Otto Bauer

The Dangers of “Reformism”


Source: British Socialist, December 1913, pp. 533-543, Otto Bauer (Vienna), “Reformism” from Neue Zeit.
Translated from Die Neue Zeit.
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

The Annual Conference of the German Social-Democracy in Austria, which took place at Vienna during the first days of November, deserves also the attention of our comrades beyond the Austrian frontiers. For, however peculiar the forms of the proletarian class war under the special conditions of the Austrian State, however much it may differ from the simple, straight course it takes in other countries of homogeneous national structure, that Conference was dominated by the same great question that has been for many years the fundamental question at all international congresses and all national conferences of the International Social-Democracy – by the struggle between the Reformist and the Revolutionary Socialism. And it is all the more remarkable that this question should have been broached in the German-Austrian Social-Democracy, inasmuch as it is not differences about the theory of Socialism, but bitter experience in the political field, that placed the great problem of the Socialist movement on the agenda.

Up to 1904, the Austrian Social-Democratic Party was a small party. Between 1904 and 1907 it grew by leaps and bounds. The period of prosperity enabled the trade unions at that time to increase their membership enormously; in two or three years their membership grew from 189,000 to 501,000. An exceedingly great number of industrial fights resulted in an increase of wages, a shortening of the hours of labour, and advantageous agreements. And to those great successes in industrial conflicts was added a great political victory. The military quarrel with Hungary, which forced the Crown to threaten the aristocratic Parliament with Universal Suffrage, induced the Austrian working class to start the fight for Universal Suffrage in Austria too. The Russian Revolution gave weight and impetus to that fight. Allied with Crown and Bureaucracy, the proletariat smashed the electoral privileges of the feudal aristocracy and the bourgeoisie.

That great victory brought new crowds of adherents into the camp of the Social-Democratic Party. But the mode of thought of those crowds was altogether Reformist. They had been gained for the Party by the force of our victories in the period between 1904 and 1907. They expected an indefinite number of such victories. Above all, they placed the most extravagant hopes in the new Parliament elected on a basis of universal and equal suffrage. The old Parliament of the privileged classes had done nothing for the workers; was it not reasonable to expect that things would change now that the proletariat, by a bold rush, had gained a “People’s Parliament"? The workers were full of hope that the conquest of Universal Suffrage would be followed by a grand era of social reforms, by a peaceful and rapid ascent of the proletariat, a gradual “hollowing-out” of capitalism. That Reformist way of thinking of the mass of the workers was, in Austria, not the result of conscious Revisionist propaganda, but the inevitable sequel of the great victories of 1904 and 1907. But the Reformist hopes were also here destined to lead to bitter disappointments.

In the first place, the economic position of the working class became decidedly worse. A general rise of prices took place. In 1908 we passed through a severe economic crisis. The recovery from that crisis was impeded, in 1909, by the threat of war, following the annexation of Bosnia, and in 1910 and 1911 by the effect of two bad harvests. But in the autumn of 1912 there occurred, on account of the Balkan troubles, a crisis of such severity as had not been experienced in Austria since the seventies. The employers’ organisations, which had become strong in consequence of the great successes of the trade unions in the preceding period, made use of that state of trade which was so unfavourable to the workers. Since 1907, the wages of fully-employed workers have risen much more slowly than the prices of food and rent. The wages of a great part of the working class were considerably reduced by means of short time. And tens of thousands have been out of work for many months.

It was at that time of terrible working-class misery that the ominous change of the foreign policy of Austria-Hungary took place. The Balkan policy of the Monarchy, a peaceful and quiet policy in the period of the Mürgsteg Agreement (1903-1908), became violent and dangerous from the time that Count Ahrenthal, by announcing the intention of building the Sandjak Railway, had torn to pieces the agreement with Russia. The annexation of Bosnia and the hostility shown to Servia during the last year brought Austria-Hungary twice during four years within serious danger of war. Twice during four years great portions of the Army were placed on a war footing. Last year, tens of thousands of reservists, tens of thousands of heads of families, were for fully eight months under arms near the Servian frontier. Militarism was redoubling its efforts. In 1911, Austria, which up to then had had no considerable Navy, proceeded to build a Dreadnought squadron. In 1912, the annual number of recruits was at one stroke increased by one-half. Concurrently with this the attitude of the governing classes toward the Social-Democratic Party underwent a change. In 1905 and 1906 the working-class had been the ally of the Crown against the Parliament of privilege, and now Social-Democracy, the only serious opponent of Imperialism and Militarism, was regarded as the enemy. The administrative authorities and the law courts now showed themselves more hostile to the working class than ever.

