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The history of the 1918 Austrian revolution by the social-democratic leader of the time, Otto Bauer, despite itself shows why the revolution was lost, argues Chris Bambery

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Otto Bauer, The Austrian Revolution, eds. Walter Baier and Eric Canepa, trans. Eric Canepa (Haymarket 2021), 400pp.

The front cover of this edition of The Austrian Revolution features a striking social-realist painting portraying disciplined groups of workers and soldiers gathered in front of Vienna’s parliament building, red flags are everywhere, and the heavy Hapsburg architecture of the city lies under a sky threatening snow. It looks like the celebration of a socialist revolution, but if you look closer what are flying from the official flagpoles are not red flags, but red and white ones, symbolising the red of the Social Democrats on the one hand, and the white of the Christian Social Party on the other. This flag is still that of today’s Austria.

For this painting by Rudolf Konopa represents the declaration of the new Austrian Republic in November 1918, following the end of World War One, and the falling apart of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, presided over by the Hapsburg dynasty.

The author of this book, Otto Bauer, was a social-democrat leader and, from November 1918, the first Foreign Minister (Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs) of the first Austrian Republic. Bauer resigned from his office in July 1919 following the failure to achieve unification with Germany, more of which later.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire was an autocratic monarchy, presided over by the Hapsburg dynasty, and sprawling across today’s Czech Republic, Slovakia, parts of Poland, a slice of northern Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia. Reactionary Catholicism dominated this state and society, civil liberties were not guaranteed, and the working-class movement that emerged in the 1870s and 1880s faced ongoing repression.

The formation of a workers’ party

The Social Democratic Workers' Party of Austria (in German: Sozialdemokratische Arbeiterpartei Österreichs, SDAPÖ) was founded in 1889, and its declaration of principles, drafted by Victor Adler and Karl Kautsky, was a classic document of the Second International. Capitalism was blamed for the poverty of the working class, and its freedom depended on the ‘transfer of the means of labour to the common possession of the people as a whole’. The party’s concrete demands, however, did not go beyond democratic and economic reforms, in particular universal suffrage and effective labour protection legislation. The main task of the new party was:

To organize the proletariat politically, endow it with an awareness of its condition and its task, prepare and maintain its mental and physical militancy, is therefore the specific programme of the Austrian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party’.

Subsequently the emphasis was on building up social-democratic mass organizations: the creation of centralised trade unions, campaigns for universal suffrage, electoral battles and strikes. However, unlike the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), parliamentary activity never came to be of such great importance, in large part because universal suffrage was only conceded under the pressure of the Russian revolution of 1905, and after the Social-Democrats began to prepare, in 1906, for a general strike. The subsequent imperial parliament was paralysed for long periods when Czech deputies as well as those from other nationalities blocked its functioning.

Nevertheless, as with the German SPD, there was no attempt to link the battle for reform with the achievement of socialism. This latter was conceived as arriving, as if a natural occurrence, from the development of society, the economy and the growth of the working class. Unlike the SPD, the formation of the SDAPÖ followed fifteen years of factional turmoil between ‘moderates’ and ‘radicals’, and this led the new party to prize its unity and to avoid the sorts of debates that took place in the SPD over revisionism and the mass strike.

Industrialisation came later than in Germany, but when it did, it made its impact on a range of distinct peoples. Among Czechs, Poles, Croats, Romanians, and others, it created both a working class, a national intelligentsia, and an awakening of national identity. Vienna became the centre of modernist art and thinking in Europe, the city of Sigmund Freud, Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg. Prague too saw a cultural rebirth, exemplified by Antonin Dvorak, Leoš Janáček and Bedřich Smetana.

By the beginning of the last century, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was in obvious danger of falling apart along national lines. Eventually, as a means of suppressing rising internal dissent, the Hapsburgs and the Austro-German and Hungarian ruling class looked to escape forwards into war in 1914.

Austro-Marxism: nationalities and peasants

What became known as Austro-Marxism centred on four key figures on the left of the SDAPÖ: Karl Renner, Rudolf Hilferding, Max Adler and Otto Bauer. In the years before the First World War, they rejected the ‘evolutionary socialism’ of Eduard Bernstein and his calls for socialists to ally with liberals in parliament. The four leading figures would, in the years before 1914, publish respected works, with Hilferding focusing on political economy, Bauer on the national question, Renner on law and Adler on philosophy.

However, they also resisted the arguments of Rosa Luxemburg in favour of the mass strike, insisting that in the Hapsburg Empire this would lead to state repression on a mass scale. So they looked to legal work through parliament, trade unions, and a mass press to build the party until it could overwhelm the ruling class. They did insist that if the ruling class used force to drive the movement back, they would call revolutionary action, such as a mass strike.

