Surprise victory for left candidate in Austrian Social Democrats’ election

Newly elected leader of the Austrian social democrats, Andreas Babler (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Politics are hot and cold in Austria these days. The leadership race at the Austrian Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) June 3rd party congress saw the election, as Chair, of Andreas Babler, a former Socialist Youth leader who is seen to be on the left of the party.

Babler’s candidacy and election shook Austria. The fact that Babler sometimes describes himself as a ‘Marxist’, combined with the recent sudden increase in support for the Communist Party (KPÖ), marked a further decline of ‘traditional’ politics. It also illustrated the increasing polarisation in Austria, symbolised by the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) leading the national opinion polls since last November.

But the leadership election was not without incident. At first, at the congress, Hans-Peter Doskozil, who is on the right of the party, was announced as victorious. However, two days later, the party election committee announced that there had been irregularities and that instead, the victor was Babler. The error seems to have originated from the fact that in the recent past, the SPÖ only had to deal with a vote with one candidate and not two candidates standing – they used an old formula in an Excel spreadsheet.

In a way, this represents the heated debate within the party and within society. The close vote was an illustration of how quickly things can change and turmoil develop in this era of multiple crises of capitalism. The vote on the SPÖ leadership happened against a background in which inflation in Austria is at 9% and above the EU average. This, among other factors, has led to increased levels of class struggles, especially in autumn 2022, given the pressure from below to fight inflation and the high cost of living crisis.

The leadership battle in the SPÖ was preceded by a victory of the Communist Party (KPÖ) in April’s local elections in Salzburg, in which the KPÖ won 11%. Previously, in 2021, the KPÖ became the largest party in Graz, Austria’s second biggest city, giving them the mayoral position and also being in a ruling coalition with the Social Democrats and the Greens. A developing leftward mood saw support for the KPÖ in national opinion polls jump from 0.7% in the 2019 elections to 8% in mid-May, although the polarisation in society is seen in the FPÖ’s current strength.

The SPÖ leadership battle before had been between three equally strong camps; the party leadership which was currently dominated by the Vienna party leadership, around Vienna mayor Michael Ludwig, which had rallied behind Pamela Rendi-Wagner, who had resigned as Party Chair after coming third narrowly in a membership poll; the right wing around Ernst Doskozil, who stood against the leadership with a more populist course, giving in to racist anti-migrant moods, and is mainly supported in the countryside outside of Vienna; and the left around Andreas Babler.

The leadership battle was not initiated by Babler though, who had been a mayor in a small town in lower Austria in recent years and had been able to push back the FPÖ locally. The contest was rapidly arranged after conflicts between Doskozil and the party leadership sharpened and came to a head, initially around the question of which course to take on migration.

With this surprise victory, Babler now finds himself the new chair of the party. Surrounding these events there have been rumours about election fraud by forces close to Doskozil in the election committee. The chairwoman of the election committee, who was the partner of Doskozil’s main supporter, had to resign. It now seems the mistake really was down to an error. But the fact that it was plausible that there could have been fraudulent activities says a lot about the state of the party apparatus and the lack of trust in it.

Learn the lessons of Corbynism

Babler’s victory sent a wave of euphoria through his supporters. However, it is quite likely that they could be harshly disappointed if Babler continues to hold back from arguing for a fundamental break with capitalism. Immediately, Babler’s supporters need to organise – not only if they really wanted to transform the party but also because a collision with the pro-capitalists in the party will, at some point, pose the question of a split. A few right-wingers are leaving the SPÖ but most are currently staying in the party to try to act as a brake on developments. For over a hundred years, there has been a tradition of the SPÖ striving to control, or even initiate, movements in order to steer them in a direction which doesn’t challenge capitalism. The sections of the SPÖ right-wing who backed Babler in this election will want to do this again, to cut across any radicalisation resulting from Babler’s victory and also push back the KPÖ’s increased support.

Babler and his supporters should learn the lessons of ‘Corbynism’ in Britain and strip the party of the bureaucratic elites around both Ludwig and Doskozil and effectively kick them out. He is doing the opposite though, and integrating the different wings in terms of his appointments to leading positions in the party. In a way, the wing around Vienna mayor Michael Ludwig seems to be less represented in these positions than in the past, but it is very doubtful that the Ludwig wing will accept that and not in some way strike back.

Babler has also announced an SPÖ congress for autumn to confirm his position and to regain “unity”. It is very unlikely though that he can unify this deeply split party. But the question is whether such a political unification is desirable at all. Babler’s programme is limited. Jeremy Corbyn’s programme, with all its limitations, was more radical. But even Babler’s limited demands will bring him into collision with the ruling class and those inside his own party who side with the capitalists. If that happens, Babler’s supporters should not be afraid of breaking with the pro-capitalists inside the SPÖ.