Parliament proved itself impotent and without influence in face of that development. The introduction of a universal and equal suffrage had widened, complicated, intensified the struggles of the Austrian nations for the power in the State. Nations which the old electoral system had prevented from being heard could only develop their historical rule in full after the democratisation of the suffrage. Such was the case with the Ruthenians and the Slovenes. The development of latter years has strengthened the self-consciousness of both of them. In the case of the Ruthenians, the cause of this was the Russian Revolution, and in the case of the Slovenes it was the victories of the southern Slavs on the Balkan Peninsula. Young, unsatisfied, with as yet no social differentiation, the whole power of their people is being concentrated in their fights for a University, for a reform of the suffrage for their Diet,[1] or for a greater representation (share) in the bureaucracy. And as the smaller nations can never hope to obtain a majority in the Imperial Parliament for their demands, they make use of the weapon of obstruction in order to enforce the fulfilment of their wishes. But the greater nations – Germans, Czechs, Poles – did not dare to take that weapon away from them. For they also have neither of them a majority in Parliament. Also they are each of them afraid of the possibility of being vanquished by a coalition hostile to them. Each of them, therefore, desires to retain for itself the possibility of obstruction. As every nation has come to regard the right of obstruction as an indispensable means of defence, Parliament had to submit to two dozen Ruthenians and Slovenes again and again making all Parliamentary work impossible. The popular representative body becoming incapable of deciding anything, bureaucracy usurped the power of deciding things. By means of the notorious Section 14 of the fundamental State Law it forced on the Empire laws without the consent of the Imperial Parliament.

But also in times in which Parliament was not hamstrung by obstruction, things were far different from what the mass of the proletariat had hoped. In Austria, too, the intensification of class antagonism has grown at an exceedingly quick rate. The trade union successes drove the small traders [2] into the arms of the great captains of industry. The growth of the co-operative societies has filled the small shopkeepers with wild hatred for the working class. Fights about the corn duties and the prohibition of the cattle import, and the rise of wages in agriculture in consequence of a shortness of labour on the land, have mobilised peasant and landlord against Social-Democracy. The tendency in the direction of uniting the whole of the possessing classes against the proletariat was strengthened by the electoral reform. Formerly, the middle-class parties had been able to fight each other undisturbed in the electoral classes,[3] but now all of them saw themselves menaced by the Social-Democracy. Except for the small band of Radicals, all middle-class parties in the German-speaking parts of the Monarchy united against the Social-Democratic Party. In Parliament, all attempts to obtain protective Labour legislation met with the resistance of all middle-class parties. Here, the “one reactionary mass” has become a reality.

So things had turned out quite differently from what the people had hoped. Instead of the expected era of “positive achievements,” of social reforms, of the “hollowing out of capitalism,” we had a period of high prices, of economic crisis, of armaments and mobilisations, of nationalist obstruction, of absolutist dictatorship, of the coalition of all the middle-class parties against us, and of stagnation in all social legislation.

At first, the mass of the people were hoping to be able to stem the tide of development by skilful tactics. From 1905 till 1907 we had succeeded, by an alliance with the Crown, in breaking the resistance of the nobility and the middle classes against an equal suffrage. Even after the electoral reform many still believed in the possibility of a co-operation of the International Social-Democracy with the Government of the International Austrian States against middle-class Nationalism. The presence of some Social-Democrats at the reading of the king’s Speech in 1907[4] and Pernerstorffer’s visit to the Court were symptoms of that feeling. But ever since the Crown turned away from Democracy, since it made its peace again with the feudal aristocracy of Hungary and dropped universal and equal suffrage for Hungary [5] and instituted Tisza’s dictatorship; ever since Imperialism and Militarism forced the working class to fight against the policy of the governing class – the hope of a co-operation, such as was possible in 1905 and 1906, has flown. Immediately after the crisis occasioned by the annexation of Bosnia, the Party Conference of Reichenberg (1909) declared that tactical experiments like Pernerstorffer’s going to Court must not be repeated.

