National Sections of the L5I:

The left and the Austrian class struggle; a response to the Permanent Revolution Network

Printer-friendly versionPDF version

The website of Permanent Revolution Network (PRN) attempts a critique of the political positions and practical activity of ArbeiterInnen Standpunkt (ASt), the Austrian section of the League, during the recent mobilisations against the new “Grand Coalition” government in Austria. Their polemic, “Protests in Austria: the left’s response” by Dave A, posted on 1st February 2007, combines downright lies, political illiteracy and a devastating self-exposure of their attempts to form an unprincipled international bloc. In this article Michael Proebsting responds for the ASt and League for the Fifth International.

Are the ASt guilty of exaggerating the seriousness of the situation?
First, let us consider the assessment of the objective conditions on which any concrete assessment of tactics and strategy must rest. Dave A says the ASt exaggerates the seriousness of the political situation in the aftermath of the formation of the new Grand Coalition of the Social Democratic Party (SPO) and Conservative Party (OVP). We do indeed see the formation of this coalition as an important turning point, since for five years up to this point, the Social Democracy has been in opposition and has posed, however dishonestly and inactively, as resisting the right wing Blue-Black coalition. The latter took all the responsibility for carrying out the neoliberal “reform” programme of the European Union (agreed in the Lisbon protocols). The SPO stood for election as an alternative to this reform process and promised specific changes to it, not least the withdrawal of the payment by students of tuition fees and restoration of pension levels. For this reason the ASt called for a critical vote for the SPO to put it to the test of office. Even we could not imagine how swift that test would be or how devastating the exposure.

The OVP clearly lost the election because its programme promised more neoliberal reforms. The SPO in forming the Grand Coalition has acquiesced to virtually every part of the OeVP programme and handed to it the key ministries in the new cabinet. Austrian workers and youth have rightly seen this as a betrayal. Hence, SPO affiliated youth and student organisations launched the demonstrations involving trade unionists (though not organised by the trade union federation, the OGB). This overt neoliberalisation of the SPO, though of course bringing to a head a long process of concessions to neoliberalism, marks in our view a distinct change of period, one where it is possible to agitate as well as propagandise not only for resistance to the new government’s attacks but, in addition, for Austrian workers and youth, hitherto loyal to the social democracy, to break with it and form a new workers party

Dave offers no evidence for our so-called “exaggeration". He does not, for instance, quote our articles in German or English and counterpose them to the assessment of other Austrian left groups or bourgeois commentators. However, let us leave this aside for the moment. Indeed, let us also leave aside the PRN’s own tendency to condemn any talk of social and political crisis as catastrophism, for there is a glaring illogical inconsistency in Dave A’s argument, that is, between the objective situation and the tactics he advocates for it:
"In the current fluid situation a short sharp turn to entry into the SP could help win a wider audience for revolutionaries. Even a few weeks of intransigent criticism of the SP leadership and serious proposals for the next steps beyond the recent protests could have an impact."

How is it possible to downplay the seriousness of the political turn in Austria on one hand and on the other advocate total entry “for a few weeks “ into a social democratic youth organisation, i.e. under conditions of relative stability which do not disturb the loyalty or reformist consciousness of its members? If, on the other hand, the reformists are destabilised with significant numbers on the verge of breaking with the reformist party, making them responsive to a short sharp entry, how is it possible for there to be no radical shift to the left in the political situation?

To hold these two positions violates not simply dialectics but even the most fundamental laws of formal logic!

Compare Trotsky’s perspective for a turn to total entry work in the Social Democratic youth movements and adult parties in the mid-1930s. The objective cause for a change in Social Democratic consciousness were the impact of Hitler’s rise to power, the threat of fascism in France and Spain, the right-centrist turn of the leaderships of certain sections of the Second International, the strengthening of left centrist currents, which positively welcomed revolutionaries, etc. Of course, no one is likening this situation to Austria today, but surely some sort of substantive change in the normal conditions operating in a social democratic party or youth organisation is need to warrant total entry - even for a few weeks. Either Dave A thinks some such conditions warrant it or he is making a light-minded suggestion of a foolish “raid” that would achieve no results beyond immediate expulsion and the alienation of the more serious minded youth. This is hardly an example of “concrete tactics” comrades?

Are the calls of the ASt for action “posturing and hot air"?
Not content with this, Dave A then decides to comment on our calls to action:
"Yes, large demonstrations and mass strikes would be needed to win in resisting the coalition’s neo-liberal policies. But serious revolutionary politics needs not only resounding calls to action, but concrete steps for building such action. Nothing. The calls were posturing and hot air."

