Today Austro-Marxism is experiencing a certain renaissance, after being forgotten for several decades. Nor is this renewed interest confined to the German-speaking world, where the writings of Otto Bauer, Max Adler and Karl Renner have been reprinted, let alone simply Austria, where the Social-Democratic leaders now appeal more strongly to their historic tradition than they did during the Cold War and immediately after. In recent years, substantial contributions on the subject of Austro-Marxism have appeared also in French, English and Italian.footnote1 This development should not be surprising, in as much as the new problems facing the workers’ movement in the wake of the upswing of class struggle in Europe since 1968, as well as the crisis of the traditional bureaucratic leaderships, have led to a relatively wide-ranging discussion on the basic questions of Marxist politics. In particular, it is the leaders and ideologists of the ‘Eurocommunist’ parties who have referred on many occasions to the debates in the international workers’ movement that followed the Russian revolution. The question of the contemporary relevance of the Bolsheviks critique of reformism has thus been raised anew. The leaders of Austro-Marxism, for their part, were not just pragmatists pure and simple, like the majority of reformist politicians. They gave their policies detailed theoretical support, and always claimed to defend the tradition of the ‘Marxist centre’ against reformism, to the right, and, Bolshevism, to the left. Their appeal to Marx and Engels gives them a certain attraction today that is nor marched by the total lack of ideology on the part of the right social-democratic tradition. On closer examination it is possible to find a great many theses that are strikingly similar to the ideological statements of the ‘Eurocommunist’ parties, and which it is thus still politically relevant to review.

Austro-Marxism should be understood basically as a political tendency on the left wing of the international social-democratic movement, existing through to the eve of the Second World War. Its origins are traditionally dated from the beginning of independent work by the younger generation of Austrian social-democratic theorists in the early years of the century, the theoretical journal Der Kampf being published under their leadership from 1907 onward. Yet it would seem insufficient to describe Austro-Marxism as primarily a theoretical school in the fields of Marxist economics (Rudolf Hilferding), philosophy (Max Adler), law (Karl Renner) and political theory (Otto Bauer), as Tom Bottomore suggests in his introduction to the English anthology of Austro-Marxist writers. Bottomore compares Austro-Marxism with the school stemming from the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research, and maintains that war and revolution led to the eclipse of this intellectual tendency.footnote2 This view was contradicted by Otto Bauer himself in an often quoted leading article from the Arbeiter-Zeitung, actually titled ‘Austro-Marxism’, where he writes that this concept came ‘to denote those theoretical orientations to the great postwar controversies which gradually developed in Austrian social democracy, and were summarized and expressed in the Linz programme’.footnote3 Before 1917 the distinctions between the politics and ideology of the Austrian Social-Democrats, and those of their fraternal parries in the Second International, were not such that one could in any way speak of a specific political tendency. The theoretical works of Adler, Hilferding, Renner and Bauer may well reflect the particular problems of the Austrian Party, conditioned among other factors by the complex national situation in the Habsburg monarchy, but politically they fall completely within the framework of the ‘Kautskyite’ Marxism represented by the Second International. As active political leaders, the Austro-Marxists saw their theoretical activity determined, at this point, by the political tradition of the movement in which they stood, and by the problems that faced the Social-Democrat Party. The analogy with the Frankfurt School can only obscure the fact that political practice was the ultimate aim of the Austro-Marxists’ theoretical work. In 1917 the left wing under Otto Bauer took de facto control of the Party, and it was from this time on that the Austrian Social-Democrats claimed to pursue a ‘third’ Marxist road between reformism and Bolshevism.

The purpose of this short essay, therefore, is to investigate the theory that distinguished Austro-Marxism from other ‘revisionist’ ideologies, and to compare this with the requirements of the Party’s political practice. It will not be possible here to pay attention to the philosophical or economic works of the Austro-Marxist theorists, e.g. the relationship of Austro-Marxism to the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and the relevant writings of Max Adler. It is an idle question, in the period with which we are concerned, to ask which of the less central figures should be classed as an Austro-Marxist and which not.footnote4 What is uncontentious is that Otto Bauer was now the most important of the Party’s leaders, so that it is he whom we shall discuss in greatest detail. Karl Renner, the most important opponent of the ‘left’ during the War, stood well to the right of Bauer and was generally unable to intervene in the major debates, although he enjoyed an influence in the Party that should not be underestimated. Max Adler, on the other hand, was politically isolated and not involved in the Party leadership. His criticism of the executive from the left was not taken seriously by the Party functionaries, and was seen as mere toying with ideas by an aloof intellectual. In his theoretical views, however, Adler stood closer to Bauer than to Renner. For reasons of space, it will only be possible to discuss Adler and Renner very cursorily.

