Austria: “Let’s make it like in Russia” – 100 years since the January 1918 general strike

100 years ago, in January 1918, a mass strike shook Austria. After years of hunger and with war-weariness setting in, the revolution in Russia gave the workers hope that another world was possible, inspiring them to take action.

The workers had endured their fourth winter under war conditions. When the first soldiers left Vienna in the summer of 1914 to move against Serbia, nobody thought the war would last so long. In the streets of the capital of the Habsburg Empire there was huge enthusiasm. The man in the street suddenly felt a sense of grandeur at the prospect of his nation’s victory. The flower sellers cheered the troops in their dashing uniforms. A young boy, the son of a Russian revolutionary living in exile, was shouting “Long live Serbia!” and was beaten up by the other children. Even the Social Democrats were not immune to this wave of national enthusiasm.

Social Democracy and war

On the front page of the Arbeiter-Zeitung, the daily newspaper published by the Social Democratic Party, chief editor Friedrich Austerlitz named the day of the declaration of war the “Day of the German nation”, arguing that the Social Democracy must protect the homeland and the “German people”. Not everybody in the party was happy about this openly nationalist tone, but resistance against the militarism that had dominated for years seemed useless. Moreover, for the Social democratic leadership, this was a war against Russian Tsarism: the most reactionary regime in Europe, which was seen as the biggest threat to a democratic and socialist future.

In the decisive meeting of the party executive, a feeling of impotence reigned among the leadership. The coming war was seen like a natural disaster, that no one could stop. In this situation the only thing left for them was to save the party and trade union structures, which had developed fairly well in the years before the war, from destruction. The work of 25 years could not be put at stake by a policy of adventurism, like an open protest against the imperialist war machinery.

“Soldiers of the rear”

Against all expectations, by Christmas 1914 the war was still going on, with a bloody conflict being waged at the front. The Austro-Hungarian monarchy adapted its economy to the interests of the army, all the material resources were put at the disposal of the military.

The organised working class was replaced by un unionised women and youths Image Austrian public archivesThe organised working class was sent to the front and replaced by un-unionised women and youths / Image: Austrian public archives

Huge armament factories grew up in the industrial regions of Austria (Vienna, Lower Austria, Styria, Steyr), bringing a new working class into being. The former – a mostly unionised, organised factory workforce – was decimated, because one cohort after another was recruited into the army. They were substituted by women and youth. Many of these new workers came from the countryside, nobody in their families had ever worked in a factory before. The regime called them the “soldiers of the rear”, and they had no relationship with the unions or the Social Democracy and their organisational traditions.

These workers toed the line in the face of militarist discipline, which had been established in these factories by the army bureaucracy. In the factories martial law prevailed. Nevertheless, a job in the armament factories was precious because wages were higher than in other sectors, so nobody wanted to risk their employment. The old trade union representatives on the shop floor were often frustrated with this new workforce because it was hard to make them join the labour movement. It seemed impossible to organise this new layer of workers, and at the same time many of the old structures collapsed during the first months of the war, because under the new conditions of war these organisations no longer made sense to many party activists.

Already, in the Winter of 1914/15, the workers of Vienna start to suffer from hunger because of the bad food supply to the Habsburg empire. In the years to come, hunger would be a constant companion for most working-class families.

Truce and reformism

Within the existing possibilities afforded by the political situation, the Social Democracy tried to effect possible small improvements in living conditions: for example, an increase in the support for families with fathers at the front. The Social Democratic councils took responsibility for welfare offices, established for the poorest layer of the population, with the particular aim of connecting with working-class women. In the middle of 1915, the party began the systematic rebuilding of the organisation. In these months, the first spontaneous protest rallies by hungry female workers took place. They marched to the local authorities and demanded bread. In all these cases they made well-known Social Democrats their spokespersons.

The party leadership itself continued its policy of truce. Under the state of emergency declared by the Habsburg regime, the Social Democracy had little room for manoeuvre: the parliament had already been shut down before the war and all the basic democratic rights were abolished. The party leaders came to the conclusion that they had to avoid provoking the state, so they also refused to celebrate May Day with strikes and demonstrations and International Women's Day was cancelled as well.