Bauer argued that since the national groups of the empire were not confined to any one distinct territory, therefore they should reject the right of separation from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Austro-Marxists further held that national differences and separate cultural identities were permanent and would persist under socialism.

At the Bruenn (Brno) Congress of 1899 they agreed ‘personal’, or extra-territorial national autonomy, which held that a politically centralised state could guarantee the rights of national minorities, by allowing them their own autonomous institutions to control the cultural and linguistic affairs of each nation. This became the cornerstone of the theory of extra-territorial national-cultural autonomy. As a result Bauer and the Austro Marxists constructed an elaborate blueprint for the empire, which was to be divided into eight multinational economic regions, but also into eight separate national councils administering cultural affairs, all united under the Hapsburgs.

Related to their stance on the national question was their position on the agrarian question and the peasantry. They followed the lead of Karl Kautsky, the dominant theoretician of the Second International, who in 1899 published his book, The Agrarian Question, which tended to regard peasants as obstacles and barriers to the revolution. As they had no clear historical agency as a class, they would eventually be swept away by economic progress. The Austro-Marxists had no strategy for winning allies beyond the working class, among the peasantry or the new nationalist movements. This was a fatal weakness.

Austro-Marxism stood on the left wing of the international social-democratic movement. Its leaders, such as Bauer, gave their policies detailed theoretical support, and always claimed to defend the tradition of the ‘Marxist centre’ against reformism, to the right, and, Bolshevism, to the left. Indeed, politically they represented the ‘Kautskyite’ Marxism which had been the main force in the pre-1914 Second International. Nevertheless, the national question had an impact on the party and in 1910 it broke up into different national sections,

The politics of war

The outbreak of war in 1914 saw the four leaders of Austro-Marxism divide. Hilferding, now in Germany, opposed the war. Bauer and Renner supported the war as a defensive struggle against reactionary Russian tsardom. Bauer volunteered, was captured, and spent three years as a prisoner in Siberia. Too old to serve, Renner became a leading apologist for the Austrian war effort.

Then the events of 1917, the Russian Revolution, had a huge impact on the Hapsburg Empire, and it brought the Austro-Marxists back together. When the Bolsheviks and the soviets took power they recognised the right to self-determination. Polish Russia, Finland and the Baltic States chose independence. That resonated among the oppressed nations under Hapsburg rule. The revolution also destroyed the idea that tsarism was the great force of reaction which must be opposed.

The Czechs had never seen the Russians as their main enemy, and Czech troops had been deserting to the Russians; the Poles had seen the Russians as their main enemy, but now with the revolution, they saw the Germans and Austro-Hungarians as the main threat; the South Slavs (later Yugoslavs), who during 1848-9 had been the mainstay of Hapsburg-led counter-revolution, now wanted to be unified in one, independent state. The Hapsburg Emperor saw the writing on the wall and tried, unsuccessfully, to broker a separate peace deal with France, without telling his German ally.

In 1917, the left wing under Otto Bauer, home from Siberia, took control of the party, and claimed to pursue a ‘third’ Marxist way between reformism and Bolshevism, holding to their belief that the creation of a parliamentary republic meant socialism could be achieved within its framework. They advocated the socialisation of key industries, the introduction of economic planning, the expansion of the welfare state, and the creation of new institutions of workers’ representation, such as factory councils.

They rejected the Bolshevik’s ‘proletarian dictatorship’ based on soviets, arguing that in Austria this would lead to civil war, and also that socialism could not be built in a country where the working class was in a minority. So while the working class dominated Vienna, much of the new state was rural. Thus the working class must not take power. These are arguments Bauer returns to in this book to justify not striking out for socialist revolution; civil war is the danger which must be avoided at all costs because the left would lose.

The end of the war

In the autumn of 1917, a German and Austro-Hungarian offensive at Caporetto had broken Italian lines, captured huge numbers of Italians, and almost got as far as Venice. In the spring of 1918, four German offensives on the Western Front almost forced the British to evacuate their toehold in Belgium and their positions in France, and thus threatened Paris. But it was almost. The British and French were now joined by the Americans, while the Allied naval blockade had brought famine to Germany, and its economy lacked the necessary raw materials to carry on fighting the war.

Similarly, food shortages across the Austro-Hungarian Empire had led to strikes, often by female workers, as early as the winter of 1916-17. These grew significantly in January 1918, organised by workers’ councils, inspired by the example of the soviets in Russia. By the summer of 1918, military defeat faced the Central Powers. In Germany that brought working-class revolution, where workers’ councils were also formed. In the Hapsburg Empire things took a different but predictable course; it began to break up into its national components, and that quickly affected the army, which began to disintegrate.

