Interviewed by Benjamin Birnbaumer
Hans Hautmann (1943–2018) on the Austrian council movement and why it was so much stronger than its counterpart on the other side of the German-Austrian border.
One of, if not the most significant historians of the Austrian workers’ movement, Hans Hautmann, died on 3 July 2018. Born in August 1943 to Leopoldine and Rudolf Hautmann, Vienna’s first Communist chief of police, Hautmann was one of the foremost experts on the history of the Austrian council movement and Austrian socialism. He taught for many decades at the University of Linz, where he served as the director of the Department of Austrian History from 1981 onward and co-founded the Alfred Klahr Gesellschaft zur Erforschung der Geschichte der Arbeiterbewegung, of which he served as president until 2006. Over the years, Hautmann published numerous articles on Red Vienna and the history of the Communist Party of Austria. His most famous book, Geschichte der Rätebewegung in Österreich 1918–1924, was published in 1987 and remains the most comprehensive study of the Austrian workers’ councils, which attracted massive levels of working-class support compared to similar movements in other European countries.
Hautmann belonged to a generation of post-war scholars who understood teaching and research as inherently political. A dedicated member of the Communist Party of Austria, Hautmann viewed his work not as a purely intellectual activity, but rather as a means of passing down experiences to help inform the political praxis of new generations of socialists.
While Austrian politics today stand for the re-emergence of the far right as a hegemonic force, Hautmann represents a markedly different social alternative, characterised by solidarity and democratic self-determination. Although the movement to which Hans Hautmann was committed no longer exists in this form, it lives on in Hautmann’s work, which remains a vital source of inspiration to all seeking to change the future by understanding the past.
In memory of Hans Hautmann and his contribution to left-wing history and politics, we are re-publishing his 2017 interview with Benjamin Birnbaumer, which originally appeared in the French journal of Marxist theory Période. The two discussed Hautmann’s career and the role of democratic self-determination in overthrowing capitalism.
Your history on the Austrian council movement appeared in 1987. What kind of response did this book about class struggle and revolutionary history receive, in a moment when the alleged triumph of neoliberalism was being proclaimed?
The reaction to the book was limited at the time of its publication, despite the fact that at 815 pages it represented the most thorough study of the Austrian council movement and revolution up to that point. There were only a few reviews, all of which came from leftists.
If the book had appeared ten years earlier in the middle of the 1970s, while the council system was being actively discussed within the student movements in France, Germany, Italy, etc. as an alternative to bourgeois democracy, things would have been different. I couldn’t publish then, however, as the book required years of tedious research into primary sources and documents, which I undertook in the 1970s.
In addition to your book, you’ve published a great deal on the history of the workers’ movement. How did you come to focus on class issues, and what’s your take on the future prospects of Marxist historiography?
I came from a Communist household, which definitely had something to do with me becoming a historian of the labour movement. The topic of my 1968 dissertation (Die Anfänge der linksradikalen Bewegung und der Kommunistischen Partei Deutschösterreichs 1916–1919) and my work as an assistant at the Institute for Contemporary History at the University of Linz, where I was based at the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for the History of the Labour Movement, pushed me further in this direction.
I consider Marxist historiography’s current prospects to be good, because the contemporary conditions of unrestrained capitalist globalisation have given rise to a need for approaches which are capable of critiquing them.
How is a council republic radically different from bourgeois democracy? Perhaps you could touch on the question of the right to vote. Historically, this was a point of contention in the workers’ movement—the Bolsheviks’ decision in the midst of the October Revolution to expand suffrage only to people who lived from their own labour, for example, was harshly criticised by Rosa Luxemburg.
Council democracy is a form of direct democracy characterised by a thoroughly unique decision-making process. It is based on the imperative mandate—with voters’ permanent control over elected officials as its maxim—which ensures the democratic accountability of elected officials by allowing voters to recall them at any time.
Both an advisory and decision-making body at the same time, the purpose of the council is to forge an extremely close relationship between the electoral base and mandate holders, allowing for constant decision making and checks on power from below. It was conceived as an alternative to parliamentary democracy and as a potential means of dissolving the ‘bourgeois state’. The alternative to emerge in the place of this state would be the ‘council republic’, which would realise the principles of council democracy by implementing a socialist economy.
