Danny Bee celebrates Red Vienna, when workers’ land occupations led to a left-wing city council developing a new vision for public housing and working-class communities.

The rebuilt Karl Marx Hof pictured in 2009, photo by des esseintes via Flickr, used under CC licence.

Red Vienna describes the period between 1919 and 1934 when a social democratic municipal council implemented a wide range of social reforms across the city of Vienna. Over 64,000 homes were built in council estates and garden city settlements, and supported with health clinics, dentists, schools, open spaces, youth clubs, cinemas, libraries and more. This achievement was paid for by city-wide progressive taxes whereby the rich proportionately paid a lot more than the workers. The period is book-ended by two very different political environments: working class combativity and the strength of Austro-Marxism, a theoretically rich wing of the Second International, at the beginning; and fascist violence, capitalist reaction and clerical oppression at the end.

The origins of Red Vienna lay in the accelerating development of industrial capitalism in the nineteenth century, which was accompanied by immense rises in urban populations. Neither the existing physical infrastructure nor municipal administrations could cope with these changes. Slums became characteristics of the new cities, full of people who were immiserated, impoverished and potentially rebellious. By the early 1900s it was widely accepted that Vienna had some of the worst housing in Europe.

The expansion of capitalist production was accompanied by the growth of a new working class, conjured up to fill the new factories, steel plants, gas works and railways. Realising the potential power of collective socialised labour, workers organised into unions and became involved in the development of mass socialist parties.

In the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the dominant socialist force was the Social Democratic Workers Party of Austria (SPADÖ). The leadership included figures such as Otto Bauer, Max Adler, Karl Renner and others. Many were avowed Marxists and worked to develop distinct theories of reform and revolution while remaining within the wider socialist movement of the Second International. Red Vienna is best understood within this political framework.

War and revolutions

The uninterrupted expansion of capital came to an abrupt end in August 1914 with the onset of the First World War. That war was ended by mutinous troops refusing to fight, peace demonstrations, bread riots, strikes and revolutions in Russia, Germany and the Austria-Hungarian Empire. Workers’ councils were formed in an arc from Kiel to Budapest to Moscow and St Petersburg.

In Russia, a communist revolution dissolved the aristocracy, smashed the existing state apparatus and nationalised land and key industrial enterprises. Revolution in Germany was more partial, ending the existing empire and leading to an unstable period of three-way fighting between reactionaries, socialists and communists. The Austro-Hungarian empire, which had covered much of eastern Europe, fell apart at the end of the war. In what became Austria, the glitter of empire was suddenly revealed as shoddy and the old aristocratic ruling class was utterly discredited. Into this power vacuum stepped the Social Democrats, the only political organisation credible to the mass of workers and soldiers.
Reform or revolution?

There were immediate practical problems to be solved: housing shortages, hunger and economic dislocation. But there were also fundamental political questions about attitudes to the state and the role of workers’ councils. Here the ‘third way’ of Austro-Marxism revealed itself. There would be none of the state-smashing of the Bolsheviks, and the workers’ councils would be prevented from seizing the means of production. The path of change would be through parliamentarianism and bourgeois legality. The Social Democrats had supported the war, and found themselves firmly on the reformist side of the workers movement.

For the needs of the working class of Vienna this was problematic. For while the social democrats clearly had majority support in the city, the Austrian government itself quickly became dominated by the reactionary forces of the church, landlords and German nationalism. When the balance of forces was with the social democrats, reformist gains could be pushed through; the eight-hour day, paid holidays, pensions, public health insurance, a reform of the education system. These were substantial victories and had real meaning for the working class of Vienna. But as soon as any bigger changes were proposed, the right-wing fought to push back. It was in this political fight that the social-democrats were ultimately found wanting.

Even before the end of the war there had been wide-spread deprivation in the city. Real hunger, housing shortages and lack of medical and welfare services degraded social life. These bore down in particular on mothers and babies, the elderly, people with disabilities (including an increasing number of war veterans), those on low wages and the unemployed. The first responses started from 1916 onwards as city dwellers began to appropriate land in order to grow food. By the time the war ended an estimated 100,000 people were involved in what became known as the Settler Movement.

In 1919 the Social Democrats won a clear majority on the Vienna municipal council and the Settlers, and many other issues, now became their responsibility. At first they were unsure how to respond. There wasn’t much in the ‘third way’ about working-class self-emancipation and self-organising. The social democrats were uneasy, even scared of this movement.

The desperate plight of the city population expressed itself in unrest in the city and in September 1919 a large demonstration of the Settlers demanded resolution to their demands. This was followed by a bigger, and better organised demonstration in April 1920 which was supported by wider forces in the city including industrial and service workers, war veterans and middle-class professionals. The architect and critic Adolf Loos wrote supportive articles in the press which were widely read and sympathetically received. While various parties, groups and individuals brought welcome additional support, the Settlers continued working to satisfy their immediate needs for food and shelter.

Building ‘Red Vienna’

The initial huts and sheds were increasingly replaced with substantial buildings, with most of the construction work – clearing land, digging foundation trenches, making bricks – carried out by the Settlers themselves. One of the first settlements was called Peace City and the hand-made bricks were called Peace Bricks. The majority of those involved were war veterans who had served in filthy trenches and murderous battles. They were not going to be dissuaded by officials and bureaucrats. As a consequence of the demonstrations and self-organising, the city council agreed to provide funding and specialist technical services.

