Otto Bauer and the Austro-Marxists Wanted a Socialist Revolution in Democracy

Austrian socialist Otto Bauer, like others in the too often forgotten “Austro-Marxist” school, sought to build a mass workers’ movement that could win parliamentary democracy — and then go beyond it by establishing a socialist republic.

Austrian Social Democrat Otto Bauer speaking to a crowd, circa 1930. (Imagno / Getty Images)

The end of World War I was a moment of world-historical importance. The collapse of the once-powerful Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman Empires brought the catastrophic conflict to a close and paradoxically opened the way to renewed conflagration as the peoples of radically reconfigured Central and Eastern Europe struggled to revise a settlement imposed upon them by the victorious Allied powers.

Germany and Soviet Russia’s centrality to that revisionist effort, which ultimately precipitated World War II, often push the histories of the region’s smaller participants into the background. Overshadowed by grand narratives of the period that portray them primarily as pawns or bit players in great power politics, their rich histories thus remain little known to outsiders.

The First Austrian Republic is one of those lesser-known states. Once the center of power in a massive, multinational state comprising fifty-five million inhabitants, the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s dissolution in 1918 transformed Austria into a polity of six million people, of which one-third lived in Vienna, the former imperial capital. With the exception of its ignominious demise at the hands of Nazi Germany in 1938, this republic’s fascinating story has drawn relatively little attention from outsiders.

That is why the appearance of Otto Bauer’s classic study, The Austrian Revolution, ably translated for the first time by Walter Baier and Eric Canepa, is such a welcome addition to the English-language literature on Austrian history. First published in 1923, the book examines the republic’s early years from the perspective of one of European socialism’s leading theorists and one of Austria’s most important political actors. It is a work of history deeply informed by the author’s concrete political experience as well as his commitment to a Marxist approach to understanding unfolding events.

The Political Life of Otto Bauer

Otto Bauer was a man of wide-ranging interests and talents. Born in 1881 into a prosperous, liberal Jewish family, he was trained in law at the University of Vienna, where, as a member of the Socialist Student League, he joined a circle of young intellectuals — later regarded as the founders of the “Austro-Marxist School” — who believed it was their task “to further develop the social theory of Marx and Engels, to subject it to criticism, and to place their teachings in the context of modern intellectual life.” Despite disparate disciplinary interests, members of this group, including Karl Renner (law), Max Adler (philosophy), and Rudolf Hilferding (political economy), were united in their undogmatic approach to Marxist theory.

Bauer’s initial main interest was the “nationalities question,” an issue that repeatedly convulsed Austria-Hungary’s political life as Czechs, Slovaks, Croatians, Italians, Ukrainians, Hungarians, and Poles, among others, vied for power in a semi-absolutist system dominated by German-Austrians. In 1907, at the age of twenty-six, he published The Question of Nationalities and Social Democracy, which attempted to theoretically undergird social democracy’s effort to build a cross-territorial, cross-ethnic movement while still preserving the cultural and legal rights of the empire’s myriad nationalities. This effort ultimately failed, but the book established Bauer as a leading socialist thinker.

Meanwhile, as a member of the Social Democratic Workers’ Party (SDAP), he also demonstrated an enormous capacity for political work. In 1907, Bauer founded Der Kampf (the Struggle), which became the party’s leading theoretical journal; wrote almost daily on a wide variety of issues for the party’s flagship newspaper, Die Arbeiter-Zeitung (the Workers’ Paper); and in 1914 became the SDAP’s secretary and the obvious successor to the party’s aging leader, Victor Adler.

Bauer did not oppose the SDAP leadership’s decision to back the imperial government’s declaration of war on Serbia in August 1914, which effectively triggered World War I. Immediately drafted, he was captured by the Russians in November and spent the next three years as a prisoner in Siberia. Released after the fall of the tsar, he returned to Austria in September 1917 after a sojourn in revolutionary Petrograd, which radicalized but did not convert him to Bolshevism.

Otto Bauer in 1919. (Wikimedia Commons)

Back in Vienna, Bauer played a major role in Austrian politics as the empire disintegrated along ethnic lines, and he succeeded Adler as the party’s de facto leader. In November 1918, the Austrian Provisional National Assembly created a provisional government dominated by the Social Democrats, with Karl Renner serving as chancellor and Bauer as foreign minister.

Bauer saw up close not only the creation of the new Austrian Republic, but the government’s decision under duress to sign the harsh Treaty of Saint-Germain, which required Austria to assume the empire’s guilt for starting the war, imposed a heavy reparations burden, and forbade Austria from unifying with the new German Republic. Bauer, believing a rump Austria was economically unviable, had made unity with Germany the linchpin of his foreign policy. He stepped down following the government’s acquiescence to the treaty in September 1919 and turned his attention to party affairs and parliamentary politics.

