‘We are socialists, they are social democrats’: An Interview with Austria’s Socialist Youth
by James McAsh
4 September 2016
Socialist Youth Austria (Sozialistische Jugend Österreich or SJÖ) is a youth wing of the Social Democratic party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs or SPÖ), which currently governs Austria in coalition with the Conservative party (Österreichische Volkspartei).
Unlike youth wings in the UK, such as Young Labour and the Young Greens, the Socialist Youth Austria is legally separate and autonomous from its mother party, but with a strong relationship to it. Socialist Youth Austria is a Marxist organisation.
James McAsh interviewed the national chair, Julia Herr (pictured), for Novara Media.
James McAsh: What is your organisation’s mission?
Julia Herr: The most important thing that we are doing is getting young people interested in politics. A lot of people say that the youth are not interested, they just party, they just play Pokémon. I think that’s untrue.
Young people are more and more interested. There’s a really big divide. People are more polarised between the left and the right. People are very aware of what’s happening: Trump in the US, the UK leaving the EU, the FPÖ [the far-right Freedom party] in Austria leading the polls. They know something is changing and I’m concerned that the left is not responding to that. It’s just the rightwing who is doing something with it.
There’s a big mistrust of politics in Austria. People say that the government can’t do anything right, that they’re all just out for themselves. The most important thing is to talk to young people and to make them see what the real problem is: capitalism.
JM: You’re a very leftwing Marxist organisation and you have a very serious critique of capitalism. But your mother party is part of that establishment politics you criticise. Does this create tensions or opportunities?
JH: The biggest problem is that we depend on our mother party for money. They could threaten us to withdraw it. But we know that they need us, because we provide the party with lot of young people and SPÖ has a problem with being the party of old people.
What helps us a great deal is working with the media. I am on TV lots and I am interviewed once a week. People know SJ so they can’t keep us out that easily. If they say that we can’t have any money anymore then we can say: “Look at what the party is doing! They are so rightwing, cutting off the young people. Can’t young people have their own opinion anymore?” They couldn’t do it without us making a lot of noise.
JM: When you’re on the media is it to support your party, to talk about the good things they are doing or is it…
JH: Sadly it’s mostly to criticise the party, because that’s more interesting for the media. They can make a big deal out of it: “The party is divided, there is trouble in the party.” But that’s ok. We do politics to provoke. We had one campaign on legalising marijuana. That put us into every paper.
JM: Were you successful?
JH: Yes we were. And provocation has always been a strategy of SJÖ. Once we ran a campaign called ‘Tax the Rich’. We had faces of rich people and attacked them directly: “You have our money.” One guy sued us so we had this lawsuit running, which gave us even more publicity. As a youth organisation if you have profile, if you are in the media, then the party has to deal with you because you have made yourself a factor in politics. You just need to have an opinion and show it through action. We issue regular press releases commenting on what is happening in parliament. And we are not afraid to criticise our party. We say what is on our mind. This gives you respect.
JM: We’ve just had the Brexit vote and this was driven by a populist rightwing agenda. There seem to be some similarities between this and the rise of the FPÖ. Why do you think they are becoming more popular?
JH: You have to look at who is voting for the FPÖ. The thing that hurts the most is that it’s our people: workers, people with low incomes, the worst off in society. They’re the people who should be voting for the Social Democrats but they don’t anymore. It is because the Social Democrats have lost their connection to the working class. They are stuck up, lots of social democrats in parliament don’t know what it feels like to live off €1300 a month.
SPÖ has been the biggest party for a long time but many things have gone in the wrong direction. Incomes are not getting higher and are often falling. People are worried about that.
We’ve done politics wrong for a long time. We did the fiscal treaty and all the neoliberal stuff which the EU tries to enforce. This could only go wrong and we can see now that it is going wrong.
In the 1970s the SPÖ was in government and they did amazing stuff: lots with health insurance, built lots of schools, investment in the country. But right now, in government again, they say good things in their elections but do not keep their promises. So the working class is pissed.
JM: I can see how the FPÖ tells a story which provides some answers to the problems of neoliberalism. These are obviously the wrong answers, but what do the Social Democrats have to say?
JH: They always say: “We need a new Europe, we need a social Europe. We need to harmonise taxes and harmonise working rights.” But they don’t do it. This is partly because they are in a coalition with the Conservatives where no compromise is possible. We have been in coalition since 2006. Initially there were opinion polls which said that two thirds of people supported the coalition but now, ten years later, polls are really really bad. There is nothing happening. There are no big reforms because they cannot agree on anything. So both parties are losing votes to the FPÖ but they don’t do anything about it.
JM: Does your organisation support the coalition government?
JH: No, we said it is better to be in opposition than to be in a coalition where you cannot do anything. There’s a quote by Willy Brandt that it’s not worth social democrats being in government if in government they cannot be social democrats. I think that’s a very good saying. Power is not more important than your goals. If you cannot achieve your goals in government then you should not be there. You are there for the wrong reasons.
FPÖ are achieving their goals right now even though they are not in government. They have the people and they have their story-telling. In opposition they do more than the two parties do in government. It’s scary. What will happen if they are in government?
JM: What do you think about what is happening in the UK at the moment, with Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party? Does this have implications for you in Austria?
JH: It really matters a lot. I guess that living in the UK you might not realise that what happened with Corbyn would matter so much in Austria but it did. There are a lot of people trying to transform SPÖ and it’s frustrating. Socialist Youth have been trying it for a long time but we haven’t succeeded, not like you did. It was really important for us to see that it’s possible, that you can change a social democratic party, even one like the UK Labour party which from our point of view had no ideology left. We thought that the Labour Party was a lost cause. But if a party like the Labour party can change then the SPÖ can change. It really gave us hope.
JM: What is your strategy to change SPÖ?
JH: We’re not the majority in the party. Socialist Youth is not anywhere near getting a majority. The problem seems to be that even when really good and intelligent people from SJÖ go into SPÖ, after a while the system sometimes changes them. It is not enough to have one person from SJÖ in government or in parliament. One person alone cannot withstand the pressure from the party.
To break through that you have to change the system. People say that you have to be in the system to change the system but when you’re in the system it can sometimes change you. I think you have to break with it. You need to change the party rules. Right now to get elected you need the support of senior SPÖ people. And to get that you need to compromise. We are socialists, they are social democrats. We need to change the party from within. We need a new voting system so that new people can get into these positions. Right now you have to do a lot of ass-kissing and that’s why most people from Socialist Youth will never get into those positions. I think to get influence, we need to do it bottom-up, get your majorities in the villages, one after another. That’s doable but it takes time.
JM: So in ten years’ time will your people be running the party?
JH: I don’t know. I wouldn’t count on it. But you can do stuff even if you’re the minority.
JM: In some ways it feels like the UK equivalent to Socialist Youth is not Young Labour, but Momentum. But unlike Socialist Youth, Momentum is not a youth organisation. What happens to your members when they get too old? Do they become rightwing as they get older?
JH: If you’ve been in Socialist Youth for a few years then you will not become rightwing. But you’re no longer organised. Some go into the Social Democratic party but a lot do different things.
We are trying to create an organisation a bit like Momentum. It’s called Kompass, because it will show the right way. The plan is that when you finish with Socialist Youth you can go to Kompass. It’s a wing of the party which is new for us. The SPÖ never had wings like in the German SPD. This is due to history. This is a problem for us. It’s not like in Labour where there are different factions. It never existed like this in Austria. But we are going to change that. We think it’s time now.