A Deferred Definition
The term ‘National Bolshevism’ can refer to quite a few different things. It experienced a practically parallel emergence in Russia and Germany as a means, adapted by some political thinkers, of solving the riddle of the national character of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, hidden behind the internationalist phraseology of orthodox Marxism. In the Russian context, the term was adopted to describe those communists who oriented themselves toward the preservation of State and (consciously or otherwise) continued in the geopolitical lineage of the historical Great Russian mission. These Russian National Bolsheviks were found both among the ‘Whites’ (Ustrialov, the smenovekhovtsy, and left Eurasianists) and the ‘Reds’ (Lenin, Stalin, Radek, Lezhnev, etc.).1 An analogous phenomenon was associated with extreme-left forms of nationalism in 1920s and 1930s Germany, where ideas of unorthodox socialism were combined with a national line and a positive attitude toward Soviet Russia. Among German National Bolsheviks, the most radical and consequential figure was undoubtedly Ernst Niekisch, though we may also place other conservative revolutionaries within this movement – Ernst Jünger, Ernst von Salomon, August Winnig, Karl Paetel, Harro Schulze-Boysen, Hans Zehrer, the communists Laufenberg and Wolffheim, and even certain far-left National Socialists such as Otto Strasser and, for a given period, Joseph Goebbels.
In actuality, the concept of ‘National Bolshevism’ is much broader and all-encompassing than the political trends listed above. But to adequately understand it, we must turn our sights onto the more global theoretical and philosophical problems bearing upon the distinction between ‘right’ and ‘left,’ the ‘national’ and the ‘social.’
The word ‘National Bolshevism’ contains within itself a deliberate paradox. How can two mutually exclusive concepts combine in one and the same name?
Despite the distance which the reflections of historical National Bolsheviks have gone, necessarily limited by the specifics of their milieu and temporal context, the very idea of approaching nationalism ‘from the left’ and approaching Bolshevism ‘from the right’ presents a surprisingly fertile and unexpected logic that opens up entirely new horizons of interpretation – this is a new logic of history, of social development, of political thought. We ought not to take concrete political factography as our starting point – ‘Niekisch wrote this, Ustrialov understood some phenomenon in such and such way, Savitsky raised that argument,’ etc. – but we ought rather to pursue an attempted glimpse of the phenomenon from the unexpected position which made the configuration of ‘National Bolshevism’ possible in the first place. Then, not only will we be able to describe this phenomenon, but we will also be able to understand it and, through it, many other strange aspects of our paradoxical times.
Karl Popper – Our Invaluable Helper
When it comes to the complex matter of determining the essence of ‘National Bolshevism,’ it is hard to imagine a better aid than the sociological research of Karl Popper – more particularly, his fundamental work The Open Society and Its Enemies. In this exhaustive work, Popper proposes a rather convincing model, according to which all kinds of society can be crudely divided into two basic categories – the ‘open society’ and the ‘unopen society’ (or ‘the society of enemies of the open society’).
As Popper would have it, the ‘open society’ is based on the centrality of the individual and his fundamental characteristics – rationality, discreetness, activities unmotivated by a global teleology, etc. One derives the sense of the ‘open society’ from its rejection of all forms of the Absolute incompatible with individuality and its nature. A society such as this is ‘open’ in as much as the various combinations of individual atoms know no bounds (just as they lack both a goal and a meaning); and, theoretically, this society must strive to achieve an ideal dynamic balance. Popper considers himself a convinced partisan of the ‘open society.’
Popper defines the second type of society as ‘inimical to the open society.’ He does not refer to it as a ‘closed society,’ anticipating possible rebuttals, but frequently employs the term ‘totalitarian.’ In any case, starting from either the acceptance or the rejection of the ‘open society,’ Popper delineates political, social, and philosophical doctrines belonging to one or the other camp.
The enemies of the ‘open society’ are those who would rail against the individual and his central position, promoting various alternative models founded on the Absolute. The Absolute, even when it is affirmed voluntarily and spontaneously, makes a rapid incursion into the sphere of the individual, abruptly changes its evolutionary process, and does violence to the integrity of the atomized personality, subjecting it to a supra-individual impulse. The individual is swiftly limited by the Absolute, as a result of which the society of persons loses its quality of ‘openness’ along with its prospect of developing in any and all directions. The Absolute dictates goals and tasks; it sets dogmas and norms, violates the individual as a sculptor does with his clay.
