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The New International, February 1939


Charles Crompton

Is Austria a Nation?

The National Question for the Austrians in Light of the Permanent Revolution


From The New International, Vol.5 No.2, February 1939, pp.51-53.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


AFTER AUSTRIA’S annexation by Germany, the Stalinists issued a call to the “People of Austria” in which they said:

... Defend yourself, resist the foreign invaders ... Catholics and socialists ... join together ... into a front of all Austrians ... All party distinctions retreat into the background before the sacred task today confronting the Austrian people ... to drive Hitler’s soldateska out of Austria ... Make a reality out of the slogan: “Rot-weiss-rot bis in den Tod![1] The Austrian people has been ravished but ... by its own strength and with the aid of the world-front of peace, a free, independent Austria will rise again ...

In August 1938, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Austria declared in a manifesto:

The Austrian people has accomplished its state, economic and cultural evolution ... under other conditions than in the [German] Reich. By virtue of its independent history, of its will to independence, the Austrian people was and became ... an independent whole, a people – in the family of Central European peoples – capable of living by its own strength, no different than the German-speaking Swiss.

At the beginning of August 1938, the Central Committee of the CPA adopted a resolution in which it regrets having “underestimated the possibility of a union of the labor movement with sections of the Schuschnigg camp and of the Fatherland Front.”

Furthermore, the existence of the Austrian nation, violated by Germany and hence under nationally alien dominance, is again emphasized. It says literally:

A special weakness of the [communist] party lay in the fact that it did not, punctually and decisively enough, put dearly before the popular masses the fact that the Austrians had developed historically into a nation of their own and are not a part of the German nation ... (All italics mine. – C.C.)

These are only a few juicy examples from the flood of official and semi-official Stalinist enunciations of the same content: Long live the People’s Front with the Schuschnigg gangs, long live the independent Austrian nation! That is, back to Versailles!

It is not easy to demonstrate exactly to a non-Austrian the unbelievable idiocy of the Stalinist discovery of the “Austrian nation”. Nations have arisen time and again through the fusion of different peoples but also through the splitting apart of originally identical peoples. Centrifugal and centripetal forces have always been at work at the same time. In the long run, the political-social processes culminate in psychological acts: in the formation of a new national consciousness. In principle, therefore, the rise of an Austrian nation would by no means be excluded. The Stalinist idiocy lies, however, in the most primitive confounding of the worst provincialism of the most retrograde strata with a new national culture, that is, with a new national consciousness – of the most advanced and representative strata and not backward or declassed cretins! But we leave it to the Austro-Marxists to refute the Stalinist nonsense with scientific thoroughness and therewith to expound some commonplaces. We refer below to an Austro-Marxian article devoted to this purpose on the question: Is there an Austrian nation? We consider a debate with this article to be far more fruitful. Some information on a few facts which are perhaps unknown to the reader appears, however, to be indicated.

The Stalinists did indeed attempt to defile the labor movement by solicitations to the Schuschnigg gangs. [2] The absurd theory of an Austrian nation was propagated in the past only by a few monarchists, a few snobbish intellectuals and – the Christian Social party. The latter was founded towards the end of the last century by Dr. Luger as the party of the little man, of the decaying middle class, and was equipped with a Catholic-social-anti-Semitic, demagogic doctrine. It was a nest of corruption, survived the war, and continued to rot along with the petty bourgeoisie. Dollfuss-Schuschnigg took over from it a rather extremely narrow mass basis and something like an ideology – primarily “Austriandom”. It was this dictatorship that glorified the “Austrian nation”, something like a community interested in folk lore which carefully nurtures the barbaric dialect of a village idiot. The ideological level of this dictatorship and its “Austriandom” is positively unimaginable. It lost its scanty support almost entirely to the Nazis. Nobody ever took the “Austrian nation” seriously, hardly even Schuschnigg. That was reserved for the Stalinists.

In Nos.9 and 10 of the Austro-Marxian Sozialistische Kampf, a spokesman named F. Valentin refutes the Stalinist standpoint with considerable diligence. He quotes Otto Bauer, who defined the “nation” as a community of character resulting from community of destiny, and Kautsky, who missed in this definition the community of language. Valentin takes delight in refuting the CPA by – Stalin, and quotes his work, Marxism and the National Question. [3] In it the criteria of the nation are enumerated as: community of language, territory and economy and a psychical singularity revealed in a community of culture. On one page after another, Valentin shows that none of these criteria is applicable to the so-called Austrian nation. The “different economic and political conditions of life” of the Austrians as compared with other Germans, as adduced by the Stalinists, are no argument: most nations and national states arose in the struggle against these “different conditions”, in wars and revolutions, as was especially the case with Italy or Poland. Austrians and the other Germans undoubtedly speak the same language; they have a common territory to the extent that it was divided only by political (dynastic and then Versailles) frontiers. Geography does not represent the slightest hindrance.

