In Graz, Austria, Communists Have Built a Red Fortress

In Graz, Austria’s second-largest city, Communists have ridden a wave of working-class discontent to become the main challenger to the ruling conservatives.

A campaign stand of the KPÖ party in Graz, Austria. (Matthias Röder / picture alliance via Getty Images)

The end of June brought a surprise in Graz, Austria, as Mayor Siegfried Nagl — a mainstay of the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) — called snap elections for September 26. The capital of the southeastern Styria region, the 300,000-strong city could have held the election as late as next February, and Nagl’s move prompted outrage from his coalition partners in the right-populist Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ). Rumors are circulating that Nagl’s real intention in holding the snap poll is to swap these far-right allies for the Greens — an ostensibly center-left but eminently pliable party who are already in coalition with the ÖVP in Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s federal government.

Yet this isn’t the only story in Austria’s second-largest city. For the real challenger to the conservatives isn’t the Greens but a party much further to its Left. Currently polling second place in the run-up to the September 26 poll is the Communist Party of Austria (KPÖ) — a party every bit as proud of its radicalism as its name suggests.

These poll scores build on recent successes. In fact, the KPÖ has finished second in half of the elections in Graz since the turn of the millennium while achieving double-digit vote percentages in every single vote. In the most recent election, in 2017, the party even earned 20.3 percent, winning twelve seats on the city council and city senate. By comparison, the other two left-of-center parties, the Greens and the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ), won eleven seats combined. This marked the second time that Graz’s Communists broke the 20 percent mark, after first doing so in 2003.

The KPÖ’s radical bona fides themselves make it impressive that the party has established itself as an enduring political force in Austria’s second-largest city. And it is even more of an achievement given the party’s marginality on the national level, where it typically receives around 1 percent of the vote in federal elections. The KPÖ’s success in Graz also stands in striking contrast to the dominant political trends in Austria, where the last several decades have seen the collapse of class politics and the steady advance of right-wing populism. So, how have Graz’s Communists managed to defy both national voting patterns and the present reactionary turn?

Surviving the Post-Soviet Era

For most of the twentieth century, the KPÖ was a fairly orthodox communist party for the European context, professing Marxism-Leninism while taking a pro-Soviet line on most issues. Yet unlike its sister parties in countries such as France and Italy, it never achieved mass influence, in part due to the traditional strength of the social-democratic SPÖ among the Austrian working class. Lacking parliamentary representation since 1959, the KPÖ mainly served as a haven for ideologically committed intellectuals and activists.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 triggered an existential crisis for the KPÖ. In response, the party’s Vienna-based leadership spent the next decade following a modernization strategy that involved officially repudiating Marxism-Leninism. This also eventually meant dropping its opposition to the European Union, previously grounded in a view of this institution as a tool for promoting economic deregulation and the privatization of public sector goods and services. But for the KPÖ’s state-level organization in Styria, this attempt to “keep up with the times” represented a betrayal of principles. While the party managed to avoid a split, the Styrian branch ended up pursuing a course autonomous from the national party.

The Communist Party of Austria. (KPÖ Weinviertel / Facebook)

Doctrinal differences aside, the success of the Styrian KPÖ’s course speaks for itself. Not only has it built a stronghold in Graz, but it has also won around five percent of the vote in every state election since 2005, making the Styrian Landtag the only Austrian state parliament in which the KPÖ is represented. This has allowed the Styrian party to open its own “Bildungsverein,” or educational association — a combined party school and cultural venue.

A Formula for Success

While the KPÖ’s achievements in Graz and the rest of Styria may be surprising, the recipe behind its success is straightforward.

Guided by an unwavering commitment to class politics, the Styrian KPÖ has adopted a laser-like focus on a handful of issues that affect the day-to-day lives of working people yet are typically neglected by the major parties. Rather than simply talk about these issues during election campaigns, it has actually delivered on them, in spite of its limited resources, through long-term community engagement.

The most prominent example is the issue of housing — the state party’s bread-and-butter issue for decades. In 1988, the KPÖ achieved a first electoral breakthrough in Graz on the strength of a campaign focused on rising rent prices, winning 3.1 percent of the vote and one seat on the city council. Subsequently, it set up an emergency hotline for tenants seeking counseling and legal advice in dealing with their landlords.