The Left calling for peace

Only a few within in the ranks of the organised labour movement were prepared to actively resist. Friedrich Adler, the son of Victor Adler, the founder of the unified party and historical leader of Austrian Social Democracy, played a central role within the party left. Friedrich Adler started to bring together the leftists in the party. They were not many, but they openly raised their voices against the war and the complete subordination of the party to the war regime.

They met in the “Karl Marx Association” to hold their discussions. Among them one could also find some comrades from the youth organisation of the party who wished to do more than just discuss the situation. They controlled three branches of the Young Socialist Vienna and organised as the “Action Committee of the Left Radicals”.

They knew the pamphlets of the Russian revolutionaries in exile in Switzerland: Lenin and Trotsky. Karl Liebknecht, with his open opposition against the war, was their leading light. In 1916 Franz Koritschoner, the head of the Left Radicals, was sent to Kienthal in Switzerland to participate in the second congress of the opponents of war within the international Social Democracy. There he got to know Lenin personally. In Vienna they tried to convince Friedrich Adler and the other prominent left-wingers not only to concentrate on forming a Marxist discussion circle, but to publish a paper and leaflets against the war, to be distributed in the factories. However, they did not get a majority for this position and they also faced bureaucratic manoeuvres within in the youth organisation.

The Austrian Radical Left read the works of Lenin and Trotsky Image L.Y. LeonidovThe Austrian Left Radicals read pamphlets by Lenin and Trotsky / Image: L.Y. Leonidov

But still, the opposition started to move, and not only in Vienna. In the provinces there were trade union representatives mainly from the metal union and the railway workers, who did not accept the official party line. Especially in the region south of Vienna, where many armament factories were located, a network of illegal factory branches operated from 1915 on. Each branch was composed of only five revolutionary worker activists, who distributed leaflets and organised sabotage activities in the factories.

The leading figure of this network was Eduard Schönfeld, the chairman of the metal workers’ union in the region. In the autumn of 1916, the Left Radicals had finally won over the left wing to the idea of actively organising resistance to the war. The opposition could now reach a qualitatively new level, but then Friedrich Adler went his own way and shot the Austrian Prime Minister, von Stürgkh, in October 1916. He was then imprisoned. The masses saw him as a martyr, but this act of individual terrorism in reality meant a real setback in attempts to build and organise the left opposition. The Left Radicals again were thrown back into isolation and had to continue their patient work among the youth. 

Revolution in Russia

The fall of the Tsar in Russia and the victory of the revolution heralded a new period in Austria. The Great War had led to the erosion of the European societies. The old order was on the edge of a precipice. In Russia the chain had broken at its weakest link, but hunger and war fatigue dominated the mood in the factories and workers’ districts all over Europe. In the Spring of 1917, the Habsburg regime had to slacken the reins. Repression was not enough to continue the war. The regime had to make some concessions, if it did not want to provoke similar conditions as in Russia. A social explosion had become a realistic scenario, so they had to release some steam.

The Social Democracy was granted more room for manoeuvre and began to make use of the new possibilities this presented, but always in agreement with the government. The new Kaiser decided to reopen the parliament and the labour movement was allowed to organise public meetings once again. Following the example of the Russian Revolution, where the women got the right to vote, the Social Democracy started a campaign for women's suffrage.

Class struggle

At the same time the class struggle exploded spontaneously in the armament industry. In the Arsenal in Vienna, where 20,000 workers were employed, a worker collapsed from hunger, which sparked a work stoppage. This led to a wave of strikes in all over Vienna. For the first time the Left Radicals played the role of a certain subjective factor in this movement.

Military discipline was enforced in factories Image Austria public archivesMilitary discipline was enforced in factories / Image: Austrian public archives

The government had to concede the introduction of a minimum wage to gain the control over the heated situation. There was a new dynamic in the factories that could not be controlled either by the army officers leading the industrial sector, or the trade union leadership. It is interesting to see how the trade union representatives had to change their role under the new situation. At the beginning of the war, these older social democratic trade unionists had a special position and would mediate between the management and the workforce. Workers could approach them when they wanted to complain, and they informed the workers about important decisions by the factory administration.

