No, Austria’s Communist Party Doesn’t Need a Name Change

Manfred Mugrauer
Julia Damphouse

Faced with the Austrian Communist Party’s recent electoral gains, many pundits have demanded that it change its name. They accuse the party of being wedded to Stalinism — but the party has a long record of wrestling with its past.

Communist mayor of Graz Elke Kahr. (KPÖ Bundespartei / Flickr)

Interview by
Rainer Hackauf

Long a minor force in national politics, the Communist Party of Austria (KPÖ) is today making its name not just as a radical force, but an electorally growing one. One major breakthrough came in 2021, when Communist Elke Kahr became mayor of the country’s second-biggest city, Graz. Yet recent contests in Salzburg (where it placed second in March’s elections) and Innsbruck (where it entered the city council this Sunday) show that this was no one-off. In national elections due by this fall, the KPÖ has a serious chance of entering the federal parliament for the first time since 1959.

Unsurprisingly, many in the Austrian corporate media are not talking this lightly. Whenever the KPÖ makes electoral headway, these outlets always raise the same talking points: the party is accused of admiring “dictatorships” and its policy of donating large portions of its elected officials’ salaries is derided as “populist.” And in particular, it’s called upon to change its name, in recognition of “Communist atrocities” from the past.

In one unforgettable incident, Graz mayor Kahr — the KPÖ’s highest-ranking elected official appeared on the political interview show Pressestunde in 2022 only for the editor in chief of the mainstream daily paper Kleine Zeitung Hubert Patterer to use more than half the time to question her about Belarus, Vladimir Putin, Josip Broz Tito, and busts of Vladimir Lenin. His approach was deemed so absurd even to regular viewers that he had to issue an apology.

Nevertheless, the liberal and conservative commentariat alike will not stop talking about the alleged lack of reappraisal of the KPÖ’s “criminal history.”

Manfred Mugrauer is a historian with a focus on the history of the party. In an interview with Rainer Hackauf, he explains that the allegations about the KPÖ’s historical amnesia could hardly be less true. He explains how it’s been revisiting the past for a long time — insisting that this party is more critical of its own history than other parties with hardly pristine records in twentieth-century Austria.

Rainer Hackauf

After the election successes in both Graz and Salzburg, it didn’t take long before the history of the KPÖ was back in the media spotlight. Why is that?

Manfred Mugrauer

It is striking that it is not so much the voters as journalists and political commentators who are confronting the Communist Party with its historical legacy. In the election campaigns themselves — on the streets, at information stands — historical issues hardly come up.

In principle, there is nothing wrong with the media bringing attention to the party’s history in the light of the renewed relevance it’s seeing. But this becomes problematic when the KPÖ is exclusively presented in a negative light and asked to answer for the entire communist movement. I remember, for example, one interview in which Elke Kahr was asked to justify herself regarding the famine in Ukraine in the 1930s. Florian Klenk, the editor in chief of news magazine Falter, reacted to the election success in Graz with a wry reference to the Black Book of Communism.

The fact is that no other political force has such a close relationship to its own history as the organized workers’ movement. The KPÖ’s self-image is decisively shaped by its sacrificial role during the years of the Nazi dictatorship and its contribution to democratic reconstruction after 1945. The KPÖ was the main force of the anti-fascist resistance in Austria and one of the three founding parties of the postwar Second Republic. However, the public image of communism in Austria was shaped less by these historical achievements than by the KPÖ’s identification with the Soviet Union and the other countries of actually existing socialism.

Rainer Hackauf

The KPÖ was always seen as a Communist Party that was extremely loyal to Moscow. What were the reasons for this? What effects did this relationship have?

Manfred Mugrauer

That the KPÖ showed conformity with the policies of the Soviet leadership is hardly unique, among the international movement. The impact of the October Revolution was so great that the leading role of the Soviet Union in the socialist camp did not have to be forcibly imposed. The fact that Austria was liberated from fascism by the Red Army in 1945 further deepened the solidarity of KPÖ members with the Soviet Union and the other socialist countries.

