Austria 1918 - a blocked revolution 


29 november 2008

The Russian Revolution needed to spread to developed Europe to survive. Lenin and Trotsky, together with the entire leadership of the Bolsheviks, rested their greatest hopes rested on Germany, and Austria, which because of its location was a bridge between Russia and Germany.

After the defeat of the Danube Monarchy in November 1918 and the overthrow of the Habsburgs who had ruled for more than 700 years, the political picture was unclear. Either a socialist (council) republic or of a bourgeois republic could emerge from development in the class struggle.

One witness to the turbulent days of winter 1918/1919, Otto Bauer wrote:

"The government repeatedly faced the passionate demonstrations of those returning from the war, the unemployed, the war invalids. It faced a people's militia filled with the spirit of proletarian revolution. Every day it faced serious, dangerous conflicts in the factories, on the railways. And the government had no means of coercion at its disposal: The armed powers were not an instrument against the proletarian masses filled with revolutionary passions. (...) No bourgeois government could have coped with this task. It would have faced the mistrust and hatred of the proletarian masses without defence. It would have been toppled by riots on the streets within eight days, it would have been arrested by its own soldiers. Only the Social Democrats were able to cope with this task of unparalleled difficulty. Only they were trusted by the proletarian masses. (...) Only the Social Democrats could peacefully end the wildly agitated demonstrations by negotiations and speeches, only the Social Democrats could reach agreements with the unemployed, lead the people's militia and restrain the masses of workers from the temptation of revolutionary adventures (...). This function, which at that moment was the most important function of the government, could only be filled by the Social Democrats. The profound convulsion of the bourgeois social order found its most vivid expression in the fact that a bourgeois government, a government without the Social Democrats, had become simply impossible. "

This depiction is accurate: Never again has the Austrian working class been closer to a social revolution than in the winter of 1918-19. Large parts of the working class in Austria could have been won for a socialism. "Let's do it like in Russia" was a common slogan in those days.
Otto Bauer was no radical critic of Austrian Social Democracy, but rather from its party leader. The policy he described visibly filled him with pride, in the Austrian Revolution 1923, he showed with disarming openness both the subjective possibilities as well as the objective function of the Social Democracy in the turbulent days of the winter of 1918-19. Following the capitulation of the Central Powers, Germany and Austria when and the war returnees, the invalids, the unemployed went out onto the streets and increasingly large masses oriented towards the Russian revolution. Especially in Austria, it is no exaggeration to say the Social Democracy was decisive for the survival of capitalism in this crisis-ridden situation.

Austrian Social Democracy: Opportunist from the early days

Opportunism had found its way into the Austrian Social Democracy at an early stage. With the Brno nationality program of 1899, the party assumed that the Habsburg multi-nation state would be preserved the disintegration into national factions was the result of a policy which didn't center on the national self-determination of the peoples of the Danube Monarchy.
In the elections to the imperial council in 1911, German and Czech Social Democrats were already standing against each other. The formal split of the party followed in 1912 with the resignation of the Czech Social Democracy from all bodies of the party - the Social Democracy had fallen apart even before the monarchy broke up due to national pressure.

The policies of the German-Austrian party after 1900, determined by Victor Adler and Otto Bauer (in which the future President Karl Renner was somewhat on the margins due to his unvarnished social-reformist positions) adopted a special physiognomy - "Austro-Marxism" was radical in words and in contrast to the open revisionism of Eduard Bernstein in Germany, they claimed to represent an authentic interpretation of original Marxism.