While Babler may raise the hopes of people with his demands such as a 32-hour week, with full compensation of pay, it is not clear how that will be implemented. The trade union leaders, in some instances, have opted for a shortening of working hours in exchange for lower wage rises (as the bosses would have more easily granted shorter working hours than higher wages). While this might be an improvement in the long term, shorter hours won’t pay the increased heating and food bills. Doskozil exploited that gap, calling for a minimum wage by law instead of shorter hours, saying people need to pay their bills now. In reality, Babler’s demand for a shorter working week needs to be accompanied by a commitment by the unions to fight for both shorter hours and higher wages and a willingness to challenge the bosses. Babler would have to build a movement to fight for both.

The euphoria around Babler amongst a layer has been accompanied by the media grilling Babler about his “Marxist” past in the social democratic youth organisation, and simultaneously falsely connecting Marxism to the former Stalinist regimes. In the Socialist Youth, Babler was part of the “Stamokap” wing, which looked to a Stalinist interpretation of Marxism. When confronted by the media about whether he is a Marxist, Babler first said he is, and then took a step back to say he is not. This is indicative of his approach, in general. Sections of the media have attempted to divert attention from Marxism to “Austro-Marxism” as the “acceptable” version of Marxism. Given that, in many ways, “Austro-Marxism” was a combination of radical words while working within capitalism, it was something that the ruling class could often, but not always, live with.

However, the widespread public discussion about Marxism poses the possibility of politicising a layer that is fed up with the media and the right-wing parties’ hysteria about Marxism. Babler and the KPÖ leaders, who have also been faced with the media challenging them about Stalinism, would need to be clear about what the tasks of Marxists are in today’s capitalist crisis: building organisations that are able to combat the cost of living crisis and connecting that to a willingness to decisively break with capitalism, while explaining what genuine, democratic socialism could look like.

High inflation and increasing class struggle

Both the KPÖ April election victory in Salzburg, as well as Babler’s election to SPÖ chair, is an indication of the longing for a party as a weapon to combat the cost of living crisis. There is a discussion amongst bourgeois experts about whether the recent wage rises were too high. In recent months, social peace was bought by the capitalists by granting relatively high wage rises (compared to the EU average) – but still below actual inflation – in reaction to the warning strikes that have taken place in autumn 2022, in some sectors. That is an indication of the potential strength of the working class. If the ruling class now turns to a more confrontational stance, this could lead to new warning strikes and strikes, which are already on the rise again.

There was a strike by childcare workers in schools on June 15. On top of that, a warning strike in one of Vienna’s hospitals has been announced for June 30th. The strike was initiated by the ÖVP led doctors’ “chamber” whereas the leaders of SPÖ led public sector union, Younion, which represents the nurses, spoke out against organising a strike. It is likely that the SPÖ Vienna had a say in this. The leaders of Younion use the fact that the strike is organised by the doctors to come out against the strike, saying a struggle by the whole staff is necessary and that a strike is not an adequate tool. In fact, nurses and care staff would very likely join a strike if the leaders of Younion called for one. The background to these issues is an intense lack of staff in Vienna hospitals, which in fact threatens patients’ lives. Babler should take up the issue and call for Younion to support and join the strike. It is quite likely that this would bring him into conflict with the SPÖ Vienna leadership.

A new mass workers’ party still needed

In this period of crises, the question is posed increasingly clearly of the need to start to deal with the immediate questions of living standards, the environment, and oppression and war, by building a mass movement willing to challenge capitalism under the banner of fighting for socialism. To help achieve this, we need a mass party which is willing to break with capitalism, capable of defending and improving living standards, to fight against the renewed rise of the right-wing populist FPÖ. Babler and the KPÖ can play a role in this process. As we think that is very unlikely that the SPÖ can be fundamentally transformed, a new workers’ party is still on the cards.

Sozialistische Offensive (CWI Austria) proposes that the KPÖ organises conferences that invite union activists, Babler and his supporters, and people who look for answers to the multiple crises of capitalism, to discuss the next steps for the left. The KPÖ’s programme is limited, which is indicated by where they have led the city government coalition in Graz since 2021, with the SPÖ and the Greens. The KPÖ’s programme is limited, which is indicated by what it does in Graz, where the KPÖ has led the city government coalition with the SPÖ and the Greens since 2021. In response to a financial crisis in Graz, they announced they would not fill job vacancies caused by workers retiring. On the other hand, Graz raised public-run housing rents by 2%, compared to the SPÖ-led Vienna city government which raised them by 8.6%. But the KPÖ does not use the public positions it holds to explain the limits to what can be achieved under capitalism and to seek to popularise the idea of socialist change.

Babler winning the chair position of the SPÖ has partially cut across the KPÖ’s recent success in the opinion polls. But if the polls are correct, the KPÖ’s could still enter parliament after elections that are due by autumn 2024.

There is the potential to create the basis for the combative new mass workers’ party that can be instrumental in organising, strengthening and coordinating class struggle to defend living standards. At the same time, Sozialistische Offensive would argue for such a party to adopt and campaign for a socialist programme, with the commanding heights of the economy to be put into public ownership, for a break with capitalism, and for a democratically planned economy. This is the only way to begin to end the multiple crises of capitalism and to transform living standards.

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June 2023