Béla Kun on the Imminent Fall of the Habsburg Empire

The translation below from Kommunist 4 (June 1918) is the second article by the future leader of the Hungarian Soviet Republic Béla Kun. We have already given a background to Béla Kun in our introduction to his previous article in Kommunist 2 (Béla Kun and the Hungarian Soviet Republic) so we will simply confine ourselves to a few remarks about this document. It is a continuation of the analysis of the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which by this time was being propped up by Germany but it is more detailed and well-informed. The end of the monarchy was nigh.

The last act of the fleeing Austrian Emperor was to appoint the liberal Count Károlyi, an aristocrat who annoyed his own class by adopting liberalism, as Prime Minister of the new Hungarian Republic. As Kun argues, Károlyi was a French protégé and he initially formed a coalition with the Social Democrats. However at the Paris Peace Conference the French supported Romanian claims to huge tracts of Transylvania and the betrayed Károlyi resigned. Béla Kun at the time was languishing in Budapest’s Markó utca prison from where he was released on the day Károlyi resigned (20 March 1919). Two days later he was calling himself “Commissar of Foreign Affairs of the Hungarian Soviet Republic”. He radioed Moscow for assistance and repudiated the French ultimatum over Transylvania. He then began organising a Red Army to fight the Romanian and Czech forces which had invaded Hungary’s old territory. The ease with which Kun had taken over in Hungary at first caused panic in Western capitals especially when the Bavarian socialists also took the opportunity to set up a Soviet republic. Kun was a a good orator and managed to inspire some of the working class but he fatally refused to accept a temporary settlement with the former Entente powers, and attempts to set up a Red Army at first failed. Only when the Romanian Army was a few kilometres from Budapest did Kun’s coalition allies, the Social Democrats, manage to organise a bigger force (in 1919 the Hungarian Communist Party had only been in existence a few months whereas the Social Democrats numbered 700,000). Kun’s regime failed in other ways too. Attempting to set up collectives amongst land hungry peasants only lost rural support and the Red Terror excesses of Tibor Szamuely’s “Lenin Boys” only underlined the desperation of the regime. The last hope that the Russian Red Army would invade Romania from Ukraine vanished when the White offensive was renewed against the Soviets there. In July 1919 the Romanians took Budapest and Béla Kun fled to Austria. A White Terror under Admiral Horthy would now descend on Hungary. It is a pity that the powers of analysis shown in the article which follows were not put to use when Kun was the dominant force in Hungary for a few months in 1919.

The Crisis of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy

The Russian Revolution has revealed itself to be a memento mori,(1) in particular for Austria.

The permanent lack of political stability and balance has become an almost-normal state of affairs for the two halves of the Habsburg monarchy. In Austria, the government cannot rely on any party; in Hungary, where political coalitions are unravelling every day, the formation of a remotely stable government (and a leading party) is impossible.

Now that the idea of Empire has lived its last days, this critical period has arrived hand in hand with the most utter despair. In Hungary, the absurdity of a “national” State composed of eight different peoples prevented all democratic change; it has tied itself in such a knot that only revolution can untie it.

The dual monarchy, an unconventional government assembly, was itself the symbol of these contradictions and sank further into them with every step of its development. The advent of the imperialist epoch has delivered a death blow to the organisation of the Austro-Hungarian State. The already-insoluble problems have become even more so in the imperialist era.

It was all the more surprising from a Marxist perspective to note that some experts attempted to resolve the national question of Austria within the strict framework of a minimum programme,(2) leaving untouched the foundations of the capitalist order itself. What is more, the reality has proven irrefutably that the national question remained completely insoluble as long as it remained isolated from all other social problems. The particularity of Austro-Hungarian imperialism has only served to prove how inappropriate the Renner-Bauer plans are,(3) namely the idea of Empire at all costs, even at the price of some alterations.