The specialist technical services included a layer of architects and designers who had a social, and socialistic, commitment to the aims and objectives of the Settlers, among them Josef Frank, Margarete Lihotzky and Adolf Loos. They each had a commitment to core principles of urban planning, housing architecture and interior design, including the need for housing to have sunlight, space, fresh air, access to green open space, amenities and services. Good quality materials should be used, public transport was essential, and proximity to place of work.

The Settler Movement can be described as the first phase of Red Vienna. The second phase can be dated from around 1921. Despite ongoing economic disruption, the city council was becoming more confident, as the revolutionary wave that had begun in 1918 began to recede. But the questions remained; how to solve the general housing problem across the city? How to provide large amounts of housing for masses of people close to their workplaces? How to balance the tensions of building costs, building quality, living space and rents?

A scattering of Garden City communities were built, but as a general housing strategy could not provide the housing density needed for inner city areas. Tower blocks were mooted and rejected. It was gradually decided that the way forward would be medium-rise apartment blocks organised as estates. Over 400 separate developments were constructed, varying in population size, architecture, design, planning and services, but all with the same indelible stamp of the Gemeindebau Wien (municipal building of Vienna).

This legacy of housing remains part of the core municipal housing in the city. In general it was – and is – good quality build, intelligently designed and supported by a range of services. It expresses the social democrat’s commitment to working class housing and the architects’ and designers’ thoughtful approach to the questions of the daily needs of the working class.

The estates themselves vary in design, size and layout. The largest, such as the Karl Marx Hof, houses over 5,000 people and is about one kilometre long. Despite the density of the housing, the buildings only take up 20 percent of the land plot of the estate. The other 80 percent is open space, community facilities, play areas, grass and gardens. This gives the estate an open and spacious feel. It is next to a major urban train service and when built surrounded by industrial workplaces.

Friedrich Engels Platz was one of the final estates to be built and has a bold understated modernist style that even today feels as if it is facing towards a better future. The area known as Margerentgurtzel contains several estates close together and was known as the ‘ of the proletariat’. For visitors to Vienna, it is an excellent starting point to appreciate the power, scale and achievement of the house building.

The high point of reformism?

The social democrats in power further developed their commitment not only to housing, but to welfare provision, social services, education, culture and leisure. To this end, many of the estates were supported with kindergartens, play and sports facilities, lecture and meeting rooms, libraries, schools, mother and infant centres, dentists, communal washrooms and laundries. It was easier to get free dental treatment in Vienna in 1924 than it is in England in 2024.

And how was this all paid for?

When the social democrats were voted into the city hall in May 1919 they contacted one of the directors of Austria’s leading bank, Hugo Brietner and asked him to be the new Finance Director of the city council. Brietner was a member of the SPADÖ and had started his working life as a bank clerk in the 1880s as a teenager. He was active in the bank workers union which he also helped to found, but his sharp financial mind helped him climb from the office floor to the board room. One he became a director, he resigned from the union, recognising this was incompatible with the interests of the rank and file.
The union’s loss was the council’s gain. Brietner insisted that there would be no debts or loans; housing and social reform would be paid for through city-wide taxes whereby the rich would pay considerably more than the working class. As well as taxes on property, second homes and land sales, there were taxes on luxury cars, luxury restaurants, race horses and much else.

Brietner was subjected to relentless verbal attacks and antisemitic abuse from reactionaries and their supporters in the press. But he stood his ground – the more the reactionaries attacked, the more he dug in to ensure that taxation continued to pay for both housing and amenities in working-class neighbourhoods including flower beds, fountains, statues and paddling pools. fittings and street decorations.

The end of Red Vienna

However, the social democrats’ insistence on a parliamentary road to socialism contained within it a time-bomb. In the political vacuum of November 1918 the Austro-Hungarian state was paralysed. The social democrats could have moved to destroy that state and its capitalist supporters, as the Bolsheviks had done in 1917. But by allowing the state bureaucrats, the industrialists and large landowners to dominate the new Austrian state, they allowed them space to counter-attack. During the 1920s, Austrian fascists grew stronger, initially with the support of Mussolini and then Hitler. By 1934, the social democrats had been overwhelmed by fascist violence, in armed battles which saw over 1,000 workers killed and more than 10,000 arrested.

But Red Vienna never quite went away. The legacy of the building programme remains throughout the city and continues to provide housing for thousands of people. The principles set out by the architects and planners – about light, open space and communal facilities – continue to be applied. Tenants’ rights remain much stronger than in countries such as the USA and Britain. There is much to learn: about taxing the rich, architecture and interior design, how to integrate amenities like libraries and theatres into housing estates, the importance of good quality spaces for children to play, and the benefits of well-deigned and maintained public spaces in creating communities.

Good housing remains out of the reach of masses of the world’s population. It is the capitalist class and their institutions which stand in the way of making real and lasting progress. Red Vienna suggests what can be done well with limited resources – a model for how public housing could work under capitalism. The end of Red Vienna history shows that while reforms can be won if there is enough pressure from below, they will be threatened when they clash with the needs of capital accumulation and profit are threatened. but its enduring history also gives us a glimpse of what could be done if a socialist working class controlled all of the world’s productive capacity and natural resources.

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