July 28, 2021

Da Smert: The Hidden History of ‘Nazbol’

On the 7th of April, 2001, Eduard Limonov, a Russian author, was arrested at a cabin in the Altai Mountains. Stories conflict about what led up to this arrest. According to Limonov, he and his colleagues were in the mountains to unwind when the authorities showed up. According to the FSB, Limonov and his allies were illegally trafficking weapons over the border into Kazakhstan as the first step of a protracted guerilla war against the Russian government throughout the steppes and mountains of Central Asia. The court was not moved by Limonov’s explanation of events, and the founder of Russia’s National Bolshevik Party was sent to Lefortovo, the infamous prison which housed Russia’s most dangerous political opponents. Limonov’s only defense was that no weapons were found on him during his arrest.

Limonov, also known as ‘Eddie’ or ‘Edichka’, was fighting an uphill battle from the start. Coverage of the arrest prominently featured documentation from the party’s newspaper, Limonka, describing a project called ‘Second Russia’, by which the Nazbols would stage an insurrection in an area along Russia’s border with a large Russian population, declare a breakaway state and mobilize the population into a war to liberate the Russian Federation from its tyrannical government. The author of the ‘Second Russia’ article had assumed that the Russian government was not sufficiently organized to take action against a small, organized resistance movement. While that may have been the case under the Yeltsin administration, with Putin, and his years of KGB experience heightening security and state power across the country, the National Bolsheviks had met their match. 

Limonov’s arrest was a significant setback for the National Bolshevik Party. While Eddie would go on to write several important books during his time in prison, the party encountered increasing pushback from the public authorities, intra-organizational discord which led to a significant split and the loss of A. Dugin, and the party was finally banned in 2007, at which point it had achieved the status of the Russian government’s public enemy number one (quite literally: the NBP tops off the Russian Ministry of Justice’s list of banned organizations). Estimates of its membership at the time hovered around 56,000, with branches in every major metropolitan center in the country and several international affiliates. The party lives on to this day in the form of the ‘Other Russia’ party, as does its notorious leader, but its legacy is divisive, especially at a time when Russia’s opposition seems without direction or purpose.

Outside of the former Soviet Union, National Bolshevism remains a curiosity at most. ‘Nazbol gang’ memes, featuring the characteristic flag of the former National Bolshevik Party (now illegal in Russia), utilize a variety of racist and homophobic tropes to summon up a political position somewhere in between Nazism and Stalinism. ‘Alt-right’ image boards and chat servers are full of self-proclaimed ‘nazbols’ who no doubt have never heard of Niekisch, Ustralyov or Limonov. Just recently, YouTube third worldist Jason Unruhe released a video denouncing, in broad strokes, both Strasserism and Nazbol as both ‘idiotic’ and ‘unscientific’, spreading the myth of commie-nazism even further. While it is unquestionable that the heavily online ‘nazbols’ in the English speaking world are an unhealthy mix of white supremacists and reactionary ‘tankies’ (and I don’t just mean Marxist-Leninists), the people who are most invested in the online discourse about ‘national bolshevism’ all seem to be talking out of their asses. The most vocal proponents of ‘National Bolshevism’ in online right-wing spaces have either no knowledge or no interest in the historical movement whose motifs and basic theoretical concepts they shamelessly appropriate in the name of promoting racial hatred, and various leftist sources use this as an example of an overarching ‘red-brown’ conspiracy theory. Given all of this baggage, is it really worth the effort to reclaim this political movement from the mire?

I hold unequivocally that the legacy of the National Bolshevik movement can and should be rehabilitated in western discourse. I have two primary reasons for holding this belief: firstly, and quite simply, I find it personally interesting and several of my colleagues do as well, and secondly because it’s incredibly simple to do. The first half of this exorcism is particularly easy. The alt-right riff-raff who are squatting on the history of this movement have never bothered to engage with the body of theoretical work they’ve associated themselves with and all it would take is the shortest conversation about the real implications of their alleged beliefs to have them scurrying back to neo-Nazism with their tails between their legs. The more pressing issue is the leftist reaction to years of nonsense being peddled with a ‘National Bolshevik’ label. The left would be doing itself a disservice by allowing this understudied and underappreciated chapter of labor history to be claimed by fascists. I have three manners in which I will attempt to dispel the myth of the ‘fascist’ nature of the Nazbols. Firstly, we will consider the historical context in which the movement’s two distinct ‘phases’ emerged, first in Germany, then in Russia. Next, we will look at the authors in their own words, and consider whether their beliefs and intentions can be read in a fascistic light. Finally, we will look at the outcomes. What do Nazbols do, and what kind of people do they associate with? 

