Will a Socialist Lead Austria’s Social Democrats Again?

Fabian Lehr
Julia Damphouse

Austria’s Social Democrats are welcoming a wave of new members, after left-winger Andreas Babler announced his candidacy to become party leader. His declared goal: to make the Social Democrats a workers’ party again.

Mayor of Traiskirchen Andreas Babler could be the next leader of Austria’s Social Democratic Party. (Andreas Babler / Facebook)

Is Austria’s Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) having its “Jeremy Corbyn” moment and rediscovering its socialist roots? To the surprise of many observers, today such a turn looks ever more likely.

Under the lackluster leadership of Pamela Rendi-Wagner, who has headed the SPÖ since 2018, the party suffered a heavy electoral setback in state elections in Carinthia this March 5. Shortly after the disappointing result, it was unexpectedly decided that the party would hold a membership poll on whether she should remain in office. Internally, this vote was proposed as an attempt to settle the long-simmering conflict between Rendi-Wagner and the governor of Burgenland state, Hans Peter Doskozil.

Such a contest was rather dispiriting from a left-wing point of view: Rendi-Wagner and Doskozil represent two different but similarly uninspiring currents within the SPÖ. But the rival candidacy of left-winger Andreas Babler has shaken the party establishment, offering a clear alternative.

Right Turn

Rendi-Wagner stands for a neoliberal, technocratic, and largely depoliticized version of the SPÖ: a party fashioned to appeal primarily to the liberal, urban middle, and upper-middle classes. Her political current combines liberal economic policies and a complete rejection of the party’s working-class, trade-unionist tradition. To this she prefers a superficial left-liberalism, which makes the SPÖ nearly indistinguishable from the Greens and the neoliberal “Neos.” This swing to the right has gone hand in hand with the adoption of slick management-speak messaging that makes the SPÖ appear increasingly hollow.

Hans-Peter Doskozil, on the other hand, represents a wing within Austrian social democracy that, faced with the successes of the right-wing populist Freedom Party (FPÖ), aims to ingratiate itself with its supporters by flirting with its positions. As governor of Burgenland, Doskozil initially continued the coalition with the FPÖ initiated by his predecessor, Hans Niessl, continuing the novelty of a social-democratic/right-populist state government. All in all, Doskozil portrays himself as an anti-immigration hard-liner within the SPÖ, distinguishing himself by standing for tougher border protections and law and order. At the same time, at least rhetorically, he emphasizes the SPÖ’s character as a workers’ party much more strongly than Rendi-Wagner, and was able to win some sympathy among the party’s traditional base in Burgenland by pushing through some minor progressive social policy reforms.

As it stood, the membership referendum was supposed to decide which of these two wings would call the tune in the SPÖ from now on. But things turned out quite differently. Instead of the planned duel between Rendi-Wagner and Doskozil, no fewer than 73 different candidates announced their candidacies within a few days.

A Corbyn for Austria

The biggest upset was the totally unexpected candidacy of Andreas Babler. The incumbent mayor of the Viennese suburb of Traiskirchen has been the major voice of the SPÖ left for years. Babler, a trained machinist and factory worker, has stood for consistent anti-racism, left-wing economic policy, and the interests of workers throughout his career. Babler was socialized as a Marxist in his early years in the party, coming from the once influential “Stamokap” movement within in the SPÖ youth, and after decades of neoliberalization, he is now one of the last true socialists in Austrian social democracy. For those leftists remaining in the party, he has emerged as a beacon of hope.

As mayor of Traiskirchen, the site of the largest, and chronically overcrowded, initial reception center for refugees in Austria, Babler achieved nationwide notoriety when he sharply criticized the inhumanity of Austria’s asylum policy and demonstratively showed solidarity with the refugees housed in his municipality when they protested against the often inhumane conditions.

Babler’s refreshingly authentic appearance, compared to most SPÖ party bureaucrats, and his commitment to left-wing economic and social policies have made him enormously popular and earned him overwhelmingly positive results in local elections. Around three-quarters of Traiskirchen voters backed Babler, proving that right-wing populism stands no real chance when there is a genuine social democratic alternative.

In view of these spectacular successes — which stand out even more when compared to the SPÖ’s miserable results in Lower Austria more generally — it has long been a topic of speculation whether Babler would step beyond the confines of Traiskirchen and enter federal politics. For disillusioned leftists who had already turned their backs on social democracy, or for those on the verge of leaving, this possibility was a great source of hope. With Babler at the helm many would give the party another chance. And that is precisely what could happen now.

New Approach

Babler’s unexpected candidacy has triggered a wave of euphoria on the Austrian left. Within a few days, almost ten thousand new members joined the SPÖ in order to be eligible to vote in time for the deadline. This is an enormous increase for a party that previously totaled 140,000 members. Many among them are former left-wing social democrats who are now returning to the party to support Babler. The stunned party bureaucracy thinks his victory is such a realistic possibility that its federal executive director, Christian Deutsch, has preemptively announced that the result of the vote may not be binding — in turn triggering a storm of indignation.

In his highly effective media messaging, Babler says his campaign is focusing on issues that have the potential to unite the entire left wing of social democracy behind him: strengthening internal party democracy, pushing for state intervention to close the gender pay gap as well as instituting heavy fines for companies that pay women less, energy security that creates a universal legal right to heating and bans energy cutoffs for households that can’t pay, a basic child allowance and free school meals for all children from low-income households, a massive increase in state funding for elderly care, price controls and excess profit taxes for the energy market, a ban on real estate speculation, and finally a Green New Deal for Austria that would combine an ecological restructuring of the economy and an expansion of climate-friendly infrastructure with the creation of many new jobs. The inspiration of the Bernie Sanders campaign is clear.

