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What can the recent successes of Austria’s Communist Party teach the European Left?


KPÖ delegates at their party congress in Styria.
Delegates to the KPÖ Styria party congress demonstrating their “revolutionary friendliness”, 21 May 2022. CC BY-SA 2.0, Photo: flickr / KPÖ

On the day after the 2021 federal election in Germany — which, as we all know, ended with a significant defeat for Die Linke, I read that the Austrian Communist Party (KPÖ) had won the election in Austria’s second-largest city. Communists? In Austria?

Leon Walter is the Thuringian state spokesperson of Die Linke’s youth organization and a member of the state party executive.

Until that moment, I’d been labouring under the misapprehension that the KPÖ no longer had any relevance. News of the election victory in Graz and the newly appointed communist mayor Elke Kahr, piqued my interest. Thus, when the opportunity arose to take part in a trip to Styria organized by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Thuringia branch in spring 2023, I jumped at the chance. Soon after, I joined a small Thuringian travel group, led by Katharina König-Preuss, a member of the Thuringia state parliament.

A Trip to Graz

We set off early in the morning for Graz, where, upon our arrival, we were fittingly welcomed at the Peppone restaurant, named after the Communist mayor from the Don Camillo and Peppone series.

On the first day of our trip, we attended a Graz City Council meeting. Following the meeting, Max Zirngast, a municipal councillor, and Robert Krotzer, the health commissioner, detailed the programme for the following days. Afterwards we went on a tour of the city. Our tour guide, who was not a member of the KPÖ, offered us a critical view on the party. After educating us about Graz’s history and current state, he shared his opinion, which was that while the KPÖ tended to a consistent politics of representation and didn’t really emphasize emancipatory self-organization, he had to admit they tended to get the job done. Wow, I thought to myself, if that’s the extent of criticism by a local activist, then public engagement with the party must be strong!

On the second day, we visited the KPÖ’s local members club, which is used to hosting exchanges between citizens and local politicians. In a three-hour long discussion, all sorts of topics were raised, including the recurring topic of what the Austrian experience could mean for eastern Germany.

Styrian KPÖ policy focused on local programmes and campaigns, which concentrated primarily on issues around housing and rent.

Afterwards, we visited the regional party headquarters of the KPÖ, which is known as the Volkshaus. The monthly “Lenny Market”, which was initiated by the party and offered inexpensive food for pets, was just ending as we arrived. Max Zirngast gave us a tour of the Volkshaus, showing us the large hall used for events, the rooms used by the Education Association, and a small annex for the Communist Youth of Austria (KJÖ). The KPÖ also organizes very well received events at the Volkshaus, which provide regular opportunities for direct contact between locals and politicians.

In the evening, we went to the Schwarze Raupe info café, which is used by various left-wing groups. Two activists were waiting for us there and we discussed the topic of anti-fascism, especially regarding the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) and the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). When we asked them what the “Gr.Antifa” (Graz’s Autonomous Antifascists) thought about the KPÖ, they both burst out laughing, adding that “when they wanted to occupy a municipal building in protest of the state government they had asked Robert [Krotzer] and he had said no”. It was apparent that even activists who identified as more autonomous had a high opinion of the KPÖ and its work.

On the third and final day, we visited the small Styrian town of Knittelfeld to get an understanding of the work the KPÖ does in more rural regions. At the end of a short tour, we came to a cluster of terraced houses that had been built through the efforts and the self-organization of workers in the 1920s. In the middle of the development was the KPÖ’s local headquarters where in the meeting room, we sat under portraits of Marx, Engels, and various members of the Austrian resistance and discussed the left in Germany and Austria. In this exchange it became clear that we knew far too little about each other and for that reason, are unable to learn as much as we wanted from one another.

Useful Reds

In the 1990s, the then-unsuccessful Styrian KPÖ plotted a new political course under its then-leader Ernest Kaltenegger. The cause of the change of course in Styria were the crises that gripped the KPÖ after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. In the wake of this crisis, regional associations began to act more independently of the federal party, which had unsuccessfully attempted to reposition itself as a post-Communist left party based on the model of the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) in Germany and the Democrats of the Left in Italy. People in Styria wanted “a useful party focused on everyday life and the big goals of the workers’ movement”. This meant formulating a pragmatic social policy that would benefit people’s real lives without abandoning the larger goal of a socialist society.

Styrian KPÖ policy focused on local programmes and campaigns, which concentrated primarily on issues around housing and rent. This campaign programme included concrete references to helping people in real ways, such as with an advice hotline for dealing with problems related to tenancy legal issues. The approach enabled the party to achieve its first electoral successes in Graz. In time and because of the distributions offices proportional representation system, the party was able to take over the city’s housing department and create actual material housing improvements.

