Left Paternalism

Left Paternalism

RED VIENNA: EXPERIMENT IN WORKING CLASS CULTURE, by Helmut Gruber. Oxford University Press.

Most historical work on Austrian socialism in the interwar years is inclined to praise it, often somewhat over-enthusiastically. Helmut Gruber’s intention in this book, however, is to bury it. There was no doubt a strong tendency among socialist commentators in Europe and in this country to concoct a kind of rose-colored mythology about the legendary Red Vienna that Gruber delights in debunking, but his demythologizing effort carries him farther than he might have intended. As a result, this book by an author who clearly sympathizes with the New Left in this country sometimes reads almost like a right-wing polemic.

The prevalent left-wing myth about socialist Vienna in the twenties has it that Vienna prefigured in crucial respects the socialist commonwealth of the future. The Austrian socialist movement, so it was argued, had managed to reintegrate into political society a previously rootless and alienated working class by creating socialist institutions, by no means all of them of a political character, that succeeded in constructing an autonomous framework and support for a community of Vienna’s workers. What had once been an antheap of deprived and isolated individuals had become a true Gemeinschaft. It was transformed through networks of participatory institutions in which Vienna’s working class found cultural as well as material support in the company of equals.

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