Even if it seems paradoxical, the annexationist policy of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy would remain the only way of allowing its continued existence. Yet the policy of attack, followed by a brilliant victory in Poland and Romania, does not possess the necessary strength for keeping the Empire alive. Without the (additional, forcibly imposed) aid of foreign imperialism (specifically German imperialism), it would have remained a sword with neither blade nor handle. This impotence encouraged the aspirations of oppressed peoples to liberate themselves from the monarchy. Moreover, these aspirations undermined the basis of the Austrian annexationist policy: the government found itself increasingly forced to follow the path of absolutism in the face of centrifugal tendencies while it was no longer able to postpone the solution to the national problem, which was critical without new annexations.

The democratic solution to this problem (through universal suffrage), recommended frequently by the Social Democrats, turned out to be utterly impossible. Even a real democratic order (whose construction was impeded by the interests of Czech, Hungarian and German oligarchs) would itself have been incapable of solving the national problem. Every reform introduced, or even just planned, in order to resolve this issue within the framework of capitalist society only served to aggravate it.

There was an underestimation of the conflict of interests between the proletariat and the capitalists of the same oppressed ethnicity, as well as an underestimation of the domination of each bourgeoisie over its own proletariat, that is to say, of its interest in maintaining that domination. Here, Daszyński(4) and Němec(5) committed the same error as Renner and Otto Bauer. This underestimation brought the Austrian and German Social Democrats to the idea of saving Austria by democratising it. It thus pushed the Czech Social Democrats to affirm their separatist aspirations and dictated an ambivalent policy to Daszyński. Did the German Marxists, and after them the Czech and Polish Social Democrats, understand their error?

It was impossible to resolve the national problem through democratic means. The policy of annexations was the only way to save the decomposing state.

How many nice pacifist speeches has Czernin(6) made, how many times has he declared peace with no annexations! If all of these speeches were made for the foreigner, they were also the expression of the lack of need for force in his imperialist policy. However, the speeches addressed to his own country were nothing but demagogic convolutions. Domestic policy forced the monarchy to occupy new territories and subjugate new foreign peoples, this being the only way they could keep the peoples they had already oppressed for a long time in their hands. It was certainly the best way to multiply and aggravate the contradictions.

The interests at stake in exports, so dear to Austro-Hungarian finance capital, demanded a strong centre of power, equipped with a military apparatus not only serving to expand its “spheres of influence” but at the same time guaranteeing the integrity of the internal market. In the absence of such conditions, one could assume that Austro-Hungarian imperialism would be less aggressive. In reality, on the contrary, the weakness of their central power and of their militarism added to the other conditions of Austria-Hungary’s annexationist policy. This fact has exacerbated the centrifugal forces of the imperialist order. The annexationist policy of Austria was the ultimate effort dictated by its total powerlessness.

The annexation of part of Romania by Hungary and the attaching of Poland to the monarchy were merely a way of preserving the unity of the State by maintaining its oppression of parts of the Empire, both by broadening its outlets and by safeguarding its internal market.(7)

The consequences of the war, most prominently the debt, made the annexations all the more vital for Austria-Hungary. During the armed conflict, the national debt grew so much that in demanding that Poland be joined to the monarchy, Germany was protecting its own interests, that is, its debts.

Therefore the masters of Austrian finance declared their slogan, “equal taxation for all!” In reality this meant that Poland was made to contribute to the reimbursement of part of Austria-Hungary’s military debt. This was the price of its “liberation”. According to the accounts of the ruling circles in imperial finance at the end of the fourth year of the war, the military debt had reached the tidy sum of 100 billion krones.(8) Without accounting for “equal taxation”, the debt of Austria would reach 63 billion krones, that of Hungary 36 billion, totalling 97 billion. For this military debt, every Austrian would have to pay 2,132 krones, every Hungarian 1,665, meaning an average of 1,934 krones for every inhabitant of the monarchy. In the following years, every inhabitant of Austria would have to pay 128 krones and every habitant of Hungary 100, averaging 116 krones per person.(9)

