Review: Janek Wasserman. Black Vienna, The Radical Right in the Red City, 1918-1938. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014.


There are two passages in Janek Wasserman’s “Black Vienna” that are so incongruous that, like one of Freud’s jokes, they lay bare the deep, deadening fault-lines in the teller’s own mind. The first quotes Karl Kraus’s savage dismissal of the right-wing culturati of Interwar Vienna as “morons.” Oh, no, retorts the author, “Twenty percent were university professors… and 40 percent had some form of advanced degree.” This, says Wasserman, “challenges Kraus’s assertion that these conservatives were… ‘morons.’” Interesting point, Professor...

The second passage, like a joke on a joke, depends on appreciating the first: at the Fifth German Sociological Congress of 1926 Max Adler, a leading light among Marxist intellectuals in Vienna, tore into his right-wing counterpart, Othmar Spann, whose career is covered at length in Wasserman’s book. Adler argued that Spann’s theories were little more than inductive metaphysics masquerading as empiricism—in effect a forerunner of the idealizing nominalism that passes for thought among neo-liberals today; adding that Spann (like most Fascists) fantasized the hard contingencies of History could be overcome by the will of “superior” beings—academics, for instance. The joke is on the author, whose own approach conforms so closely to Othmar’s that one ends up wondering why Wasserman feels the need to carry water for him.

It’s an academic truism that the topic of your doctoral dissertation either hews close to your own life experience, or rejects it wholesale. Wasserman addresses the careers of a handful of “blacks”—ultra-right academics and intellectuals, anti-Semitic, authoritarian and, worst of all to him, anti-capitalist—who supposedly stood their ground against the would-be-dominant culture of Socialist “Red” Vienna and figures like Sigmund Freud or Ludwig Wittgenstein. In contrasting chapters, Wasserman attempts to show how Red Vienna “lost” and how Black Vienna “won.” He claims to embrace the methodology of Pierre Bourdieu but his sole reference is Bourdieu’s The Field of Cultural Production. Instead Black Vienna reads like an excerpt from Homo Academicus, Bourdieu’s trenchant analysis of the ways academics create exclusive bastions of power regardless of discipline or conviction. Sure, Spann was a Nazi, technically a Nazsymp, but according to Wasserman he was a Nazi out of scholarly conviction, not from a will to power, or opportunism, so I guess that makes it okay. Even the SS, in 1936, noted that

The Spann Circle avoids appearing openly to the world. Its members disguise their true political intentions behind claims of pure scientific interest and objective research.

When your moral compass falls below the standards of the SS you have some serious thinking to do, and that’s the thinking Wasserman hasn’t done.

Nobody’s ever had their scholarship questioned for depreciating Red Vienna—at least nobody in the “Free World” since the beginning of the Cold War. The ur-narrative of liberalism, that “Socialism never works,” was first developed by the Austrian School of Economics as a death-wish against Red Vienna, and it’s been repeated ad nauseam over the past sixty years. Wasserman himself has been doing the Big Bank Lecture circuit as an expert on the Austrian School of Economics, all he needed for his book was a new gimmick, another excuse to repeat the same clichés.

