- Interview by
- Loren Balhorn
“The darker the night, the brighter the stars.” For generations, socialists have used this quotation from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment to poetically frame small successes in otherwise dark times. These words took on newfound relevance for the European left on the last Sunday of September 2021, as Die Linke’s harrowing defeat in the German elections was tempered by a historic victory for the Communist Party (KPÖ) in Austria’s second city, Graz.
This success, with 29 percent of the vote going to the KPÖ, was surprising for many reasons in a city previously run by conservatives. But it didn’t come from nowhere. The local KPÖ has been building an important base in Graz over more than three decades, engaging in struggles over everyday issues like tenants’ rights as well as projecting a broad vision of social change. Now, with the KPÖ’s Elke Kahr elected mayor in a coalition with Greens and Social Democrats, the party can continue its struggle from city hall.
Jacobin’s Loren Balhorn spoke to Kahr about how her party won the trust of tens of thousands of voters — and what a Communist mayor can achieve under capitalism.
You’ve only just been elected mayor of Graz, but you’ve been active in municipal politics as a Communist for decades. Did it ever occur to you that you might become the head of your city’s government? Was that one of your goals?
No, of course not. I joined the KPÖ in 1983 because I was looking for a political home and community that resembled how I pictured a just and equal society. Over the decades, and in all my various roles — first as a KPÖ employee, then as a city council member, and later as the head of the party in Graz — the one thing I’ve wanted was to serve people. I’ve wanted to do everything I can to make sure that the party works with people to further the causes that are important to their lives.
Titles and positions don’t interest me. And being elected mayor hasn’t made me a different person. My politics are still the same. All that has changed is that I now share responsibility for the entirety of the administrative tasks of the City of Graz, for all of its governmental departments, and for its public sector. And here is where I have to now try not only to live up to the goals of the new coalition government but also to my own standards as a human being.
Kurt Hohensinner, the leader of the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) in Graz, has said that city government under your leadership will mean less unity and more division: between drivers and pedestrians, business owners and workers, and tenants and landlords. Is he right in a certain sense? Will you try to carry social conflicts into your governing work?
My understanding of politics is quite different. Our goal is always to bring people together, to strengthen cohesion in a city or society — not to pit the young against the old, natives against foreigners, or women against men. As we wrote in our program from 2012: We are all Graz, and we need to see to it — with the instruments at our disposal on the municipal level — that every person who lives and works here can lead a good life. Of course, we can’t end neoliberalism in one city. But we can do everything to ensure that people aren’t burdened even more. And we can work toward helping people discover the conditions for a more just life.
And, of course, the KPÖ fights above all for the people — not for big landlords or corporations. My party comes from the tradition of the labor movement, the women’s movement, the peace and environmental movements. A lot has been accomplished here, and that’s what our work builds on. We won’t be giving any extra support to real estate speculators. We have the interests of tenants at heart, and of small and midsize firms as well. Also, some large firms in the city are important employers, so we have to make sure that Graz remains a center of commerce while pursuing the goal of a climate-friendly economy. Above all, however, we must ensure that employees have good working conditions and that our doors are always open to them.
What will your priorities be?
Our coalition is held together by the belief that Graz should be more economically just, more democratic, and more climate friendly. In the departments I oversee as mayor — the Department of Housing and the Department of Social Services — this specifically means that we will push to keep building public housing in the coming years. We will also increase the rent deposit fund, open public housing to everyone again [the last government in Graz, a coalition between the conservative ÖVP and the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) — banned non-EU citizens from applying for public housing in 2017], and expand entitlement benefits.
We spent a long time fighting for a so-called social card, which entitles low-income residents of Graz to certain benefits such as an all-inclusive annual public transportation pass for only €50. We now want to expand eligibility for the social card to include all working people, so that as many as possible might receive assistance. We also want to lower fees in city kindergartens. And we want all new kindergartens to be public.
Additionally, we want to institute a freeze on municipal rates for sewage and garbage collection. These usually go up automatically every year, but next year there will be no rate hike.
