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SPÖ member survey: Remedy for the crisis of social democracy?

The trend in social democracy in recent decades has been erosion and crisis. The membership survey for the new party chair is intended to counter this crisis. The opposing candidates to Rendi-Wagner invoke a "real social democracy" and change. What is behind this, and can a new chairmanship transform the party's crisis into prosperity and upswing?

More than 10,000 new (and former) members joined the SPÖ in the course of the party chairmanship poll. This is an event that really makes one sit up and take notice and stands out against the trend of recent decades. For this trend has been a steady loss of members: from a "mass party" that united a considerable part of the working class to a party of 20 per cent whose base has shifted from the masses of workers to strata of the so-called "middle class". This is no wonder, since no other party has spent as many years in government in the Second Republic as the SPÖ and has provided about half of the previous chancellors since 1945. It thus stands just as much for this system of dismanteling of democratic and social rights, of the who-knows-who of the elites and of politics for "those up there" as does the ÖVP. A policy oriented toward the needs and interests of capital, banks, monopoly corporations and state institutions led to enormous distrust among the masses, which is also reflected in the membership statistics. In 1970, the SPÖ still had 720,000 members. Twenty years later, in 1990, it had only 620,000. The greatest collapse of its influence, and thus the strongest expression of its erosion, began in the course of the 1990s and deepened with the turn of the millennium. In 2017, there were only 180,000 members left, a membership decline of 440,000 people in 27 years! The trend continued until 2023 and now, for the first time, this party is experiencing a small jump starting from the low membership level: instead of around 138,000 members, the new accessions have brought 148,000 to the survey. Of course, a wave of entries is a rarity in recent decades, but to "cheer" now already at such a low level distorts reality. Similar to the SPÖ, we also see a loss of members of the ÖGB, which is not officially part of the party, but the internal distribution of influence and offices is certainly handled as if it was. From the highest level of members, which was 1.67 million in 1981, the numbers dropped to a low of 1.2 million by 2014, which continues to this day. Although the crisis of social democracy is not expressed so dramatically in the union, it is a similar trend. Whereas in 1981 the ÖGB's organizing density was still 60 percent of all employees, in 2018 it had fallen to only 32 percent (during which time the overall number of employees rose sharply). This decline has less to do with a disinterest in union demands by the workers and employees than with an enormous loss of confidence in the union and SPÖ leadership.

If we summarize these developments, it becomes clear that it is pure hogwash to explain the downward trend of social democracy with internal party hick-hacking. On the contrary, the so-called "squabbles" about the "orientation of social democracy" are, on the one hand, an expression of the crisis of this party itself, and on the other hand, the debate is now utilised to mobilize the party base and to strengthen social democracy again. It would also be wrong to believe the claims that the decline of the SPÖ is only due to the person of Rendi-Wagner, because it is already the matte expression of the shift from a working-class base to a party with a "middle-class" base. Now the question remains whether the result of the membership survey and a change of party chair will actually bring fundamental changes and what the workers' and people's movement can look forward to in this respect.

If we look at the opposing candidates to Pamela Rendi-Wagner, they embody the attempt of social democracy to emerge from erosion and crisis. And as is not unusual in the history of the party, this is accompanied by a "leftist" or "Marxist" veneer. Let us remember representatives like Otto Bauer, or Friedrich Adler, the founders of "Austromarxism"! The so-called "Austromarxism", which was mainly brought forward in the fight against communism, was supposed to serve the social democracy to appease the masses and to turn away from the revolutionary urge for social upheaval. So to speak, a "Marxism" in words and bourgeois, capitalist politics in deed. That is why it is no coincidence when candidate Andreas Babler, the mayor of Traiskirchen, in the ORFIII interview again speaks of Marxism, which is a "good pair of glasses" "to look at the world." In response to a question from "Profil," he expressed, "The idea of a society in which class contradictions are overcome, all areas of life are democratically structured, and the proceeds of labor are fairly distributed, can be found in all party programs of Social Democracy since 1889, including the current party program of 2018." (1).

