society happens for Laufenberg and Wolffheim by a progressive action of the maturation of the proletarian conscience. As Louis Dupeux wrote “he refuses the idea that the dictatorship of the proletariat must be installed in a single country, nor above all, at a single time.” which is where he breaks with the future Soviet model.
Step by step, true socialism constructs itself in concrete measures. The Hamburg councils thus will multiply social measures (reductions of the working hours, increase of salaries, amelioration of living conditions…) that they imposed by force on the bosses. The never hesitated to collectivize the factories of recalcitrant bosses. The radicals of the left also encroached upon the privileges of the unions and distributed the funds of these reformist organizations to the unemployed.
But the progress of the Hamburgers was also pragmatic. They attempted to rally the social classes, like the middle classes, that the consequences of the war had objectively pushed towards the working class. It was thus possible to surpass the old divisions, to realize the unity of oppressed classes, and from that, of the nation, around the revolution. The notion of the proletarian nation in struggle against imperialism was thus developed by the two men of Hamburg. They encompassed the ensemble of laboring classes by excluding the high bourgeoisie from the national unity. “The councils of the factories become,” wrote Wolffheim, “element of national rallying, of national organization, of national fusion, because they are the element of the base, the original cell of socialism.”
Yet, the contacts that Laufenberg and Wolffheim made with the circles of officers were in no way a betrayal of their socialist convictions. They tried to rally the officers to the service of the Revolution. Above all at the moment where the diktat of Versailles challenged the integrity of the nation itself. The German working class found itself under the threat of complete erasure under the heel of Anglo-Saxon capitalism. They would thus naturally reject the Treaty and call for the formation of a “Popular Wehrmacht” that would take up the fight against imperialism on the side of the Soviet Red Army. It’s in this context that contacts with the nationalist milieus were made. If they raised a certain interest among the young officers, they would clash with the incomprehension of the high military caste, that thus let slip a chance for Germany because of its old reactionary and anti-communist bearings. A particularly stupid völkish leader even refused to receive Wolffheim because he had Jewish origins.
“The bourgeois nation died and the socialist nation believed that the national idea had ceased to be a means of power in the hands of the bourgeoisie against the proletariat and that it had turned against it. The grand dialectic of history made the idea of the nation a means of power for the proletariat against the bourgeoisie,” wrote Laufenberg.
Their openly patriotic position would earn them the hate of the Spartakists and the agents of Komintern, who thus made the first accusations of “National Bolshevik” deviations.
The Social Democrats became progressively the majority among the councils of Hamburg and forced Laufenberg to resign his post. Very rapidly the reaction triumphed, the moderates delivered the city to the regular army that liquidated the Revolution.
The National Bolshevik Polemic
Following the foundation of the KPD (German Communist Party), Laufenberg and Wolffheim were briefly affiliated. But the campaign lead against them and their National Bolshevik positions lead to their expulsion from the party, followed by the “leftist” tendency. The operation for the purging of the KPD was lead by the agent of Komintern in Germany, Karl Radek. He would cause the departure of more than half of the 107,000 members of the party in disagreement with the line of Moscow.
Laufenberg and Wolffheim then called for the formation of a new communist party. They participated in April 1920 in the founding congress of the KAPD (German Communist Workers Party). “The KAPD is not the birth of a party per se, but the self-organization of the radical proletarians finally given their autonomous organ. The ambiance is particularly “hot,” the participants have the impression of living in a historic moment: leaving the Spartakist KPD, it’s broken definitively with social democracy.”wrote D. Authier in his collection of councilist texts of the epoch.
Very quickly the environment deteriorated within the KAPD, the KPD pressured the organization to liquidate the Hamburg tendency. Even Lenin leaped into the fray in this affair: in a passage in his book “Left Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder” (where he settles ideological accounts with the tendencies of the Ultra Left), he denounces them without truly knowing the theses of the two from Hamburg. Expelled from the KAPD, they would be the first to denounce Soviet “state capitalism”and the totalitarian deviations of the regime imposed by Lenin.
Thus began some obscure years, they founded a multitude of small revolutionary circles, the most important of them, the Bund der Kommunisten, gathered only a few hundred faithful. Laufenberg, ill, retired towards his literary activities and died in 1932. Niekisch dedicated in his honor a vibrant funeral elegy by claiming his as the precursor of National-Bolshevism. He declared him the first German National-Communist and located his precursors in his engagement.
Wolffheim found an unexpected audience in the young National Revolutionary generation of the 1930s. He would collaborate in the diffusion of council communist ideas in the magazines Das Junge Volk and Kommenden, then directed by K.O. Paetel. He was thus an important influence on the movement of the Bundisch youth, which shared his anti-capitalist orientation and search for a new communitarian link within the German nation. But the rise of Nazism would be fatal to him, arrested because of his Jewish origins, he would die in a concentration camp. A tragic end of a man who had given his life to the service of his people.
In an irony of history, the KPD would follow from 1923 a patriotic line with the avowed goal of rallying the middle classes and certain nationalist milieus to communism (with many notable successes). The promoter of this openly “National-Bolshevik” line was none other than Karl Radek, the agent of the International who had lead the campaign against the Hamburg communists.
The Autonomy of the Worker Today
The radical critique of capitalism brought forth by the worker’s councils still holds its relevance, the system that crushed the in 1919 still dominates. The development of liberalism and its extension to the whole of the globe even puts in danger today the future of the entire human species.
Like Laufenberg and Wolffheim, we want to see the appearance of worker autonomy, the proletarian revolt stripped of its union stranglehold and the party illusions of the system. We do not want to see our revolts channeled, TV guided, and sold on the altar of social peace by the co-managers of our misery.
Faced with the attacks of Capital against our way of life, we call for the revival of the struggle. The degradation of the situation of the working class goes hand in hand with the impoverishment of the middle classes, resistance thus becomes a question of survival. Once again, we will only lose the battles we do not lead. Here and now, and more than ever, those who live are those who fight.
> Rébellion n°3 – Novembre/ Décembre 2003