According to the accounts of the Neue Freie Presse, Poland would have to pay nearly 20 billion krones of this military debt. Therefore every Pole would have 1,533 to pay, every Austrian 1,712 and every Hungarian 1,337, so an average of 1,553 per person. Each year, every inhabitant would have to pay 93 krones in Poland, 103 in Austria and 80 in Hungary, so an average of 93. In this way every “liberated” Pole would begin his life as a “free” man with a total debt of 1,553 krones, or 93 krones to pay over the course of several years. The Austro-Hungarian imperialists consoled the Poles by telling them that their situation would be far worse if after the war they had had to live under the yoke of Tsarism. It is clear that the annexation of Poland was done for the sole benefit of Austria; if the latter could offload part of its military debt onto Poland, the sum that every inhabitant would have to pay after four years of war (including the 24 krones they would have to fork out for the pre-war loans) would come to 160 krones. Having declared “equal taxation”, i.e. the intent to make the population pay a contribution for their “liberation”, the old annexationist policy was resurrected. The central power is not strong enough to maintain the subjugation of the people of the southern Slavic nations (Croatia and the South of Hungary). This is why it needed to occupy Serbia and part of Romania. The financial resources of the monarchy are exhausted. Its population cannot bear the weight of the five loans. So it used force against Poland, though this did not in any way allow it to resolve the old contradictions and in fact gave rise to new ones. So revolutionary potential accumulated; some of the people who resisted the central power have just received reinforcements. The forces of the revolution are growing.

There is no way out! Renner’s idea that Social Democracy in a multinational state should defend state power against the attacks of different peoples has been rendered useless.

The fact that Austro-Hungarian capitalism is exhausted, economically insolvent and propped up on a fragile apparatus of oppression, will inevitably push the starving Austro-Hungarian proletariat onto the first rungs of the struggle against the capitalists of all ethnicities and against the current state. The fact that the state power sought to prop itself up on the working class, whose needs it was capable of satisfying, showed that it was on its last legs. The energy of all of these revolutionary forces has shown that Austria was on the verge of a “revolution of all ethnicities”, whose early signs were starting to appear, just like in Russia. The monarchist regime was openly absolutist. His Majesty had to “go to Canossa”(10) to get Guillaume(11) and his imperialists to pardon his sins on the question of Alsace-Lorraine.(12) He was naturally forced to solicit this pardon because the state machine of the monarchy could only function thanks to Germany. Following this unconditional capitulation, even the Czech aristocrats in the highest chamber no longer defended the Emperor. The leader of the Hungarian opposition, Count Károlyi,(13) who was of a bourgeois origin and anti-dynasty, built relations with the French. Moreover, despite the latter’s hatred of Austrians and Czechs, he attempted to form an alliance with all of the Austrian opposition. This was the first attempt to regroup the whole opposition on a national scale. Only some of the big bourgeoisie of Germany and Hungary still supported the monarchy. The other fractions of the bourgeoisie did not fancy a trip to Canossa to see the Kaiser. Added to this discontent of the bourgeoisie was the opinion of the army. In Ukraine, in the Chernigov province,(14) one of the Hungarian regiments refused to carry out their orders; political meetings were held in the Polish regiments. The prisoners, once freed, were interned in concentration camps, since it was impossible to maintain discipline. The military detachment that was guarding the aggressors from Sarajevo showed them sympathy, and the non-commissioned officer in charge of this detachment declared to the military tribune that discipline no longer existed. The soldiers were no longer obeying the rules.

Tyrol and the German part of Bohemia were supplied with products flown into Ukraine by Germany. The workers movement evolved increasingly to the left. In Hungary, the peasants refused to sell their grain to the wholesalers exporting it. The working class would be misguided again if it bet on electoral reform. Tisza,(15) who was newly in power, prevented the current leaders of the workers’ movement from coming to an agreement with the government on electoral reform. The “revolution of all ethnicities” will probably be achieved more quickly in Austria than in Russia. In Austria-Hungary, the working class represents a much more significant part of the population than in Russia. The Democratic Republic will be even less capable of resolving all the problems posed by revolution. The class contradictions and the balance of forces between the different classes in society will reveal themselves clearly once the bourgeois “revolution of all ethnicities” has begun. The proletariat will demonstrate that it is an independent class superior to all others.