The Austrian Revolution

Bauer’s history tells the story of the democratic republic’s early years, a period of both great promise and deep economic and political crisis — where the limits of the new parliamentary order exploded into full view.

Arranged in five chronological sections, the book’s first part treats the nationalities question and its relation to the war and revolution. In four extensive chapters, Bauer examines how prewar tensions between the Hapsburg monarchy and the empire’s subjugated ethnic groups erupted into war in 1914 and the implosion of the state four years later. In Bauer’s view, it was the Hapsburg regime’s fear of the rising national aspirations of the South Slavs, a people long subject to “servitude, fragmentation, and a lack of history” at the hands of German, Italian, Hungarian, and Turkish overlords, that drove it to declare war on Serbia.

Demonstration for the universal right to vote in Prague, 1905. (Wikimedia Commons)

The war initially seemed to overcome the ethnic and class divisions that had rent imperial society, but it ultimately accelerated a process of national revolution that had been underway for decades. By 1918, after four years of enormous casualties, privation, and military failure, the empire had lost its legitimacy and was too exhausted to restrain the forces of democratic reform and national independence.

Of course, for dominant German Austrians the issue of national identity was different. Noting that “the conflict between our ‘German-ness’ and our ‘Austrian-ness’ runs through all of German-Austria’s recent history,” Bauer traces the oscillating attitudes of different German-Austrian social classes toward unity with Germany or support for the multiethnic empire they controlled. In 1914, the bourgeoisie considered this conflict essentially resolved as Germany and Austria-Hungary joined together in a patriotic defensive war. Indeed, they were joined in this attitude by the workers’ movement, which, despite its internationalist commitments, was gripped by the fear of Russian victory.

This outlook did not last, however, as the war dragged on and antiwar sentiment, especially in the labor movement, gained steam. Bauer provides substantial detail on the internal process in which the SDAP, too, came to oppose the war and to support the principle of self-determination for the empire’s peoples.

By the end of October 1918, the Hapsburg regime was finished. In part two, Bauer describes the collapse of the war effort and the victory of popular rebellions that created new national states across the former empire, including in German Austria. There, Bauer argues, a revolutionary process unfolded that was national, democratic, and social in content.

Austria’s democratic revolution, he writes, was completed by November 12 with the creation of a Provisional National Assembly. But the social revolution continued. Over the next two years, until its defeat in the first round of postwar parliamentary elections, the SDAP dominated that body. During this stretch, under what Bauer titles “The Hegemony of the Working Class,” the state was able to carry out substantial pro-labor reforms, including the eight-hour working day, collective bargaining rights, and workers’ councils in the workplace.

Yet the radical transformation of Austrian society faced many challenges, from within and without. Like many Social Democratic leaders, Bauer regarded himself as a socialist revolutionary, but he also feared the chaos and violence that revolution could bring. His analysis of events in Vienna makes clear he was no admirer of the Bolshevik model. When radicalized soldiers abandoned military discipline, seized private property and government rations, and attempted to form a “Red Guard,” Bauer dismissed their actions as the “revolutionary romanticism of Bolshevism.” He was relieved when most of the soldiers went home, and he supported the creation of a new army, the Volkswehr, consisting largely of workers, including many Social Democrats, which he believed “saved the country from the imminent danger of anarchy” and enemies on the frontier.

In Bauer’s view, the social revolution initially began in the barracks of the Vienna garrison, where soldiers rebelled against their officers, and then spread among the workers, who mobilized for mass demonstrations in favor of a republic. It was the culmination, he argues, of decades of Social Democratic efforts to guide the working class toward democracy. “The national revolution,” he writes, “became the business of the proletariat and the proletarian revolution the bearer of the national revolution.”

The events leading to November 12 generally had broad cross-class support, even in the conservative countryside, but Bauer insists that the step-by-step actions of the unified Left were decisive in winning a republic with little bloodshed. For him, the creation of the parliamentary order, buttressed by new institutions such as factory councils, fashioned the framework for a further advance toward socialism, a process that would be orderly and eschew the violence of Bolshevism.

The Social Democrats in Power

In part three, Bauer examines the attempts of the SDAP-led government to improve workers’ conditions and puts forward his ideas for organizing a new, socialist economy.

