Main FI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Fourth International, July 1944


P. Berger

Lessons of the 1934 Revolt in Austria

An Account of a Participant


From Fourth International, vol.5 No.7, July 1944, pp.211-213.
Transcribed, marked up & formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for ETOL.


It was ten o’clock in the morning, on February 14th, 1934, when the power in our little workshop in Vienna stopped. Our noisy machinery turned unusually quiet.

“What’s that?” I asked my foreman. “General strike!”

Already, a neighbor was in to ask if our power had stopped as well. There was no argument. Everybody had expected some action of the Austrian working class, long famous for its militancy.

When the three of us, my boss who was a little Polish Jew as poor as any worker, my foreman, a Hungarian engineer, and myself, the errand boy, walked through the town, the trams were dragged by army lorries to the depot to prevent the workers from using them as barricades. All the bridges across the Danube Canal which divided the working class suburbs from the city, were in the hands of the army. Nobody could enter or leave the city without identification. Machine guns and barbed wire were placed in front of important buildings in the main roads. Soldiers in battledress were patrolling the streets. Great activity was manifested at the entrance of the war office. Everything was ready to smash capitalist democracy, under which the workers possessed some rights, and to establish a fascist dictatorship. This was the final moment for twenty years of Social Democratic “constitutional leadership.”

Twenty Years of “Austro-Marxism”

What was the starting point of this leadership?

In 1914, the Austro-Marxists placed their services at the disposal of the Habsburg Monarchy. Although they claimed to be Republicans, this made no difference to them. “Our country was in danger!” So Republicans and Monarchists, exploiter and exploited, parasites and Social Democrats, chauvinists and Second Internationalists, all were supposed to join hands to save “our country.”

The war imposed terrible burdens on the working class. Trouble in the Balkans, conscription of farm labor, revolting national minorities; all this caused the breakdown of Austro-Hungarian national economy.

In the towns, people started to stand in line at four o’clock in the morning to obtain a half pint of milk for a family ... Tremendous losses in men and material at the fighting front, insufficient food supply for the army; all these taken together resulted in a revolutionary upsurge of the masses against the ruling class and the war.

The February Revolution in Russia threw some light on the events to come. A permanent revolutionary wave was approaching. It did not pass its climax until the greater part of the European proletariat had participated in the revolutionary fight. The October Revolution demonstrated to the world working class what had to be done to seize power. The capitalist state machinery had to be destroyed, a dictatorship of the proletariat to be established.

After a year of reorganization of the revolutionary movement inside Germany, the Kiel sailors mutinied, Hamburg went “red,” Soviets were set up, dual power developed. The Kaiser abdicated on the 11th of November 1918, but left the Generals behind. The Austrian Emperor immediately followed suit. On November 12th, 1918, the Austrian Republic was proclaimed – the workers took possession of the factories. In Hungary the regime of the ruling class was overthrown and a Soviet Republic set up. In Milan and Turin, Italian Socialists were in power. The European revolution was in full swing. But a revolutionary party was necessary for its successful conclusion.

Social Democracy in “Power”

The Social Democrats formed the new government in Austria. What was their political line? “No bloodshed – Nothing against the law! – Keep quiet and leave everything to us, as we are now in the Government!” The popular slogan of Otto Bauer (Left wing Austro-Marxist) was: “What is the good of taking a disrupted economy from the capitalists? Let the capitalists pump life into their own system, and let us take it over afterwards.”

The Social-democratic Party Government suppressed the young Communist Party by every means, but they did not declare it illegal. However, in order to remain in power, the SP had to do better than merely betray the worker’s cause. They were confronted with the urgent problems of housing, starvation, tuberculosis, unemployment etc.

After the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Peace Treaty of Saint Germain), Austria was left with only six million inhabitants, one third of which lived in the capital, Vienna. Under these circumstances, the Social Democrats saw no chance of reviving the national economy and so came forward with the slogan of unification with Germany. But how could western imperialists agree to this? Their motto was: divide and rule!

The Anglo-American stranglehold on the bankrupt Central Powers, made the Social Democracy dependent entirely on material help from the West. Since they could not satisfy their masters, the S. P. Government had to resign. Cardinal Seipel became head of a reactionary government with the line of an independent Austria.

