On 1 March 1970, the Austrian Social-Democratic Party (spö) won its first parliamentary majority. Under Bruno Kreisky’s leadership it strengthened its position in three successive elections and on 6 May 1979 set an international record for social democratic parties by winning 51.03 per cent of the vote. After ten years of Social-Democratic majority government, Austria occupies an exceptional place among the Western capitalist countries. While 1980 will be a year of zero economic growth for the oecd nations, and unemployment is expected to rise to some 20 million, Austria is forecast to show an increase of 2.5 per cent in gnp, while unemployment stands at 2.3 per cent. The anticipated rate of inflation, 4.75 per cent, i.e. 1 per cent up on last year, is viewed by Austrian politicians and economists with alarm, while in most other capitalist countries this level would be unattainably low. The favourable economic situation is also accompanied by far-reaching social peace, the average strike total not having risen for many years above a level of two minutes per worker per year. In 1979, the strike rate was barely eight seconds per worker.
In the political field, the tenth year of the Kreisky government is marked by a profound crisis affecting the bourgeois opposition parties, and a new peak in the chancellor’s authority and popularity. The daily newspapers, mostly anti-socialist, call him the ‘Sun King’, half ironically, half in earnest, and in foreign policy you have to go back to Metternich to find an Austrian leader of comparable stature.
Have the Austrian Social-Democrats possibly found the philosophers’ stone for preventing capitalist crises, or are they indeed actually in the process of building a socialist society, as Benya, the president of the Austrian trade-union federation, opined last autumn? The real reasons behind the peculiarities of the Austrian situation are somewhat more prosaic, and might upset those left-wing delegates at the last spö congress who liked to contrast Kreisky with Schmidt. The present leadership of the spö is the most right-wing it has ever known. The success of its policies is attributable to an exceptional situation, in both economics and politics, that is now coming to an end. The mass redundancies declared earlier this year at a major electrical factory—Eumig—as well as difficulties in the nationalized steel industry, indicate that the 1980s will bring an intensification of social contradictions.
The last decade of Austrian domestic politics can only be understood in the context of the basic tendencies of social development under the Second Republic, as these resulted from the situation of the country in 1945.
The Austrian bourgeoisie had always been weak, ever since the collapse of the monarchy. Its traditional economic basis lay largely outside the republic’s own frontiers, in Bohemia and Moravia. In 1945, this weakness had been further intensified by the collapse of German Nazism, into whose arms the Austrian bourgeoisie had thrown itself in 1938. From the very beginning, therefore, the Austrian bourgeoisie adopted a policy of collaboration with the Social-Democrats, a policy supported by all four occupying powers. The spö, for its part, faced a working class whose fighting tradition had been broken by 11 years of both local fascism and Nazism. The new leadership of the party, in the persons of Karl Renner and Adolf Schärf, had stood far to the right of Otto Bauer prior to 1934, and wanted nothing to do with the left-reformist tradition of Austro-Marxism.
The reconstruction of capitalism in Austria took place in the political framework of the grand coalition between the Austrian People’s Party (övp) and the spö, which lasted until 1966. (Until autumn 1947, the Austrian Communist Party (kpö) had also been in the government.) Since Austrian private capital was too weak to get the shattered economy on its feet, German capital having been dominant after the Anschluss, the state intervened as ‘general capitalist’. In July 1946, with the assent of all political parties, almost all basic industries were nationalized (coal and iron-mining, steel and engineering, oil, etc.), together with the three principal banks and the electricity supply network.
Almost a fifth of the 600,000 or more workers employed in industry still work for this nationalized sector. If the other major state enterprises are added, i.e. the railways, post, tobacco, salt mines and electricity, then the proportion of Austrian workers having the state as their boss is something like a quarter. There are no satisfactory statistics as to the firms connected with the state through their loans from nationalized banks, though here state influence is only very indirectly exercised. As economic development accelerated with the introduction of the Marshall Plan, the nationalized sector came decisively to the aid of private industry by way of raw material prices that were far below world market levels. In the minds of the working class, however, this nationalization was still perceived as a major victory, and enabled the Social-Democrats, who occupied all important posts in this sector, to effect an unprecedented integration into the bourgeois state and capitalist economy.