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Modernism: The Creation of Nation-States

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

Chapter V. Socialism and the nationality question

The Austrian Revolution

Otto Bauer
Traduction de Agnieszka Wierzcholska

Texte intégral

1Title: Die österreichische Revolution (The Austrian revolution)

2Originally puslished: Vienna, Wiener Volksbuchhandlung, 1923

3Language: German
The excerpts used are from the original, pp. 287–291.

About the author

4Otto Bauer [1881, Vienna – 1938, Paris]: politician, sociologist and political journalist. Coming from a well-off Jewish bourgeois family, he studied law in Vienna, earning his doctoral degree in 1906. He joined the Austrian Social Democratic Party (SDAP) and became one of its main ideologues. A founder, together with Karl Renner, Max Adler and Rudolf Hilferding, of the socialist educational movement Die Zukunft (The future) and contributor to various party periodicals, Bauer proved his theoretical talents with the publication of Die Nationalitätenfrage und die Sozial-demokratie (The national question and social democracy) in 1907. In the same year he founded Der Kampf (The struggle), the theoretical journal of the party, and after the election success of the SDAP he became secretary to his party’s parliamentary group until 1914. A soldier and prisoner of war in Russia during the First World War, Bauer assumed the leadership of his party’s left wing upon his return in 1917. He became Austrian secretary of state at the end of the war; however, he stepped down in July 1919 after his policy of unification with Germany was rejected by the Entente in the Treaty of Saint-Germain. A successor of Viktor Adler, the party’s founding father, Bauer remained its guiding personality for the two decades between the wars. During the 1920s he published series of books devoted to the Russian and ‘Austrian’ revolutions as well as various theoretical and tactical questions of the socialist movement. Despite suggesting radical approaches, in 1927, during demonstrations, and 1934, during the February workers’ uprising, he turned out to be rather conciliatory in practice and condemned violence on the part of both the government and the workers. In 1934, after the social democratic Schutzbund (defensive alliance) was crushed by the Austro-fascist Dollfuβ regime, Bauer fled to Brno (Ger. Brünn) in Czechoslovakia, where he established the exile bureau of the party and continued the publishing of the illegal Arbeiter-Zeitung (Workers’ paper) and Der Kampf. Due to the increasing pressure of Nazi-Germany on Central Europe he fled to Paris in 1938, where he died of a heart attack in the same year. Prominent social democratic leader and theoretician, Bauer is considered the foremost representative of Austro-Marxism. His concepts of democratic socialism, integral socialism or the “third way” proved to be an inspiration as well as a bone of contention for European socialist thought throughout the twentieth century.

5Main works: Die Nationalitätenfrage und die Sozialdemokratie [The nationality question and social democracy] (1907); Der Weg zum Sozialismus [The road to socialism] (1919); Bolschewismus oder Sozialdemokratie? [Bolshevism or social democracy?] (1921); Die österreichische Revolution [The Austrian revolution] (1923); Der Kampf um Waid und Weide [The struggle for forest and pasture] (1925); Kapitalismus und Sozialismus nach dem Weltkrieg [Capitalism and socialism after the World War] (1931); Der Aufstand der österreichischen Arbeiter. Seine Ursachen und seine Wirkung [The uprising of Austrian workers. Its reasons and consequences] (1934); Zwischen den Weltkriegen? Die Krise der Weltwirtschaft, der Demokratie und des Sozialismus [In-between the World Wars? The crisis of world economy, democracy and socialism] (1936); Die illegale Partei [Illegal party] (1939).


6November 1918 meant an overall change for Austria that—militarily defeated and economically exhausted—transformed from a multinational empire and European great power into a small Central European state with little of its own distinct identity. In political terms, the constitutional monarchy was replaced by a republican regime. The rest of the former Reichsrat— turned into a provisional national assembly—gave Austria a new constitution and elected a government, the so called Staatsrat, whose leadership was entrusted to Karl Renner, one of the leaders of the Social Democratic Party. The new context dramatically altered the political situation of SDAP from basically a party of protest and steady opposition in Parliament and in the streets to the political pillar of the state-building next to the other major party, the Christian Socialists. The new role proved to be all the more demanding for social democrats as they were trying to come to terms with their own ambiguous positions on the state and the exercise of power, a dilemma already reflected in their attitudes towards the war effort.