It must be stated here, The slogan of unification with Germany was correct. But it could only be carried into practice by linking up with the Hungarian revolution on the one hand and the German revolution on the other. By so doing, a tremendous revolutionary bloc would have been created which no power on earth could have challenged. But how could the Social Democrats think of forming such a revolutionary bloc when they betrayed the revolution in their own country? Of course, the Austro-Marxists were prepared to unite with the Weimar Social Democrats, with leaders like Noske, Ebert and Scheidemann, the murderers of Luxemburg and Liebknecht and thousands of other Spartacists and Socialists who tried to establish a Soviet Germany. But never with revolutionists!

Municipal Reformism’s Magic Formula

By 1923 the revolutionary wave had passed its climax. The SP had control of the Viennese City Council. The big chance for the Social Democrats to prove their “theory” of reformism had come. What was their plan? “Tax the rich! Put these taxes into the building industry! Thereby we solve the housing problem and get industry running.” “Tax the rich!” was the Austro-Marxists’ magic formula. They did their job very well, taking into account the limitations of the capitalist system. Many good working class apartment houses were built. Efficient management of social insurance made possible the reduction of TB cases to a very small number. Babies’ outfits were given to every expectant mother. But all these measures depended on the money taken in taxes from the rich. A poor security!

The capitalist class did not like the “terror” of taxation. They schemed to organize a fascist guard and prepared to attack at the right moment. So they did. The “Heimwehr”, (Home Guard, not officially connected with the State) mostly recruited from the peasantry and petty bourgeoisie, was organized. Their main task was strike-breaking and terrorizing the workers.

The SP had no better reply to this challenge than to make comical sketches and songs about the “Heimwehr.” As always when the working class retreats, reaction advances. The Heimwehr started killing and assaulting SP “Defense Guards.” The fascist murderers were always released without a sentence. That happened time and time again. The workers watched this development with growing anxiety. Their tempers rose, One time, when it became known that four Fascist murderers of two SP “Defense Guards” were’ released without punishment, the Viennese workers left their factories, marched down to the Fascist press, set it on fire. Then the excited workers went down to the Courthouse, where the Fascists were tried, to set it on fire as well. Practically a General Strike developed. All the workers were out in the streets. A real battle started in the center of Vienna between the workers and the Police.

These were the events of July 15th, 1927. The workers fought practically with their bare fists and without organization. But despite this, Vienna was in their hands.

Where was the SP leadership? They came down to the scenes of the struggle on Fire Brigade cars, to order the challenged workers to go home and leave the whole dispute to them. The SP leadership had built up a great deal of respect through their work in the Viennese city council. The workers followed their leaders obediently, if reluctantly.

A debate came up in Parliament, and the July uprising was “settled” at least for the SP leadership and the workers who were betrayed. The capitalist class, however, had learned a decisive lesson. The police were reinforced, and equipped with armoured cars etc.

The Social Democrats saw in the July uprising “just an accident” and not the last link in a chain of events. As dissension within their own party ranks grew, they tried to overcome all critics with appeals for unity. There was no other real working class party in Austria. The C.P. had only about a thousand members. Unity of all Social Democrats meant in reality unity of the working class. But of what use was this unity behind traitors to the working class cause?

The world economic crisis put an end to the reformist tax policy. As the factories stood idle, there were no profits and consequently no taxes. A radicalization of the working masses set in as a result of the crisis. The big chance for the C.P. to increase their influence had come. How did the C.P. begin their campaign? By denouncing the SP leadership as “Social Fascists.” This was, however, not the way of winning the confidence of the rank and file Social Democrats. The workers felt offended when their leaders, having introduced quite a few good reforms, were called Social Fascists. So it happened that on the event of the second revolutionary crisis in Europe, the working class was again left without a revolutionary party.

The “If” Policy of Fighting Reaction

In Austria it was obvious to everybody that a decisive fight between the working class and the capitalists was inevitable. The rebellious spirit of the youth against the SP bureaucracy intensified. But they were too confused and too weak politically to form an independent group immediately. When in 1933, Hitler came to power through the betrayal of the German SP and C.P., the situation in Austria went from bad to worse. The Austrian Fascists gained strength. The workers asked themselves: “Are we, too, going to capitulate without a fight?” “ Oh no!” the SP leadership answered, “we are going to fight IF –

  1. If Parliament is dissolved,
  2. If the Social Democratic Party is dissolved,
  3. If the Trade Unions are illegalized,
  4. If the Social Democratic ‘Defense Guards’ (Schutzbund) is banned.”