Still, the biggest problem areas in the history of the KPÖ result from this close relationship. The most serious problem is that the Communist Party was largely uncritical of undesirable developments in the countries of actually existing socialism. Injustices and even outright crimes were glossed over or made taboo.

Its near absolute rather than critical solidarity with the Soviet Union was a major factor in the party’s marginalization and isolation during the years of the Cold War. The KPÖ’s uncritical attitude toward the socialist countries created a political burden that Communist activists had difficulty making up for through their day-to-day engagement — in the communities, in the factories, or in social movements.

The negative effects of these close ties to the Soviet Union became particularly apparent in 1956 and after 1968–69 — during the popular uprising in Hungary and the suppression of the Prague Spring.

As part of the world communist movement, the KPÖ was significantly affected by the major political turning points in 1956, 1968, and 1990, and each of these crisis years resulted in a decline in party membership. However, the history of the party should not only be told from the perspective of these international developments.

The history of the KPÖ is more than a series of internal party crises. Beyond the global political upheavals, the KPÖ was always also a radical social movement that was anchored in the Austrian labor movement. Although its influence steadily declined at the general political level [from the 1950s onward], it certainly played an important political role at municipal level and in large industrial firms.

It should also be recognized as playing a role in extraparliamentary movements such as the peace movement, in anti-fascist initiatives, in solidarity movements with countries such as Vietnam and Nicaragua, and in the new women’s movement.

Rainer Hackauf

Nevertheless, the Communist Party is often accused of not having come to terms with its history sufficiently. In your opinion, what is the current situation regarding the “reappraisal” of the party’s history?

Manfred Mugrauer

On inspection, the accusation that the Communist Party has done too little to deal with its history turns out to be a cliché. After 1990, it initiated a reorientation in which a critical view of its own history became the focus of attention. In historiographical analyses published over the last thirty years in the KPÖ milieu, not a single problem area is left out.

One example is the rehabilitation of the Austrian victims of [Joseph] Stalin’s terror, for which Franz Muhri, the former chairman of the KPÖ, rendered outstanding services. Today, the KPÖ has a renewed view of its history, which is based on “coming to terms” with past mistakes, but also on recognizing the party’s historical achievements.

It isn’t recognized enough that more articles on party history have appeared in KPÖ-related periodicals over the last twenty to thirty years than have been published about all other parties in all Austrian magazines combined. It is no exaggeration to say that no other party in Austria has such a critical relationship to its own history as the KPÖ. So the problem is rather — and I am passing the ball back to the critics you mentioned — that a broader public debate about this research is still pending.

Former chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel recently called the KPÖ a “toxic brand” and Lower Austria’s state governor Johanna Mikl-Leitner declared that it was “irresponsible” to appear under the name KPÖ. This is not surprising for the conservative People’s Party of Austria (ÖVP). But why is it so difficult for the liberal media to take note of current research into the history of the KPÖ?

The main factor is, of course, that most of them are fundamentally not interested in a serious examination of KPÖ history. Even if entire libraries were to be written about the Communist Party, they would still be unwilling to move beyond their clichés.

I gained this same impression from personal conversations with journalists who consider themselves “left-liberal.” After the party’s electoral success in Graz and Salzburg, some media outlets reached out to me as an “expert” on KPÖ history. However, as it turned out, most of them were not interested in more recent research findings or balanced assessments of the party’s history.

For them, I was only of interest as a potential source of new mistakes and “crimes” to be uncovered, preferably in recent KPÖ history. They then pass off such exposés as “critical” journalism. They would love to add a chapter on Austria to the Black Book of Communism published in the 1990s, to raise their own profile.

A second factor is that there can no longer be anything like an “official” KPÖ historiography today. The era when the Communist Party could provide its members with a single binding historical narrative are over. There is plenty of research coming out of the KPÖ’s intellectual milieu, but it is not commissioned by the party leadership, nor is it part of a systematic research program.

