The Fragmentation of the Social Democracy in Austria

In May of this year, the SPÖ, the Austrian Social Democratic Party, celebrated its 70th anniversary. But within weeks it was thrown into turmoil when it formed a coalition with the racist, far-right FPÖ (Freedom Party) in the Burgenland region. Such a step had previously been rejected by several party congresses, most recently in 2014.

The SPÖ was re-founded in 1945, at the same time as the Austrian republic itself and the trade-union federation (ÖGB) were re-established, while the successor of the pre-war main bourgeois party (the Austro-fascists) converted themselves into the Peoples Party (ÖVP). While the social democracy presented itself, at least in words, after its initial formation in 1869 and into the 1920s as left, fighting and anti-capitalist, in 1945 it made clear that it would be part of the bourgeois state and capitalism. The left wing was quickly politically incorporated into the party, symbolised by the very rapid dropping of the description “revolutionary socialists” from the party’s official title, and never formed an organised opposition in the following decades.

Until the 1980s, the SPÖ stood for reforms in the original sense of the word, as improvements for the working class, not as it’s used today for attacks on the working class. Given the post-war boom and that Austria was the gateway to the East, there were resources liberated to improve the living standard of the working class. Bruno Kreisky, still praised today as the SPÖ-chancellor of the “good old times,” led the SPÖ governments from 1970 to 1983, winning 51.03% in the 1979 election. This period is famous for reforms that opened the universities to working class youth and improved the rights of women.

But Kreisky’s main role was to modernize the Austrian economy. He was able to do what the representatives of the main bourgeois party couldn’t. This was to get rid of old economic structures and to improve conditions for the capitalists, especially big and international companies. In government, the SPÖ made sure that the state acted, as Engels wrote in Anti-Dühring, as the “the ideal personification of the total national capital”, i.e. acting in the general interest of the capitalist class. The traditional bourgeois parties, which had strong traditional links to one section of capital or another, could not play this general role. But the Social Democrats were free from such narrow links and could do so. This fact, combined with increasing economic problems starting in the 1980, transformed the SPÖ. The process of the party’s bourgeoisification speeded up, and the policy of the SPÖ since the 1980s has been one of privatization and social cuts. The “social” in Social Democracy became an empty word.

Since 2007, the SPÖ has supplied the Austrian chancellor. It is the party that provides the most stable base for domestic and foreign capital. It cuts social services, it deregulates, and it uses its influence on the trade unions to keep them quiet. The dogma of the Austrian Trade Union Federation (ÖGB) is to keep social peace, and following a neo-Keynesian paradigm its leaders argue that an increase in wages as necessary to keep domestic demand up.

How deeply the SPÖ sees itself as the most serious force to rescue Austrian capitalism was shown recently in the Styria region. Before the May 31 regional election the SPÖ was in coalition with the ÖVP in Styria, where they called themselves a “partnership of reforms” and implemented the most severe cuts in the country. They were celebrated and welcomed by bourgeois commentators as the “bravest politicians in the country” – and hated by ordinary people. But both parties lost dramatically in the recent elections. Then, in order to continue the coalition and its ‘reform’ programme, the SPÖ was prepared to abandon the governorship to the ÖVP, even though they were still the strongest party in the elections.

All these policies created the political space for one of the strongest and longest-living far right parties in Europe to develop, the Freedom Party (FPÖ). The FPÖ was never a liberal party and had fascist and far right elements within it from its foundation in 1955. After the charismatic Jörg Haider came into the leadership of the FPÖ in 1986, it turned into a modern far right populist party that partly filled the vacuum opened up by the bourgeoisification of the SPÖ. For a long time it was a “no go” for the SPÖ to work with the FPÖ on a national level, although they had some regional coalitions and cooperated with the FPÖ. But after June 2015, this was no longer the case. After its defeat in the Burgenland state elections on May 31st, the SPÖ went straight into coalition with the far right, racist FPÖ.

This led a layer of social democrats to protest, politically because of the FPÖ’s racist policy, but formally because of decisions taken at party congresses in both 2004 and 2014 not to go into coalition with what its resolutions described as the “right-wing extremist” FPÖ. But a demonstration called against this Burgenland coalition, mainly organized via Facebook, was small and a congress to “rescue the SPÖ” did not have any impact on the party.

The existence of the coalition also forced other SPÖ-structures and individuals to speak out in favour of a coalition with the FPÖ. They presented this as a tactical step, to not be totally dependent on the ÖVP for coalitions. The SPÖ national executive gave de facto approval to the coalition, arguing that the decision of the national party congress is not valid at the state level. While a very few old, retired, SPÖ leaders have criticised this step, an increasing number of SPÖ functionaries do not see a difference in policy in practice, as the SPÖ is responsible for the deportation of migrants, routinely prevents asylum-seeker homes from being located in towns they control, and generally defends an “our people first” politics. So when the remaining lefts in the SPÖ cry out against the coalition, they are ignoring the fact that the SPÖ itself is implementing the policies the FPÖ is demanding.

So while there are discussions going on within the SPÖ, it would be too much to speak about turmoil in the party because there is hardly any party life left. At its highpoint in the 1970s, the SPÖ had over 700,000 members (out of a population of around 7.5 million). This has dropped to just over 200,000 – with the majority of those being either bureaucrats or functionaries economically-dependent on the party, or not being active at all. Right from its formation in 1945, the right wing of the party dominated the SPÖ. They were stronger in numbers, as most had not been part of the resistance against fascism and survived, whereas many on the left had been killed.