Like the Bolsheviks in Russia, even the reformist Social Democrats in Austria viewed councils as a means of organising both manual and intellectual labourers along class lines. In turn, they banned owners of private companies from voting in them. Moreover, in order to stand for election in an Austrian council, one was required to ‘share the goal of overthrowing the capitalist mode of production, to recognise class struggle as the means of emancipation for working people, to belong to their trade union and to be at least 20 years old’.
How do you account for the international character of the council movement, which emerged simultaneously in several European countries following the end of World War I?
The international character of the council movement emerged out of the European proletariat’s common experiences and interests under conditions of imperialist war and intensified capitalist exploitation and oppression, and the struggle for a new socialist order.
Austria held a place of distinction within the council movement, in that its councils existed longer and, due to their solid foundation, were able to actively intervene in economic and social life. Could you elaborate on what made Austria’s councils exceptional and in which areas their interventions were the most extensive?
One thing that made Austrian councils exceptional was that the rules governing their formation, electoral procedures, electoral participation, and transparency were more developed than their counterparts in German and Hungary. Another was that Austrian councils took it upon themselves to reorganise municipal systems of food distribution, housing, healthcare, childcare, and education at the grassroots level.
During the Austrian revolution, the councils searched for hoarded foodstuffs, distributed smuggled goods to the needy, reported vacant living spaces, prevented capricious evictions by landlords, poured their energy into supporting hungry children, intercepted weapons and munitions bound for counterrevolutionary states, and provided free consultation on social matters of all kinds. In this sense, they were a truly unique phenomenon in Austrian history and a shining example in the tradition of what one could call the healthy initiative of awakened, self-conscious masses of workers.
What was the relationship like between the Social Democratic Party of Austria and the soldiers’ and workers’ councils? After all, according to the councils’ statutes, their goal was the ‘abolition of the capitalist mode of production’ through the ‘means of class struggle’.
With view to both the workers’ and soldiers’ councils as well as the Communists, Austrian Social Democracy followed a markedly different political line than that of Social Democrats such as Friedrich Ebert, Philipp Scheidemann, and Gustav Noske in Germany: the Austrian Social Democrats attempted to tame their rivals on the left while going out of their way to avoid violence.
In this vein, the Social Democrats expanded the workers’ councils into a ‘parliament of the entire working class’ in March 1919. This was done in order to maintain relations with the Communists, to engage them in dialogue, and if possible to bring them in line with the Social Democratic strategy of ‘being ready for action’. The Social Democrats hoped to convince the Communists that the council republic experiment lacked long-term prospects, and if that failed, to secure a majority to vote the Communists down.
Failing to win over Social Democratic workers and achieve a majority in the workers’ councils for a variety of objective and subjective reasons, the Communist Party of Austria was confronted with a situation in which any attempt to go beyond Social Democratic reformism could have been defamed before the masses as ‘contravention of the resolutions of the workers’ council’ and a ‘lapse in proletarian discipline’. Austromarxist leaders took advantage of this situation to the fullest, yet their strategy could only succeed insofar as they portrayed their differences with the Communists as a question of tactics rather than goals: after all, the Social Democrats also promised the radicalised worker masses to lead them to socialism in 1918–19.
How did the ruling class attempt to break the strength of the councils, and to what extent did the councils have to deal with repression?
In 1918–19, the Austrian bourgeoisie was dramatically weakened both economically and politically and in no condition to commit violence against the council movement. As if the loss of control over traditional institutions of state power such as the police weren’t bad enough for the bourgeoisie, the disintegration of [Austro-Hungarian] Imperial and Royal Army meant that there was no unified force capable of fighting the working class like in Germany, with its Freikorps, ‘Baltic troops’, ‘Orgesch’ and ‘Orka’ associations.
The standing military of the republic, the Volkswehr, would have been useless for a counterrevolution given that the soldiers’ councils occupied a decisive position of power within it. For the time being, the tactical manoeuvring of the bourgeois political camp was limited to imitating the council model by establishing ‘citizen and estate councils’ or ‘farmers’ councils’ that swapped out the demands of the ‘Marxist’ councils with a highly general demand for ‘equality’. However, these proved to be short-lived and disappeared from view entirely as the revolutionary wave ebbed following the fall of the Hungarian Soviet Republic in August 1919.
Subsequently, as the declining power of the workers’ and soldiers’ councils became increasingly obvious, the bourgeoisie took note and abstained from open provocations or attempts to suppress the councils.