As it had proved impossible to gain the expected social reforms by an alliance with the Government, it was now decided to enforce them by fighting against the Government. From 1905 till 1907 street demonstrations had been our chief weapon, and as street demonstrations had brought victory under specially favourable circumstances – it was the time of the military differences with Hungary and the Russian Revolution – the mass of the people were inclined to think that street demonstrations were under all circumstances, at all times, an infallible weapon. In fighting the great rise in prices that weapon was used repeatedly. But when peaceable street demonstrations proved of no avail, the masses turned street demonstrations into open revolt, in spite of all exhortations and warnings of their leaders. Nothing was achieved by this but the sanguinary vengeance of the State.

Being powerless to change by themselves the course of evolution, people placed their hope again in their representatives in Parliament. They still believed that the hoped-for successes could not fail to turn up if only their representatives made use of all appropriate means. At times that obsession of the masses showed itself in a very naive manner. For instance, an organisation composed of workers employed in the workshops of the State Railways once threatened to withhold their contributions to the Party if our Parliamentary members did not at last get the wages of the State Railway workers raised! The conviction that it was only the wrong tactics of our members that were at fault if the hoped for “successes” were not forthcoming got an increasingly firm grip on many of the members of our Party. Gradually that conviction grew into a demand for obstruction in Parliament. People heard that two dozen Ruthenians had succeeded in stopping all work in Parliament. Why did our own members not do the same thing? Why were they satisfied with speaking and voting against the Government instead of forcing concessions for the working class by means of obstruction?

Thus it came about that the branches of Vienna-Meidling and Graz submitted resolutions to the Party Conference in which they demanded that the Parliamentary Party should not be satisfied with mere opposition, but should obstruct the Government Bills, especially the demands for the Army, until the Old Age and Invalidity Insurance and some pressing social reforms had been obtained. That the ideas underlying those resolutions are widely spread was undoubtedly shown in the debates at the Conference. A portion of the Viennese delegates, the delegates from Styria, Salzburg, and Vorarlberg were in favour of those resolutions.

The Executive Committee of the Party and the Members of Parliament spoke against them. They pointed to the Austrian situation. The obstruction in the Bohemian Diet that had already been going on for years led to a bureaucratic absolutism taking the place of the autonomous State administration that had been destroyed by obstruction. A similar state of things was developing also in Galicia. Soon the Diets would be superseded in all the States of Austria with a mixed national population, and their places would be taken by “Administrative Commissions” appointed by the Government. Obstruction had prepared the way for absolutism in the States, and the same thing would happen in the Empire. No Parliament could exist if now one, now another, party prevented its working by obstruction. If Parliament became incapable of coming to decisions, they would be placed before the alternative of either having a reform of the Parliamentary Standing Orders which would make all obstruction impossible, and would thus subject all minorities to the untrammelled domination of the majority for the time being, or the complete setting aside of Parliament – Absolutism.

Hitherto obstruction had been the weapon in the war of nationalities. If the Social-Democrats made use of that weapon, it would become a weapon of the class war. Every class would use it; to-day it would be the workers, to-morrow the guild people [6]; one day the Agrarians, and then again the great industrial employers. Socio-political obstruction would entirely destroy Parliament, and help Absolutism to get hold of the reins of government. It could not be their work to destroy Parliament; on the contrary, it would in future be their duty to co-operate in endeavours to reform the Standing Orders so as to restrict the possibilities of obstruction, restore the right of the majority to decide (without which Parliament was not possible), and thus protect Parliament against the growing danger of Absolutism.

The Conference could not deny the force of these arguments. After a lengthy debate a motion of the delegates from German Bohemia was adopted in which obstruction was rejected as a normal Parliamentary weapon, and was declared to be only applicable as a last extreme means of Parliamentary defence.

