Sunday, June 28, 2020

Austro-Hungary has Lessons for Russians and Non-Russians Alike, Sidorov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 26 – The final years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire have many lessons for Russia today, Harun Sidorov says. The overriding one is that “empires which ignore the aspirations of the people included them and instead of addressing those problems engage in an adventurist foreign policy are doomed.”

            And at the same time, the Russian commentator says, the discussions of those known as the Austro-Marxists (Otto Bauer and Karl Renner in particular) whom Lenin and the Bolsheviks attacked so diligently show that there is a way forward besides the disintegration of the empire into increasingly mono-ethnic nation states (

            That way, Sidorov argues, combines “federalism, territorial autonomy, and extraterritorial autonomy” so that all groups can have their views represented and no one group dominates all the others.  It is, however, very much an open question whether Russia’s Russians or its non-Russians will learn from that history.

            Faced with the rise of nationalism in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Bauer and Renner argued that the country could remain in one piece only if “the peoples of the empire could form their own national corporations across its entire territory” rather than seceding to become independent nation states, thus sparking conflict and the end of the empire.

            At the same time, Sidorov says, they argued for a tough anti-imperialist position in foreign affairs because they believed that the empire could only survive if it reformed and could not be reformed if it engaged in expansionist and militarist adventures. There simply weren’t the resources to do both at the same time.

            Perhaps not surprisingly, the Austro-Marxists were attacked by the hurrah patriots in Vienna; but more surprisingly, they were also attacked by Lenin, Stalin and the Bolsheviks. The first accused the Austro-Marxists of being “Germanophobes and ‘national traitors’ even though the policies of the hurrah patriots led as the Austro-Marxists predicted to collapse.

            Anyone who reads the works of Bauer and Renner now, Sidorov continues, can see that they were Austrian patriots and more concerned about preserving Greater Austria than were their supposedly more patriotically-minded opponents. Despite that, the influence of Bauer and Renner spread to Russia, attracting both support and opposition there.

            Non-Russian and especially the social democrats among them were much taken by the Austro-Marxist ideas about extraterritorial cultural autonomy and opposition to imperialism. But the Russian Bolsheviks weren’t. Lenin saw autonomy as undercutting a united economy, and he wanted to use Russia as a base to spread world revolution.

            As a result, Stalin in his programmatic 1913 essay on the nationality question presented Bolshevik ideas as a response to the Austro-Marxists and rejected autonomy for non-Russians be it territorial or extra-territorial.  What he offered instead was “’oblast autonomy’” and a pledge to eliminate discrimination against all in a single socialist Russia.

            Lenin agreed, but he was forced by two circumstances – the exigencies of a brutal civil war and the fact that most social democrats among the non-Russians were Mensheviks rather than Bolsheviks and Austro-Marxist rather than Stalinist in their orientation – to make the compromises that led to the formation of the union republics and the USSR.

            Sidorov concludes that both non-Russians and Russians should learn from this: Non-Russians should see that support for federalism can provide them with much that they want and certainly can protect them from any suggestion that they are traitors or committed to the disintegration of Russia.

            And Russians should see that pushing a centralist and militarist policy will lead to exactly the opposite outcomes they hope for, the disintegration of the country and the rise of a number of more ethnically homogeneous states at least initially very much at odds with one another. And they should learn that what looks like patriotism is the most unpatriotic of positions.

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