Historically too there is a direct connection reaching from the Middle Ages to 1866, the Peace of Nikolsburg, in which Bismarck’s Prussia forced its rival, Habsburg-Austria, to quit the German League. The political-economic raggedness of the Austrian Germans was distinguished in no respect, until 1871, when the Hohenzollern empire was founded, from that of the other Germans. The progressive forces of the young German bourgeoisie rebelled in Austria, just as in the other countries populated by Germans, against the dynasties and the economic and political dismemberment: the revolution of 1848, despite the dilettante contrary contentions of the Stalinists, was not different in German-Austria than in the other German territories – an unsuccessful struggle for national unification against the political boundaries which the mediaeval dynastic powers had drawn across the body of the people. Even the peasant wars at the beginning of modern times, raised to an especially Austrian tradition by the Stalinists, were of course only a part of the German peasant wars. Valentin proves by Marx, Engels and Lenin that there was never any doubt about the Austrian Germans belonging to the German nation. He instructs the Stalinists that the development of the nations is a bourgeois-democratic affair and in no case that of a revolutionary proletarian party. He recalls that the German-Austrian “independence” since 1918 was in no way the product of will but rather of compulsion and that, moreover, even the Stalinists did not dare dispute the fact that the Sudeten-Germans, allotted to Czechoslovakia by the treaties of Versailles-St. Germain, belong to the German nation. He is against the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia because “in view of the fascist imperialism” of Germany, proletarian interests take precedence over the right of national self-determination of the fascist majority among the Sudeten-Germans.

We cannot dwell here upon the individual distortions of the Marxian standpoint as Valentin counterposes it to the Stalinists, We develop below the standpoint of Marxism. But what policy does Valentin propose for Austria? The one formulated by the Austro-Marxists about six months ago at a conference in Brussels: “In view of the accomplished fact” they declared that the liberation of the Austrian people from Nazism is possible only “by an All-German revolution ...” Tearfully, Valentin records that first the Habsburgs and then the treaties of Versailles-St. Germain prohibited the Anschluss of the Austrian-Germans to Germany – which manifestly made it impossible.

We know that history is not at all made by the ominous “historical process” alone, but to an appreciable degree by men (that is, not by Austro-Marxists). In the complaint about the “forbidden” Anschluss lies the whole Austro-Marxist soul. A fawning respect for the power of others – called “accomplished facts” – is the obverse side of the habitual impotence to accomplish any facts on one’s own, and the historical mission of always demonstrating scientifically how and why the proletariat can do nothing right now. But history does not brook being joked with.

What must happen, happens. When it does not happen through the forces of progress – then it happens anyway, but through the forces of reaction with a reversed sign! Since the proletariat, hampered by its treacherous leadership, did not liberate the productive forces in time from the fetters of private property by means of planned socialist economy, there followed – their strangulation through fascist economy! Since the Soviet United States of Europe was not created by the proletarian revolution, there arose – the League of Nations! Instead of the liberation of the nations by the world revolution, there followed – “national unification” by fascism!

An instructive glance backward at the theory and practise of the Austro-Marxists is in place here: Otto Bauer’s well-known book on the national question proposed a rigid fixation of the spiritual properties of the nations inside of Old-Austria and thus satisfied neither the “legitimate” claims of the bourgeois revolution nor the dynamically progressive character of the loosening, fusion and shifting of the historically national complex begun by the industrial proletariat. And so the Austro-Marxists fought “on the basis of facts” for fossilized Austria instead of propagating its destruction. Valentin emphasizes the former struggle of his party comrades against the nationalist degeneration of the Slavic socialists in Old-Austria. Against the same degeneration of his own part – which is grounded in accomplished facts – he has no objections.

It was not the revolution that smashed Austria, but rather victorious imperialism of the West! But the latter immethately accomplished facts upon whose basis the Austro-Marxists promptly took their stand. These facts were the so-called national states of Central and Eastern Europe (torture chambers of the nations as well as of the productive forces), along with a crippled Austria condemned to independence and hunger. Although Renner, Bauer and Co. declared Austria to be a part of Germany in 1918 – the Entente forbade the Anschluss! Valentin is wrong on that score too! The Sudeten-Germans were turned over to the Czechs and then to the Nazis by no means “because of the fascist imperialism” of Germany but as a result of the recognition of the accomplished facts of Versailles on the part of Valentin’s party comrades in Vienna, Berlin and Prague. (The Sudeten-German branch of the Austro-Marxists hurried into the Prague government!) And what did the Austro-Marxists learn front their glorious history? The continued recognition of accomplished facts: the decision that the arena of the social revolution is fixed by the boundaries drawn by Hitler! That is the meaning of the slogan of the “All-German revolution”.