By October, a working-class uprising created a Hungarian Republic. On the Italian front, Hungarian and Southern Slav troops mutinied, as did the Adriatic fleet. The Czechs, egged on by the Allies, created their republic, and the Poles followed, again encouraged by the Allies. In Vienna soldiers’ councils were established in which the newly founded Communist Party had some influence. This was something Bauer and the Social Democrats worked hard to defeat. Because the old imperial army had imploded, a new working-class militia, the Volkswehr, was formed under firm social-democratic control. They saw its role as maintaining ‘order’, as much as being a force to resist any attempts at counter-revolution.

In just four days the empire vanished, the remaining authorities sued for a ceasefire, and the emperor abdicated. The German speaking areas were left on their own, cut off from their coalfields in Czechoslovakia, and its Hungarian and Polish food supplies.

At this point, Bauer and the Social Democrats accepted the right to self-determination of the oppressed nations, but they were accepting a fact. Their tardy shift won them few friends. They were, in particular, alienated from the powerful Czech working class. Because the Austrian Social Democrats had not championed the right to self-determination, including to secede, there was no possibility of replacing the Hapsburgs with a federal state. The earlier breakup of the party into its national components meant that the bourgeoisie in Czechoslovakia, Poland and Yugoslavia were able to form and lead cross-class alliances in pursuit of independence. The Austrian Social Democrats were spectators of these events, not players.

The revolution in Austria

With the declaration of independence by Czechoslovakia, Poland, and what would become Yugoslavia, a vacuum existed in the German lands of Austria. The Volkswehr were used to defend territory claimed by the Hungarians and Yugoslavs. Meanwhile, the Social Democrats agreed to form a coalition with the Christian Social Party.

This party had been created in 1891 as a social conservative, clerical counterweight to the ‘godless’ Social Democrats. What’s missing from Bauer’s account is any particular mention of its first leader, Karl Lueger, who was mayor of Vienna from 1897 until his death in 1910. In a city which had quickly grown in population to one million, sucking in migrants from across the Empire, including Jews fleeing Tsarist pogroms in Russia, Lueger built his base in the city on antisemitism. He denounced supposed Jewish influence over the press and the banks, and called for the ‘liberation of the Christian people from Jewish dominance’.

It was a message which appealed to the middle classes, appalled by the changes to ‘their’ city, resenting the rise of monopolies and hating the new arrivals. Lueger served as a role model for one young Austrian, Adolf Hitler, who wrote approvingly of him in Mein Kampf. Given the presence of Jews like Friedrich Adler and Bauer himself in the leadership of the Social Democrats, they were obvious targets, but while Bauer talks about how the right used antisemitism, he never gives an account of what the Social Democrats did to counter it.

Returning to the new coalition, Bauer writes describing what came about in his eyes:

‘The revolution that destroyed the Hapsburg Empire was not our revolution, not the revolution of the German-Austrian proletariat, but the revolution of the Czech, the Yugoslav and the Polish bourgeoisie. However, the Austrian proletariat used this revolution to destroy the authoritarian absolutist state on its own soil and to enormously expand its power in the state, in the provinces and the municipalities, in the barracks, the offices and schools, in the factory, the workshop and the manors. The result was the people’s republic, a transitional phase of social life still based upon the capitalist economic order but which keeps capitalist economic life under the control of the state, no longer ruled solely by the ruling classes of capitalist society; a transitional phase of state life in which the state is no longer dominated by the bourgeoisie alone and cannot yet be dominated by the proletariat alone, in which the state is no longer an instrument of the bourgeoisie for repressing the proletariat and still not an instrument of the proletariat for overcoming the bourgeoisie’s economic domination’ (p.407).

Bauer’s stance

According to Otto Bauer, a threefold revolutionary process was at work in the Austrian Revolution of 1918-19: firstly national revolutions led to the breakup of the Hapsburg Empire. In the German speaking rump, his ideal solution was union with Germany. In the light of events later this sounds strange, but in late 1918, Germany was in the throes of revolution, it was a republic, and there were significant doubts whether Austria could go it alone, particularly as its new neighbours had claims on much of its remaining territory.

Secondly, according to Bauer, the revolution had to be given democratic legitimacy, which centred on the creation of a fully democratic parliament and government. That included giving women the vote and greater powers to the provinces. Thirdly, the decisive dimension of the revolution was for Bauer the creation of industrial democracy, particularly the formation of work councils and the introduction of radical social policy.

These radical changes in the late autumn of 1918 did allow for far greater popular participation in parliamentary politics, and brought in far-reaching measures in the field of social legislation, which benefited the working class greatly, but – and it’s a big but - the civil service, the judiciary and the police were still essentially dominated by imperial and royal bureaucrats.