The unity of interests of the proletariat from different ethnicities will become more and more obvious in step with the development of the revolution. The errors of the Social Democrats regarding oppressed ethnicities are equally obvious since they underestimated the power of “national” capital and the forces of the “national” bourgeoisie. Once set in motion, the locomotive of revolution will travel very fast indeed.

The essential incapacity of all bourgeois and parliamentary society to resolve the immense problems affecting the vital interests of the proletariat will immediately be apparent. And the vital interests of capital will in turn lead absolutely and inevitably to the transition from bourgeois democracy to imperialist dictatorship. Now, the gaze of all revolutionaries should be turned to Austria-Hungary. The contradictions that are impossible to resolve without revolution (and whose resolution is becoming urgent) will only deepen with every attempt to resolve them by Austro-Hungarian imperialism. This imperialism increasingly resembles a wizard incapable of controlling the infernal forces that he himself has set in motion.(16)

We stand at the threshold of the struggle of a new contingent of the international revolution. These new reinforcements will not delay in coming to the aid of the initiator of the international revolution.

These lines were written when the newspapers announced that a new agreement had been reached between Germany and Austria-Hungary.(17) This agreement, and the events that followed it, highlighted the nature of the relations between Germany and the dual monarchy which had been carefully concealed until then because they were the relations between a metropole and its colony. This agreement will indubitably be an additional active factor contributing to the revolution.

As for the purely military aspect of this agreement, a recent feature of imperialist relations that played a big role during the last war is clearly underlined. According to this agreement, Austria-Hungary becomes a simple provider of cannon fodder for German imperialism. The monarchy loses its economic and financial independence to such an extent that, instead of Austrian currency, German currency is used. The Austro-Hungarian Bank effectively (though not formally) becomes a subsidiary to the Imperial German Bank. The political consequence of this will be the submission of imperial power to big Hungarian capitalists.

Only Tisza will be capable of realising this agreement. This will mean the installation of a regime totally comparable to that of the Russian “bisons”.(18) The consequences will be identical to those that have occurred in Russia.

It is not only the working class and oppressed ethnicities that will be persecuted, but also certain circles of the bourgeoisie that fought against German imperialism. Count Károlyi has already been persecuted, the head of the radical petite bourgeoisie and peasantry, for treason. Károlyi and his party stand accused of having close relations with the Italian government. The information service provided to the German staff will have prepared all the necessary material for the formal act of accusation.

However, these persecutions are contributing to revolutionary fermentation. On the Italian front, there has been fraternisation between the Austrian and Italian troops, mutinies are an almost daily occurrence and soldiers are revolting against every order calling them to the offensive. Behind the regiments in revolt refusing to carry out orders, there are the Turkish troops. In Bohemia, “mortal enemies” are fraternising, such as the Czech and Hungarian troops who previously despised each other, and the civilian population is increasingly taking part in this fraternisation too. These recent events confirm the above analysis.

Now, the two fronts of the revolution are being clearly drawn up. Not as quickly as we would have liked, but they are forming, despite all the obstacles.

Béla Kun

(1) Latin saying meaning “remember that you will die”. He means after the collapse of the Russian Empire the Austro-Hungarian will be next.

(2) The idea of a “minimum programme” recalls a distinction within the international Social Democracy before the war between a “minimum” programme, consisting of workers’ demands within the capitalist framework (for example the eight hour day), and a “maximum” programme, that is to say the revolution and the establishment of a communist society.

(3) Karl Renner (1870-1950): Austrian Social Democrat, named Federal Chancellor of Austria at the start of the First Republic, from 1918-1920. One of the leaders of Austro-Marxism, he defended national cultural autonomy as a solution to the problem of national oppression. Head of the Provisional Government in 1945, he became the first Federal President of the Second Republic, from 1945 to 1950.