The programmatic basis of the political upswing of Austrian Social-Democracy, the declaration of principles drafted by Victor Adler and Karl Kautsky and adopted at the Hainfeld congress of 1889, was a classic document of the Second International: capitalist society was indicated as the specific reason for the poverty of the masses, and the state depicted as expressing the political and economic rule of the capitalist class. To liberate the working class and fulfil historical necessity, the programme demanded the ‘transfer of the means of labour to the common possession of the people as a whole’. Its concrete demands, however, did not go beyond democratic and economic reforms, pride of place being taken by universal suffrage and effective labour protection legislation. There then follows a paragraph formulating what was seen as the most fundamental and important task of the party: ‘To organize the proletariat politically, endow it with an awareness of its condition and its task, prepare and maintain its mental and physical militancy, is therefore the specific programme of the Austrian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party’.footnote5

Just as in the German Party, the following years were occupied above all with building up Social-Democratic mass organizations in several fields of social life, the creation of centralized trade unions, campaigns for universal suffrage, electoral battles and strikes. And yet parliamentary activity never came to hold such overwhelming importance as it did in Imperial Germany: universal suffrage was only conceded under the pressure of the Russian revolution of 1905, after concrete preparations by the Social-Democrats in 1906 for a general strike; and even in the subsequent period, the Austrian parliament was generally paralysed by conflicts of nationality. Just as in the politics of the German Social-Democrats, however, there was no bridge between the everyday struggle for reforms within capitalism and the final socialist goal. The transition from capitalism to socialism was seen as a process of natural necessity, beyond human influence, and although the moment of destiny for this approaching socialism was often invoked in emotional terms, it lacked any concrete relationship to practical politics. This discrepancy between the Party’s reformist practice and the propaganda with which it indoctrinated the working class towards a distant socialist goal is generally accepted as one of the major failings of classical social-democracy.

The ideology of the Austrian Party did, however, differ from that of the German on one point that is far from inessential. In Austria the idea of unity was one of the basic dogmas of the Social-Democrats. The unification congress at Hainfeld had followed some fifteen years of factional struggle between ‘moderates’ and ‘radicals’, which had condemned the workers’ movement to insignificance after an initial upswing in the late 1860s and early 1870s. This experience had a traumatic effect that was still felt decades later. As a result, the Austrian Party had an unusual aversion to the display of differences and to major debates.footnote6 The ability that Victor Adler displayed in the period when the factional struggles were being overcome—namely, to brush aside conflicts by means of compromise—led to a situation in which the great debates in the German Party over revisionism and the mass strike found only very muffled echoes in Austria. While Adler rejected the views of Bernstein, he exerted a moderating pressure on the executive of the German Party and sought to prevent any verdict on revisionism by the International.footnote7 A tradition thus arose in the Austrian Party of evading questions in dispute, or else uniting different opinions on the basis of vague or diplomatic formulations, which, while often at the expense of political clarity, did create a climate of readiness for verbal concessions of all kinds. We shall see how this elasticity was to be paid for in 1918–19.

In Imperial Germany it could appear for a relatively long time as if the ‘tried and tested’ tactics were adequate to the objective requirements of the class struggle (remember that even Rosa Luxemburg only broke with Kautsky in 1910). But in Austria the situation was quite different. The particular political conditions in the multi-national Habsburg state made a phase of relatively ‘peaceful’ economic upswing, such as Germany had known in the decades after 1871, a political impossibility. The capitalist industrialization of the final third of the nineteenth century led to a general rise of nationalism and an increase in conflicts of nationality, and from the so-called ‘Badeniwirren’ of 1897 these became the dominating factor in Austrian domestic policy.footnote8 These national conflicts impeded economic development and blocked parliamentary activity for years at a stretch. They threw the Habsburg political system into an insoluble crisis (which eventually could only lead to the collapse of the monarchy), and this crisis placed the perspective of a revolutionary solution objectively on the historical agenda.