The nation as an essential historical category exists approximately since the French Revolution. The productive forces of young capitalism revolted successfully at that time against the historic feudal districts. They found in the language communities that had arisen for the most part under the old régime the more or less adequate room for their most favorable unfolding. The process of the rise of the nations is as contradictory as the forces that created them. The existing degree of development, historical residues, geography and other factors constituted centripetal and centrifugal currents. Thus, by splitting off from their less progressive ancestral kin, nations arose out of the Hollanders and the Flemings. The Provençals became French, but the Catalans (and Portuguese) did not become Spaniards. Italians, Poles and others became nations despite the political-economic boundaries, while Czechs, Hungarians and Slovaks remained in common with other peoples. The inhabitants of the USA and of Latin America became independent nations despite their language community with the mother country. The attempt to fix within a definition the “nation” which is constantly in a process of change, does not appear to be very meaningful.

Evolution is not even. The bourgeoisie – not even in Europe – did not everywhere resolve its national task! Thus, in particular, the result of the defeat of the democratic revolution of 1848 was the uneffected union of the Germans. History punished them for it by a half-union under – the Hohenzollerns, and therewith bestowed upon them all the burdens of capitalism and only a modest share of those cultural streams of young nationalism which at one time so richly fertilized the victorious democracies, especially France. It can be said – with exaggeration, to be sure, but for the purpose of bluntness: the Germans never became a nation! (For while the nation creates the national state, it creates and develops, in its turn, the nation.) Then couldn’t it be said that Hitler is progressive at least in a certain sense? Hasn’t he united the Germans, like a sort of belated Cavour, created the German nation, even if under the fascist knout, and thereby enforced what the Versailles victors had forbidden? Wasn’t the Anschluss legitimate in this sense? Our Austro-Marxist, with his “All-German revolution” would have to reply in the affirmative in order to be consistent!

Yet the Anschluss was historically as illegitimate as could be! For the past 150 years the productive forces have developed enormously. The national boundaries are now the same straitjacket as were once the feudal. The “nation” is a category of the bourgeois-democratic epoch. In the youth of capitalism, it was progressive, which is not at all the case in the twentieth century. In Germany, a progressive postulate has become reactionary before it was fulfilled! The “nation” has long ago lost its rich economic and cultural functions and continues to appear only in a single – negative – function: as national oppression!

National emancipation, the creation of the nation must nevertheless – apparently paradoxically – be carried through. But, so to say, only for a moment. The productive forces no longer permit the completion of the bourgeois revolution, for their field of operations is beyond the ethnographic frontiers. Hence, also, capitalism is inexorably imperialistic, and it can no longer carry out any democratic postulates. Only the victorious proletariat can. But by means of its victory it liberates precisely the productive forces from the national fetters and thus eliminates the very premise of the democratic postulate of national freedom at the moment when it is fulfilled. For lack of any need, the “nation” and with it national freedom proves to be as superfluous as religion under socialism.

Hitler’s “Anschluss” is therefore historically just as illegitimate as the Austro-Marxist “All-German revolution”. Hitler freed a nation which continues to exist (if it does exist) only because the reaction and the Austro-Marxists have prevented the appearance of the truth – only latent because of the gruesome coercion – that it is long since the “nation” has ceased to be. The German nation was never born, it rotted inside the womb of history! Hitler did not bring a child into the world – but a stinking corpse.

And the Austro-Marxists? They take the corpse as a “given fact” and think of settling down in it after the famous “All-German revolution”. But this will not prevent the proletariat from fulfilling victoriously its historic mission, the social revolution on a world scale, and from dropping the Austro-Marxists upon that particular dust-heap which history long ago prepared especially for them.

Early November, 1938



1. Red-white-red to the very death! – the slogan of the Schuschnigg gangs (Heimwehr).

2. Without success. The Vienna workers, summoned for help by the creatures of the murderous Schuschnigg regime on the very eve of the Anschluss, demonstrated under the slogan: “Down with the Nazis – not for Schuschnigg!”

3. This is the theoretical work of Stalin before the war which is incessantly quoted as proof of his fertility.

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