The origins of National Bolshevism as a tendency are slightly more ambiguous than some others on the left, as evidenced by the lack of a single individual on whose surname an -ism can be attached. The most coherent account I’ve encountered places its origin with a series between several prominent members of the German Communist Party and Karl Radek, who was in charge of Soviet Russia’s foreign affairs at the time. After the end of the Great War, a duo of communists, Wolffheim and Laufenberg, cultivated interest in a proletarian uprising in the wake of the Treaty of Versailles. With Germany’s ruling class seemingly all too willing to let the working people shoulder the demands of foreign powers, the stage seemed set for ‘anti-imperialist’ struggle. The Russian response was initially warm, leading to such strange happenings as Radek’s speech in praise of German nationalist war hero Leo Schlageter. Wolffheim and Laufenberg tried to garner support from both communists and patriots for their ‘National-Communist’ movement, but support floundered, and in 1920, Lenin denounced both Wolffheim and Laufenberg in Left-Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder for their inability to adhere to the party line and reproached Radek for having associated with them, later enlisting him to help prop up Wolffheim’s opponents. With active resistance from the Third International and an inability to appeal to the right, the initial ‘national communist’ project collapsed.

In a rare and curious case of horseshoe theory gone right, around the same time, a countercurrent was appearing in the German radical right. Devastated by the treaty of Versailles, a small handful of German nationalist writers began to explore the possibility of a new direction for national revitalization. Inspired by the Soviets and their widespread mobilization, these thinkers, predominantly Ernst Niekisch, believed that only an anti-Western anti-capitalist path could reunite Germany. This first National Bolshevik theoretical outburst coincided with Spengler’s formulation of Prussian Socialism, but overlapped far more with the Conservative Revolutionaries than National Socialism. From its earliest formulations, National Bolshevism was hostile to fascism, writing empassioned critiques of both Hitler and Italian fascism while actively seeking rapprochement with the Soviets. In Russia, some similar conclusions were drawn by former Whites who were won over by the Bolshevik cause, such as in the case of Nikolay Ustrayalov, but for obvious reasons these nationalist authors never made a significant impact on the discourse until after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The second, and far more bizarre chapter of National Bolshevik history opened with the fall of the USSR. A rag-tag bunch of political dissidents, punks, artists and hooligans banded together under the red-and-black banner of one Eduard Limonov. Many of these people had once been persecuted by the Soviet Union, but with ‘shock therapy’ economic liberalization introducing unemployment, homelessness and hunger to the Russian people at lightning speed, more than a few people wanted to slam on the brakes. The НБП, National Bolshevik Party, between 1993 and 2007 was violently opposed to both the reintroduction of capitalism and ‘western values’ in Russia as well as the increasingly ineffectual and conservative Communist Party of the Russian Federation, which had solidly locked in its counter-revolutioary character sometime around when it picked up the habit of appointing septuagenarians as leaders. It is even more difficult to quantify the “political alignment” of the НБП than its predecessors, as early 1990s Russia had no established history of party politics or national political discourse, something which haunts Russian politics to this day. The Nazbols (as they called themselves) were navigating uncharted territory, immersing themselves in unstriated space where seemingly irreconcilable political ideas from the past mixed together with borderline apocalyptic political fantasy. Far more so than any of their Western counterparts, the nazbols were dedicated. Their slogan – Да, Смерть! or ‘Yes, Death!’, was an affirmation of their universal willingness to die for the cause. How many Nazbols have actually met their deaths is a mystery to me (no doubt some have perished in their Donbass ‘Interbrigades’), but many have faced off against Russian riot police and have accepted unconscionable sentences in labor camps as a price for their activism. 

The next question is, what do National Bolsheviks say about fascism, and about the intentions of their political movement? This is an area in which some degree of caution must be employed. A prominent feature of many ‘New Right’ and ‘alt-right’ movements is to try to rebrand themselves as not being fascists, opting for more obscure symbology and dogwhistles in order to draw in potential supporters who are neither well versed nor necessarily interested in extremist politics. It would be quite one thing for me to cite a handful of statements in which National Bolsheviks historically have tried to skirt around accusations of fascism as a means of exonerating them, however, the historical record on the issue is something altogether different. Even the most ‘traditionalist’ of National Bolsheviks express hostility towards fascism, rooted in the theoretical foundations of National Bolshevik thought, while the more traditionally ‘leftist’ authors that fall under this heading demonstrate a commitment to fighting fascism that exceeds what is commonly encountered in western political thought. In an article written for the International Eurasianist Movement, Dugin wrote (translation mine):

German National-Bolshevism, upholding the ideas of both nationalism and the left, was unambiguously in the anti-fascist, anti-Hitler, anti-Nazi camp. Many National Bolsheviks were interred, executed by the Nazis, or participated actively in underground movements: evacuating Jews, saving other people etc.

Dugin’s characterization of the German National Bolshevik movement does not seem implausible, especially taking into consideration primary sources from that period. In the third chapter of his 1932 work Hitler: A German Fate, Niekisch writes:

National Socialism is not a beginning – it’s the end. It is the final note of the Wilhelmine epoch, that still resonates in it. Its spirit, its atmosphere shoots forth like a last burst of embers that are smothered. The Wilhelmine era is the sum of hallucinations in which this epoch of agony takes stock of its existence. When the sources of life dry up, mortal fever gives birth to a last dream of power.