How does Dave A know our calls were “posturing and hot air". Has he bothered to read our publications (they are all on the internet)? We not only called for strikes and demonstrations but also for meetings in schools, on campuses and in workplaces, and for the building of action committees to discuss the government’s programme and organise the struggle against it:
"Deswegen brauchen wir jetzt Basisversammlungen an den Schulen, den Universitaeten und in den Betrieben. “Dort soll ueber das Regierungsprogramm diskutiert und der Kampf dagegen geplant! Alle AktivistInnen an den Schulen, Universitaeten und in den Betrieben sollen sich in Aktionskomitees zusammenschlieBen um den weiteren Widerstand zu organisieren."

Look, for example, at our Revolution flyer, from which he himself quotes. The same approach was repeated in the ASt special issue of its paper, from which DA quotes, so clearly he must have read it.

But not only did we write these things down on paper - we fought for them practically, in real life. Revolution Austria and the ASt raised them in the schools and workplaces where we have members and groups and got people out on the demonstrations and pickets in larger numbers than any of the other far left groups, indeed in sufficient numbers to make an impact on the reformist organisations. In addition, we called for a common demonstration of youth and workers “in later January” and for solidarity protest actions around the TUC congress on 22-24th January. In meetings we suggested the 27th January as a date for a big demonstration and 30th or 31st for a joint school and university student strike.

Needless to add that, while ASt and Revolution actively participated in the movement as a revolutionary, militant force with organised contingents, selling 130 papers, producing two leaflets (of which we distributed several hundred copies), a special paper and a regular paper, the PRN’s Austrian discussion partners (the GRA and the DNK- of whom more in a minute) participated at the two bigger demonstrations (on 11th and 17th January) with one or two people apiece and produced only one short leaflet during the whole of the “January days".

Is this intervention “concrete” enough for you comrades? Or is it “posturing and hot air” because we called for and organised action on the streets?

Revolutionary tactics towards reformism
As for tactics towards the Social Democracy, we placed repeated calls on the leaderships of the social democratic youth and student organisations to mobilise against the new government, its programme etc. Naturally, the bureaucrats in charge of the social democratic youth organisations rejected our calls. This was precisely because they feared a conflict with the party leadership and their exclusion from the rich pickings to be gained from membership of the party, especially when it is in government. The January demos eventually came to an end: in part too because of the onset of exams and assessments in schools and colleges. The trade union leaders, possessed of a much more powerful bureaucratic machine, squashed any organised protest.

We have, however, made a number of contacts and even sympathisers in the social democratic youth and the trade unions, and we are ready to intervene even more strongly when the next betrayals of the coalition government once again provoke the indignation of their members and voters. Our perspective is that this grand coalition will carry on at full force with the “reforms", i.e. attacks on workers gains, but with the important difference that the SPO is not in opposition, pretending to oppose and condemn such reforms, but actually carrying them out. As long as the coalition lasts, this will put repeated pressure on the SPO’s relations with its rank and file, and make life difficult for the SPO leaders of the unions.

The PRN say:
"But no mention of the need to build fighting rank and file organisations to force the bureaucrats to act in the interests of the working class, and to replace them by leaders accountable to the rank and file who will lead a fightback."

No mention! In the leaflet and the special paper, the former produced on the second day of protests and the latter on the third day, we called for holding rank and file assemblies in schools, campuses and workplaces, and for the building of action committees to organise the struggle. We also carried the sharpest possible criticism of the SPO leaders. In our latest paper we call for a “rank and file movement” in the unions to organise the struggle against the bureaucracy. (see page 5 “On the lessons of the movement"). “Concretely” the fight for rank and file organisation must start from the struggle underway and that was exactly how we posed it.

But now we have to pass on from Dave A’s simple suppression of the facts and misrepresentation to an outright lie.

Dave A says: "Most recently, Revo have produced an open letter to the Socialist Youth and Student organisations, calling them to leave the SP and join with Revo in building an Austrian version of the WASG, Rifondazione, or the British RMT and FBU unions."

This is, we repeat, a complete lie. What evidence, what quotation can you offer in support of it? We did indeed mention forces like WASG, but solely as proof that that there is an international trend amongst militant vanguard workers and youth to leave Social Democracy. Do you deny this?

Nowhere, not once, did we call for a new workers party to be formed on a political basis such as that of the WASG, or Rifondazione, or any other reformist party. On the contrary, we explicitly argued for a new youth organisation and workers party to reject the bribery of bureaucratic functionaries, to reject carrying out bourgeois policies but instead to fight for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism:
"Wir brauchen eine neue Jugendbewegung und eine neue Partei der ArbeiterInnen und Jugendlichen, die nicht am Futtertrog einer buerokratischen Funktionaerschicht haengt und buergerliche Politik betreibt, sondern fuer eine revolutionaere Umwaelzung der kapitalistischen Gesellschaft eintritt." (ASt special paper, last page)

Warming to his task Dave A continues:
"Revo paint up a new workers party in revolutionary colours. For them the very founding of such an organisation would in effect solve the crisis of leadership leading - the thought is the mother to the deed - but we need to recognise this for what it is - to a downgrading of the struggle for a Leninist party. Impatient, they want a get rich quick fix to the problem of party building, leading them to absolutely fundamental opportunist errors."

