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Pierre Frank

Otto Bauer
A Representative Theoretician
of Austro-Marxism

(January 1969)

From International Socialist Review, Vol.30 No.3, May-June 1969, pp.36-41.
Originally published in French in Quatrième Internationale, January 1969.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

The arguments to prove that Stalinism was the natural outgrowth of Bolshevism have been innumerable. Wasn’t Stalin a member of the Political Bureau? Didn’t he always identify himself with Lenin and Leninism? Weren’t the methods of Stalinism “embryonic” in Lenin’s “amoralism,” in the centralist conception of the party, in the ban the Tenth Congress placed on factions? And so on.

How many times Trotsky had to refute such arguments, to show that Stalinism had no theory of its own, that it was the political expression of a social stratum – the Soviet bureaucracy – that this bureaucracy destroyed the Bolshevik Party, which had been the political expression of the revolutionary proletariat. Trotsky did not neglect also to point up the social, political, psychological, and other affinities between the Soviet bureaucrats and the bureaucrats of the Social Democratic parties and the reformist trade unions.

This correspondence is striking in the realm of ideology. It is evident when you compare the fundamental views advocated by the Stalinists with those that have been put forward by the reformists, most especially by the left Social Democrats, who were the last in the Social Democracy to give lip service to Marxist theory – that is the Russian Mensheviks, the Austro-Marxists, the Italian Maximalists, and the Guesdists, Bracke and Zyromski, in the SFIO [Section Française de l’Internationale Ouvrière – French Section of the Workers (Second) International – the French Social Democratic party].

It is these profound ideological affinities, moreover, that explain why, when these circles have experienced crises, some left Social Democrats – and not the least prominent – capitulated to Stalin or even joined the Communist Party. This was the case of Dan for the Mensheviks; of a wing of the Italian Socialists; and of Zyromski, who joined the PCF [Parti Communiste Français – French Communist Party]. This was also the case of Otto Bauer, the dean of Austro-Marxism in the last years of its existence.

The case of Otto Bauer is by far the most illustrative because he was the most inclined to offer theoretical justifications for his positions. He did not lack culture and a certain agility in the game of ideas, which made him much more subtle that a Kautsky in this regard. The younger generations know nothing about Austro-Marxism generally, even the name of Otto Bauer.

A French writer, Yvon Bourdet, has taken up the study of Otto Bauer, along with other Austro-Marxists like Max Adler. His book Otto Bauer et la Revolution [Otto Bauer and the Revolution] [1] is especially interesting because it offers a compilation of the essential body of Otto Bauer’s major theoretical and political writings from 1917 to 1938. Thus this book enables us to make an instructive comparison of the Austro-Marxists’ thought with that of the Stalinists or post-Stalinists. [2]

Otto Bauer’s idea of Marxism is characterised primarily by fatalism. For him what happens in most cases is “inevitable” and “necessary.” These adjectives dropped repeatedly from his pen. I stress them in the quotations that follow in this article.

His conception was also marked by a view that socialism would develop country by country – that is fundamentally of socialism “in one country.” He had no idea of combined development, of societies where features belonging to different epochs or modes of production are combined.

Thus in 1917, since Czarist Russia was a backward country, he drew the conclusion that the revolution, which the Russian workers carried out in alliance with the peasants, would not lead to the dictatorship of the proletariat but ... bourgeois democracy:

“I consider from now on (October 1917) the transitory rule of the proletariat allied with the peasantry as a necessary phase of Russia’s evolution in her march toward bourgeois democracy” (“Neue Kurs” in Sowjetrussland, p.73).

For him, Russia had necessarily to follow the road followed by France, England, etc. He very frequently refers to the French revolution and the period of the Jacobin dictatorship. He adduces that this dictatorship was necessary, as well as the “illusions” of the plebeian masses on which it depended, in order to clear the way for the capitalist system. He concludes that the Bolsheviks had the “illusions” which all fighters need but that history would use them as a means of advancing to a bourgeois democracy:

“Their [the plebeian masses’] rule ... cannot achieve their communist ideal. It has only been the means used by history to destroy the vestiges of feudalism and thereby create the preconditions for the development of capitalism on a new extended base” (pp.79-80).

Thus, he was one of the creators of the theory that the Soviet system constituted “state capitalism,” which was to find popularity in the most diverse political circles (Eisenhower-type capitalists, Guy Mollet reformists, Bordigist ultraleftists).

When the Bolsheviks instituted NEP he considered himself fully vindicated:

“The inevitable results of free commerce (NEP) are the restoration of commercial and industrial capital and the reestablishment of capitalism” (p.79).