Can you do all that while maintaining a balanced budget? Or are you prepared to take on new debt?
We’ll first need to take a look at our cash flow. Anyone who understands a bit about accounting knows that the first thing you have to do is look at what the statement of accounts says. There’s already been an estimate, but in March we will know exactly how we stand budget-wise.
Whatever the budget looks like, public spending is needed. We have to keep expanding public transportation and building new schools. And if the means at our disposal are insufficient, then we’ll have to see about taking out a loan here or there to make it happen.
The most important question is, what are we spending money on? We’re not interested in prestige projects but rather in infrastructure for the population. And we also need to spend money on infrastructure because it creates jobs.
Austria not only has a Communist Party but also a very old, proud, and comparatively left-wing Social Democratic Party (SPÖ). What motivated you to join the KPÖ instead of the SPÖ?
It was the authenticity of the people in the party — the anti-fascism, the internationalism, and simply the selflessness of the people involved. At root, the traditions are close to those of Social Democracy, but in the KPÖ, I saw that words were backed up by actions. No one should be left behind and everyone should have the same opportunities in life — in the KPÖ, people just acted like they meant it.
I also read a lot and reflected. The grand long-term goal always appealed to me. But, above all, it was the selflessness in the here and now — the idea that political engagement shouldn’t be about making a career and then abandoning all principles. That is one of the reasons why Social Democracy has lost a lot of ground.
What belongs to all people — public property, that is — must be protected. But Social Democracy has sold off public housing and allowed public services to be taken over by private businesses. I believe that everything that all people need — housing, education, health care, and all areas of general provision, such as energy — should be in the public domain. Giving up this terrain has weakened workers and the labor movement.
What challenges did the KPÖ face when you became active in the 1980s?
Back then, we had to fight a lot against anti-communism. We were extremely marginalized, and there was a lot of prejudice. The biggest problem, however, was that the party wasn’t rooted among the population. There was nothing objectionable about its program — it stood for the same goals as it does today. But we hadn’t yet understood that we couldn’t just console people with hopes of a better world.
We thought we had to explain the whole world to people. It is surely important to make connections: Why is there so much conflict in the world? How do wars start? But, above all, you have to be in touch with how others live and work if you are going to be a useful party for people. You have to acquire the skills to help people with their small, everyday problems.
Over many years, we learned how to do this step by step, first on the issue of housing with the tenants’ emergency hotline, but then on other issues as well. And you can’t ditch this way of doing politics once you’ve assumed office and started drawing a salary as a politician. That’s why KPÖ politicians donate most of our salaries to people in need.
Will you donate most of your mayor’s salary?
That’s what I’ve always done since I’ve drawn a salary as a politician. Since 2005 [the year Kahr became a member of Graz’s city senate], I’ve earned more than €6,000 per month. I’ve always kept €1,950 and given the rest to people in need. When you assume political office and suddenly earn much more than before, it’s easy to lose touch with those who don’t make as much.
There are a lot of people who don’t know how they’re going to pay their bills — people whose finances have been hit hard by health problems, or migrants who can’t afford German classes. Many social workers in the city are glad that they can fall back on me.
The social fund basically works like this: when a retiree who can’t afford a hearing aid comes to us, I transfer her €300 for the co-payment. Or when a woman has her power shut off, I call the energy company and ask them to please turn the woman’s electricity back on, tell them I’ll transfer them however much money — and then it gets done. No one else does those things for me; I do them myself. In this way, I’ve already been able to give almost €900,000 to other people. And now I’ll be able to give away more every month, because I’ll be earning much more as mayor.
Is it possible to implement this practice of providing people with direct personal assistance as part of a national strategy?
Certainly. The way we treat and value people has resonated beyond Graz. People see what we’re doing and say, “Now those are politicians who don’t think they’re better than others, who are there for people, who act selflessly.” Among other ways to avoid losing touch with people, communist politicians in state and national parliaments should also limit their salaries. And it’s also important to always remain accessible and to show people that you’re there for them personally.