Popper begins his genealogy of enemies of the ‘open society’ with Plato, in whom he sees the father of totalitarian philosophy and ‘obscurantism [мракобесия].’ Further on, he transitions to Schlegel, Schelling, Hegel, Marx, Spengler, and other modern thinkers. They are all united in his classification by one criterion – their affirmation of metaphysics, ethics, sociology, and economics that are founded on principles which negate the ‘open society’ together with the centrality of the individual. In this respect, Popper is entirely correct.
The most important aspect of Popper’s analysis consists in how his category of ‘enemies of the open society’ includes thinkers and political figures regardless of their orientation toward ‘right’ or ‘left,’ ‘reaction’ or ‘progress.’ He selects an alternative, more meaningful and fundamental criterion which, at first glance, unites the most wildly different and opposing ideas and philosophies along both poles. Among the ‘enemies of the open society’ are Marxists, conservatives, fascists, and even some social democrats. In addition, among the ‘friends of the open society’ are to be found liberals such as Voltaire and reactionary pessimists such as Schopenhauer.
And so Popper’s formula can be read as follows: “either the ‘open society’ or ‘its enemies.’”
The Sacred Union of Objectivity
National Bolshevism can be most successfully and completely defined as follows: “National Bolshevism is a super-ideology shared by all enemies of the open society.” That is to say, it is not simply one of the ideologies inimical to such a society, but rather it is that society’s total, deliberate, and essential antithesis. National Bolshevism is a worldview constructed upon a total and radical negation of the individual and his centrality, while the Absolute, in whose name the individual is rejected, possesses the broadest, most general meaning. One could go out on a limb and say that National Bolshevism stands for any version of the Absolute, for any motivation leading to a negation of the ‘open society.’ One clearly perceives in National Bolshevism a will to universalize the Absolute at any cost, to promote the ideology and philosophical program which will best embody within itself all intellectual forms that are inimical to the ‘open society,’ reduced to a common denominator and integrated into a unified conceptual-political bloc.
Of course, in the history of the various political directions that have been inimical to the open society, the factions have often also fought among themselves. The communists indignantly denounced any likeness they might have borne to fascists, while conservatives disowned both the former and the latter. Practically no group falling into the category of ‘enemies of the open society’ has recognized its kinship with other analogous ideologies, considering such a comparison to be nothing more than derogatory criticism. By the same token, however, all the different versions of the ‘open society’ itself have developed in solidarity with one another; they have done this in full awareness of the shared philosophical bonds of their worldview. The principle of individualism was able to unite England’s Protestant monarchy with the democratic parliamentarianism of North America (and in the latter case, liberalism initially had no problem finding a conjunction with slavery).
It was precisely the National Bolsheviks who launched the first attempt at creating a coalition of differing ideologies against the ‘open society.’ The National Bolsheviks, just like their ideological opponents, perceived a certain general axis which united all possible alternatives to individualism and the society that had been built upon it.
The first historical National Bolsheviks, applying the strategy of ‘double criticism,’ based their theories on this deep impulse, which has rarely been acknowledged. Both for the ‘right wing’ and the ‘left wing,’ the target of this National Bolshevik criticism was individualism (for the right, an economic individualism – the ‘theory of the market’; for the left, political liberalism – the ‘legal society,’ ‘human rights,’ etc.). In other words, the National Bolsheviks, reaching into the beyond of ideologies, grasped the essence both of the enemy camp and of their own metaphysical position.
In philosophical language, ‘individualism’ is practically identical to the concept of ‘subjectivity.’ If we transpose the National Bolshevik strategy onto this level of discourse, it is possible to suggest that National Bolshevism categorically opposes the ‘subjective’ and categorically represents the ‘objective.’ This is not a question of whether materialism or idealism takes primacy. It is rather a question situated between two different poles: one must choose either objective idealism and objective materialism (on one side of the barricades!), or subjective idealism and subjective materialism2 (on the other!).
