Austro-Marxism

   The first stirring of a workers’ movement in the Austrian lands of the Habsburg Empire began with the Vienna Revolution of 1848. Karl Marx himself spent a few days in the city during the latter stages of the turmoil, only to conclude that conditions did not favor a workers’ revolution. Local authorities suppressed proletarian protest decisively, executing some of its most vocal representatives.
   Until 1867, workers’ unions were illegal throughout the empire. The Austrian constitution of 1867 guaranteed the right of free assembly, but even after that time, the police had the right to disband meetings if they were deemed hostile to the state. The movement was split between two influential factions until 1888. A moderate wing, inspired by the ideas of the German Social Democrat Ferdinand Lassalle, sought to realize its program through cooperating with the crown and, on a more qualified basis, the bourgeoisie. A more radical group was oriented toward 19th-century anarchism. But socialism’s most significant challenge was to advance an international ideology in the environment of ethnic and national tensions that bedeviled the Habsburg Empire from 1867 to 1918. Indeed, it was for this reason that some of social democracy’s leaders supported the continuation of the Habsburg monarchy, particularly a more democratized one. The fragmentation of east central Europe into national entities made proletarian solidarity much more difficult to accomplish. By the latter third of the 19th century, workers in Bohemia were already asking for autonomous status within the new Social Democratic Party of Austria (SDAP).
   These constraints gave socialism in the Habsburg lands its distinctive quality. The movement’s leading 19th-century spokesmen, Viktor Adler and Karl Renner, dedicated themselves to developing an agenda that minimized these frictions. The practical outcome of Adler’s efforts was the Hainfeld Program of 1888. By advocating reforms of interest to all workers, such as universal suffrage, the secularization of education, the abolition of private property, and the eight-hour working day, the physician-turned-political activist managed to transcend national and ethnic particularism.
   Austro-Marxism also reflected these concerns on the theoretical level. Adler refused to use conflict and confrontation, in which majorities triumphed over minorities, as a way of developing SDAP positions. For him and for Renner as well, the purpose of party activity was to encourage all members to express themselves. Participation in the democratic process was central to the development of a fully realized individual, who, because his voice had been heard and taken account of, was able to internalize the ideology that eventually emerged from these discussions. Viewed functionally, politics was a matter of compromise in which no one ever got all that he or she wanted, but their interests were never altogether ignored. Adler and his followers also believed that a revolution in human consciousness had to parallel the revolution in economic relationships, which they regarded as inevitable. They therefore stressed the need to offer educational opportunities and aesthetic experiences to workers. Just as the bourgeoisie had marginalized the humanity of the proletariat with their monopolistic hold on the means of production, they had, according to Engelbert Pernerstorfer, a leading Austrian social democrat, robbed the laboring classes of their rightful place in the cultural community. Such programs gave Austro-Marxists the reputation of being the most cultivated socialists in Europe. Adler supported such SDAP commonplaces as nationalization of the means of production. Renner believed that it was society through conscious action, not the law of nature, that brought about human equality. Nevertheless, the general thrust of their views, and of those who followed them, emphasized political tactics and strategy rather than grand intellectual constructs. Influential socialist thinkers and political leaders in 20th-century Europe, such as the Italian Antonio Gramsci and the future dictator of Yugoslavia, Josip Broz (Tito), spent time with them in Vienna during World War I and immediately afterward. The generally cautious nature of their activities aroused the contempt of more radical Marxists elsewhere. After several stays in Vienna between 1907 and 1914, Leon Trotsky (1879–1940) dismissively dubbed the Austro-Marxists “the guardian angels of the Vienna Creditanstalt,” the most influential bank in the city. Joseph Stalin ridiculed them in 1913 as fellow travelers of the bourgeoisie. Renouncing both Bolshevism, in 1917, and terrorism a year later, the Austro-Marxists were repudiated by the Communist International in 1918.
   See also Bauer, Otto.

Historical dictionary of Austria. . 2014.

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