Within a decade, the party had doubled its electoral support in the city, receiving 7.9 percent of the vote in the 1998 municipal election, four seats on the city council, and one seat on the city senate (the local administration’s executive body). 1998 was also the year that newly elected KPÖ city senate member and then–Graz party chairman Ernest Kaltenegger announced his intention to take home only €2,000 of his €6,000 monthly salary — roughly what the average tradesperson earns in Austria. The rest was to be donated to a social fund to help people in financial distress pay their rent and other living costs.

Since then, subsequent KPÖ representatives in the Graz city senate and Styrian Landtag have followed Kaltenegger’s example, thus donating nearly €2.5 million to over twenty thousand individuals and families in need. Yet the social fund hasn’t just benefitted the people of Graz and Styria, but also the party’s own popularity. In the 2003 Graz election — the first to be held after the social fund was instituted — KPÖ’s vote share jumped all the way to 20.9 percent.

Plenty of commentators, including some on the Left, have criticized the Styrian KPÖ’s social fund as being closer to charity than politics. Yet this overlooks the reality that the party has few other avenues for producing tangible material gains for its constituents, especially given the opposition parties’ only limited direct influence on public policy.

By making good on their promises — and demonstrating their personal commitment to improving peoples’ lives — Graz’s Communists have earned the trust of thousands of voters. They have also managed to do what many have regarded as impossible: imbue the word communism with positive connotations in Graz and much of the surrounding region.

“Communism is a utopia, it’s always a question of what you make of an idea,” KPÖ Graz party charwoman and mayoral candidate Elke Kahr stated in a recent interview. “I’m proud to be in a party that’s always on the side of workers instead of corporations and financial advisors. I’m proud because Communists waged the most active resistance against the Nazis.”

Lessons for the Left

So far, odds point toward the KPÖ achieving a similar result to 2017 in the upcoming election. One recent poll puts the party at 20 percent — well behind the conservative ÖVP at 36 percent, but a solid second ahead of the Greens at 14 percent, the far-right FPÖ at 12 percent, and the social-democratic SPÖ at 11 percent.

Given these numbers, it’s all but guaranteed that the KPÖ will remain in opposition after September 26 — and that Graz will be governed by yet another ÖVP-led coalition. Even if left-of-center parties did manage to collectively break 50 percent, it is unlikely that the SPÖ and the Greens would throw their support behind a KPÖ-led government. In particular, it is doubtful that the Greens’ city council members would elect Elke Kahr mayor over Siegfried Nagl, as doing so could have ramifications for Austria’s federal-level ÖVP-Green coalition. For her part, Elke Kahr has suggested that the party with the most votes — almost certainly meaning the ÖVP — should assume the mayor’s office.

All the same, given SPÖ’s protracted decline and the Greens’ dramatic shift to the right since entering a federal coalition with the ÖVP, the Communists’ steady popularity in Graz stands out as a rare bright spot on an otherwise dismal political landscape. Yet, while Graz’s Communists may have built something unique, there is no reason in principle why their success can’t be replicated elsewhere.

At least as far back as the 1980s, much strategic thinking about left-wing politics has operated from the premise that appealing to the masses is a matter of fine-tuning the language in which our demands are articulated. Yet while the extensive body of literature on “left populism” is not entirely without its merits, the KPÖ’s experience suggests that repackaging our politics might not be our primary challenge.

Although we may still be living in a neoliberal era, class-based demands have proven popular the world over, even when made by politicians who openly identify as socialists and communists — words that, according to mainstream commentators, are supposed to represent toxic brands. But while making demands is one thing for parties of the Left, winning the trust of potential constituents has proven much more difficult.

Above all, establishing our credibility requires direct engagement with the people we claim to fight for on issues that immediately affect them. Recently, there have been some encouraging initiatives in this direction elsewhere in the German-speaking world, such as the campaign in Berlin to collect signatures for a referendum on whether to expropriate the city’s mega-landlords.

This approach to politics demands a great deal more effort and commitment from activists than the business-as-usual approach of bourgeois parties, which relies largely on media and advertising. These parties also have an inherently easier task: unlike us, they aren’t trying to transform the capitalist order.

Yet the unlikely success for avowed Communists in a city and country long dominated by conservatives shows that transformative ideas can be popular. And that our efforts really can make a difference.