7After 1914, a fundamental schism appeared between the patriotic ‘right’ and anti-war left. The first, led by Renner, supported the Austrian war effort by invoking patriotic emotions among the workers and calling for a Burgfrieden (party truce) with the bourgeois parties during the war in an effort to preserve Austro-Hungarian territorial integrity. The other camp personified by Friedrich Adler and other Austro-Marxist leftists attending the international socialist congress in Zimmerwald, Switzerland in September 1915, denounced the ‘social patriotism’ and advocated militant pacifism and the consequent internationalist stance of the workers’ movement. Critical of the right-wing socialists, as the leftists were, they simultaneously tried hard to dissociate themselves from the Bolsheviks under Lenin’s leadership, who had begun to use the congress as a slipway to the launching of the Communist International. After the war, the Austrian party, now dominated by its left wing, with Otto Bauer in the forefront, found itself in-between the reformist socialism of the Second International and the radical and subversive revolutionary tactics of the Third International under Moscow’s directions. The establishment in 1921 of the short-lived Arbeiterschaft sozialistischer Parteien, irreverently nicknamed the Two-and-a-half International, epitomized the efforts of Austro-Marxism, which according to Bauer “had always striven to adopt a middle course between reformism and Bolshevism”.

8The emergence and subsequent consolidation of the Austrian Republic rested from the very beginning on a working agreement between the Christian socialists and social democrats. A show of unanimity was a requirement for both, the revitalization of material and spiritual resources needed to rebuild the country as well as the negotiations with the victorious Allies with the main aim to impress on them the overwhelming popular desire for unification with the German Republic. Propelled by the dynamics of its newly-won importance and authority, the social democrats could not but consider the state as an ally in the battle for the realization of their social demands. And, indeed, the two years of the socialist support for the coalition brought the working class substantial material, political and social benefits; at the same time, though, it did not lead to any change in the country’s economic structure or property relations of the bourgeois society. Once the party left the government and resumed its traditional role in opposition, Otto Bauer felt the need to account for the peculiar historical situation of the first few postwar years and square it with Marxist theory. Die österreichische Revolution, published in 1923 by Bauer, former adherent of the supranational empire, is an impressive attempt to give a fair and critical judgment of the Austrian Republic and its accomplishments. Inspired by the theory of state as a neutral social agent developed by Hans Kelsen, the outstanding jurist and philosopher of law, and Karl Renner, Bauer referred especially to Engels’s concept of the equilibrium of power reached by the embattled classes in the course of their historical fight for progress. This was, according to Bauer, exactly the case of Austria after the short period of proletarian supremacy. The country had been a genuine ‘people’s republic’ (Volksrepublik) from 1919 to 1922 when social democrats took part in the government. From a historical point of view it was just a transient phenomenon, a result of a peculiar ‘Austrian revolution’ initiated, at the beginning, by the ‘national revolutions’ of Czech, Polish and South-Slavic bourgeoisies in their disruptive campaign against the Empire, leading, however, to social revolution in German-Austria and Hungary. In the period of the ‘people’s republic,’ the state ceased to be an instrument of class rule and instead assumed the role of mediator between progressive proletariat and conservative peasant population. After the external influences upset the balance in 1922, the state once again threatened to revert to its original oppressive and exploitative role, a development that in Bauer’s view the social democrats were destined to prevent.

9Not only formerly privileged groups in the society such as the high clergy or the former imperial army officer corps, but also a large section of the middle classes never ceased to disparage the ‘ill-begotten’ republic, whose birth and achievements were far from being revered as a unifying national symbol. Hence, it was the Austro-Marxists who generally became associated with the legacy of the first Republic, the political reins of which they lost early on. But there was a fundamental ambiguity in the social democratic politics represented among others by the present text of Bauer: discrepancy between the constitutional and revolutionary alternative, between the equivocal acceptance of parliamentary democracy and refusal to resort to any violent means on the one hand, and the fervent revolutionary rhetoric never supplemented with dedicated action on the other. By many sympathetic left-wing critiques in Austria and elsewhere, this ambiguity has been considered one of the main theoretical flaws of Austro-Marxism as much as a practical failure of the social democrats in their abortive fight for the Republic.


The Austrian revolution

11[…] The fight we have to fight is a struggle for class power. Whether class interests will be implemented or not depends on the power of the classes. The latter will be decisive for the proportional distribution of the costs for each class to bear for the financial restructuring of the state. But it’s not simply a matter of power and interests. Just as any major class struggle, our fight for class power and class interests involves the fight between different concepts of how life shall be fashioned in government, society, culture and the intellectual spheres. Each fighting class represents one of these concepts.

