“We’re Not Just Grateful for Red Vienna — We Need to Fight for It”
Austria’s capital city is famous for its model public housing and social services, the legacy of municipal socialism in the 1920s. But it’s been decades since the Social Democrats have done anything to build on this record. Now a new leftist party is working to turn Vienna red again.
- Interview by
- Ben Beckett
On October 11, voters in Vienna will elect a new city council. The Austrian capital, home to almost a quarter of the country’s population, has long been run by the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ). Mostly remembered in the English-speaking world for its prewar history as a mass working-class party that built “Red Vienna,” the SPÖ has moved steadily toward the center since 1945 and especially since the 1980s.
This year, organizers on the Left formed a new party called LINKS. Some of these activists have been instrumental in revitalizing the “Thursday demonstrations” against Austria’s right-wing government, which began in 2000. Now, they hope to reclaim the mantle of Red Vienna.
As Vienna LINKS’s head candidate Anna Svec said, “Red Vienna left us with certain things that are fairer and better than in other large cities. I’m glad about that. But those who fought these struggles would not want us to be grateful. They would want us to keep fighting.”
Jacobin’s Ben Beckett sat down with LINKS candidates Anna Svec, Angelika Adensamer, and Can Gülcü to discuss the elections and the role of a left party in organizing the working class.
Housing is a big problem. The private market is getting bigger and bigger, and paying your rent is taking up more of your salary.
Vienna is an example for the whole world of what social housing could be like. In that way, it is unique. But on the other side, from the 1990s onward, the real estate market has shifted, with more and more people forced to seek housing in the private market rather than social housing. The rents have gone up more than 50 percent over the last ten years, and most leases are now time-limited rather than permanent. That wasn’t the case before the 1990s. Things got worse even faster in the 2000s.
The working class in Vienna is quite diverse. First, there are a lot of migrants, who have no right to vote. We also face huge differences between the different districts in the city. The 15th district, where Anna lives, is the poorest district in all of Austria. People die seven or eight years younger, on average, than the city’s wealthy districts.
A lot of Austrian [i.e., nonimmigrant] working-class people have relatively higher living standards than migrants — and they don’t necessarily live in the same districts in large numbers. A lot of working-class people who are native Austrians do vote right-wing, especially those who live in districts where the smallest number of migrants live. This is the contradiction within the working class: those who are more afraid of losing their standard of living are moving further to the Right, and those who have a higher incentive to fight for an improved standard of living don’t have political rights.
Overall in Vienna, 30 percent of the voting-age population doesn’t have the right to vote. In some districts, it is as high as 40 percent or 50 percent. To gain citizenship in Austria takes at least ten years, plus a difficult test, and it’s really expensive. And you have to give up your other citizenship to get your Austrian citizenship, which is something very few other countries still require. So there are many factors leading to long-term residents not getting the right to vote. The proportion of the population ineligible to vote keeps rising. It is a lot higher now than in the last election five years ago.
You also have to earn a certain salary to be eligible for citizenship, higher than the national average — something like €2,100 a month after tax for an individual and more for families.
What is LINKS, and how did it get started?
We had a big founding event in January, which we had prepared for since the summer. There had been attempts to have a big leftist organization in the past, but this one was a bit different because we said from the beginning we wanted to run in elections. Sometimes, those earlier organizations had struggled with even that decision and then got stuck on that. And so we were saying we want to have a party structure, we want to run in this coming election, which was ten months away at that point.
What was the concern in the past about running in elections?
Some people haven’t wanted to organize around a “parliamentary” route for change. We said from the beginning that a left-wing organization or party has to do both — politics in the street and organizing and building structures and also running for elections. We want to bring politics to every layer of society.
It’s really hard to get past the threshold [of minimum votes, to allow a party to be seated in the legislature]. It’s 5 percent at the city level and 4 percent at the national level, and it has been decades since any leftist party has reached that. So, it costs a lot of resources, and it’s very hard to succeed.
In Austria, especially, there is the argument that you always have to vote for the Social Democrats because there are both left-wing people and more right-wing people in the party. So the argument is you have to strengthen its left-wing part. It’s hard work to convince people that it’s always the right wing of the party that’s really making the decisions, in the end.
In addition to the city council, LINKS is running candidates in local neighborhood councils. How do the neighborhood council elections factor into your strategy?
I think the political work in the next five years will be on the district level, from the bottom up. It’s quite clear that we’ll have a number of district-level candidates win, even if we don’t win a seat in the city council itself. In the next five years, we want to build up social centers and make left politics useful. We have to show people that we’re there all the time, not just when there are elections. We started on this election eight months ago, and we’ve built up our district groups pretty well. Of course, the coronavirus crisis happened as we were starting, so we still have a lot of work to do.