Because, for PRN, the question of a revolutionary party can only be posed in the form of generalised propaganda, and not linked by tactics and agitation to a concrete situation where the potential for a split exists, they cannot get their head around the method of the transitional programme, and the tactics for applying it.

Only a passive propagandist, for whom, as Trotsky said, active revolutionary politics is a book sealed with seven seals, can interpret slogans such as the new workers party as a replacement for or a downgrading of the Leninist Party. On the contrary it allows for the raising of the Leninist party in a far wider and more vibrant milieu than a propaganda circle.

Of course, we can and do regularly make generalised propaganda for the Leninist party. The ASt is probably the most persistent and trenchant of all the groups on the Austrian left in stressing the importance of a Leninist combat party. But a crisis in the Social Democracy requires not only this but “concrete tactics” to enable it to connect with rank and file reformists repelled by their party’s betrayals. We have to create a bridge between their present consciousness of betrayal and the recognition of the need to build a new, revolutionary party.

For us, this means making use of the new workers party slogan, use of the transitional method. We do not pose the revolutionary programme or the Leninist party as an ultimatum or pre-condition for joining forces with left-moving elements from Social Democracy in building a new party, but as our proposals for such an initiative. As a first step we call on the social democratic youth to declare their independence of the discipline of the party leaders, who are betraying the workers’ needs and expectations, and to declare an open fight against the government. Likewise, in the unions we call for rank and file workers to organise a fight to get the unions to break from any support of the coalition government and its programme, and to end their de facto support for the SPO.

We point out that the logic of disillusioned SPO members and youth rejecting the party’s actions in government should lead them to take up the task of building a new working class party to fight neoliberalism and imperialism. We say clearly, and at the same time, that such a party must be anti-imperialist and anticapitalist. We say it must become a revolutionary party. But at the same time we call on them to take steps in this direction NOW - and not wait until after they have adopted our revolutionary programme.

From this it can be seen that all the huff and puff about us "downgrading the struggle for a revolutionary party" and "painting up a new workers party in revolutionary colours" - let alone believing that a reformist workers party would solve the crisis of revolutionary leadership - is a polemic completely in bad faith - simply aimed to deceive the unwary.

Where is the criticism of the PRN’s “discussion partners"?
However, Dave A does pay us a half-compliment: "The ASt and the youth group Revolution (Workers Standpoint: L5I) propaganda also makes many abstractly correct points." Hmm! A pity he does not say what these may be. He then criticises the Austrian Grantites, the CWI, the Cliffites and the Arbeitsgruppe Marxismus, (AGM) a passive propagandist group that split from the ASt in the mid-1990s.

But, hold on a minute, there are two groups missing from this exhaustive list - precisely the two groups the PRN is in discussion with and whose publications and joint website they advertise. These are the Gruppe fuer Revolutionaere ArbeiterInnenpolitik (GRA) and Der Neue Kurs (DNK), again both groups that split from the League in the early and mid-2000s respectively.

So unsparing in his criticisms of the ASt, Dave A strangely fails to make any judgement positive or negative on his closest Austrian friends. The PRN even publishes their reports on the Austrian events on their website, advertises their common website in their journal, but refrains from any political comment whatsoever on the very issues, over which they criticise the ASt and Revolution. Why might this be? The answer will become all too plain to anyone who can read these groups websites!

Despite criticising the ASt for failing to raise this or that “concrete” demand in this or that article or leaflet they cover up the fact that their Austrian friends failed to raise a single demand on the Social Democracy. In the elections they not only failed to call for a critical vote for the SPO, but are extremely proud of his fact. Their joint election statement is headed "Don’t vote SPO! No critical electoral support!”

Indeed their position is announced as a positive triumph. "Never before on such abstractly important questions have we broken in such a fundamental way with the positions of the League for the Fifth International.”

Indeed! It is indeed a break with the historic positions of the League for the Fifth International. But, more than that, it a break from the positions of its direct predecessors the LRCI and the MRCI, over twenty three years. It is in fact a return to the positions the senior GRA leaders had before they formed a section of the MRCI in 1986. They write by way of explanation of their position:

"We did not see any substantial movement in the working class, which simultaneously had substantial illusions in social-democracy and criticisms of their bourgeois course. Promoting illusions, in order to advance breaks with the social-democratic leadership, was therefore impossible.”