Even the texts in the illustrated book 100 Years of the KPÖ, which I edited, or Walter Baier’s book produced upon the centenary of the party, which was published by the Federal Executive Committee in 2018, were not discussed in any party committee or “approved” by any party body. What all these contributions have in common, however, is that they present the history of the party as comprehensively as possible within the framework of our renewed view of history and do not leave out any problem areas.

Rainer Hackauf

How do you see the general state of research into the history of the KPÖ? Where are the biggest gaps in research?

Manfred Mugrauer

In Austrian academic historiography, research on the KPÖ has remained limited. The party’s history plays almost no role at universities. However, this applies not only to the KPÖ but to the entire history of the labor movement. After 1990, following a major upswing of interest in the 1970s, it has become largely obsolete as a subject of research. The worldwide boom in “communism research” after 1990 at best only briefly touched on the Austrian experience.

In my view, the greatest gap in the research is a presentation of the history of the Communist Party, which focuses on its social and cultural historical impact. Previous research, including my own, is primarily motivated by political history. However, there are numerous topics that could be dealt with using the methods of a “party history from below.” Questions about the political culture of the party, about everyday organizational life, about the party’s roots in the worker’s milieu at local level, and so on have hardly been explored so far.

The aim is to bring together the political and organizational history of the KPÖ with more recent approaches of social and cultural history.

Rainer Hackauf

Anti-communism is undoubtedly a constant in Austria’s postwar history. How has its significance changed today?

Manfred Mugrauer

It is not an exaggeration to say that nowhere in Europe was anti-communism as pronounced as in Austria and West Germany after 1945. I would even go so far as to say that the KPÖ had no chance from the outset in the immediate postwar period in view of the anti-communist hegemony.

Of course, anti-communism has undergone several functional changes since then, not least since the end of the Cold War systemic confrontation. Now almost 30 percent of voters in Graz and Salzburg have proven that the term “Communist” in the party name has lost its scare-factor. Today, they judge the KPÖ primarily based on its concrete policies and the credibility of its candidates, while clichés and prejudices from the Cold War era have largely lost their power.

The KPÖ’s handling of its past probably ranks very low in the electoral considerations of regular people, it likely plays no role at all. In the long run, journalists and commentators will not be able to avoid this realization. At the very least, when the KPÖ eventually succeeds in entering the National Council in the autumn, they will have to concentrate their energies on analyzing the causes of the Communist electoral successes in more detail instead of dwelling on individual aspects of the KPÖ’s history.

Rainer Hackauf

There is hardly an interview with Graz mayor Elke Kahr or prominent Salzburg Communist activist Kay-Michael Dankl in which they are not urged to rename the KPÖ. What is your view on this question?

Manfred Mugrauer

For me, this is almost tragic proof of the narrow-mindedness of those who are not prepared to analyze current developments. The argument that the KPÖ should part with the “Communist” part of its name in view of historical experience was also discussed at length within the KPÖ. Since the sole criterion of truth is practice, such opinions have now fallen silent within the KPÖ — in view of the election success in Graz — just the media remain unmoved. Barbara Tóth, for example, recommended a new party name for the “irreparably damaged KPÖ brand” in Falter.

Now, when it has been proven that a party with “Communist” in its name is still capable of winning the election in Austria’s second-largest city and was able to repeat a similar success in Salzburg under — historically speaking — even more difficult conditions, why should the KPÖ change its name? Not just Communists, but every professional PR strategist in Austria, would have to object to such an idea.

The Communist Party makes no secret of the fact that it strives to overcome capitalism and is oriented toward a socialist society. I am also convinced that, despite the negative experiences with the countries of actual existing socialism, the majority of people regard a socialist alternative to capitalism as fundamentally positive.

Today the general label “left-wing” is not an obviously better alternative. Many people, wrongly of course, perceive “the Left” as out of touch and patronizing, and therefore not interested in to addressing regular people’s problems, in light of the apparent focus on culture war issues. In Austria, it may even be the case that “Communist” has a better ring to it.