With this mechanism the army administration tried to keep law and order in the factories. Under the influence of the truce policy, many rank-and-file comrades were prepared to fulfill this role in the interest of the nation, only a small minority continued to resist militarism in the underground. However, by the spring of 1917 the tide had turned. The trade union representatives were pushed to action by the indignant workers and in many cases were forced to lead strikes.  

Austrian motor factory Image Austrian public archivesAustrian motor factory / Image: Austrian public archives

The Left Radicals understood that a new period had opened up. In the beginning of September 1917, they organised a secret conference with the group of revolutionary trade union representatives around Eduard Schönfeld in a small inn near Wiener Neustadt, the centre of the armament industry. There they decided to launch a campaign for a general strike against the war.

Hope for peace

In Autumn 1917 the Social Democracy was finally prepared to openly call for peace. In the past period the social democratic leadership mourned the catastrophic effects of the war, but refused to support the appeals of the antimilitarist forces within the international Social Democracy and did not organise any active resistance against the war. In agreement with the government, the party invited selected officials to a first peace assembly in the new concert hall. But events moved faster than the party leadership had planned. The news of the seizing of power by the Soviets in Russia sparked a completely new dynamic. Finally the working class saw the possibility of putting an end to the war. In Vienna and Wiener Neustadt one only had to follow the example of the brothers and sisters in Petrograd.   

The planned peace assembly of the party developed to a spontaneous mass rally involving 15,000 workers who could not enter the concert hall, so the party had to arrange a separate rally on the nearby ground of the Vienna Ice Skating Association. It was an extremely explosive situation. After the official rally thousands marched through the city towards the Ministry of War. In the following days the movement spread also to other industrial towns.

The next step could only be a general strike, and the Left Radicals started to organise such a strike movement for the end of January 1918. In the meantime the peace negotiations between the new revolutionary government in Russia and the German and Austrian Empire started in Brest-Litowsk. Trotsky's conduct of negotiations aimed to win over the masses in Germany and Austria to “talk Russian” with their own ruling class. In the workplaces, the workers followed every bit of news from Brest-Litowsk with great interest. The hope for peace had generated an explosive mood. Then, on the morning of the 14 January, news circulated that the government had halved the ration for flour. And this during a Winter of hunger.

During the Brest Litowsk peace negotiations Trotsky appealed to the German masses to speak Russian to their ruling class Image Bild BundesarchivDuring the Brest-Litowsk peace negotiations, Trotsky appealed to the German and Austrian masses to "speak Russian" to their ruling class / Image: Bild Bundesarchiv

The strike

In the Daimler Motor Factory in Wiener Neustadt, the workers, mostly female, came together in the courtyard of the factory and discussed the news, whereupon the trade union representatives called a meeting of the entire workforce. The workers decided to go on strike immediately and to march towards the town hall. They carried with them banners calling for an immediate peace and “down with the government”. On their way to the centre they were joined by workers from all the other big factories in the town, following their example. After the demonstration the workers elected their own representatives to discuss how to continue the protest. Following the Russian example, they formed the first workers’ council in Austria.

1920px 1917petrogradsoviet assemblySoviet power inspired the setting up of workers' councils in Austria_Image: public domain

As a first measure, the workers’ council of Wiener Neustadt approached the workers of other industrial towns in the region. The young Left Radicals assumed the responsibility of spreading the news to Vienna. The close contacts between them and the layer of revolutionary trade union representatives in key industries was now invaluable. And the strike leaders were politically prepared and knew what to do next. The strike spread like wildfire within hours to all industrial towns and villages in the region.

On the third day of the strike, the Left Radicals distributed a leaflet to try to give the movement a programme expressing the mood of the masses. Their central demands were:

  1. All delegates for peace negotiations should be elected by the people!
  2. Immediate armistice on all the fronts!
  3. End to militarisation of the factories! Complete restoration of democratic rights and political freedoms!
  4. Freedom for Friedrich Adler and all political prisoners!