But what does the Babler phenomenon really signify? Above all, it illustrates a peculiarity of the Austrian political landscape: in contrast to most other Western countries, social democracy in Austria is still a significant enduring point of reference and orientation for the Left. For those to the left of social democracy, no new broad left-wing party has yet been able to establish itself as an alternative.

The SPÖ’s Endurance

On the one hand, this is due to the specific history of the SPÖ, which offers leftists far more positive points for identification than, for example, the murky history of the German Social Democrats (SPD), at least from 1918. In contrast to the SPD, the SPÖ retained a decidedly Marxist profile in the interwar period with its so-called Austro-Marxism. The pioneering social and avant-garde cultural policies of Red Vienna, which was firmly in social democratic hands from 1918–1934, have remained a source of political inspiration for a large part of the Austrian left to this day.

While German social democracy collapsed without a fight in 1933 before the fascist transfer of power, Austrian social democracy put up armed resistance in 1934 when Austrofascism took hold. While German social democracy also officially renounced Marxism at the Bad Godesberg congress in 1959, and promoted Germany’s integration into the anti-Soviet NATO, the neutrality of the Second Republic did much to form the identity of Austrian social democracy in the postwar period. In terms of economic and social policy, the party also maintained a strong left-reformist profile, even beyond the romanticized era under 1970–1983 federal chancellor Bruno Kreisky.

Accordingly, the SPÖ was accepted as the workers’ party much longer than the SPD. After 1945, it consistently had a much larger base and greater rootedness in the population, at least in terms of per capita involvement. This has remained the case until today. While in Germany about 0.4 percent of the population is a member of the SPD, in Austria just under 2 percent of the population is in the SPÖ, albeit with a strong downward trend in recent years.

In the 1990s, at least by the time of Gerhard Schröder’s tenure as leader, it was clear the SPD had sealed its fate in completely abandoning its left-reformist traditions and had become a neoliberal party. By then, it was relatively easy for the West German left to drop the SPD and create an alternative with the WASG and then Die Linke. Conversely, in Austria, where the party’s broad social roots still held firm, and the appeals to the positive aspects of the SPÖ’s tradition remained more relevant, any real split or new left formation proved much more difficult. This challenge persisted even after 2008, when it was clear that under Werner Faymann and Christian Kern, the SPÖ was following the very same path of neoliberalization paved by the SPD under Schröder.

The continued relevance of Austrian social democracy has a tangible material basis: the huge party apparatus, with its membership base five times per capita larger than its German sister party, and with its extensive network of front organizations, think tanks, foundations, media and cultural institutions, and social democratic–dominated companies, offers career opportunities to a larger field of people than the SPD party apparatus. For decades, especially in Vienna, an SPÖ membership card was a useful instrument for building a career — a trade unionist could rise through the party to become the manager of a state-affiliated company, or an intellectual could certainly secure a post in a social democratic think tank or cultural institute, all thanks to their party card.

The formation of a new left-wing party in Austria was also complicated by the fact that there is already a second traditional force alongside the Social Democratic Party — namely, the Communist Party (KPÖ). This latter was quite influential in the immediate post-1945 period, then sank to the level of a second-rate party, but nevertheless remained stronger than its sister party in Germany. The collapse of the Soviet Union, however, led the KPÖ to fall into a serious ideological as well as financial crisis. Outside one state — Styria — the KPÖ shrank throughout the 1990s and 2000s into an outdated micro-party with very little appeal to young people, who regarded it as an odd, anachronistic Cold War–era relic. During this period, in a continuation of the Eurocommunist tradition, the party watered down its political profile to such an extent that the federal KPÖ could hardly be considered a compelling alternative to the SPÖ and the Greens.

Competition From the Left?

In the last few years, however, the KPÖ has experienced a remarkable revival. For years, the federal KPÖ and the Styrian KPÖ had largely gone their separate ways, but they have recently grown closer again thanks to the adaptation of the federal KPÖ to the more successful and left-wing course of the Styrian KPÖ. With the foundation of the Young Left (Junge Linke), which became the de facto youth organization of the KPÖ, the party experienced an influx of youth and young-adult activity without recent precedent.

The already relatively strong Styrian KPÖ made international headlines in 2021 when it won a historic victory in the Styrian capital Graz with mayor Elke Kahr and formed the only Communist government of a major Western city. According to the latest polls, the KPÖ could again enter the National Council (lower house of parliament) as well as several state parliaments, for example in Salzburg. The renewed KPÖ is on track to become the political force to the left of the SPÖ that many Austrian leftists have long awaited.

Against this backdrop, it is clear that if Babler were to win, the SPÖ would be in direct competition with this renewed KPÖ. Amid the euphoria triggered by Babler’s candidacy, Austrian leftists must ask themselves which they consider the more realistic bet: the KPÖ growing beyond Styria to assert itself as a nationally relevant party, or rather the SPÖ actually becoming a workers’ party again with Babler. It should not be ignored that, as leader, Babler would face the concentrated power of a party bureaucracy largely hostile to him and anchored in the grim traditions of Faymann, Kern, and Rendi-Wagner. It is hardly likely that Rendi-Wagner and company will abandon their highly paid positions without a fight.

Babler could well become the Austrian Corbyn or Bernie Sanders. But one should not forget how the Corbyn and Sanders projects ended: tens of thousands of leftists were drawn to the Labour Party and the US Democrats, but both Corbyn’s and Sanders’s campaigns failed to pull their parties to the left in the long run.