And so, the philosophical lineage of National Bolshevism affirms an essential unity of worldviews predicated on a recognition of the centrality of the objective, equated with the Absolute and independent of how that objectivity is understood. One could say that the highest metaphysical maxim of National Bolshevism is the Hindu formula ‘Atman is Brahman.’ In Hinduism, ‘Atman’ is a person’s highest transcendental ‘I,’ which stands on the other side of the individual’s ‘I,’ but within this second ‘I’ as its most intimate and enigmatic part, constantly shrinking away from the capture of immanence. ‘Atman’ is the internal Spirit, but it is an objective and super-individual Spirit. ‘Brahman’ is absolute reality, enveloping the individual from the outside; it is external objectivity raised to its supreme origin. The identification of ‘Atman’ with ‘Brahman’ in a transcendental unity is the crowning achievement of Hindu metaphysics and, most importantly, the foundational path toward spiritual realization. This point is shared among all sacred doctrines without exception. In each case, what is at stake is the main purpose of human being – self-determination, an escape beyond the boundaries of the minor, individual ‘I,’ in which the path beyond this ‘I’ (either inward or outward) leads to one and the same triumphant result. Here we encounter the initiatic paradox of Traditionalism, embodied in the well-known evangelical phrase: ‘[W]hosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.’3 The same understanding is to be found in Nietzsche’s ingenious assertion: ‘Man is that which must be surpassed.’
The philosophical dualism between the ‘subjective’ and the ‘objective’ has been historically reflected in a more concrete field – ideology; more specifically, in politics and the particularities of social order. Various versions of ‘individualistic’ philosophy were gradually concentrated within the ideological camp of the liberals and in liberal-democratic politics. And this is the macro-model of the ‘open society’ about which Karl Popper writes. The ‘open society’ is the terminal result of individualism, transformed into an ideology and manifested in concrete politics. But then we must pose a question to ourselves regarding the ideological model most common among partisans of the ‘objective’ approach, the universal politico-social program of the ‘enemies of the open society.’
As a result, we will discover nothing else than the ideology of National Bolshevism.
In parallel with the radical novelty of this philosophical division, realized vertically in this case with respect to traditional schemas (idealism – materialism), National Bolsheviks affirm a new watershed in politics. Leftists and rightists are respectively separated into two sectors. Far-leftists, communists, Bolsheviks, and all heirs to Hegel from ‘the left’ merge into a National Bolshevist synthesis with radical nationalists, statists, proponents of the ’New Middle Ages’ – in brief, all of Hegel’s heirs from ‘the right.’4 The enemies of the ‘open society’ are returning to the metaphysical womb which they all share.
1In the final years of the Soviet regime, the term ‘National Bolshevik’ characterized certain conservative circles within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (the so-called ‘statists’), and in this sense the word acquired a kind of derogatory meaning. But firstly, these late-Soviet ‘National Bolsheviks’ never agreed to such a name; and secondly, they never made any coherent attempt to formulate their views in a way that could even remotely be conceived of as a worldview. Of course, ‘National Bolsheviks’ such as these can be traced back in a definite manner to those of the 20s and 30s, but this connection is more likely predicated on inertia and has often lacked a rational conception.
2If the first three concepts (‘objective materialism’ or just ‘materialism,’ ‘objective idealism,’ and ‘subjective idealism’) are quite broadly employed, the term ‘subjective materialism’ calls for further explanation. ‘Subjective materialism’ is a worldview, typical of consumer society, in which the basic motivation of human acts is the satisfaction of individual desires – primarily those of a material, physical character. In this instance, the whole of reality is situated not within the structures of individual consciousness (like in subjective idealism), but in a complex of individual sensations, base emotions, fears and enjoyments, the lowest layers of the human psyche connected with its vegetative, corporeal levels. In the field of philosophy, this state corresponds to sensualism and pragmatism, in addition to certain schools of psychology such as Freudianism. Furthermore, every attempt at political revisionism regarding the communist movement, beginning with ‘empiriocriticism’ and Bernsteinism and ending with Eurocommunism, has been accompanied on the philosophical level with an appeal to the subjectivist line and to different versions of ‘subjective materialism,’ one of the most recent manifestations of which has been ‘Freudo-Marxism.’
3[Translator’s note]: Matthew 16:25.
4The opposite process occurs on the opposing side: Kantian revisionists of social democracy, left liberals, and progressives acknowledge their similarities with right-wing conservatives who recognize the values of the market, free exchange, and human rights.