The leaflet went one step further and explained the need to mistrust the “patriotic workers’ leaders” and to get organised in the workers councils. This leaflet was of an extremely radical tone, and the party and trade union leadership saw the danger of losing control over the working class.

Dirty work

According to documents from the state archives we know that the state apparatus did not see any possibility of repressing this strike movement by violent means, so it was forced to rely on the Social Democracy. The party leadership was in contact with the government from the first day of the strike and was given plenty of rope with the aim of securing control over the movement and to end the strike as soon as possible.

Because of this agreement, the Arbeiter-Zeitung could report on the strike without being censored. Moreover, the Social Democracy called officially to spread the strike to all industrial areas in Austria (but not in Bohemia). This appeal was successful and led to a situation where 750,000 workers went on strike. The spreading of the strike was also a precondition for gaining control over the movement because the Left Radicals did not have the resources to dominate such a large strike.

The party also appealed to the workers to form workers’ councils, which again was a step towards getting a political majority in the strike movement. In Vienna, the party called big public meetings in every district where a district workers’ council was established. With its strong party apparatus the Social Democracy could dominate the meetings of the workers’ council against the small and inexperienced forces of the Left Radicals. By organising the workers’ council in Vienna the political centre of the strike movement passed from Wiener Neustadt to the capital and the party leadership avoided connecting the workers’ councils of Vienna with those in the armament industries in the province, where the radical forces were much stronger.

The party executive formulated the following demands for the strike movement in agreement with the government:

  1. The peace negotiations must not fail because of territorial demands and should be conducted by constant information and under the “conditioning influence” of representatives of the working class.
  2. Reorganisation of the food supply for the population.
  3. Democratisation of the municipal vote.
  4. End to the militarisation of the workplaces.

In the strike meetings this programme was presented as an ultimatum to the government. Only if the government was ready to sign this manifesto would the Social Democracy be prepared to call for an end to the strikes. In reality, this programme had been agreed with the government beforehand, so it was clear that it would accept the demands. The official declaration of foreign minister Count Czernin that the government was going to accept the programme of the workers’ council was first written by the party leadership and merely signed and published by the government.

Revolution in the air

The above-mentioned documents also reveal there was a conference in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 17 January in which high-ranking Social Democrats, starting with Victor Adler, lamented the strike and said it was a “great fortune” that it did not spread to Bohemina and other parts of the Empire. They also said that there was the danger of revolution “we are all faced with”. Otto Bauer recapitulated the position of the party executive with the following words: “The escalation of the strikes towards revolution could not be what we want.”

In January 1918 there was revolution in the air. This was also shown by the reaction of Kaiser Karl I and his government. Without relying on the Social Democracy they could not have gained control over the situation. On the 19 January the Social Democracy could present the signed agreement with the government to the workers’ council and obtain a vote to end the strike. In some districts where the Left Radicals managed to intervene this resulted in very turbulent meetings.

spartacists waving red flags Public DomainThe January strike prepared the way for events in October / Image: public domain

A relatively strong minority of workers was not prepared to accept this deal. Many workers could not believe that the party wanted to call off the strikes at the critical moment and literally wept. In Wiener Neustadt the workers imprisoned Karl Renner, the later state president after the fall of the monarchy, when he reported to them the decisions of the workers’ council in Vienna to end the strike. In many factories the strike continued for several days, but the mass strike was over. The only result of the strike movement was the establishment of the workers’ councils, which would play an important role in the revolutionary events of October 1918. The Social Democracy put a lot of emphasis on controlling these new structures of the labour movement, but on the other hand tried to bring the issues that led to the mass strike in January 1918 to parliament.

The strike movement in January ended in a defeat. The Social Democracy accepted this defeat consciously because a spontaneous mass strike for peace was not part of its own political strategy. On the other hand the revolutionary forces within the labour movement were too weak, too inexperienced and had no strong organisation to represent a real alternative to the patriotic-reformist Social Democracy in the eyes of the masses.

Nevertheless, the mass strike of January 1918 remains one the of the most important chapters in the history of the revolutionary labour movement in Austria.

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