Austria polarised as the extreme right wing Freedom Party of Haider enters the government

Railworkers took the initiative in launching demonstrations against the entry of the extreme right wing Freedom Party of Haider in the new government on the third of February. Since that day, students and other young people have not stopped hitting the streets of Vienna and other towns in Austria. This country has definitely broken with its smooth and consensual past. Today class struggle in its different forms is again on the order of the day. We spoke with Herbert Bartik, activist of the Vienna Socialist Youth and of the Marxist paper Der Funke about the sudden upheaval.

Railworkers took the initiative in launching demonstrations against the entry of the extreme right wing Freedom Party of Haider in the new government on the third of February. Since that day, students and other young people have not stopped hitting the streets of Vienna and other towns in Austria. This country has definitely broken with its smooth and consensual past. Today class struggle in its different forms is again on the order of the day. We spoke with Herbert Bartik, activist of the Vienna Socialist Youth and of the Marxist paper Der Funke about the sudden upheaval.

Question:  Do we have to be afraid of Haider?

H.B.: Well, we have to be aware of the danger that Haider and his Freedom Party represents. It is an extreme right wing party but it does not represent a fascist movement as such. It represents a wing of Austrian capital which wants to bring an end to social partnership. It would be more accurate to compare the Freedom Party (FPÖ) to the old Bavarian CSU of Franz Josef Strauss. Its programme is one of social cuts and ultra-liberal deregulation and "flexibility". But to gain popularity it makes use of social demagogy. At the end of the 1940s when it was formed, the party definitely had fascist roots, basing its support on ex-Nazis. It still maintains this basis and Haider has to satisfy them, in words at least. That explains his positive comments on the "labour policy" of Hitler and on the concentration camps which were just "jails" in his eyes and on the "worthy" SS officers. Despite this we cannot say that the Freedom Party today is a fascist party. This does not mean we are complacent about them. Heider is an extreme right-wing reactionary with an anti-working class policy. With his racist and xenophobic demagogy, he can be a pacemaker for fascism, preparing the ground for even more vicious reactionary movements in the future.

Question: What does this coalition intend to do?

H.B.: They want to privatise state-owned industries (railways, the post office etc.), They want to cut pensions, to introduce tuition fees for students, and reduce the"social wage" of the workers (through cuts in social security contributions by the bosses). This is in reality the full programme of the Conservatives. The Freedom Party accepted every letter of it in an effort to prove it can be reliable, that it can be trusted and that it is not a Nazi group. This will create frictions with its popular base.

Question: How does the Socialist Party respond to this?

H.B.: We must make clear that the 13 year-long coalition of the Socialist Party (SPÖ) with the Conservative Peoples Party (ÖVP) and its policy of constant cuts has prepared the rise of Haider. Also we must not forget that it was a Social Democratic Minister of Interior who moved racist legislation, which was greatly responsible for cultivating a xenophobic mood. The SPÖ¹s election campaign centred around the idea that Austria has become the seventh richest country of the OECD and that Austrians "have never had it so good". Haider's party on the contrary argued demagogically that "something was going wrong in the country", talked about the increase of "stress in the workplace," and this connected with the experience of quite a lot of people. Haider went even further and proposed more money for young mothers and better child care. Opinion polls show that the immigrant question was only in fourth place as far as people's motivation towards voting for the Freedom Party. So this was not the decisive factor. It was especially non-unionised workers who voted for this party, which succeeded in winning 40% of all working class votes. Workers have growing difficulties identifying with the Socialist Party and its policies. The bulk of the Freedom Party's electorate comes from small shopkeepers ‹the lower middle class who are desperately looking for a way out of their problems. The decision taken by the Socialist Party not to form a new coalition with the conservatives was a step in the right direction. Haider has tried in the past to recruit massively but he failed to do this. At best he has 40,000 members, while the Socialist Party has 400,000 members. Even his "union" based on a split of the official unions never won more than 5,000 to 6,000 members (most of them policemen). It failed to win further ground. Haider's support is largely passive electoral support. Looked at from this angle the Freedom Party is more like a movement than a real mass party.

Question: Are you saying that the Socialist Party leaders have learned the lesson from these events?

H.B.: Not at all. They have learned nothing. Viktor Klime, the chairman of the SPÖ was determined to relaunch the coalition. For this he was ready to abandon all the party's policies and embrace those of the Conservatives. He is a pupil of Schroeder and Blair. But he failed thanks to the pressure of the rank and file of the unions on their leaders. The message from different union leaders was as follows: "if you accept this program we will leave the party". After the party leaders realised that any chance for a renewal of the coalition had disappeared, they even tried to ask for some co-operation with Haider himself. But he refused. These leaders are desperate over the possible loss of their jobs and positions in the government and the state which they have occupied for 30 years. But now at the next congress of the party, two candidates will stand for the election of party chairperson. One of them is a kind of left reformist and former Minister of Science.

Question: What is the alternative to Haider?

H.B.: The protests of the last few days are a step in the right direction. It is also the first time the rank and file of the unions did not accept the Party's policies and actively participated to pressurise their leaders to reject the pension reform, for instance. The SPÖ and the unions represent a very strong force in Austria. The party has still 65 members of parliament, and the unions organise some 1.5 million workers. No government could rule against its will. After the elections, and when the coalition discussions were going on, we proposed that the SPÖ should form a minority government to put into practice a socialist policy, relying on the strength of the unions. Austria is being polarised as never before. It looks as if it is rising to the European level of class struggle. It will reach new levels with the decision of the majority of Austrian capital to break with the "social partnership". This is preparing a big reaction on the part of the workers. New and positive opportunities are presenting themselves for the ideas of Marxism. People are looking for a way out of the impasse of reformism. First of all, the huge anti-racist demonstrations of young radicalised students and workers (not many people know that the first demonstrations against Haider's party entering the government were organised by the railworkers union), and secondly the opposition of the unions against privatisation will provide fertile ground for the spread of Marxist ideas.

Interview with Herbert Bartik from Der Funke
7/02/00