Russian Nationalism in the Soviet Era – David L’Epée – Rébellion – 2016

While the issue of the crisis that tears apart Ukraine today is uncertain after the “revolution” in Kiev and the events in Crimea occurred, the factor of Russian (or pro-Russian) nationalism seems to have invited itself into the debate as a key element without which it is impossible to understand what happened in the East. Thus it seems rather interesting to me to examine the specifics of this Russian nationalism, so foreign to our conceptions, that speaks of empire more often than nation, and to look backwards a bit to discover in what measure it plunges its roots into the Soviet era. The recent publication of the thesis of Vera Nikolski devoted to this subject gives us the opportunity.

Vera Nikolski, a researcher in political sciences of Russian origin, is the author of a thesis entitled “The New Forms of Conservative Thought in Contemporary Russia, from Youth Militancy to its Ideological Foundations.” She published a few months ago, destined for a very large public, a work inspired by her thesis, “National-Bolshevism and Neo-Eurasianism in Contemporary Russia.” She bases her research on various nationalist disputes that accompanied and still accompany the liberal transition of Russia after the fall of the USSR, concentrating more particularly on two figures that the readers of Rébellion know well: Alexander Dugin and Edouard Limonov.

But we cannot understand these two typically Russian and modern ideological phenomena if we do not dive again into the past a bit and question the older forms of Russian nationalism, notably during the Soviet era. Nikolski goes back even further and searches in the 19th century, among the Black Hundreds and in the Slavophile Current, the ancestors of contemporary Eurasianism. It is true that a part of Russian nationalists today like to refer to the old Tsars as tutelary figures but these references, according to Nikolski, are artificial, purely symbolic, and present no ideological coherence with what could have been, in a very different context, the Tsarist nationalism of the era.

The USSR was National-Communist

Many European communists today, forgetful of history and misinformed by the surrounding leftist ideology, have hidden what yet appears as evident when we study just a little bit the events of the 20th century: everywhere in the world where communist revolutions triumphed, from China to Yugoslavia to Cuba, they appealed to a living patriotic feeling and founded regimes that we could rightly qualify as national-communist. The USSR knew a fairly similar history to that of all the other national-communist countries. The patriotic feelings of Lenin were known but above all it was Stalin who, after of a period of questioning so-called imperialist wars (“no war between peoples, no peace between classes”) following the October Revolution occurring in the midst of full world war, oriented his efforts towards a rehabilitation of more traditional Russian nationalism. By replacing in his speeches the communist expression “comrades” by that of “brothers and sisters,” by eulogizing Ivan the Terrible or Alexander Nevsky (a rehabilitation that permitted the realization of the eponymous masterwork of Eisenstein) and, in a much more problematic way, by “ethnicizing” power – “ethnicization” that accompanied certain waves of racist prosecutions against various minorities – Stalin renewed a conception of ancestral power in Russia.

While in contemporary Europe, nationalism is mostly found in the popular classes and it only encounters contempt on the part of the elites (all converted to globalization and to the pro-European catechism), the scheme was very different in the USSR where nationalism was very prized by the intelligentsia, both in the Party (the state intellectuals, that Nikolski already qualifies as National-Bolsheviks) and in the opposition, where we found nationalists with occasionally liberal or democratic sensibilities. It’s this distinction between power and opposition that lead historians to speak of so-called legal and illegal currents in Russian nationalism in this era. If the first often professed atheism and followed the official line, that of dialectical materialism, the second were often Orthodox or had other religious sensibilities, and Nikolski speaks of “collusions between the Orthodox nationalists and pagans”1 Certain nationalists in the opposition yielded to the sirens of the sacred union and validated, often reluctantly, the Soviet regime as the repository of Russian national identity. This voluntary attachment by a part of the traditionalist opinion to a system known for its revolutionary politics of tabula rasa seems difficult to understand for a Western spectator but in numerous cultures – and I remarked on it with China also – it is often difficult to conceive of a nationalism that is not an act of allegiance to the state at the same time2. Other nationalist resistants, more ferociously anti-Communist, refused this concession and preferred to flee abroad where some among them would become involved in European Fascist movements.

The Nationalist Opposition in the Face of Perestroika

But the regime, between the period of Stalin and that of its fall, knew numerous upheavals that equally lead to upheavals in the conception of nationalism. Perestroika constituted a major change both in the relations of power and in the positions of the nationalist camp. During the Andropov years already, they was a cooling in the relations between the Party and the nationalist literary magazines, a harbinger of decline of the legal nationalist current. Perestroika, associated with a weakening of the state and a phase of Westernization, was sharply critiqued by the nationalists and this is the whole paradox: it’s exactly Perestroika, and the regaining of the freedom of expression that it triggered, that allowed the opposition to articulate their critiques without necessarily ending up in the Gulag. Many intellectuals were then torn by this paradox: the writer Alexander Zinoviev, for example, attacks with vigor (and much humor) the reform policies in his novel Katastroika, but it was thanks to these reforms that he could finally return from exile, as did Solzhenitsyn and Limonov – to cite only well known personalities. “The opportunity to return, real or symbolic,” wrote Nikolski, “is especially important for the nationalist authors as it reestablished the coherence of their record that was disrupted by abandoning of the country”3.

