By Red Frog
May Day Books
Thursday, September 14th, 2017
I’ll bet Austromarxism was not on the tip of your lips. Mine either. However, this intriguing little book came into May Day and touched on topics few talk about. Dave Zirin, the sports lefty, should read it, as should some of the pacifist types on the left. Even our tee-totalers will feel a bit vindicated.
The Working Class Atlas
Events in “Red Vienna” are somewhat unknown on the U.S. left, so this study helps with its extensive bibliography. Lenin, Trotsky, Serge, Bela Kun & Ilona Duczynska all criticized the ideas and methods of the Austrian Social-Democratic Workers Party (SDAP) – Kautsky, Hilferding, Bauer, Adler and their the ‘2.5 International” – from a Bolshevik point of view. Their key criticisms were brought out when the SDAP failed to stop Austrian fascism from triumphing in 1934. They called them ‘all bark, no bite.” The SDAP talked left, mentioned the possible need for a dictatorship of the proletariat and tried to effect theoretical unity between Social Democrats and Communists, but none of that occurred.
At four key moments of crisis in Austria the SDAP failed to live up to its revolutionary talk. The first was their refusal to actively support the March 1919 council republic in next door Hungary. Next, in July 1927, a court acquitted some fascists who had shot at an SDAP march and killed some workers. During the mass workers protest that followed, the SDAP did not come out in a show of force to respond to the fascist threat. Third, in March 1933 the SDAP failed to properly deploy their “Schutzbund” workers militia in the face of the suspension of the Austrian parliament by the fascists, and disappointed their own base. They followed that up in February 1934 by missing the moment and not moving fast enough to seize power in Vienna as the fascists were taking power. This last failure, after a 3 day battle, led to the triumph of fascism in Austria. The basic lesson learned was that ‘retreat’ emboldens the bourgeoisie and their fascist henchman, and at these key moments, the SDAP leadership backed down for fear of civil war. Well, civil war came anyway.
The German and Italian CPs did not even make the late attempt the SDAP did, so there is lots of blame to go around. Though the CPs, including the tiny one in Austria, were key in the later partisan movements across Europe.
However the SDAP made valuable contributions in building an anti-fascist military militia, which unfortunately only went into action once. The SDAP dominated the sports scene with working-class sports clubs. Some of their leaders crusaded against alcoholism as something which weakened the working-class, ultimately coming out against any drinking. Karl Polyani described changes in Vienna after the 1919 election of the SDAP as unique in the socialist movement.
The Republican Schutzbund was the anti-fascist militia built by the SDAP, which was drawn from party cadres, unions, the proletarian sports clubs, youth and the general working class. It guarded meetings and demonstrations, paraded in strength, practiced military skills and was to be eventually called out in combat with fascist gangs or in defense of the working class and the destruction of republican institutions. As was noted by the SDAP leadership, the bourgeois military is THE key prop of the capitalist order, so without an organized opposition, defeat is far more likely. Yet due to the aforementioned hesitations of the SDAP leadership, the Schutzbund was only used once, which demoralized the Austrian working class and encouraged the fascist paramilitaries.
There were debates within the Schutzbund as to whether it was to be a strictly military organization or should learn the skills of what has come to be called urban guerilla warfare. The majority was in favor of traditional militarism. Duczynska noted that this technique was sometimes more useful in controlling the working class than the enemy. Nothing in the book indicates that the units allowed democratic votes, so they might have been purely top-down.
The SDAP tried to create a working-class culture to accompany their political struggle. After their election in Vienna they constructed large workers apartment buildings like the ‘Karl Marx-Hof’ to better house the class. One writer about Red Vienna called it a “foretaste of the socialist utopia.” Public swimming pools, dental clinics in schools, maternity homes, adult education centers, lending libraries, , bookstores, publishing houses, theaters and festivals were all part of life in Red Vienna, part of an expression of Austromarxism and unknown in other cities. It showed the role of the ‘city’ in socialist organizing.
Of particular note, the SDAP created the Austrian ‘Workers League for Sport & Body Culture,’ which had hundreds of thousands of members and participated in nearly all sports. This kind of organization was not possible until workers got an 8 hour day. This movement went international, with a series of well-attended proletarian ‘ Workers Olympics’ that made no mention of nations and did not fly national flags, as does our present rabidly bourgeois ‘Olympics.’ This was under the umbrella of the ‘Socialist Workers Sport International (SWSI).’ At its peak, the SWSI had 2 million members and held 3 international Olympics.
The sports clubs promoted health, community and strength for the average worker, not individualism, commercialism and ‘records’ by the pampered elite bourgeois athlete. Participation was emphasized over passive watching of sports by fans. One main purpose was to prepare the working class for a physical confrontation with the fascists or even the state, as flabby, weak or lazy workers would not be much good in a clash. As part of this physical culture, the SDAP also created the ‘Whersport’ organization, which specialized in more military physical skills – marksmanship, martial arts, running and other disciplines related to military training. All of this has echoes in the U.S. – the Teamster Local 544 Union Guard, the BPP, AIM, Robert Williams and the Deacons for Defense, the JB Anti-Klan Committee, Socialist Rifle Association, Redneck Revolt – but in the U.S. they occur on a much smaller level. So far…
Drinking is a two-edged sword, and many times it (and its modern equivalent, drugs) demobilizes working class people. Karl Kautsky once remarked that ‘liquor, that is the enemy.’ Like the strict rules against drug and alcohol by the Black Muslims, the SDAP promoted temperance as an antidote to the rampant alcoholism found among some working class people, which only profited the bourgeois ‘inn’ owners in Austria. If religion is not the opiate of the people, certainly drugs and alcohol can be. Most socialists at this time were OK with socializing around a glass of beer or wine (Marx was a beer drinker himself) but not the SDAP leadership. And they might have had a point, as their society was marinating in fascism at the time.
The book ends with re-publication of some of the writings of Julius Deutsch, a former impoverished worker and military man who met Luxembourg, Kautsky, Bebel, Trotsky, Bauer and Adler in Berlin and Vienna. Deutsch had organized an anti-war group in the Austrian military during WWI and also fought in Spain. During the first Austrian Republic in 1918, after the fall of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, he was appointed minister of defense by the Social Democrats as part of a joint government.
May Day carries a number of Dave Zirin’s books on sports. Commentaries on anti-fascism, the NFL, the Olympics, drugs and alcohol, below. Use blog search box, upper left with those terms.
And I bought it at May Day Books!