At the same time, however, he doesn’t paper over the obstacles — Austria’s political isolation abroad, its internal social and political divisions (especially between the anti-socialist Catholic peasantry, urban bourgeoisie, and socialist-dominated industrial centers); its deepening poverty in the face of rocketing inflation and food, fuel, and raw materials shortages — that blocked the government’s more radical aspirations. He shows how the left-wing government had to maneuver to avoid war with neighbors covetous of Austrian territory, fend off intervention by Western powers fearful of the spread of communist revolution, and resist being dragged into the revolutionary events in Hungary, where the proclamation of a Soviet Republic in March 1919 sparked renewed regional warfare that ultimately triggered a successful counterrevolution.

Social Democrats celebrating May 1, 1932. (Wikimedia Commons)

Plunged into this combustible environment, Bauer was convinced that the labor movement’s task was not to establish a Bolshevik-style “dictatorship of the proletariat,” but rather to act as a “brakeman” of the revolution. In his view, workers needed to use their newfound power prudently, and it was social democracy’s duty to prevent them from undertaking potentially ruinous actions for illusory aims. To that end, he writes, the SDAP-led government was in constant contact with key nongovernmental organs of the labor movement, such as the trade unions and workers’ and soldiers’ councils to promote policies that could realistically be pushed through the National Assembly.

This was hard and often unpopular work — workers frequently demanded more than the government could deliver — but Bauer insists it was essential to the process of educating the working class and raising their level of political consciousness. Bauer could justifiably argue that the government did what it could under difficult circumstances.

Still, he exaggerates the SDAP’s success establishing its ideological hegemony among the masses, which, he claims, “through purely intellectual struggles [had] broadened their intellectual horizon, kindled their intellectual agility, and maximized their drive to self-actuation.” Like other Austro-Marxist intellectuals, Bauer was a teacher at heart, and had long thought that educating workers politically was the socialist intellectual’s most basic activity. As the movement’s later failure to secure majorities would reveal, he overestimated the SDAP’s ability to win over the working class and other social groups.

In parts four and five, Bauer analyzes the shifting power relations among Austria’s social classes and how they clashed or coalesced in the political arena. Even before the SDAP lost the first parliamentary elections to its erstwhile coalition partner, the Christian Social Party, in the fall of 1920, it was apparent the peasantry and bourgeoisie had recovered from the political shocks of the revolution and were less willing to cooperate with labor.

Since the Christian Socials were at odds with the pan-German nationalists and lacked an absolute majority in parliament, Bauer believed that an “Equilibrium of Class Forces,” as he labels it, existed in the country that would still allow the workers’ movement, mobilized in the SDAP, the unions, and myriad other organizations, to exercise power. By 1922, however, he had concluded that, by mastering the inflation crisis with the help of international high finance, the Christian Socials had managed to stitch together a coalition of the peasantry, the petty-bourgeoisie, and the whole of the bourgeoisie (industrial and financial). The bourgeoisie, as the heftiest social force, thus asserted its control over the republic.

Otto Bauer speaking in front of Vienna’s city hall, 1930. (Wikimedia Commons)

That control was not complete, however. Bauer points to the SDAP’s robust popularity in the republican army and abiding stronghold of “Red Vienna,” where the party consistently commanded absolute majorities and launched a sweeping set of reforms in many spheres of urban life. He knew that, over time, a strong bourgeois government could undercut these gains, but he believed the SDAP would be able to overcome its recent setbacks and regain the initiative. The Right would fail to resolve the country’s ongoing economic and social crises, and the Social Democrats could bring white-collar employees and small tradesmen to its side, “overthrow” the bourgeois government, and “reconquer” workers’ power.

Despite such radical rhetoric, however, Bauer rejected the use of mass action unless the bourgeoisie tried to destroy the republican constitution. Victory was to be achieved within the framework of parliamentary politics.

“The Dilemma of Democratic Socialism”

It did not turn out the way Bauer wished. In the end, Social Democracy never returned to power, and the Christian Socials assiduously prepared the ground to overthrow the republic in 1934. While Austria’s labor movement did offer violent resistance, its leadership, including Bauer, only supported taking up arms when it was already too late to be effective.

Though Bauer’s The Austrian Revolution appeared a decade earlier, its analysis of the revolution and of the system that emerged from it casts light on his approach to politics, a factor that was of substantial importance to the republic’s demise and points to what Peter Gay called “the dilemma of democratic socialism.” Bauer stood at the helm of a party of six hundred thousand members — fully 10 percent of the entire population — that consistently won over 40 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections. To box out the SDAP’s Communist rivals and to maintain the movement’s unity, he often used the radical rhetoric of class warfare and called for the revolutionary transformation of capitalist society.

In practice, however, he remained committed to parliamentary politics and was unprepared to seriously consider other means. In a political environment in which the anti-republican Right had no qualms about resorting to ruthless violence, the fate of the republic was sealed.