One example of this kind of “creative governance” was the renovation of bathrooms in municipal housing, which came about after Graz was chosen to be the European Capital of Culture 2003 and received subsidies to prepare for this. The KPÖ asked what culture and cultural funding means for people who cannot afford to go regularly to the theatre or a museum and in this way, more than 300 “cultural bathrooms” were created for the people whom the conservative council had not considered.

Outside of city hall, the KPÖ has built up a reputation as a “troubleshooter” and the social fund for emergencies, which is funded by contributions from representatives, is particularly popular. In addition to this fund, there are also various services that provide free advice, the already mentioned activities around the Volkshaus, and events organized by the education association. The political strategy is based on combining the party’s social and cultural offerings with effective reform policy in city hall.

Revolutionary Friendliness

The success of this strategy is the result of a real authenticity and acceptance by activists. An important contribution is also made by the almost revolutionary friendliness of the activists, which is unexpected from German leftists, who tend to be quite grouchy.

If you take a look at the party’s publications, social media posts, and websites, two things stand out: on the one hand, the simple and easily understandable presentation of successes and projects, and on the other hand, the telephone numbers of the KPÖ MPs. In contrast to the traditional administration, this signals accessibility, and many people take up the offer to directly contact the responsible councillor or mayor with their problems. A party sympathizer told me that one could always immediately recognize where the KPÖ had its offices in the city hall because they were the only offices with people queued up outside of them, not by a red banner handing outside.

Even if it is too early to generalize about these developments, I think it is already clear that new approaches are needed to get the European Left out of the rut it is currently in.

Sceptics of the Graz model argue that its success is based on decades of work, which means its model cannot be transferred to other regions or countries. In my view, this attitude is emblematic of left-wing defeatism and, more importantly, does not acknowledge the facts. In just one legislative period, the “KPÖ Plus” electoral list in Styria grew from 0.4 percent to over 11 percent, demonstrating that short-term success can be achieved, contrary to the suggestion that a long build up is necessary to do well.

The Junge Linke (Young Left), an independent youth organization which was founded after the Austrian Greens threw a group of committed young members out of their party in 2018, was also important in creating this victory. The Junge Linke brought a breath of fresh air to the KPÖ’s structure and activities and were welcomed as an official KPÖ youth organization.

A “Troubleshooter Party” Once More?

Thuringia, where a red-red-green minority government under Bodo Ramelow, Die Linke’s sole minister-president, governs, is sometimes compared to Graz. At the same time, older party members in particular occasionally encourage a revival of the PDS concept of the Kümmerer, or “troubleshooter party” that can be counted on to solve local issues in a tangible, practical way.

In fact, the so-called “Thuringian Way” is a local adaptation of the concept of the troubleshooter party, and the party still offers socio-political counselling and advice, for example when it comes to housing benefits. The standard parliamentary allowance is collected by an association called Alternative 54, which then distributes this money in the form of donations to civil society projects and associations.

Nonetheless, the general population in Graz has a greater acceptance of the KPÖ as a troubleshooter than the Thuringian public do for Die Linke. For one thing, there is often a lack of easily accessible services on offer in Thuringia and the party also has a chronic age imbalance, meaning that too much work rests on the shoulders of a few young people with multifunctional roles. The question is therefore not how to get “back” to being a party of troubleshooters, but how to build a modern party that has a cutting-edge approach to current political problems and encourages people to get involved.

Unfortunately, and I do not exclude myself from this critique, we are also far from the KPÖ activist’s disarming “revolutionary friendliness”. Nevertheless, the question of how we can return to radiating more positivity and zeal remains.

At the moment, we can observe a decline in left-wing party projects conceived as broad anti-neoliberal alliances across many European nations, such as Syriza, Podemos, and Die Linke, with the partial exception of France. At the same time, parties that are Marxist in orientation and pursue serious realpolitik, like the KPÖ and the Belgian Workers’ Party, seem to be gaining traction. Even if it is too early to generalize about these developments, I think it is already clear that new approaches are needed to get the European Left out of the rut it is currently in. We need modern left-wing parties that are strategically savvy, empathize with the public, meet them with kindness, and help improve people’s everyday lives in concrete and highly practical ways.

While examples of how to achieve this can clearly be found in the work of the KPÖ, the urgently needed counter-project of solidarity, especially in East Germany where the AfD is gaining strength, is something we have to formulate for ourselves.

Translated by Eve Richens and Brad Schmidt for Gegensatz Translation Collective.