The new ‘industrial democracy’ did not involve workers’ control. The factories and banks remained in the hands of their owners. The policy of the Social Democrats was to prevent any form of radical change by keeping the workers’ council movement tightly under their control, and in sidelining the young and inexperienced Communist Party.

The new army did become a battleground. The Volkswehr was encouraged to join, and the social-democratic minister made strenuous efforts to get them made officers. However, the officer corps remained from the old Hapsburg army and thwarted these efforts over time. This ensured it could play a decisive role in turning the clock back.

How the Social Democrats lost the initiative

While it is true that two thirds of the population were not working class, which was concentrated in the Vienna area and Styria, on the south-eastern border with Slovenia, while the rest was rural. That did not mean those areas were not affected by the ferment. Bauer writes that in November 1918, ‘reports from Upper Austria and Carinthia, showed that a powerful republican wave was evident even among the peasantry’ (p.155). Later he notes: ‘A powerful movement also swept through the agricultural masses, for farmers too had returned from the trenches full of hatred for war and militarism’ (p.183).

Yet, the Social Democrats had no presence among the peasantry and no programme with which to address them. As the new government in Vienna was forced to requisition food, livestock, and wood, the larger farmers and clergy were left alone to turn the peasants against the idle mouths in Vienna and to whip up antisemitism. That left the working class isolated and gave the Christian Social Party a popular base.

The coalition between the Social Democrats and the Christian Social Party was not about the creation of a people’s democracy or a transition to even more radical change, it was a price the Austrian bourgeoisie had to pay in order to rebuild their state. In November 1918, there was a vacuum of power, and only the Social Democrats had the credibility and ability to block revolution and allow that state to be rebuilt.

The bourgeoisie were mightily helped by the Allies, who in theory had direct control over what the new government could and could not do. Bauer argues they were helpless in the face of the might of Allied power, but there were clear limits on what, in practice, they were able to do. Across Europe in 1919-20, the working class was insurgent. That was particularly the case in Italy, but true in Britain and France too. The British faced revolts in Ireland, Egypt and Iraq, and were stretched to the limit policing both domestic unrest and revolts in their empire.

The year 1919 was the crucial moment when Soviet Republics existed in Bavaria and Hungary, both neighbours of Austria. The Social Democrats stayed formally neutral, even when Romanian troops invaded Hungary, and toppled the Soviet government (they did allow some weapons to be smuggled across the border).

If in 1919 Vienna had joined with Budapest and Munich, it would have had major implications in Germany, and impacted further upon Italy, where workers had taken over the factories. I know that’s a big ‘if’ but this was a decisive moment.

Decline and defeat

By October 1920, the Social Democrats were outvoted in parliament by the right, and they left the government. By then the bourgeoisie were confident of their army and were using their economic power to cow the working class.

The Social Democrats comforted themselves in holding ‘Red Vienna’. Having encouraged the Volkswehr to join the army, they now found their men were driven out if they did not buckle down under the old officer corps. To defend the Republic from any attempt at overthrowing parliamentary democracy, they formed a paramilitary defence force, the Republican Schutzbund.

The onset of the Great Depression, following the 1929 Wall Street Crash, led the Austrian bourgeoisie to fear that mass unemployment might bring back revolution. In 1932, a former officer, Engelbert Dollfuss, became Chancellor. A year later he dismissed parliament.

In practical political terms, the Austro-Marxist insistence on adhering to constitutional and parliamentary norms left them helpless; facing the likelihood of civil war, they hesitated to the point of paralysis. On 12th February 1934, right-wing paramilitaries acting upon Dollfuss’s orders seized the Social Democrat headquarters in Linz. The local Schutzbund commander ordered his men to resist the right wingers, backed up by now by the police.

Fighting soon spread to other cities and towns in Austria, but the decisive issue was who controlled Vienna. There, the Schutzbund barricaded themselves in city council-housing estates (Gemeindebauten), the symbols of the success of the Social Democrats in creating liveable housing and strongholds of their support. The decisive moment was when the army intervened. Dollfuss ordered them to use artillery against the Karl-Marx-Hof (Karl Marx House, the showpiece, modernist housing estate) forcing the socialist fighters to surrender. Despite the defeat, the armed resistance of the Austrian workers in 1934 inspired anti-fascists across Europe, in Spain particularly.

The Dollfuss regime was closely allied with Mussolini and Italy, and was described as clerico-fascist. It lasted until 1938 when the Nazis marched in and incorporated Austria into the Third Reich, Hitler receiving an ecstatic welcome.

Thus ended the first Austrian Republic. Bauer’s hopes for it were broken. As a Jew he knew what to expect and escaped the Nazi takeover, fleeing across the border and dying in exile in Paris.

I learnt much from this book, which is well worth reading. But the lessons were negative: how not to make a revolution!

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.

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