Austro-Marxism beyond Left Wing Melancholy

Walter Baier on Austro-Marxism at the International Conference ‘The Left Alternatives in the 20th Century: Drama of Ideas and Personal Stories’ in Moscow.

More than a century ago, social democrats in Austria called themselves ‘social democrats’ because they wanted to materialize a new society, which they called ‘Socialism’ by democratic means. At their intellectual peak, they set up a school of Marxist theory, Austro-Marxism, and its most outstanding representative was Otto Bauer, who after WW I became the party leader.  

When the conversation comes to revolutionary Marxism in Europe, normally two traditions are mentioned, an Eastern one, oriented to Lenin and Trotzki and a Western one, originating in Luxemburg and Gramsci. Too little however, is known about the Central European tradition, which is no less sophisticated or rich and whose historically first manifestation has been Austro-Marxism. In an editorial, written in 1926, for the Arbeiterzeitung, the newspaper of the Social Democratic Party, Otto Bauer gave the following brief outline of it:

"In the second half of the 19th century, a group of young Austrian comrades working in academia started to go by the name ‘Austro-Marxists’, Max Adler, Karl Renner, Rudolf Hilferding, Gustav Eckstein, Otto Bauer, Friedrich Adler and a few others.

What united them was not a specific political tendency but the unique qualities of their academic work. They also were inspired by Kant and Mach. However, they were at Austrian Universities, which meant they had to contend with the Austrian school of economics. Finally, they were all politically socialised within Austria’s original borders, appalled by struggles surrounding nationality, and they had to learn to apply the Marxist interpretation of history to complicated phenomena where a superficial application of Marxist methods was not permissible. As a consequence, a tight-knit intellectual circle was formed.

Of course, there is much more to say. Characteristically, he did not bother to mention the females who contributed to the school, e.g. Käthe Leichter, Marie Jahoda and Helene Bauer, the latter being his wife!

When Austria’s social democracy was founded in the 19th century, it could not help but being international. Thus, it provided the incubation space of a theoretical culture, of which many important political figures grew out, who later played important roles in the new national states which emerged from the Empire. E.g. Ignacy Daszyńsk or Bohumír Smeral. Austro-Marxism actually constituted the common root and provided a common language to the Marxist tradition in Central Europe. On the other hand, to the cultural influences, which inspired it, belongs, certainly also Hans Kelsen, founder of the Pure Theory of Law, as well as Alfred Adler and Sigmund Freud.

Maybe a remarkable coincidence, however illustrative for the intellectual cross connections in Vienna at the turn to the 20th century is, that the real person appearing in the emblematic case of ‚Dora‘, in Freud’s notebook, is Otto Bauer’s sister, Ida Bauer.

Ideologically, Austrian Social Democracy dissociated itself just as much from revisionism as it later did from Third-International dogmatism.

This made it the leader of Centrism in Europe’s socialist movement and in 1921 becoming founder of the International Working Union of Socialist Parties[1], which, aimed, at bringing about a reconciliation between the social democratic London International and the Communist International, of course in vain.

Although the little Communist Party of Austria could never challenge the social democratic dominance over the Austrian labor movement, the idea of councils/soviets and the Soviet Union remained popular among its rank and file membership. In 1920, Otto Bauer felt the need to articulate a position on it in a small book entitled Bolshevism or Social Democracy (Bolschewismus oder Sozialdemokratie).

With all of his criticism of the Bolsheviks’ dictatorial and terrorist exercise of power, he did not dispute the principally socialist character of their regime. From a critical assessment of the Bolshevik revolution, he turns to the question, which he regards as crucial for the socialism of his day, namely whether

Bolshevism is the only possible, the only expedient method for every proletarian revolution or is a method of the proletarian liberation struggle suited only to specific Russian conditions and not applicable to other countries."[2]

Of course, he argues for the latter, arriving to the same conclusion as Antonio Gramsci regarding the difference between East and West where in the latter case the structure of society and the character of the state would not allow taking power by an armed uprising, and to govern over a majority through force and terror.

The twelfth of February 1934 marked the tragic end of the Austro-Marxist political experiment.

It is not unfair, to judge Otto Bauer’s theory in the light of its practical failure, i.e. its military defeat in the short civil war of 1934. Norbert Leser, prominent political scientist and historian, on the right wing of the social democratic party, attributes in a book, published in 1964 a co-responsibility for the conservative coup d’état to Otto Bauer, blaming him for his militant radical rhetoric, which stood in contrast with the actual military and social weakness of his party, substantially exacerbated by the economic crisis.

There is some truth in this rebuke, which conversely is put forward by the left critics, who say that in his endeavor to avoid a civil war Bauer steadily retreated before an increasingly determined enemy and thus demoralized and demobilized the organized working class.

Bauer himself laid out a self-critical analysis of the party’s politics in two extraordinary books, titled The Illegal Party and the other with the prophetic title Between Two World Wars. The Crisis of the Global Economy, Democracy and Socialism (1936).  

Differently to the Communist International, Bauer does not reckon Fascism as the last resort of a bourgeoisie being hard-pressed by the Revolution.

The capitalist class and the large landowners have not handed over state power to the fascist gangs, in order to prevent the proletarian revolution, but rather to depress wages, to destroy the social achievements of the working class, to smash the trade unions and to destroy the working class’ positions of political power; thus not to smash a revolutionary socialism but the achievements of reformist socialism.”[3]

The book is the evidence of a severe disillusionment. The formula of the famous party program from 1926, the program of Linz, which propagated a way to socialism through democracy which as a last ressort would have to defend itself by dictatorial means, appears now inverted:

It is only a revolutionary dictatorship that [can] create the social preconditions for democracy liberated from class domination.

It might also be a consequence of the disillusionment about bourgeois democracy that Bauer associated himself virtual unconditional with the Soviet Union, just in 1936, the year when the first show trial against Kamenew, Sinowjew and others took place.

Between Two World Wars contains Otto Bauer’s political legacy, which is the idea of a rebirth of the socialist movement using a concept he dubbed "Integral socialism". The aim of this is to bring together the two competing arms of the workers’ movement: socialism and communism.

For Michael Krätke, Austro-Marxism represents “the most elaborated variant of an open Marxism to date."

1945, the Austromarxist argument vanished from the discourse in Austria. The Social Democratic Party, which re-emerged as the Socialist Party, has shifted to the right. Otto Bauer, Max Adler and Rudolf Hilferding have died in exile; a number of its intellectuals who were from Jewish origin were not encouraged, to return to Austria to put it in the mildest possible fashion. While the social democratic party aligned, with the West in the Cold war, the Communist Party, which was the main force in the resistance movement and formed a part of the government after the liberation sided with the Soviet Union. Hence, there was no place either, for a democratic socialism or an Integral socialism.

It has been said of Austrians that they confidently looked to their past.

I am not inclined to any sort of left wing melancholy, however Michael Krätke finds that the theoretical contributions of Austro-Marxists, especially to state and transformation theory, “are ahead of and superior to everything commonly offered in Marxism as political theory”.[4] Whether or not one shares this assessment the fact is that the intensity of the social and political confrontations in inter-war Austria forced Austro-Marxism to pose the most important questions on a level fully the equal of that of Lenin, Luxemburg, and Gramsci.  It is time that it be appreciated, studied and published accordingly.


[1] Internationale Arbeitsgemeinschaft Sozialistischer Parteien

[2] Otto Bauer: Bolschewismus oder Sozialdemokratie, Vienna 1920, p. 4.

[3] Otto Bauer, Zwischen zwei Weltkriegen, Vienna p. 126.

[4] Michael Krätke, Austromarxismus und Kritische Theorie;