MEHRU JAFFER | 20 JULY, 2018
Marx in Vienna: “Arrived”
Exhibition in Red Vienna
Karl Marx is long dead but his contemplations on a more just world are alive, at least in one corner of Vienna, capital city of Austria.
Ever since 5 May, a day that marks 200 years of the birth of the German philosopher, an exhibition called Karl Marx in Vienna is visited by thousands of people still interested in social justice for the working class.
The exhibition is on till the end of this year at the Karl-Marx-Hof, a housing project for working class families. The project was inspired by the ideas of Marx during the interwar period known here as Red Vienna when socialist awareness was at its peak.
This housing project was inaugurated in 1930 with more than a 1000 homes for around 5,000 people with the city mayor saying, “When we are no longer here, then by these stones shall we be judged”.
During this time, the Social Democratic city council built dwellings with almost 65,000 apartments. The communal living in Red Vienna was not just about housing but also about the physical and cultural development and mental health of citizens.
It is here that the application of Marxism to daily life advocated by AustroMarxists can be seen to this day. Housing was only an instrument in the hope of creating a new man who would be part of a politically educated and self-assured working class.
Despite the economic depression at the turn of the last century, AustroMarxism was experienced as a life affirming movement and the housing project promised a better future through essential facilities like a common kitchen, central laundries, shared bathing rooms, kindergarten, school, clinic, pharmacy and library. It was a cradle to grave movement that enriched hundreds of thousands of ordinary lives.
Kari Polyani Levitt, Canadian economist who was born in Vienna in 1923 looks back on Red Vienna as an amazing episode in history, a remarkable experiment in municipal socialism when ordinary workers were socially privileged. And people had come from all over the world to look at Red Vienna as an example of modern urban living at its best.
A visit to the Karl-Marx-Hof in red bricks reveals that it is not just a collection of tenements. It is an impressive tribute to what political leadership is capable of achieving when the politics of the day is determined to provide the best for voters. The one thought on the mind of the builders of the Karl-Marx-Hof was maximum facilities for families of working class people in minimum space.
The housing complex came up as a result of AustroMarxism, a school of Marxism that evolved around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. Its most conspicuous feature was integral socialism and to make the reformist workers movement so successful that there would be no need for revolutionary socialism.
This interpretation of Marxism led to the practice of social democracy and to the appreciation of democratic institutions within the workers movement and it also cemented the rift within the workers movement between the radicals and the moderates.
The idea was to eventually realise a social revolution that would prevail over the capitalist system for the benefit of the new human being. This was to be achieved by a democratic and peaceful conquest of power earned through a process of political and cultural enlightenment.
AustroMarxism was a combination of the ideas of Marx and Immanuel Kant who emphasized the conscious practice of ethics, and put into practice by socialists in Vienna after the inspiring visit of Marx to the city in 1848. AustroMarxism played a crucial role for many years in laying the foundations of a comparatively peaceful labour movement in Austria.
It was a dusty journey of 31 hours in 1848 for Marx when he came to Vienna for 10 days. He was invited by the democrats to discuss the condition of workers, and to address members of the first club for educating workers. He had talked about the importance of an organized labour movement. He shared information about the development of revolutionary movements in other parts of Europe. He reminded those who came to listen to him that the struggle in the city was between the working class and the wealthy in society.
The Radical newspaper described his speech as brilliant, acute and instructive. Next to his lectern on stage a small box was placed for the audience to deposit questions to him.
The headline in the local conservative daily Wiener Zeitung of August 30 announced the visit of Marx to Vienna with:
It was reported that Karl Marx, doctor of Philosophy had arrived from Paris and will depart on September 7 for Berlin.
His arrival at the northern train station in Vienna had followed his reputation as co-author of the Communist Manifesto with Friedrich Engels.
Marx had energised the left of center, but the conservative press accused the democrats of hosting foreign politicians who spoke harshly about the Austrian government. This media had referred to Marx as a foreign doctor who spoke about people being the highest authority, higher than the emperor and parliament!
Such was the concern of Marx for ordinary people. However closer to our times governments inspired by Marx have become unpopular. This is because when Marxist governments were given the opportunity to wield power they did not remember to practice the core idea of Marx, which is humanism.
So how can the ideas of Marx be dead when these are not practiced the way they are meant to be. And who ever thinks that Marxism is dead must think again. For as long as oppression and the exploitation of human beings by other human beings continues to plague humanity, the heartfelt ideas of Marx will live on in quest of a world in which a majority of people are happier than they are today.