What influence did the revolutionary wing of the Austrian labour movement manage to exert within the councils? After all, the Communist International viewed Communist majorities in the councils as a prerequisite for a Communist seizure of power.
The Communists received approximately five per cent of the nationwide vote in the workers’ council elections held in spring 1919. In Vienna, they won ten per cent of mandates in the bodies of the council. In the Vienna soldiers’ councils, they were particularly well-represented in the ‘Volkswehrbatallion 41’, the successor to the Red Guards of the 1918 November Days. However, the vast majority of the soldiers’ councils were thoroughly Social Democratic in nature.
Lenin and the Comintern’s explicit order that the Austrian Communists secure a majority in the councils before attempting to seize power put them in a difficult position. Given that the party was far away from anything close to a majority, some began to argue that the resolutions of the workers’ council should only be recognised ‘conditionally’, depending on whether or not they were ‘revolutionary’. This progressed so far that for a while Communists even disputed the workers’ council’s claim to represent the will of the working class, condemning the institution as a ‘mere executive organ of capitalist society’.
Only after a resolution positively highlighting the councils was passed at the Second World Congress of the Comintern in the summer of 1920 did the Austrian Communists revise their tactics. They now accepted that the workers’ council had possessed a correct analysis of the balance of forces all along and that it was a ‘pure, uncorrupted proletarian institution’. They promised to henceforth ‘persuade objectively’ and to ‘imbue the councils with the Communist spirit’.
However, this long overdue shift to a more realistic assessment of the political situation ultimately came too late. Against the backdrop of the rapid decline in the power of the councils from 1921–22, the Communists gradually withdrew from the workers’ councils and did not participate in the council elections held in the summer of 1922.
Despite fading away in the early 1920s, to what extent can the council moment be seen as making a fundamental contribution to class consciousness and anti-fascism among Austrian workers? Although the Social Democrats ultimately quashed the councils and transformed them into the Republikanischer Schutzbund, their paramilitary organisation, often it was members of the latter who were the first to take up arms against fascism—against the Austrofascist regime—in the Austrian Civil War of 1934.
The period in which Austrian workers were active in the council movement was very important and had far-reaching consequences. It is vital to understand that, in many ways, the Austrian workers’ movement occupied a unique position in Europe until 1934.
The Social Democratic Party of Austria was the largest, most well-organised workers’ party in any capitalist country. The Austrian working class became armed in November 1918 and was the only party that remained so even after the revolutionary crisis following World War I subsided. During the same period, there was no other organisation in the capitalist world comparable to the Republikanischer Schutzbund.
In Austria, an independent working-class culture flourished like nowhere else. Initiatives associated with Red Vienna such as public housing for workers, progressive taxation, expansion of the welfare and healthcare systems, and school reform were unparalleled in their scope and quality by those implemented by other Social Democratic parties. Alongside Spain, Austria was the only country in which the working class waged an armed resistance against a fascist takeover. Austria was also the site of the only instance of Social Democrats suddenly defecting from their party and joining a Communist Party en masse—a conscious, deliberate decision made by many in the wake of 1934. Of course, not all of these phenomena can be seen as a direct result of the council movement. That said, the movement needs to be given credit for the fact that the experiences that tens of thousands of Austrian workers collected in the school of council democracy gave them a highly developed level of class consciousness, the indispensable basis for all the developments I’ve mentioned.
To what extent does the council, as an organisational principle, strike you as relevant for contemporary social struggles? To invoke a few examples from the recent past, during the first, reform-oriented SYRIZA government in Greece, it appeared that there were no organisations independent of the government. In contrast, the political scientist George Ciccariello-Maher describes the first years of the Chavez regime in Venezuela as being strongly influenced by local forms of self-government existing in tension with the national government, and initially contributing to a deepening of the Bolivarian Revolution.
The idea of the council system as an alternative to bourgeois parliamentarianism will live on in the future. However, I am convinced that we are very far removed from the conditions it would take to turn it into a reality today: a society-wide upswing in revolutionary activity involving the mass participation of organised, disciplined, solidary, tenacious, and class-conscious working people who ultimately share the desire to replace the capitalist order with socialism.
Translated by Adam Baltner. This edited version of the interview originally appeared in Ada Magazin.