12As long as the state does not possess the means to violently crush mass movements, it must seek the approval of the masses; it must achieve a consent based on the free will and comprehension of the masses. The state can thus only lead the masses by mental and intellectual means. Once the state will be in possession of the means of violence in order to oppress and throw down the masses, it will have no need for intellectual leadership skills. They will be then substituted by the means of violence. As long as the state can lead the masses by mental means, it needs intermediate organizations. This function transforms the organizations into state-organs. They thus become co-dominators of the state. Once the state possesses the means of violence to throw down the masses, it will not require the intermediation of organizations. The development of a functional democracy brought about by the revolution will then shrivel and waste away. The state will fall back into a purely parliamentary democracy. As long as the state does not possess any means of violently overthrowing the proletariat, democracy will truly become the self-government of the entity of the nation (Volkgesamtheit). As soon as the state possesses sufficient means to oppress the proletariat and once the bourgeoisie obtains the majority of seats in Parliament during the elections, it will have absolute control over the proletariat. Democracy will be then transformed into a mere form of the bourgeoisie’s class rule. This is what the fight is about: it is a struggle between the mental and violent forms of governmental leadership, a fight between functional and parliamentary democracy as a method of governance, between a democracy that means self-government of the whole nation and a democracy reduced to a form of class rule.

13The result of this fight will be decisive for the attitude of the working masses towards the state. Until the revolution of 1918, the state had been a foreign and hostile power to the working masses. After the revolution of 1918 the working class suddenly was one of the supporters of the idea of the state. The will to maintain and to protect the Republic motivated the working people to self-discipline and self-control during those turbulent years of hunger between 1919 and 1920. Republican enthusiasm encouraged the working class to become pioneers in the defense of the Republic during the crisis of the Burgenland in 1921. The proletariat was determined to defend the Republic and thus it was willing even to make sacrifices during the financial and political fights of 1922. The change in the relations between the working class and the state had an effect on their relation to national politics. Until the revolution of 1918 the working class was a deadly enemy of national politics that reinforced the rule of the Austro-German bourgeoisie and bureaucracy over other nations living in the Habsburg monarchy. After 1918, the working class supported national politics, which since then stood for the right for self-determination of the Austro-German people. The working class supported the national idea in the struggle for the Anschluss to Germany in 1918–1919, the struggle for Burgenland in 1921, the struggle against the submission under foreign rule of international financial control in 1922. Yet, this submission caused a backward movement. If the state will again be transformed into a class organization in which the propertied class will violently exercise power over the workers, then the working masses will alienate themselves from the state and will perceive it once more as an alien and hostile power. If the nation organizes itself for rule by the propertied class, then the violently oppressed working class will once again be in great opposition to the national idea. Hence, from the point of view of the working class, the question is whether the working class will be part of the authority exercising power in the state and the nation or whether it will be ruled by the state which will be dominated by the bourgeoisie and which will in turn constitute the nation. From the standpoint of the state and the nation, the question is whether the state and the nation will integrate the working masses, on which all state organizations and cultural life are based, or whether the state and the nation will shrink to organizations of the propertied class, whether it will violently rule over the working masses as if they are mere subjects of the state and the nation and will thus refuse to integrate the working masses.

14These are the problems in their governmental, national and cultural dimensions in the transitional period we live in. Our next task will be to clearly determinate the goals we want to fight for in this transitional period within the possible and the attainable. We must also adopt our fighting methods for the transitional period. We must be aware though, that the goals of the transitional period must be preliminary ones. Our tasks will be much greater and different once the transitional period passes and the disrupted revolutionary process starts anew. We must also be aware that the unstable balance of the new system of states and economy that emerged from the war can be annihilated earlier than we might have thought by events introducing a new revolutionary era.

  • 1 The Treaty of Geneva in October 1922 signed by Austria, Czechoslovakia, France, Italy and Great Br (...)

15However, during the transitional period the barriers of the treaties of St. Germain and Geneva limit our national existence. In this period we can merely defend the rest of our national independence but we cannot break open the barriers. But once new revolutionary upheavals in Europe will tear into pieces the peace treaties of Versailles, St. Germain and Riga and abolish the state system created by them, once the inner structures of the Republic of Czechoslovakia and the Kingdom of Yugoslavia experience a major crisis and once the permanent but latent danger of war in the territories of the ancient Austro-Hungarian Monarchy becomes acute, then we will find ourselves facing the same questions concerning our national existence as in 1918. The Treaty of Geneva does not solve the problem of our independent, national existence.1 Neither does the financial restructuring of the state solve the problem of national economics. No, it poses the problem to begin with. The Austrian economy now functions under the conditions of a state inhabited by merely five million people. Therefore, the Austrian economy will strive to break down the barriers of the small size of an economic territory during every European crisis. During every crisis in Europe we will find ourselves facing the same problems as in 1918: a supranational federation of the Danubian nations or a fusion of the Germans; restoration of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy or Anschluss to the German Republic.

