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Red Vienna: Experiment in Working-Class Culture, 1919-1934.

Helmut Gruber's Red Vienna is a major new study of the Socialist culture in the Austrian metropol during the interwar years. He succeeds in capturing the flavor and the details of the Austrian Socialist Party's (SDAP) grand experiment to change the physical and cultural face of Vienna and to create "new people" (Neue Menschen) out of the working class. Gruber, however, is not merely an admirer of Socialist Vienna; he is also perhaps its strongest critic. Throughout the book he provides profound analyses of the political and philosophical shortcomings of party functionaries and their programs and, to a lesser extent, of Austromarxist theoreticians.

A good example of Gruber's approach is his treatment of the Socialist building projects. Vienna today still shows signs of what should have been one of the great triumphs of municipal socialism: functional, affordable living quarters for the working class. But the Socialist Party in Vienna adopted a paternalistic attitude towards the workers it intended to help. Party administrators and planners never consulted workers when designing new buildings. In addition, Gruber shows that the Socialists were very conventional in selecting architectural styles and considering possible living arrangements. Indeed, although the housing projects were a source of great pride to Vienna's Socialists, they were not the most progressive on the continent: more advanced municipal apartments were being built in Hamburg, Frankfurt, and Berlin, for example. Consequently, Vienna's housing experiment was only a qualified success. In fact, the Socialists conceived of housing primarily as a stable environment where workers could be educated to be an orderly and disciplined new people (ordentliche Neue Menschen).

Transforming the culture of the working class in Vienna proved to be an elusive goal. Gruber outlines the many difficulties the Socialists encountered in trying to construct comprehensive educational, entertainment, and sports programs. Some of these difficulties the Socialists created for themselves. At his most insightful, Gruber demonstrates that the Socialists often thought of the workers as clay in their hands--the workers did not need to be understood or reached, but shaped. As a result, Socialist cultural programs did not usually consider workers' actual daily routines or their desire for diversion and relaxation. At its extreme, such attitudes could lead Socialists such as David Joseph Bach, the dictatorial director of the Social Democratic Art Organization (Sozialdemokratische Kunststelle), to insist that in the high arts such as music and the theatre the task was to provide the workers with the "finest |read classical~ and therefore most revolutionary art". Bach's Art Organization never really confronted the question of what "socialist" high arts might be; instead it acted almost exclusively as a ticket bureau which gave free passes to employees, managers, and intellectuals and not primarily to workers.

Gruber's wide-ranging analysis of culture does not stop with a critique of Socialist policies towards the fine arts; he analyzes festivals and participatory sports within the socialist milieu, as well as the new commercial and mass cultural forms of the twentieth century, namely the cinema, the radio, and spectator sports. Gruber asks and largely answers difficult questions: How much leisure time did workers have? Did men and women have different leisure patterns? What were the economics of entertainment in Vienna? Workers were engaged as much or more by the burgeoning mass and commercial culture as by the officially-sponsored SDAP culture. Not surprisingly, therefore, the Socialists were often strident in their criticisms of mass culture and did not appreciate the possibilities of the new media. Considering that the Viennese participated enthusiastically in mass cultural activities, the socialists lost an important opportunity to build support for their programs not only among the working class, but in the general population of Vienna as well.

On issues such as policies towards women, family, and sexuality, the Socialists followed what at best could be described as a cautious, reformist policy. They did not properly assess the hardships women faced when they worked, managed a household, and cared for children. For the SDAP, women were to be clean, orderly, and naturally strong; yet neither the Socialist party nor trade unions afforded women additional resources or time to pursue these ideals. Similarly, socialist attitudes towards sexuality, and especially towards adolescent sexuality, tended to be conservative. Socialists preached abstinence and discipline to young people who in other facets of their lives were forced to assume adult responsibilities at a very young age. According to Gruber, the SDAP adopted bourgeois notions of women, family patterns, and sexual behavior. This reflected the beliefs of many of the leading male socialists of the day, such as Otto Bauer, Friedrich Adler, or Julius Tandler.

In short, Socialist cultural policies were paternalistic when they should have been progressive, were imposed from above when they should have been coupled with workers' subcultures and initiatives from below, and often rendered their intended constituents passive when they should have involved them actively. There were to be sure critics of these policies such as Wilhelm Reich and Kathe Leichter--to whom Gruber dedicates the book--within Vienna's socialist world, but they did not usually occupy positions of authority or their protests were ignored.

Perhaps, however, Gruber's most profound criticism of Austrian Socialists is that they made the cardinal mistake of substituting cultural programs for political power. In the contentious 1920s and 30s they should have paid more attention to the battle at the polls and in the streets. Otto Bauer's famous "balance of class forces" did not produce a political context favorable to Austrian socialism. By focusing too much on culture, the Socialists were not prepared to meet the direct political challenges of the Pan-Germans, the Heimwehr, the Christian Socials, and Nazi sympathizers. Gruber's critique is so incisive and thorough that in the conclusion he has to remind himself of Red Vienna's accomplishments in a hostile environment.

This is a rich book. The obvious scarcely needs to be mentioned: it should be read by people interested in Austrian history, socialism, the working class, and modern culture. It is in some respects a guide to the city of Vienna itself. Despite his criticisms of Socialist policies, Gruber clearly hopes that Vienna's experiment in cultural transformation will be taken seriously, not necessarily as a model but as a lesson in the history of modern socialism.
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Author:Bowman, William D.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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