Here we are confronted with phenomenon difficult to understand from the outside: while it appeared obvious that the Soviet regime was in the process of weakening, the nationalist opponents, far from rejoicing, despaired. Outside of the problem of the association of the nation with the state (and thus with the regime) of which we will speak of further, this apparent paradox is explained by the emergence of a new opposition parallel to that of the nationalists, the liberal opposition. It benefited like the other from the reemergence of freedom but it made its bread and butter issues new ideas, starting with that of the philosophical and economic influence of the West. “If the opening of the regime offered (to the nationalists) new possibilities, it furnished them no particular legitimacy, that their liberal counterparts enjoyed on the other hand, during Perestroika, a short but intense moment of dedication.”4 The nationalist camp thus reacted by radicalizing its discourse and critiquing the Gorbachev government and its new orientations with virulence. At the same moment, this camp saw emerge from its rank a new type of intellectual, that we could qualify as an outsider: contrary to the communists they did not come out of the official Party schools and contrary to the liberals they were not formed in international institutes headed by the United States, they were mavericks outside of the academic world, writers, journalists, military dissidents, revolting autodidacts. The figures of Dugin and Limonov would emerge from this new wave.

Red Nationalism versus White Nationalism

On the side of power, the conservative supporters of the Party, those who felt the most diminished in the face of the liberal reformers, were tempted by alliances with the nationalists in the legal current. “The alliance between the communists and the nationalists of the imperial – statist tendency constituted without contest the center of gravity of what they began to call the national-patriotic camp.”5 This rapprochement contributed, somewhat in reaction to the new relation of forces, to reinforce the line we could already qualify as National – Bolshevik (without direct reference to its German counterpart in the first half of the 20th century), and which was characterized by an inter-ethnic nationalism, taking into account the imperial dimension of a very mixed Russia. That was, in the ideological scheme, in direct competition with another form of nationalism very present in a part of the opposition, white nationalism, coming from the extreme right and bearing a racialist and often monarchist vision. After the fall of the USSR, National-Bolshevism permanently endured over the nationalism of the extreme right.

This fall, however, would again radically modify the status of Russian nationalism in its complex relations with power. As we knew it, wild liberalization that would lead to, in 1992, hyperinflation, prices exploded, privatizations succeeded each other, and lead to massive impoverishment in the population with dramatic consequences: demographic crisis, the fall of hope in life, breakneck aggravation of social inequalities, quasi-disappearance of the middle class – the joys of capitalism. Like under Perestroika, the reforms led to nationalist outcries, supported this time by communists chased from power and horrified to see the old socialist policy replaced by a predatory market economy. Thus Dugin said : “I said yes to the USSR at the moment where it ceased to exist. As what replaced it was truly worse the question could not be asked … I am a Soviet man, my parents were Soviets. Although I tried to the maximum to eliminate the Soviet in me, the 19th of August 1991 I began to restore this heritage.”6 It was firstly by the intermediary of Eurasianism that Dugin began to consider the USSR as the legitimate heir of the Russian Empire.

Sacred Union Against the Liberals

Following the failure of the rebellions of 1992-1993, the KPRF (the post-Soviet Communist Party) affirmed itself as the sole upholder of red nationalism, the grand dame of nationalist groupuscules that were stealing the show. This party was founded and presided over by Gennady Zyuganov, a major politician in the history of contemporary Russia and who, to this day, is the principal competitor with Putin electorally. Former member of the dissolved CPSU, he reconstructed a party around the same Marxist discipline but on a more conservative and nationalist line than the former. It is possible that the influence of Dugin played a role in this orientation, which would lead to relations with him and his occasional counseling7; Dugin has said elsewhere: “The KPRF, is for the most part a Eurasianist party of the left.”8 Much later, when he would found the National-Bolshevik Party, Limonov would explain that his objective was to surmount the opposition that existed between the programs of the LDPR of Zhirinovsky (nationalist party) and the KPRF of Zyuganov.

During the Yeltsin years that followed the followed the fall of the USSR, we can thus say that that power was liberal and the opposition was nationalist. The scheme would reverse with the arrival of Putin to power. It would be accompanied with a momentary weakening of the opposition as the latter would be surpassed on its own territory by the Kremlin. A part of the opposition, notably that of the National-Bolsheviks, however would find its place in the revolutionary camp, notably on the social front. But that’s already another story.


1) Vera Nikolski, National-Bolchevisme et Néo-Eurasisme dans la Russie Contemporaine : la Carrière Militante d’une Idéologie, Mare & Martin, 2013, p.114

2) In France today, of course, the allegiance to the state, and particularly to the Hollande government, could on the contrary be associated rightly with a form of anti-patriotism…

3) Ibid. p. 117

4) Ibid. p. 117

5) Ibid. p. 126-127

6) Alexander Dugin, interview with Vera Nikolski, Ibid, p.226-227

7) Dugin, during his rapprochement with the European New Right, had even succeeded in organizing a meeting between Zyuganov and Alain de Benoist

8) Alexander Dugin, cited in Ibid. p. 240



The Fathers of German “National Communism”: Heinrich Laufenberg and Fritz Wolffheim – Rébellion – 2003

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