On the same day of your election, the German party Die Linke suffered a bitter defeat. And elsewhere in Europe and around the world, the situation for the Left isn’t exactly encouraging. Do you think the KPÖ Graz has a special duty to be a sort of role model?
We’re always happy to see left-wing, progressive, or communist parties succeed elsewhere in the world. But we don’t pass judgment when things don’t go well. I can only judge the situation where I live and work. I know how and why people here think the way they do.
There will always be collaboration. And we learn a lot from others. For example, the tenants’ emergency hotline — that wasn’t our idea, it was something we copied from the French Communist Party. And the idea for a social card came from Berlin.
In other words, what’s important isn’t having all the answers but rather learning from each other while working toward what should be the shared aspiration of every left-wing or progressive party: to put working people at the center, to treat people with kindness and empathy, to bring people together instead of pitting them against each other, to preserve and promote peace and development in a country. And I think the best way to bring about change is from below.
It took us decades to develop our politics. It’s not something that could have happened overnight. But we don’t have some universally valid formula. We now again find ourselves facing a new task, and we have to make sure to rise to the occasion. We’re only in this role [as governing party] for a limited period of time, and in five years we’ll see whether we’ve been able to achieve what we set out to do, and whether our efforts have been well received.
Many democracies are currently contending with declining voter participation. Also, when you were elected mayor, turnout was fairly low at about 50 percent. What does this mean for left-wing strategy? Should we be the ones responsible for renewing the organs of bourgeois democracy and involving more people in the democratic process?
Definitely! That’s always been one of our stated goals. And, in Graz, we’ve at least kept the situation from getting worse — including in the last election. Specifically, our share of voters this time who didn’t participate in the previous election was quite high. And that’s because those voters saw us as a credible alternative.
It’s very important for us to increase participation in the democratic process. And that’s something we’re putting into practice in the new coalition. I can’t only think of the KPÖ, because people voted for other parties as well. That’s why we’ve decided that all parties on the city council will also be represented on all other democratic institutions of the city, such as supervisory boards and committees. This was not the case before.
Moreover, the opportunities for extra-parliamentary democracy must be expanded, not scaled back. When making important decisions in the past, we’ve always sought a coalition with the people. Whenever the city has been about to financially commit to a project of simply no benefit to the population, we’ve always advocated referendums. We’ve averted many negative developments by doing this.
You’ve been heavily criticized in the press in recent weeks because of your alleged sympathies for the Yugoslav Communist Josip Broz Tito. How should leftists approach the heritage of actually existing socialism and Marxism? How can we develop a constructive and undogmatic relationship to it?
In Graz, we’ve never had a dogmatic relationship to actually existing socialism. We are communists. We have our worldview. We’re also Marxists. And my comrades and I are committed to this. During the constitutive assembly of the city council, a member from the [far-right] FPÖ said, “Sure, Frau Kahr is very friendly, an empathetic woman — but when you scratch beneath the surface, you see communism.” That’s nonsense, because I’m completely openly communist.
Of course, crimes have been committed in the history of the communist movement as well, and they need to be openly discussed. There shouldn’t be inhibitions about this. Among the many human lives on Stalin’s consciousness were no small number of great communists. We as the KPÖ have consciously decided not to rename ourselves, as anything else would be false advertising. But it’s important not to sugarcoat things that simply can’t be sugarcoated.
So you would say that Marxism is still highly useful for political work.
Yes, of course, more than ever! Even some bourgeois economists don’t deny this.
But Marxism isn’t some monstrance that you show off. Rather, it’s an instrument that helps you understand the world. The question of property is of paramount importance: it matters whether land belongs to the general public or private owners. We’re currently seeing this with the investor-driven building frenzy that many European cities are experiencing. If I want infrastructure that benefits people, then I have to make sure that as much land as possible remains in public hands, and that we win back some land that has been privatized. Otherwise, I won’t be able to build infrastructure for the public good, or if I want to do so, I’ll have to pay a premium to private parties.