Otto Bauer (1882-1938): Austrian Social Democrat, secretary of the parliamentary fraction of the Austrian Social Democratic Party from 1904 to 1914. Captured on the Eastern Front in the first months of the First World War, he was held prisoner in Russia until 1917. Upon the death of Victor Adler in 1918, he succeeded him as head of the party. Minister of Foreign Affairs from November 1918 to July 1919, he emigrated in 1934 in response to the rise of Nazism and took refuge in Paris, where he died a few months after the annexation of Austria by Germany. He set out his views on cultural autonomy and the national question in particular in Social Democracy and the Question of Nationalities (1907).

(4) Ignacy Ewaryst Daszyński (1866-1936): Galician Social Democrat leader, supporter of an independent and unified Poland, he collaborated with Piłsudski from 1912. For a few days he became head of the first Provisional Government of the new Polish State in Lublin in November 1918, to go on to have an important parliamentary career which led him into the opposition to Piłsudski. [Translator’s note: Daszyński’s reformist and patriotic Polish Social Democratic Party, PPSD, of Galicia should not be confused with the revolutionary and internationalist Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania, SDKPiL. Mentions of “Polish Social Democracy” in this article are all to the former.]

(5) Antonín Němec (1858-1926): long time president of the Czech Social Democratic Workers’ Party, he posed the Czech national question to the Imperial Council of Austria-Hungary. Member of the revolutionary assembly of the First Czechoslovak Republic, he was then elected to the national assembly (1920).

(6) Ottokar Czernin (1872-1932): Austro-Hungarian diplomat and politician, he served as Austrian Foreign Minister from 1916 to 1918. He had already resigned by the time this article was published.

(7) Romania, neutral in 1914, entered the war on the side of the Entente and penetrated into Austria-Hungary on 27 August 1916. But the attack of the German troops rapidly forced it to evacuate two thirds of its territory. The retreat of Russia left it facing Austro-German troops alone, thus Romania had to sign an armistice on 9 December 1917, then the Treaty of Bucharest on 7 May 1918. According to the terms of the Treaty, Romania conceded 18,000km2 of territory to the central empires and Bulgaria in 1914, including access to the Carpathian Mountains, and leased its oil wells to Germany for 90 years. The territories that were already occupied had to remain so until the end of the global conflict.

(8) Austro-Hungarian currency from the reformation in 1892 until 1918, and until 1924 for just Austria.

(9) So altogether this would span a period of 16 to 17 years.

(10) Idiomatic expression to mean an event of submission, humiliation, or contrite penance. It was near Canossa, an Italian town in the province of Emilia-Romagna, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Germany, Henry IV, knelt in a snowstorm for three days before Pope Gregory VII would lift his excommunication.

(11) This of course is Wilhelm II (1859-1941), Emperor of Germany.

(12) Emperor Charles I of Austria-Hungary effectively had to “take the path to Canossa”, or as it was in this case the path to Spa, on 12 May, to reduce the tensions born of the Sixte Affair and its fallout. On this point see Note 2 in Béla Kun and the Hungarian Soviet Republic; Germany took advantage of this to set its sights on Poland and Central Europe in Austria-Hungary.

(13) See Kommunist 2, note 4 in Béla Kun and the Hungarian Soviet Republic

(14) Region surrounding the Ukrainian city of Chernigov, to the north of Kiev. The Bolshevik power, established since 1 February 1918, was dislodged from it by the Austro-German army on 12 March 1918, who transferred power to the dictatorship of Petliura at the end of 1918.

(15) Count István Tisza (1861-1918): Hungarian politician, leader of the Liberal Party, opposed to all progressive electoral reform or agrarian reform, he was Prime Minister of Hungary from 1903 to 1905 and from 1913 to 1917. He was assassinated in his home in Budapest on 31 October 1918 by soldiers during the Chrysanthemum Revolution, which led Károlyi to the presidency of the First Democratic Republic of Hungary.

(16) Paraphrasing of the Communist Manifesto (1848): “Modern bourgeois society...[which] has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.”

(17) On the meeting between Charles I of Austria-Hungary and Guillaume II, see footnote 12.

(18) Or “aurochs”, an expression used to mean “captains of industry”.

Monday, March 29, 2021