But also the left of the SPÖ made the political mistake of completely surrendering to the idea that “there can only be one party of the working class” and limited their opposition in the name of “party unity”. The left forgot Karl Liebknecht’s warning of “political clarity first, then unity” and never tried to organize, never battled for the leadership of the party. And while the left concentrated on the youth wing and the party academy, it ignored trade union work. At no time since 1945 has the left had an influence that seriously challenged the right wing SPÖ leadership. And the left of the SPÖ repeated its mistakes again and again and again.

The few remaining active rank-and-file members are lefties who are not prepared to break with the party, and most likely will not do so in the future. Protest from the youth organizations or rank-and-file structure are ignored by the leadership and are not reflected in the party line or politics. So there is not much democracy left.

So the SPÖ is a party, but one that’s losing its reputation and support. It is clinging to power in an often disgusting way. Where it rules, like in Vienna, it denies existing problems and acts in a quasi-feudal way. When the SPÖ argues that the living standard is still higher in Austria, that the situation is not as bad as in other countries, it is correct. But this is not because of the SPÖ’s politics in the last several decades, but because of the improvements and standards that were won in the 1950-70s. If you start to cut from a high level, it takes some time to get to the bottom, even if you cut continuously.

But in the coming period, the crisis will hit Austria even harder than other countries. What helped the Austrian economy to stay in a somewhat better situation, namely a dependence on exports and an extremely high involvement in eastern Europe, especially of the Austrian banking sector, will turn into the basis for major problems.

Unemployment is increasing quickly, as jobs are transferred to cheaper places in Eastern Europe, and at the same time the state is reducing investments. Poverty is becoming an increasing problem as well: 19% of the population (and 23% of those under the age of 20) are excluded from social activities by money problems, have limited possibilities in education and even lack a proper diet. So there is no longer a basis for feel-good propaganda, as day-to-day life is has become intolerable.

All of this, combined with the inability of the politicians to give any answers to the burning questions of unemployment, poverty etc. is the basis for an increased alienation from all political parties. While corruption seemed to be a minor problem just 20 years ago, today it is omnipresent. Only 10 % trust politicians, only 17% the government. The biggest “party” in each election is the one of non-voters.

The Freedom Party has gained in this situation and is currently the largest party in opinion polls. Although for a layer of younger people it is increasingly seen as one of the established parties, it still presents itself as the main opposition, somehow different and more “social”. It uses the question of migration and refugees to link its racist propaganda to social problems, giving the impression that the increasing number of refugees are responsible for the cuts and the lack of money for “our” people.

This propaganda can work as the SPÖ as well as the ÖGB often have a racist attitude towards migrants and refugees. Back in the 1990s, the SPÖ made clear that the FPÖ is spreading hate propaganda, but that the SPÖ is making the laws (laws that where directed against migrants). Today in a number of cases the SPÖ not only works together in regional coalitions with the FPÖ, but SPÖ mayors are at the forefront against refugees being located in their towns and cities. Just a few days ago the SPÖ in Linz, one of the main industrial towns in Austria, had a street activity against a new home for around 250 asylum seekers (in a town of 190,000).

The SPÖ has normalized these nationalist arguments, since the arguments of the far right and the trade union bureaucracy in practice were almost the same. The refugee question is becoming increasing important. With increasing international tensions, the situation in Syria/Iraq/Libya, the economic and humanitarian crises in Africa, and environmental disaster, the number of people who try to flee to Europe will increase. But as long as no party gives answers from a socialist, internationalist and anti-capitalist point of view, the far right will gain on the basis of “the boat is full” propaganda.

The main strength of the FPÖ is the lack of any left alternative. With the current crisis of the SPÖ, it’s possible that we could see further drops in opinion polls and that they could receive an all-time low vote in the upcoming Viennese elections (in a city that was once known as “red Vienna”). But there is a chance to take important steps in the direction of a new workers’ party. Discussions have begun amongst social democrats who are still in or around the party. One weakness of the debate is that it concentrates on formal points (“the coalition is against a decision of the party congress”) and moral points (“no coalition with the far right FPÖ”).

Of course it is absolutely correct to reject and even fight against the FPÖ, which is a party of the far right with links to fascist organizations. For example the FPÖ youth organization, RFJ, just had a joint public meeting with the neo-fascist group “Identititäre” in Burgenland, the state where the SPÖ has gone into coalition with the FPÖ.

But the danger coming from the FPÖ is wider. Although it tries to paint itself as a social party, it is a hard-line anti-working class party, attacking trade union rights, collective bargaining, and making far reaching social cuts whenever they are in power somewhere. So for a solid campaign against the FPÖ, that reaches beyond a layer of people who are already against the FPÖ, these social questions have to be central and it has to struggle against the social cuts implemented by the SPÖ.

Another weakness of the forces in and around the SPÖ who are against the coalition with the FPÖ is that so far they have worked clandestinely, and haven’t launched an open appeal. There are angry trade union members and even functionaries who speak out against the coalition with the FPÖ. But there is no attempt to link those forces up in an organized way. The coming together of the different strata of the left, both inside and outside of the SPÖ, together with those who are active in the different social struggles (against deportations of asylum seekers, in the health sector for more staff and better payment, etc.) in an open, democratic discussion with the target of building something new and the working together in a joint campaign around social issues (like the question of unemployment, shorter/longer working hours, a minimum wage...) could be a starting point for a new formation.

The SLP, the Austrian section of the CWI, is focusing especially on the importance of learning from the processes of new formations in other countries. Not to lose momentum, not to keep it too narrow, not to concentrate purely on elections, not to limit politics to a soft line. The danger is that the current opportunity to build a new party will pass by. If the current crisis of the SPÖ does not lead to serious steps towards a new workers party, it doesn’t mean that the possibility is over forever. But it will mean that the far right has more time to build up and implement dangerous attacks on the working class.

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