WHO NOW REMEMBERS “Red Vienna”? Pounded to rubble by the Austrian army in 1934, the extraordinary achievements of the Viennese working-class have faded from the world’s memory to the point where, today, they are all but forgotten.
What it was like to grow up in a city run by socialists? What could a child expect going to school in Red Vienna?
Well, for a start, everything was paid for. The uniforms, the textbooks, even the stationery – the pupils’ paper and pencils – were supplied by the municipal government. The city authorities went to enormous lengths to ensure that all distinctions attributable to class and/or wealth were, as far as was humanly (and humanely) possible, erased.
Since an education was every citizen’s right, argued Otto Glôkel, the radically progressive Education Councillor, it was the responsibility of the City to ensure that it was delivered to every child in equal measure.
That the wealthy could afford to equip their children with uniforms and textbooks and stationery was irrelevant. The city’s working-class children were not receiving these items free-of-charge because they were poor, but because they were necessary to the process of learning. Any attempt to ration learning materials according to parental income would stigmatise their recipients as “children of the poor” – charity cases – and the items would end up being devalued and resented.
But, if you think Vienna’s wealthiest citizens were being given a free ride by the socialist city council’s policies, then think again. When it came to devising ways of extracting money from the rich and redistributing it to the poor, Red Vienna’s Finance Councillor, Hugo Breitner, proved to be a fiscal genius.
In addition to the funding Vienna received from the Austrian government, vast amounts were raised by Breitner’s steeply progressive Housing Construction Tax. Even today, says Wikipedia, it is possible to find many municipal housing blocks in Vienna still bearing the inscription: “Erbaut aus den Mitteln der Wohnbausteuer (built from the proceeds of the Housing Construction Tax).” Breitner also introduced “luxury taxes” on large private motor cars, riding horses, and many other items of conspicuous consumption.
Julius Tandler was another radical councillor of Red Vienna. Responsible for health and social services he took the position that: “What we spend for youth homes we will save on prisons. What we spend for the care of pregnant women and babies we will save in hospitals for mental illnesses.” Under his guidance the city provided free kindergartens and “children’s spas”. To assist working mothers, the city ran “afternoon homes” where children could be cared for professionally until their parents’ return.
Once again quoting Wikipedia: “Medical services were provided free of charge. Vacation grounds, recreational holidays, public baths and spas and sports facilities were offered to enhance fitness.”
This was Red Vienna. Not surprisingly it attracted the admiration of progressive politicians from all over the world. The housing complexes, in particular, were hailed as a vision of the future. Given names like Karl Marx House (pictured above) and George Washington Court, their design was as revolutionary as their purpose.
Red Vienna was proof of what a city led by courageous, visionary and (most crucially) democratic socialists could achieve. The contrast between their extraordinary achievements and the limited vision of even the most radical of New Zealand’s left-wing politicians is as stark as it is depressing.
As still happens in Finland today, the school-children of Red Vienna were given both breakfast and lunch, free of charge, by the city authorities. For the benefit of Hone Harawira and the Mana Party, that was ALL the children of Red Vienna – not just those who hailed from the 1920s Austrian equivalent of Deciles 1-4.
I must confess to being utterly astounded by Mana’s decision to limit the provision of breakfasts and lunches to the “children of the poor”. Was there no one in its ranks who could see how stigmatising such a policy was bound to be? Surely, if an education to the level of his or her full potential is every citizen’s right, and if effective learning is impossible if a child is hungry, then feeding kids when they’re at school is the community’s – not the parents – responsibility?
The Left must stop buying into the Right’s argument that everything relating to children’s welfare is, first and foremost, their parents’ responsibility. It’s a ridiculous notion – and a very new one.
How could the oft-quoted aphorism: “It takes a village to raise a child” ever have qualified as wisdom if the education and social integration of the next generation has only ever been the responsibility of the nuclear family which spawned them? Quite apart from anything else, the huge expectations which this “it’s all the parents’ responsibility” argument places upon those mothers and fathers who may simply not be equipped to shoulder so crushing a burden is as unwise as it is unjust.
How far we have come since the 1970s, when just about every liberal arts student had a copy of Kahil Gibran’s The Prophet on their bookshelves. How many of those bright-eyed young baby-boomers have forgotten the messages contained in his gentle poetry?
- Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
The children of Red Vienna – and a great many of their parents – believed they were engaged in building the House of Tomorrow: and that with solidarity and co-operation they would soon be dreaming reality.
Alas, it was not to be.
The same irrational hatred of the poor that prevents the National Government from offering New Zealand children the food they need to learn and grow, also festered in the Austria of the 1930s. The secular socialists of Red Vienna incensed the deeply religious and profoundly reactionary farmers and small businessmen of provincial Austria. Impoverished by the Depression, and encouraged by the Catholic Church, the old aristocracy, the big capitalists and the Army to blame the “Reds” for all their troubles, these groups were eventually goaded into making war on their own capital in 1934. Soldiers brought up artillery and, at point blank range, pounded the working-class quarter of Vienna – the wonder of the progressive world – into submission.
The work begun by the Right in 1934 reached its final culmination in 1938 when Adolf Hitler’s Nazis rolled across the Austrian border. From that moment, Red Vienna began its long retreat into the unreliable terrain of human recollection.
Looking back on such examples, I sometimes wonder what it will take for today’s leftists to rediscover the imagination and courage that from 1919 until 1934 made Red Vienna so much more than a memory.
If we must send our children to the House of Tomorrow, should we not, at least, make sure they’re equipped to build a house worth living in?