Howe Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Irving Howe

World Politics

The Little Boat with the Four Elephants

(19 August 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 33, 19 August 1946, p. 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Austria – said Karl Renner, her former President – is like “a little boat on which four elephants” are bearing down with all their weight and trampling on its flimsy bottom. The “four elephants” are of course Britain, Russia, the United States and France.

Since the occupation of Austria by the imperialist victors of the war, it has suffered enormously. Starvation has struck Austria blows of appalling proportion: its population lives today on a diet of 1,000 to 1,200 calories a day – which means that its people are simply wasting away.

The reasons for this tragic situation are several. Austria is not really an economic unit. It is, even in “normal” times, incapable of independent economic survival. Its economy must necessarily be meshed with those of Germany, Italy or a Danubian bloc. The reasons for its existence as a separate country are political, not economic. That is the situation in “normal” times.

But all of these difficulties are increased a thousand times by the present situation. Imagine a tiny, poverty-stricken country such as Austria – already wracked by the Nazi occupation – forced today to support four occupying armies. The largest of these armies, the Russian, has by its regime of terror, rapine, and theft simply grabbed whatever it desired. The occupying forces of the western capitalist powers have been concerned, not particularly with fleecing Austria, but rather with trying to maintain Austria within the orbit of their influence and preventing it from falling under the control of Russia. The conflict between Russian imperialism and Anglo-American imperialism in Austria has been extremely sharp.

The formality of joint occupation has been a mere pretense, and the Russians, by virtue of their vastly superior military forces have reached about two-thirds of the country.

Stalinist Seizure of Oil Fields

They have deliberately seized every important industrial concentration which survived the war. Especially ferocious has been their hunger for oil. The Stalinist army seized the Zisterdorf oil fields, which had formerly been operated by an English-Dutch combine and has exploited them at an unprecedentedly rapid but wasteful rate.

The Soviet military commander, Kourassov, issued on June 27 an order decreeing that all formerly held German property in the Russian zone would be expropriated by the Russians.

In order to forestall this and similar Russian grabs, the Austrian government – in which the conservative Catholic Peoples Party dominates – took a bold step. It decreed the “nationalization” of a number of Austrian industries, many of them in the Russian zone. This plan was supported by the Social-Democrats and also by the small Austrian Stalinist Party.

As soon as the plan for nationalization was announced it met with many-sided opposition. As the New York Times correspondent, Albion Ross, wrote on August 8, 1946: “So far the criticism of the Austrian nationalization measures is coming exclusively from the Russians, the Austrian Communist Party’s press, large foreign oil interests with investments here and a French banking group with large investments in one of the banks to be nationalized.” He further writes that “the Socony-Vacuum Oil Company estimates that its holdings are worth something like $100,000,000.” No wonder Ross reports that “the situation is a little embarrassing for the American government.”

The motives for the opposition to nationalization held by the French bankers and Socony Oil are not difficult to guess. They see in such a measure an end to their imperialist exploitation of the resources of Austria; and furthermore they are skeptical about the ability of the helpless Austrian government to reimburse them.

But the attitude of the Russians is even more interesting. Though they have in many instances nationalized the industries of the countries they occupied, they did so only where the government functioned as a Russian-dominated puppet. In Austria where the government attempts to exert some independence, the Russians object to nationalization since they realize that such nationalization would deprive them of the opportunity to dominate and profit from Austrian industry.

In this situation, the position of the comic-opera Austrian Stalinists is ludicrous. At the beginning they supported the nationalisation move; now, however, as indicated in Ross’ dispatch, they have begun to criticize the very same measure. Apparently, after a good verbal lashing from the local commissar (and perhaps the removal of some Browderites who wormed their way into the leadership of the Austrian CP ...) the Austrian Stalinists saw the light, and came but against nationalization. How this will sit with the people of Austria is not difficult to imagine; this spectacle of a party pretending to speak in the name of socialism, which opposes the expropriation of private industry so that a foreign totalitarian government may squeeze it dry!

The Meaning of Nationalization

Some paragraphs back, the word nationalization was put in quotation marks. The major party of Austria, the Peoples Party, is a party committed to capitalism. Yet it decreed a nationalization measure. This is not difficult to understand: it did so as a desperate attempt at survival, an attempt to prevent Russia’s grab of Austrian industry. We can imagine the Austrian capitalists, such as have survived the war, thinking to themselves that it is better to have their government nationalize industry if that is the only way to prevent it from falling into Russia’s hands. But even this nationalization decree is only partial: the Peoples Party announces that it will establish a system “called neither Capitalism Nor State Ownership.” (Dispatch of Albion Ross, N.Y. Times, August 9, 1946) Those industries nationalized will be formed into “cooperatives” of some sort, thereby providing a possibility for the resurgence of private capital.

The basic struggle in Austria does not involve Austrian capital, which has in any case been largely an agent of western capital. The basic struggle is between Russian imperialism and its Anglo-American rivals. In this struggle no holds are barred; the Austrian Stalinists oppose nationalization, the Austrian capitalist politicians propose it. Both of them serve as agents of foreign imperialists. And in the midst is the suffering, tortured, starving Austrian people – living under the blessings of the victorious “anti-Fascist coalition” which brought to them a diet of 1,200 calories a day.

Howe Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 5 July 2019