|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Issue 215 February 2018
Austria: anti-racism, anti-austerity
The U6 tube line in Vienna resembled Saturday shopping a couple of weeks before Christmas, with tube carriages full of people. Yet it was 13 January and shopping was the last thing on most people’s minds travelling to Westbahnhof and the Christian Broda Platz, at the top of Vienna’s main shopping street. They came in their tens of thousands to protest against the new right-wing coalition government formed by the conservative ÖVP (Austrian People’s Party) and the far-right FPÖ (Freedom Party of Austria).
This government had only been in power for a few weeks and had already horrified an increasing number of people. Fully fledged austerity combined with state-sponsored racism and authoritarianism is the order of the day. The measures planned by government leaders, Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP) and Karl Heinz Strache (FPÖ), include: introducing the 12-hour working day, attacks on abortion rights, cuts to education and other areas of the public sector, attacks on unemployment benefits, speeding up privatisation measures in housing and on the railways, attacks on health and safety laws, sweeping new repressive rights for the police, and measures to make life more difficult for migrants and asylum seekers.
The main mobilising slogan for the demonstration was ‘against racism and austerity’. It was striking to see countless homemade banners and placards denouncing cuts and attacks against young people, workers, immigrants and the unemployed. When the front of the demo reached its final destination, many people had not even begun marching – over 50,000 took part in the freezing and wet weather conditions.
Sozialistische Linkspartei (SLP – the CWI group in Austria) had its own mobile stage, inviting activists from other grassroots campaigns to speak. Our rally was a lively and necessary alternative to the speeches made on the main stage, where right-wing, pro-austerity members of the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) were given a platform so they could pretend to be part of ‘the resistance’. That platform included a representative of the social work employers, who aim to force through wage cuts and other cutbacks in the voluntary, charity and social work sectors.
The SPÖ has been in office for decades and is to blame for the mess Austria finds itself in. During the recent election campaign it tried to be even more racist than the FPÖ, threatening to put tanks on the border with Italy to stop refugees from entering the country.
Our socialist arguments came across well. A fundraising appeal to meet the costs for our mobile stage raised the amount needed within minutes. Thousands of leaflets setting out a six-point programme to bring down the government were distributed. SLP members called for the building of action committees in communities, workplaces, schools and universities, which should be democratically linked to coordinate the fightback.
Today’s movement needs to learn the lessons from the last time the FPÖ entered government. In 2000, a mass movement developed but failed to overthrow it. It did not develop democratic and accountable structures, was oriented towards a future social democratic government, and completely neglected any idea of class struggle.
It is not enough just to be against this government – positive and combative slogans and demands are needed too. Many people voted for it because they were sick of how society is run for the benefit of the corrupt elite. They were mistakenly taken in by promises made by Kurz and Strache that they would do things differently. In some ways, this also represents the desire and the potential for a new workers’ party. No such alternative was on offer during the elections, however, and this opened the way for some voters to follow Kurz and Strache. Now there is a rude awakening.
It may also turn into a rude awakening for FPÖ leader Strache, who has made a political career out of blaming every problem in society on immigrants and refugees. As soon as he announced his support for the introduction of the so-called ‘voluntary’ 12-hour working day, his Facebook page was flooded with postings by angry working-class people.
Any serious fightback must take up this mood. We need a trade union-led battle for a shorter working week, higher wages, better funding for hospitals and the abolition of all racist laws. We also cannot rely on the SPÖ to do this work for us. The opposite is true. The fight against the current government needs to move onto the political plane. The development of a political alternative to racism and austerity – a real new workers’ party with a radical left-wing programme – is crucial.
Unfortunately, the official trade union leaders have, so far, proven to be useless on these fronts. The ÖGB trade union federation boycotted a previous anti-government demonstration and called on its members to stay away. It did not seriously mobilise for the protest on 13 January either. Despite this, trade union contingents participated, some of them officially organised – for example, by the Vienna section of the social democratic trade union fraction in the ÖGB. Other workers attended as groups from their workplaces.
Another feature in the run-up to the demo has been the springing to life of several groups of individuals who banded together to mobilise. There was even a contingent of ‘grannies against the far-right’. This needs to be built on. Had the ÖGB used its resources to build for the demonstration in the workplaces, it could have easily been well over 100,000-strong.
It is impossible to predict how the movement will evolve. On 26 January there will be protests against a major event by the far-right Akademikerbund, an elitist, racist, sexist, homophobic and nationalist student organisation with close ties to the Freedom Party. This has the potential of becoming another anti-government protest. Ultimately, it will take mass struggle and generalised strike action to bring this government down.
The trade union leaders will do anything they can to prevent this from happening and to make the protests go away. This is why the building of action committees is so important to build up pressure. SLP members are involved in organising such a committee at a primary school in Vienna, and a broader meeting to bring together different education campaigns is being planned.
Austria has reached a turning point. The ‘quiet days’ are a thing of the past, and the coming battles will provide an opening for the development of socialist ideas among young people and workers.
Christian Bunke, Sozialistische Linkspartei