Doskozil also makes allusions to the Marxist tradition, albeit not quite so directly. Thus, fixed stops on his "friendship tour" in the course of the election campaign for the membership survey were the historically significant towns of Neudörfl and Hainfeld. 149 years ago, on April 5, 1874, the founding party congress of Austrian Social Democracy was held in Neudörfl. In Hainfeld, the "Unification Party Congress", the so-called "Hainfeld Party Congress", was held in 1889, marking the actual birth of the party. We see, Doskozil too is engaging in folklore with the Marxist parts of the party's history - which, however, were a very long time ago. So the recipe against the crisis is a partial rehashing of the "Austromarxist" phrase politics in the party. This is a trend that should not be overlooked or even underestimated, since the politics of "Austromarxism" was a heavy ballast that weighed on the workers' movement and whose overcoming was the prerequisite for successes and the upswing of the revolutionary workers' movement in Austria. A dialectical phenomenon: the more ranting about "Marxism" and "overcoming class contradictions" takes place within social democracy, the harder the working-class movement has to fight to expose and overcome this pseudo-Marxist demagogy. Capitalist policy that dresses itself in the "red cloak", that pretends not to be a policy in the interest of capital, was and is an instrument of deception of the justified demands of the workers and masses. History does not repeat itself in the same way, but on a new and higher level. Therefore, we should start from the experience of the workers' movement today and learn from it.

The claim that the whole alignment process of social democracy is about making "real politics for the people" again is nonsense and of course owed to the goal of wooing members. If one looks at the practice of parliamentary parties and their entanglements with banks and industry, few people believe that parliamentary decisions are made for the "good of the people“. For example, even the "opposition" candidates Doskozil and Babler do not criticize the policies of the social-democratic leadership of the ÖGB, the poor collective bargaining agreements, the betrayal of the working class. Who of them has taken a stand on the fact that collective bargaining agreements (such as at Österreichische Post AG) are now only valid for January 2024? Who took a stand and voiced massive criticism of the union leadership when the workers of ATB in Styria or MAN in Steyr were facing the end? No one! The candidates' list of supporters is also revealing. For example, former Chancellor Christian Kern is among Doskozil's most prominent supporters. If we remember, it was Kern who first (!) proposed the 12-hour working day, which was later pushed through the government. Among Babler's supporters are, for example, former top SPÖ diplomats such as Wolfgang Petritsch (2), who at the time legitimized the NATO war of aggression against Yugoslavia. Not without reason, because he then had a personal stake in it: Petritsch was a former EU chief negotiator and High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina. This "High Representative" was established after the breakup of Yugoslavia and is above both the President and the government of Bosnia in his powers. So it is a function within an imperialist colonial administration when an externally appointed official has more power than any Bosnian authority. Is this "active neutrality" as Babler imagines it? Is the interference in and control of the Balkan countries a sign of the "strong EU" as Babler would like it to be? Let us remember "Austromarxism": Marxism in words, capitalist politics in deeds! It is not necessary to go into more detail over the prominent supporters of Rendi-Wagner, to see all those "former chancellors" who are exactly hated for the system-bearing and anti-working-class course of social democracy and who represent the erosion of the influence of social democracy, will probably not be a convincing fact for a large part of the members.

Overall, there is a tendency to assume that Rendi-Wagner will not win the poll, as dissatisfaction with the current "output" is too high, both within the provincial parties (with the exception of the Vienna SPÖ) and among SP voters, who are turning away from the party in leaps and bounds. If she were to win, however, this would mean a rapid continuation of the loss of influence, member resignations, etc... For Doskozil, the signs are good to win this survey, because he unites the majority of the provincial parties behind him. Doskozil would also be more likely to achieve higher election results. However, neither Doskozil nor Babler will be able to end the crisis of social democracy, the loss of its influence within the working class, for the party is already far too much part of the ruling class, merged with industry, banks and the state apparatus. It is likely, however, that with Doskozil or Babler at the helm, social democracy will again focus more on the question of the welfare state and push through one or another improvement. However, neither the workers' nor the people's movement should be confused by this, because these small improvements will only be a concession to maintain the status quo in order to prevent fundamental changes. It was like that in 1918 in the workers council movement, it was like that after the Second World War and it will be like that again today. But the difference is that today we have these experiences and the task is to learn from them!

(1) Dispute about SPÖ chairmanship: Andi's socialist world

(2) Social democratic ex-diplomats feel appropriated by Andreas Babler

Image source: SPÖ Bundesparteitag, SPÖ Presse und Kommunikation, Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.0

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