This is the “famous” view that the workers must demonstrate that they have “active illusions” in Social Democracy, i.e. must themselves be placing demands on it, before revolutionaries deign to use the tactic of placing demands on their leaders. Raising demands on them is promoting illusions in them! Twenty and more years ago, the MRCI argued with the comrades that this was chronic tailism, i.e. not leading the working class but waiting to be led by it. We thought we had persuaded the comrades. Now the comrades announce their relapse with a sense of history in the making (or unmaking). Rightly so. But the historic act is one of - political degeneration. We await with bated breath what the PRN comrades, those self-appointed guardians of the Holy Grail of the MRCI, have to say to this.

The DNK comrades evince an even more incredible lack of understanding of reformist workers’ consciousness. They write: “SPO members have told us that many members of the rank and file are ’honestly disappointed’ in the SPO leadership. Something completely incomprehensible for revolutionary Marxists.” Quite frankly this is self-satisfied petit bourgeois nonsense. That reformist members of the SPO expect actions in defence of the working class, and are disappointed when they fail to deliver should surprise no serious Marxist.

At a stroke the DNK rejects the whole basis of revolutionary tactics towards reformism - its own internal contradictions. This is undoubtedly why they made not a single demand, not a single call to action, beyond the call for "a revolutionary-Marxist party, of a Leninist type." Addressed to reformist workers this is simply a call on them to stop being reformist. If this is all “Marxists", “Leninists” and “Trotskyists” can say, either during an election period, or afterwards, in the first eruption of the reformist membership’s disillusion with their own party, then we suggest they go back and read the aforementioned writers on this subject - or even the MRCI’s Theses on electoral tactics.

In fact, in their postings since Dave A’s article, the PRN conduct a concealed criticism of their Austrian partners, not stating explicitly who they are criticising. Indeed, their explicit criticism of the ASt is its underestimation of the centrality of Social Democracy and its enormous grip on the working class. They stress the importance of Social Democracy and the illusions of workers in it. They give special emphasis to Dave A’s unhappy “concrete tactic” of immediate short-term entry work inside the Social Democratic youth.

Thus, Bill of the PRG posts (on 29 Jan 2007) in the debate:
"The crisis in the SPO seems to vindicate the tactic of critical electoral support for reformist workers parties. Through being put through the test of office the rotteness of the SPO has been exposed before millions of Austrian workers. What’s more by supporting the SPO at the ballot box, revolutionaries would be best placed to influence the oppositional currents now developing inside it. It’s difficult to know from so far away but what do the comrades [the DNK and the GRA] think about an entry tactic or faction work towards these currents?”

What do they think? They not only think is it inopportune to conduct a “raid” on the Social Democratic youth (we agree, it would be a silly adventure at the moment). They deny such currents exist and have no tactics whatsoever towards them because, if they did, it would make nonsense of their electoral tactics and their break with the methods of the L5I, LRCI, and MRCI.

Thus Dave and Bill delicately fail to inform their English readers that it is the GRA and the DNK, which failed to call for critical electoral support for the SPO, and that the ASt did. Of course, for Bill (though not for all PRN comrades, we believe) the lesson is that opposition to the SPO must develop within the party, hence the need for revolutionaries to enter it. We, ourselves, do not of course rule such a development out, nor, were it to occur, would we reject the idea of entry. But, likewise, we believe that what is likely, given the bureaucratic stranglehold of the leadership, is that individuals and groups of SPO and youth will break away from the party. The task is to make this break lead on to a break from reformism. Such a conclusion is the endpoint of the whole tactic of critical electoral support.

What we do reject is the idea, implicit in the positions of the Dave A and Bill of the PRN, that any serious opposition must develop first within the reformist parties, and that, until such time as the workers break from Social Democracy en masse, critical electoral support is obligatory. Meanwhile, the PRN makes passive propaganda for the Leninist party, combining sectarianism to the vanguard elements who are in the process of breaking, or will break from Social Democracy, as it pursues its neoliberalisation drive, with an opportunist turning of critical electoral support into semi-strategy based on tailing the masses.

This sharp contrast between the attacks, gross misrepresentations and downright lies towards the ASt and careful diplomacy towards their “discussion partners", expresses the rotten method of “revolutionary regroupment” the PRN has undertaken since leaving the League. It may have seemed a shortcut to regaining an international organisation for the British comrades, but, alas, the trajectory of adapting themselves to local conditions and centrist, sectarian traditions leads to political degeneration. This will result not in “convergence” but “divergence” - away from the programme of revolutionary Marxism.