But, however important that decision might be, it does not constitute the great achievement of the Conference. A matter of much greater importance is that the debate on obstruction led to a discussion about our whole relation to Parliamentarism and the bourgeois State itself. The whole debate was based on the recognition that there is no greater danger for our Party than the illusion that all that was wanted to usher in an era of positive successes, social reforms, an era of the “hollowing-out” of capitalism[7] was tactical skill. The whole debate was based upon the recognition that it is of vital interest for the Party to lead back the mass of the people, who had been deceived by the great successes of 1904-1907, to the old Marxian teaching that capitalist development does not lead to peaceable, continual improvement, but to the greater misery of the proletariat, to increased exploitation, to an intensification of class antagonism, until we are strong enough to smash the whole world of capitalism! It was, above all, Victor Adler who explained it to our comrades in simple and plain words:- We should always be in a bad state if we wanted to live by being contented with the successes we achieve in the ,capitalist State; our strength only grows out of the discontent with the whole world of capitalism! It is not an era of Social Reforms that we can hope for, we can only hope for a great epoch of Social Revolution!

And with that change in our relationships to capitalism in general our relationship to the Austrian State in particular has changed. In the exultation of our suffrage victory the illusion had spread in our ranks that this Austria of ours could become an exemplary Democratic State, a second Switzerland, which would prove to the world that all nations could live together under the same roof in liberty and peace. The devastating interior troubles of these last years, and the catastrophic change for the worse that has taken place with regard to the European position of the Empire in consequence of the revolutions that have taken place in the Balkans, have destroyed that illusion. At this Party Conference it became evident for the first time how badly the belief in the possibility of the continued existence of Austria has been shaken.

The epoch of bourgeois revolution in the past created national States on the ruins of the old feudal and absolutist States. It left Austria to exist as a mere aggregation of remainders of nations that had been left over in the process of forming national States. It is an open question whether Austria, under the pressure of future revolutions, will be able to transform herself in some measure into a federal State of autonomous nations that will live, or whether she will have to fall to pieces and give up her nations to the national communities around us. In other countries it might be thinkable that the proletariat, peaceably pressing forward, will gain control over the machinery of the State; in our case it is clear that the machinery of the State that we could take possession of will first have to be forged in the great storms of European history.

Of course, these are no new thoughts. In Austria, too, there have always been comrades who warned us against Reformist views, and who endeavoured to bring the mass of the people to the revolutionary way of thinking. But formerly they were rarely listened to, and then only by the few. At this last Conference it became evident, for the first time, that the whole of the public opinion in our Party is beginning to apprehend the dangers of Reformists; that our most responsible and trusted people, taught by bitter experience, recognise that the Reformist illusions only lead to disappointments for which the Party is made responsible; that, if the mass of the people are given exaggerated hopes of “positive achievements,” and then when those achievements will not materialise the people will no longer make capitalism responsible for their misery, but they will hold Social-Democracy responsible – no longer will they blame the governing classes, but their own representatives.

It will certainly not be easy to change the mode of thought of the great mass of the proletariat. Years of educational work are necessary for that, and not only verbal education but also that acquired through experience. But the fact that the Vienna Conference made the first step in this educational work gives it a special importance in the history of our Party.

That is why that Conference is also deserving of the attention of our comrades outside of Austria. Austria has so often been pointed out as a pattern of international Reformism, and the Austrian Social-Democracy has been lauded by the Revisionists of all countries as an example to be followed. Well, Austria has now demonstrated to the whole of the International the dangers of exclusive Reformism. Our experience can be a lesson and warning to the Parties in other countries.

1. The Diets are the local or State Legislatures of the various States constituting the Austrian Monarchy. – TRANSLATOR.

2. i.e., the small master class employing themselves, or one or two journeymen; a class still numerous in Austria. – TRANSLATOR.

3. The old Austrian franchise was similar to the existing Prussian franchise; men paying the highest taxes voting in the first class, others in the second, etc. – TRANSLATOR.

4. It should be stated here, as an explanation, that the Socialist M.P.’s in the Continental Monarchies generally ostentatiously refrain from being present at the reading of the King’s Speech, so as to demonstrate their Republicanism. – TRANSLATOR.

5. The Austrian Emperor, as King of Hungary, has promised the Hungarian people universal and equal suffrage, but the fulfilment of that promise has hitherto been frustrated by the unscrupulous Hungarian landocracy dominating the present Hungarian Parliament.- TRANSLATOR.

6. Small employers or traders. – TRANSLATOR.

7. Permeating capitalism, we would say in Great Britain. – TRANSLATOR.

Last updated on 4.11.2008