Of course, while he was for the defense of the USSR, it was in a very Austro-Marxist sense, in order to better assure the transition to bourgeois democracy:

“It is in the vital interests of the Russian proletariat and the international proletariat that the inevitable liquidation of the dictatorship be accomplished through a peaceful transformation and not through the violent overthrow of the Soviet regime” (p.82).

In his own country, in Austria, where he was the theoretical guide of the Social Democratic Party which embraced the very great majority of the working class, he held that there could be no question of using force in the struggle for socialism The world war victors would not permit it. In a pamphlet The Road to Socialism (1919), he wrote:

“Let us imagine that in a single day the workers seize the factories, kick the capitalists and the bosses out just like that, and take over the management themselves! Naturally, such an upset would be impossible without a bloody civil war ... The foreign capitalists would deny us raw materials ... and the indispensable credit ... America and the Entente would maintain a blockade ...” (p.90).

But he, Otto Bauer, had found a solution. He developed a whole program fitting into the framework of the democratic republic:

“Socialization begins with expropriation. The state [the bourgeois state – PF] declares the present owners of big industry divested of their property. Compensation must be paid. It would be unjust to despoil the owners of mine and foundry stock while the other capitalists remained in possession ... The cost of compensation must be borne by all of the capitalists and landowners. To this end, the state will level a progressive capital tax on all capitalists and owners, the proceeds of which will be used to compensate the dispossessed owners of stock in big industry. In this way, no harm will be done to stockholders in big industry ...” (p.93).

Would the reactionaries permit such a program, which has great similarities to the “transitional programs” of the Togliattis and other advocates of “renovated democracy”? What is to be done if the bourgeoisie resists? Otto Bauer’s answer, while reformist, is – let us give it its due – superior to that of our contemporary post-Stalinists. He does not only say, like them, that in that case the workers must resort to force. He also advocates political propaganda in the army and aimed at the state repressive forces. Still more, he has an armed workers militia in mind, the Republikanische Schutzbund, a vestige of the aborted Austrian revolution of 1918. Listen to what he said in 1924 in a pamphlet entitled The Struggle for Power.

“We cannot use our soldiers’ arms to take power. No, we must win power by the ballot. But our soldiers’ arms can protect us from a counterrevolution, which would tear the ballot out of our hands at the precise moment it could bring us power (p.157) ... If the soldiers remain in our camp, if we manage to win a part of the police and security forces, if the Republikanische Schutzbund remains powerful and alert, then reaction will not dare rise up against the Constitution of the republic. And then we can take power without resorting to violence and without civil war but simply by availing ourselves of the right to vote” (p.158).

We must also recognize that in 1934 Otto Bauer applied his theory of “defensive force” fully. The tragic example of the heroic but hopeless struggle of the Vienna workers implacably condemned this too subtle theory that claimed that class struggle could be won from all positions – either within the framework of bourgeois democracy, or failing that and leaving the decision up to the enemy, in armed combat.

Having taken Germany and Austria, Nazism advanced throughout Europe. In exile, Otto Bauer erected new “Marxist” theories. He had lost his illusions about bourgeois democracy but not his fatalistic interpretation of Marxism: “Bourgeois democracy necessarily ends in fascist counterrevolution” (p.222).

I will come back later to this proposition in examining Otto Bauer’s conception of the relations between the class and the party. But the loss of his illusions in bourgeois democracy made him discover that socialism really had been achieved in the USSR. In a work entitled Between Two Wars, he made startling discoveries: “Socialist society is not only an abstract idea. It has become a tangible reality in the Soviet Union” (p.169).

He was even to discover that socialism “in one country” was perfectly possible:

“’Socialism in one country’ is entirely possible in an immense country like Russia which has almost all the important raw materials in its soil and can absorb almost all its own products” (p.174).

Let us reserve comment on the economic views of this Marxist who abandoned the international division of labor in favor of autarchy. Let us limit ourselves to the political side of his view. When he wrote such lines, he was aware that Stalin’s regime no longer corresponded to that of Lenin:

“In the first phase of its evolution, the dictatorship conformed approximately to the idea Lenin had of it before the October Revolution” (p.18).

“The dictatorship of the proletariat has become something quite different from its founders’ original conception. This evolution was inevitable” (p.198).

Why was this evolution inevitable? Because Bauer had found that Stalinism was suited to building socialism. He expressed this in striking terms:

“The transition from the capitalist mode of production to the socialist mode of production requires many years. In order for this process to proceed undisturbed and uninterrupted, a stable state power is required. It must be stable enough to guard the process of social transformation from popular criticism midway in its development, when the masses have begun to feel acutely the temporary sacrifices it entails without yet appreciating the gains it promises. This process can be subjected to popular criticism only when the fruits of the socialist revolution have ripened.