Thus the Social Democrats stated their terms before the fight had even started. So that it was left to the Fascists to organize their forces and open the offensive when it suited them best. The “IF” program had only one effect on the working class: it demoralized them when they should have gone over to the offensive. The reaction took the best advantage of the Four Point Program of the SP They discovered a constitutional right to run the country without Parliament, but through Emergency Laws. The SP took no action when these laws were enforced, as this case was not included in their four points. The C.P. was declared illegal – again no action on the part of the SP ! Demonstrations were banned. “Alright!” the SP said, “if we are not allowed to march in the streets, we shall walk on the sidewalks.” And so they did. But then the SP had a splendid idea. “Send protest telegrams, signatures, deputations down to Ballhaus Platz (the government center), let the Premier hear the whole weight of public opinion!”

The police started searching for the arms of the SP “Defense Guards.” But again: was the SP leadership going to fight if the workers’ arms were taken away? Oh NO! The terms for the “fight” were already stated. Thousands of rifles, machine guns, hand grenades, etc. were confiscated. The mood of the workers rose to fighting pitch. When the police and the Heimwehr (which had meantime been given the status of auxiliary police) knocked at the door of the SP headquarters to search for more arms, they were received with bullets. That was the beginning of the February fighting.

The news spread immediately all over the country. Workers left their factories. Some groups of SP “Defense Guards” took possession of the Karl-Marx-House and other buildings in Vienna on their own initiative. Other crowds of workers were standing about in the streets, waiting for arms and instructions. The Fire Brigade, which was completely Socialist, was standing ready. Every worker was prepared to fight. The only body that still wavered was the SP leadership.

The reactionaries, however, were determined for a showdown. All the armed forces, army, police and Heimwehr brought their artillery, etc., into position and working class resistance was smashed in four days. The social democratic workers fought heroically for a cause lost only because of the betrayal of their leadership.

The SP leaders were ready in their own way: most of them got over the border and went to Prague to write about the glorious struggle of the Austrian Social Democrats ...

Let it be stated here once and for all: The Austrian working class was not defeated by the class enemy. It was betrayed by its own leaders. Otto Bauer and other SP leaders admitted, that had the SP leadership made up their mind to fight even after all the blunders they had committed in the last 20 years, the working class would have won.

That is the most important lesson the world working class must learn. The readiness of the working class to fight is not enough. A revolutionary leadership prepared to lead the revolting masses is the necessary precondition for a working class victory.

The Austrian working class was, as a matter of fact, completely united behind its leaders. The whole outcome of 20 years’ unity makes it clear to every worker that unity is not enough.

Unity on the basis of a revolutionary program, unity on the basis of the Program of the Fourth International – that is the unity the working class needs for final victory.

After the February fighting the SP changed their name to “Revolutionary Socialists.” This did not prevent the SP youth from leaving the Second International and entering the Third International on an erroneous assumption that the Third International was still a revolutionary International. What did the Austrian CP do with these young revolutionary elements? All they did was organize futile demonstrations which resulted in the imprisonment of hundreds of these young revolutionists. What was necessary after the defeat of 1934 was to train the young revolutionists into cadres of the working class, and to come out in the open when the working class had started to recover. Instead of this policy the Austrian CP gave the impression that the fall of Austrian Fascism was not far off.

When the German imperialists had fulfilled their rearmament program, Germany’s first step on the road to world domination was the occupation of Austria. What was the situation immediately before the occupation? The “Revolutionary Socialists” and Trade Unions came out of their illegality to negotiate with Schuschnigg (the bourgeois premier who “stood” for national independence) the terms on which they would fight Hitler’s occupation army. The terms were simple. The RS, the TU and the SP would have to be declared legal and the SP “Defense Guards” rearmed to fight Hitler. But Schuschnigg did not accept the terms. No wonder: “What if the workers turn their arms not only against Hitler but against us as well?” he must have thought. Of course, the Austrian capitalists preferred the rule of the German imperialists to the rule of the proletariat. It was just another example of how the national bourgeoisie “fights” for national independence.

Today again, the slogan for Austrian independence has been put forward by the western imperialists and the old betrayers of the Austrian working class. Thus they aim to confuse the Austrian working class, to set up a reactionary fortress in the midst of a revolutionary Europe, to separate the revolutionary Balkans from the rest of the continent. But all these maneuvers won’t work. The twenty years of Austrian “independence,” with their unemployment and starvation will not be forgotten. Nor will the years of unification under German Fascism be forgotten. The way out for the Austrian working class is very clear: Independent working class struggle of the Austrian and German masses against their oppressors, the capitalist class; independent working class struggle under the leadership of the Fourth International.

Only a Socialist United States of Europe will free Austria and all the rest of the continent of social and national oppression.

London, February 1944

Top of page

Main FI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Trotskism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

Last updated on 12.9.2008