Trotsky, who lived in exile in Vienna from 1907 to 1914 and knew the Austrian party leadership better than anyone, analyzed Austro-Marxism – this Marxist-embellished "academy of passivity and evasiveness" – later as the "most secure support of the capitalist state, including the thrones and altars raised above it", despite "the flood of revolutionary phrases as prescribed by regulations".
It is not surprising that the German-Austrian Social Democracy was carried along by the chauvinistic mood at the beginning of the war in 1914 and in the Workers' Paper, the central organ of the party, celebrated the beginning of the war as a day of the German nation. In contrast to Germany, for example, the German-Austrian Social Democracy remained unified - not least thanks to the Austro-Marxist tendency to combine radicalism in words with a moderate practice.
The last year of the war

In the last year of the war, proletarian class activity increased by leaps and bounds – in the January strike of 1918, workers' councils were elected and in February, the sailors of the Austrian navy in the Bay of Cattaro rose up. But the left in the Social Democracy remained small, and the Communist Party (KPÖ), which was founded in November 1918, had sectarian policies which rendered it unable to win the support of relevant sectors of the proletariat.

Only a few better-known Social Democratic personalities found their way to the KPÖ – for example in the early 1920s the chairman of the Viennese Soldiers' Council, Joseph Frey, whose name was associated with the reorientation of the KPÖ to a united front policy and who later would lead the Austrian Left Opposition.
In the Autumn of 1918, as the collapse of the imperial-royal monarchy into nation-states became inevitable, a provisional National Assembly came together in October 1918. On 11 November, Emperor Charles renounced his share of government affairs and the next day the republic was proclaimed - the provisional government was composed of the Social Democrats and the bourgeois Christian-Social and the German-National Parties.

The Social Democracy stuck to its policy of speaking about a radical transformation but in reality carrying out a moderate "Realpolitik". The Social Democrats dominated the movement of workers' and soldiers' councils which included large parts of the proletariat in the winter of 1918-19 . At the same time, the party was not ready to step beyond bourgeois democracy. In the elections of February 1919, Social Democracy became the strongest party in terms of votes and mandates – and again formed a coalition government with the big bourgeois party, the Christian-Social Party, under Karl Renner.
Once again, the alternative between bourgeois-capitalist rule and a government of workers' councils was within grasp: in the Spring of 1919, the Hungarian Council Republic was proclaimed and a Soviet government stood directly at the gates of Vienna and the industrial regions in the East of Austria. But even in this period, the German-Austrian Social Democracy, continued to see a revolutionary perspective as an "irresponsible adventure".

The Social Democracy of the small remainder of the Danube Monarchy which would eventually become Austria oriented in this time of upheaval not towards the Russian and Hungarian revolutions but rather towards a unification with Germany - a perspective that was eliminated by the peace treaty of St. Germain in 1919, which dictated harsh conditions to Austria, as the successor state of the Danube Monarchy, including a prohibition of a unification with Germany.
The outcome of 1918/19

The outcome of 1918/1919 necessarily remained unclear: on the one hand, the already decrepit Habsburg monarchy was shaken off and the republic proclaimed. Voting rights were democratized and in 1919 women could vote for the first time. But the policy of the Social Democracy in all these months was directed towards preventing the "adventure" of social revolution and concentrating on the development of a modernized bourgeois state.

The workers' councils were forced into the corset of bourgeois democracy; the largely socialist-oriented people's militia, consisting of war returnees and former soldiers of the imperial-royal army, was robbed of its social revolutionary potential. The Austrian revolution basically remained a transformation in which the Social Democracy - garnished with radical rhetoric - strictly assured that the borders of the bourgeois social order were not crossed and all attempts to push the revolution forward were blocked.

In 1934 – as the Social Democracy was no longer needed and had become an obstacle for the development of authoritarian-dictatorial state – the Austrian proletariat got the bill for these policies: in February of this year, after years of hesitation, as the situation was already hopeless, a part Republican Defence League, the armed organization of the Social-Democratic Party, made a half-hearted attempt at an uprising.

The authoritarian regime of Engelbert Dollfuss counterattacked mercilessly: the social democratic-oriented trade unions, the party and its front organizations were banned. The Social Democracy, which in 1918-19 played the decisive role in preserving the bourgeois order, was forced to go underground.

Manfred Scharinger




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