The later Russian movement was no friendlier towards fascists in their country. In a 2012 interview, after the National Bolshevik Party was banned, Limonov states that his new party, Other Russia, was acting lawfully during their street demonstrations as “National Bolshevism has never been banned, being rooted in anti-fascism”. While some well-acquainted with the Russian political sphere may disagree, or suggest that both of Limonov’s parties have been insufficiently active against Russia’s myriad far-right groups, I would argue this thinking is shaped far too much by Western parliamentarianism; in a country with as closed a political sphere as Russia’s, unorganized white nationalists represent an infinitesimally smaller concern than the current regime, with its propensity towards political repression and actually imprisoning the Nazbols’ countrymen.

As a modern political movement, Russia’s National Bolsheviks can also be judged according to their very public and very online record. A great deal of this research had to be put off for a few months; Russia’s internet censorship bureau prohibits access to archived National Bolshevik materials. Apart from their street action and political art, the National Bolsheviks also engaged in a number of side projects that further cast doubt on the ever-present accusations of fascism from western leftists. One prominent example was their ‘Millions Against Nashism’ movement, which called for a widespread public discourse about Putin’s own ‘Nashi’ youth organization. The now-defunct Nashi attracted comparisons to the Hitler Youth both domestically and abroad, as the movement combined both massive public demonstrations with frightening, almost paramilitary applications of political violence. Rightfully concerned that Mr. Putin was mobilizing Russia’s youth for his own personal advancement, the Nazbols operated a watchdog organization to highlight the dangers posed by this organization, and as a result were themselves made targets. Ironically, some ‘anti-fascists’ in the west bought into the Nashi mythology, particularly that they were an anti-fascist organization. Nashi eventually collapsed from internal mismanagement, a recurring issue in Russian political life.

Another frequent complaint, which has its roots primarily in the recent ‘Nazbol Gang’ phenomenon, surrounds the presumed antisemitism of the National Bolsheviks. Despite virulent racism and antisemitism being shared under the Nazbol flag by ‘ironic’ netizens, the track record of actual National Bolshevik organizations and theoreticians is far more unremarkable. While several attempts were made by the Russian press to portray the Nazbols as antisemitic, they were universally unsubstantiated. No complaints about “Zionist elites” were present in their party materials, the “Cultural Marxist” conspiracy not present, nor “great replacement” or any other antisemitic dogwhistles.The NBP maintained a number of foreign affiliates, mostly concentrated in the former USSR, notably including an Israeli party. The Israeli National Bolsheviks, almost certainly all Russian-speakers, outlined a plan in their materials to create ‘Jewish anarcho-communism’ in Israel. Unlike today’s far-right organizations, which are torn between either supporting Israel as part of a ‘clash of civilizations’ anti-Islamic crusade or espousing more traditional Nazi anti-Jewish rhetoric, Russia’s Nazbols demonstrated a real commitment to opposing religious and racial intolerance. 

The fear of an organized “red-brown” movement remains pervasive in online leftist communities. I have no doubt the overwhelming majority of ‘socialists’ who come across this will remain unconvinced of the reality of an authentically revolutionary National Bolshevik movement and the legitimacy of the National Bolshevik critique. However, my hope is that with the publication of this piece, the burden of proof now squarely rests on the Marxists to substantiate their claims of National Bolshevism’s ‘fascist’ nature. By espousing the overly simplistic idea of a ‘red-brown alliance’ the small handful of individuals on the left who have responded to National Bolshevism have bought into a narrative that ultimately traces its lineage back to Russian state media and tacitly accepting Russia’s elimination of any opposition group that doesn’t toe the Kremlin line. The original German National Bolsheviks were not criticized by Lenin for being ‘reactionary’, they were criticized for inciting discontent within a party whose timid counterrevolutionary ideas of social democracy ultimately made them powerless against the Nazis. Russia’s Nazbols were the closest thing one would see to a western-style antifascist organization for almost a decade in Russia, when the country’s large Communist Party became preoccupied only with Soviet nostalgia and cozying up to Kremlin reactionaries.

If there’s a take home message here, it’s that behind all the Nazbol Gang memes and image board racists is a surprisingly robust revolutionary tradition that’s well worth a serious, critical re-examination. One of the major barriers to that, at least in the English-speaking world, has been the near total absence of translated works. Texts from Niekisch, Wolffheim and Laufenberg are only now becoming accessible in English, long after the majority of leftists seem to have taken a decidedly hostile stance towards their work. While the Russian NBP translated the majority of their publications into English (possibly a result of Limonov’s long history living in the West), their site was taken down after the party was banned, and the archived version is relatively difficult to find. A lot of the texts written by Nazbols which I found most inspiring have never been translated into English. I hope by this weekend to have begun translating some of these articles and blog posts into English for the first time, as well as continuing to find cultural artifacts from Russia’s revolutionary underground that people might find interesting. 

Да, Смерть!

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