What kind of things can district councilors do?
What’s really missing in Vienna is a connection between grassroots organizations, because everything is so centralized on the institutions, or the funds, of the Social Democratic Party. Changing that from the Left means building up structures and networks, since we won’t ever have the same finances. Some of us were involved in the Thursday demonstrations against the right-wing government. The experience we had with that was the immense number of different groups working in the city, and a lot of them haven’t even heard of each other. So we want to create connections between these groups, based both on location and on different areas of concern. Those connections aren’t really happening at the moment among groups that aren’t supported by big funds or big charitable or social institutions.
Historically, the attitude in Vienna has been “social democracy cares for you,” so there isn’t a big tradition of organizing together. I think that bringing those disparate groups together is a step toward a new way of doing politics.
One of the biggest failures of social democracy in Vienna was to abolish the system of caretakers [“Hausbesorger”] in social housing. These people took care of things — not just cleaning the buildings, but hearing people’s concerns, often organizing them to vote. They served as de facto party organizers in the buildings. They were people’s first point of contact. So as these positions disappeared, many working-class people lost day-to-day contact with the state. They no longer have any way to channel everyday concerns into political ones. This is something really missing. I think this is one of the biggest reasons that more people now vote for the Right.
Yes, because what replaced them? The police. That’s exactly what happened, they were replaced with “community police officers.” These officers are called for things that are really just issues among neighbors — people being loud or kids making a mess in the courtyard. If you have no one to tell, now the first person you go to is the police. They have come to be seen as the people who can solve your day-to-day problems.
How do you manage the tension between those two groups — on the one hand, the Austrian or native working class that no longer sees a Left or center-left fighting for them, and on the other hand the activists you were talking about earlier, people who organize all the time? Somehow, the Left has to speak to people who have been disengaged from politics and at the same time to those who are the most engaged.
I think that’s exactly how we connect using the district councils. Of course, Austria is a class society, but the class differences are often not discussed. So, activists are not necessarily from the same social background as the working class. That’s more or less the same everywhere in the world. I think concrete left politics in the neighborhood — to be there instead of the housekeeper or the police or some right-wing politician, and to offer something without asking for something — is the key, I think.
I think continuity and being interested in everyday things that concern people and connecting them with bigger topics takes some time.
In your view, why is the Social Democratic Party no longer capable of fighting for working-class people?
After 1945, Austria developed the idea of “social partnership,” so basically not fighting for people who are oppressed, but sitting at a table with conservatives and talking about how we make the nicest solution.
Just sitting down and dividing the country’s economy and literally discussing “Okay, you’ll get this much, we’ll get this much.”
I think that isn’t a good way to do politics in any case, but it was working kind of okay for social democracy until neoliberalism. At that point, essentially conservatives said [through new policies], “We don’t need that social partnership anymore.” Neoliberalism started class war from above, and the Social Democrats didn’t find any way to answer it. They had no experience fighting.
They’re in the opposition now [at the national level], and it’s clear they have no idea what to do in opposition.
I think it’s important to say that it would actually be really good for left-wing activists in the Social Democrats and the Greens who are more on the Left to have pressure from outside, the way there is pressure on the outside from the Right. It would strengthen their position, too, to have pressure from outside. It’s important to make clear that the enemy isn’t the left-wing people in the Social Democrats or the Greens.
What parts of your platform are people most energized by?
People think it’s cool to have something they want to vote for, rather than just for the lesser evil. In many cases, people don’t necessarily say, “Ah, finally a Left party,” but when you talk to them, you make it clear that you yourself face the same worries they do. We also have problems paying our rent because it’s getting higher and higher, we have problems with a work contract that doesn’t give real job security. I got the feeling that people were a little surprised that we actually had the same problems. To hear that from a party, I think that was the point where people opened up — not from saying “smash capitalism” or “here is the left party you always waited for,” but from showing people you’re going to fight for them because you literally have the same struggles in your own life.
How do you plan to build on the momentum you’ve developed once the election is over?
We already have real structures that we’re proud of. It wasn’t easy to build up real structures during the coronavirus crisis and not just have some social media project. What is really special is many people have got organized for the first time with LINKS. It will be a big task but also a good start to build up structures that continue after the election because people feel closer to those. It’s important to make a party that stays, one that people can trust over the years. I think one of the big tasks will be to be the left-wing opposition against the right-wing atmosphere. Out politics are first and foremost against the Right.
What was obvious in the last weeks is that if there is a concrete project, people start to get really active. When we started to collect petitions, it was like, “Where did all these people come from?” It was a huge contrast to discussion meetings that had ten or fifteen people. People really want to take action.
What are the conditions like for the working class in Vienna?