16The only possible and attainable goal during the transitional period is the People’s Republic, in which no class will rule over any other, but in which all classes of the nation will share power. But the People’s Republic alone won’t overcome class antagonisms. Class differences cannot be abolished as long as the capitalist social order is maintained. Neither can class struggle come to an end as long as the peoples are divided into classes with different interests and ideals. The People’s Republic is nothing else than the expression of a momentary balance of class power. Yet, the balance is threatened by the continued class struggle. Once major concussions in Europe arise, they will provoke a decisive class war between capital and work. Then, the balance of class power will be destroyed also in Austria. We will then only have the choice between a counterrevolution of the bourgeoisie or the revolution of the proletariat, the choice between capitalism and socialism.

17We must beware of two fatal mistakes. We must beware of the mistakes of the Communists that expect the working class to fulfill certain tasks during the transitional period that can be only solved during a new revolutionary period. They confuse the present and the future.

18On its way from feudalism to capitalism, mankind had to experience many successive revolutionary developments. Each of these processes caused transitional forms of governance and social life. These transitional forms were only resolved through the following revolutionary process, which in turn created higher preliminary forms. Finally, transcending the manifold transitional forms, mankind went its way from an absolute feudal system in the thirteenth century to a purely bourgeois state in the nineteenth century. In the same way, mankind will have to go through long revolutionary processes, through many transitional forms of governance and social life, on its way from capitalism to socialism.

19The revolution of 1918 constitutes one of the many revolutionary processes succeeding each other. The revolution that destroyed the old Habsburg Monarchy was not ours. It was not the revolution of the Austro-German proletariat but of the Czech, Yugoslav and Polish bourgeoisie. But the Austro-German proletariat used the national-bourgeois revolution in order to annihilate the absolute authoritarian state on our soil, in order to strengthen the rule of the proletariat in the state, in the country and borough, in all caserns and offices, in all schools, factories, workshops and estates. The effect of the revolution was a People’s Republic, a transitional form of social life that is still based on the capitalist economic system. Yet the latter is no longer under the rule of the authoritarian classes of the capitalist society alone. We now find ourselves in a transitional condition of public life, in which the bourgeoisie no longer controls the state by itself. But the proletariat alone does not yet rule the state. The state is no longer the bourgeoisie’s tool to subjugate the proletariat, neither is it a tool of the proletariat to overcome the economic rule of the bourgeoisie. Today, the revolution of 1918 is finished. For the moment, the task of the proletariat is restrained to the defense of the results of the revolution against the reaction of the bourgeoisie. We must now defend the transitional conditions of governance and social life. Once persisting problems become urgent and introduce a revolutionary process, then the transitional period that emerged from the revolution of 1918 will be overthrown. A new revolutionary process will then bring about a new, higher transitional form of life. This way, the working class must experience many revolutions to come. After every revolutionary phase, the working masses must defend the emerged transitional governmental and social forms of life against setbacks until a new revolutionary process allows the proletariat to develop a higher transitional form of public life emerging from the turbulences of the revolution. The working class is thus obliged to strive for higher and newer forms of governance and social life. It must rise to achieve new phases in the historical transformation process of the capitalist to a socialist society. It must strive until the goal is attained until socialist society becomes a reality. In this revolutionary process, the idea of the People’s Republic that emerged from the revolution of 1918 will be realized and concluded. Today, the People’s Republic is only an expression of the momentary balance of the fighting classes. This balance will in turn be repeatedly overthrown in the class struggle. Yet, the People’s Republic will be fulfilled only in the socialist society. Due to private property of the means of production, the socialist state will abolish class antagonisms within the nation; it will overcome class differences and class struggles. Only then will the people’s community (Volksgemeinschaft) be realized and no longer be torn apart by classes fighting each other.


1 The Treaty of Geneva in October 1922 signed by Austria, Czechoslovakia, France, Italy and Great Britain provided a solution for the Austrian financial crisis but also introduced a ban on a possible unification of Austria with Italy or Germany and put the Austrian economy under international financial control.


Agnieszka Wierzcholska (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2010

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