“The dictatorship changed ... its function. It enforced the needs of the future of the proletariat against the present wants of the individual proletarians. This task obviously could not be accomplished by a dictatorship of Soviets. Since their members could be recalled at any moment, they would always base their decisions on egoistic desires, on the limited conceptions and immediate wants of their constituents. This task could be mastered only by a one-party dictatorship with an all-powerful police, military, and bureaucratic apparatus. It could only be accomplished by a dictatorship setting its goals on the basis of a knowledge of the future evolution and interests of the proletariat but imposing the means necessary for the realization of these goals even on recalcitrant strata of the proletariat ... Only an iron dictatorship over the party itself could guarantee that it would maintain the unwavering tenacity and perseverance necessary to attain its end” (pp.192-193).

He was opposed to terror against the bourgeoisie in the 1920s but for terror against the workers who had “egoistic desires, limited conceptions and immediate wants” in the 1930s. Thus, Otto Bauer capitulated to the Soviet bureaucracy.

But this capitulation never involved accepting Lenin’s ideas on the special role of the party as the revolutionary vanguard of the working class, nor on the relations between the party and the class, nor on the failure of the Social Democracy in August 1914. Bauer made numerous criticisms of the Social Democracy without personally disassociating himself from it. But he never got to the root of its problem. According to him the main responsibility for Social Democratic reformism belonged to – the working class!

Again we find Otto Bauer citing the “inevitable and the necessary.” Reformism, he says, is not the influence of bourgeois ideology on the working class nor the betrayal of the leaders of the workers parties. It is the ideology of “the Marxist who has understood that reformist ideology and tactics are a necessary and inevitable phase of the development of working-class consciousness in given conditions” (p.273).

“Reformism ... was not, as Lenin said, ‘the ideological subjection of the working class by the bourgeoisie.’ It was the tactics and ideology of the working class itself in a historical situation ...” (p.223).

“Reformist socialism is merely the inevitable ideology of the workers movement in a given stage of its development” (p. 271).

Here is the main lesson the man who swallowed Stalin’s terror drew from the split resulting from the position the Social Democrats took in August 1914 – it was all the Bolsheviks’ fault: “The Bolsheviks provoked splits in all countries and unleashed fratricidal struggle” (p.249). In all his oscillations Otto Bauer showed one constant – the working class had no revolutionary capacities; it was an amorphous mass preoccupied with its “egoistic desires” and “immediate wants.” It was for this reason that the Socialist party leaderships appealed to the workers to fight their class brothers in 1914.

Then after the Bolshevik conquest of power, which the working class achieved because it was full of “illusions,” socialism had to be constructed by means of “an all-powerful police, military, and bureaucratic apparatus setting its goals on the basis of a knowledge of the future evolution and interests of the proletariat but imposing the means necessary for the realization of these goals even on recalcitrant strata of the proletariat.”

The betrayal of 1914 was “inevitable and necessary,” and so not a betrayal; bourgeois democracy – “inevitable and necessary”; the victory of Hitler – “inevitable and necessary”; the Stalin regime, etc. ...

How right Lenin was to see in Otto Bauer’s Marxism an abyss of “stupidity, pedantry, baseness and betrayal of working-class interests – and that, moreover, under the guise of ‘defending’ the idea of ‘world revolution’.” (“Left-Wing” Communism, An Infantile Disorder). Not a word need be changed in this judgment, which applies to the Austro-Marxists of bygone days and the post-Stalinists of today.


1. EDI, Paris 1968.

2. I will refrain from any criticism of the part of the book written by Y. Bourdet. On reading this book and other writings by the same author I was immediately struck by certain astonishing remarks. For example, in his articles in the journal Autogestion [Self-Management] (No.4, December 1967) he says: “The general attitude of the Austro-Marxists – quite like that of Rosa Luxemburg – toward the Russian revolution,” “Lenin did not follow his theory but Bauer’s, it is true without ever admitting it,” etc. Finally, I reached the conclusion that this writer did not mean to distort deliberately or intentionally, as might be thought from a first reading. In comparing all his interpretations of writings by Lenin, Trotsky and Rosa one can only conclude that he is totally incapable of comprehending these revolutionary thinkers. He literally does not grasp the meaning of their ideas. His distorted view of the socialist revolution rather resembles a color-blind man’s conception of colors.

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