DURING THE first half of the twentieth century Europe was convulsed by
wars, revolutions and counter-revolutions.
Inspired by the socialist revolution in tsarist Russia, on 29 October 1918
the Austrian working class brought down the old reactionary Hapsburg
monarchy. Democratic workers1 councils - soviets - were formed and armed
workers1 militias established. The army collapsed and a situation of 'dual
power' developed in which the ruling class were paralysed, while effective
power lay in the hands of the working class.
Only one thing stood in the way of the working class - their own Social
Democratic leaders. These 'leaders,' who were tied to capitalism, did
everything to confuse, demoralise and derail the revolution. This allowed
the ruling capitalists to rebuild its forces which included fashioning the
Heimwehr (Home Guard) - led by monarchist officers and financed by the
capitalists, the bankers, and the Catholic church - into a fascist
However, the Social Democratic Party (SDAP) remained potentially more
powerful. They had a mass membership (800,000 members, accounting for
25% of the male and 10% of the female population) and they controlled
municipal Vienna and many other councils. Furthermore, they had a military
organisation - the Schutzbund - which at its peak numbered 70,000 armed
In the last pre-war parliamentary election to be held in Austria in 1930,
the fascist Heimwehr gained only eight seats out of 165 and the pan-German
Nazis, who stood separately, failed to win one. The SDAP on the other hand
won 72 seats.
Even in the 1932 council elections, where the fascists gained ground, this
was largely at the expense of capitalist parties.
However, the fascists were determined to achieve power whereas the leaders
of the SDAP, despite their radical rhetoric, had no clear understanding of
the nature of fascism and were terrified of taking power into their own
IN JULY 1927 fascists attacked a peaceful SDAP demonstration, killing a
child and a war invalid. The killers were acquitted leading to mass
protests which were brutally attacked by police who fired into the crowds.
Street fighting raged and a general strike was called. Austria was gripped
by a revolutionary crisis.
Once again leadership proved decisive. Without the arming of the workers
and mobilising for power the general strike became a "demonstration with
folded arms." Within three days it was defeated.
In May 1931, the developing world economic crisis was deepened by the
collapse of the main Austrian bank - Credit Anstalt. With the economy in
ruins, with mass unemployment and increasing poverty, the social basis of
the capitalists began to evaporate.
The government was led by the Christian Social Party, forerunners of
today's People1s Party, which sought to prevent absorption into Germany by
leaning on Mussolini's Italian fascist regime and repressing the
As the capitalist crisis intensified the ruling class, increasingly, used
their military/police apparatus against the workers1 organisations and
prepared to drown the workers movement in blood.
Yet, the SDAP leaders clung to the argument that they couldn1t assume
power until they won 51% of the vote. While they waited the fascists
attempted two abortive coups.
In March 1933, the bonapartist Austrian chancellor Dollfuss dissolved
parliament and command of the army and police was placed in the hands of
Fey - the Heimwehr leader.
The inaction of the SDAP leaders only emboldened the fascists. In January
1934 the Heimwehr occupied four regional government buildings,
demanding the SADP's suppression.
Fearing a repeat of Hitler's victory in Germany the workers, starting in
Linz and against the opposition of the SADP leaders, took up armed
The army, police and fascists surrounded the workers1 districts. The Times
correspondent in Vienna described the scenes: "Outside the Larer Hill, the
Schutzbund erected a formidable defence system with barricades and proper
bunkers... These 'graves' held 2,000 armed Schutzbund scantily clothed, in
bad shoes and almost completely without nutrition or drinking water. These
2,000 lasted three ice-cold February days and nights."
An estimated 2,000 were slaughtered and 5,000 wounded. Tens of thousands
were rounded up and put into concentration camps.
The socialist revolutionary Leon Trotsky summarised the lessons of the
Austrian defeat when he wrote in 1934: "Only a leadership that recognises
in advance that the revolution is unavoidable, that makes this the
fundamental principle guiding its actions and draws all the practical
conclusions flowing from this can measure up to the situation at the
The above article is based on an article that appeared in the Militant
International Review (forerunner of Socialism Today) in Autumn 1985.
Back copies are available. Send £1 (includes postage) to Socialism Today,
PO Box 24697, London E9 5FP.
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