And the gimmick is Gramsci. This might surprise the reader who knows Gramsci as the Italian Marxist who spent 11 years in a Fascist jail wondering, among other things, how the Left could have established itself in power against overwhelming odds. It might also surprise anyone who’s aware (as Wasserman is not) that Gramsci's theory of Hegemonism is only a fraction of a much wider argument within Marxism, and among Austrian Marxists themselves. (Gramsci himself spent some time in Vienna in the early ‘twenties.) The concept, in fact, was long established among right-wing and Fascist intellectuals, albeit with another slant; there is some likelihood that Othmar's own ideology owed something to Carl Schmitt, whose theories about the legitimation of power over constitutional rule have been popular with the Right from then to Bannon; Wasserman's "Gramsciism," unfortunately, is little more than the pastiche originally mooted by the French reactionary philosopher Alain de Benoist as a screen for “culture wars,” an intellectual rationalization for attacks against left-wing intellectuals: As that champion of the People Nicolas Sarkozy put it, « Au fond, j’ai fait mienne l’analyse de Gramsci : le pouvoir se gagne par les idées. » (Basically, I made Gramsci’s approach my own: power is won by ideas.) Ultimately, Wasserman’s Gramsciism, like Sarko's, boils down to the fantasy that Othmar and his wrecking crew triumphed through “the power of ideas;” while the failure of the Government of Red Vienna and the collapse of the First Republic boil down to the failure of “Marxists” to come up with convincing arguments. This has nothing to do with Gramsci who, according to Perry Anderson, was the first Marxist thinker to characterize Hegemonism as a the attempt of any dominant political rulership (bourgeois or revolutionary) to ensure stable rulership by consent. What distinguishes Gramsci's thought from Wasserman's (or Sarko's) is that Gramsci, like Schmitt, was fully aware that the type of hegemonism practiced by the ruling classes did not in any way preclude violence when necessary: far from stabilizing the Austrian Republic as Wasserman would imply if he could think that far, the Spann Circle were authoritarian wannabes of a very common type in the Interwar years: Democracy-bashers who eventually found themselves out of step even with the despicable standards of Black Austria. Far from being the "enablers of hegemony" that Wasserman imagines them to be, the Spann crew (like the Austro-Fascists in general) where enablers of Naziism. One of the few cheering anecdotes in this book has Spann, in 1938, opening a bottle of Sekt to celebrate the Anschluss as the happiest day of his life, only to be dragged off by the Gestapo two hours later. Regrettably he was returned, more or less intact; which did not prevent Spann or any others of his ilk!—Carl Schmitt for instance—from claiming after World War II they'd been victims of the Nazis, not enablers. Wasserman inserts somewhere the ritual disclaimer that he will avoid the “first victim” narrative, the commonplace that Austrians did nothing to advance Naziism, quite the contrary. In fact, by making ideological outliers of Othmar and the others he‘s letting the rest off the hook.

In an effort to deligitimize the Social-Democratic Administration of Vienna Wasserman proceeds to whittle down his definition of “Red Vienna” to a handful of contributors to Der Kampf, a theoretical journal of the so-called Second-and-a-Half International. It‘s a task he’s unfit to handle, being ignorant of Marxist theory or systems. (Hint: the fact that people seem to disagree doesn't mean the person disagreed with needs to feel threatened, like a junior teacher in the classroom. It's called “Dialectics.”) Wasserman follows up with a prolonged attempt to prove that Freud, Wilhelm Reich et al. were marginal at best in Red Vienna—in other terms, that there is no such thing as a Red Vienna mind-set, “not so much a theory as a way of life,” as Marie Jahoda put—no such thing, in other terms, as Socialist Hegemonism, because for right-wingers  Socialist Hegemonism is a logical impossibility: how could any rational being be led to believe that Health Care is a right? To buttress his position Wasserman trots out Carl E.Schorske’s Fin-de Siècle-Vienna, the Missionary Position for Vienna-bashers. You see, folks like Freud, Webern et al. weren’t really progressives, just decadent liberals who happened to be temporarily drawn into the orbit of Red Vienna; that’s a rash assertion considering that in the Interwar years one of Schoenberg’s closest friends and supporters ran the Sozialistische Kunststelle, the Socialist Art Section; or that Freud himself believed that Mental Health Care was a right. In good nominalist fashion Wasserman plays the in-out game, deciding by fiat who is a member of Red Vienna and who’s not. One chapter subheading, “The Marxist-Intellectual Synthesis of the Early Republic,” reminds me of the famous comment, when Julius Tandler was appointed to the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Vienna: “Can one be both a Jew and an anatomist?” Can one be both an intellectual and a Marxist? Not if Wasserman can prevent it. Or Othmar; just that Othmar’s means were a little bit more direct than Wasserman’s.

Not one to let the scholarship of others stand in the way of a good smear, Wassermann misquotes and distorts abundantly from secondary sources, for instance Elizabeth Danto, whose argument Wasserman interprets thus:

Freud, another classic liberal, recognized the need for political commitment in a time of ideological conflict; his students flocked to the adult education centers.

See if you can find the distortions: I count at least four, maybe five; but the first point—that Freud was merely a liberal thrown into the arms of “political commitment” by ideological opportunism—is the exact opposite of Danto’s thesis. I’ll leave aside Wasserman’s numerous distortions of Danto's work, such as the suggestion that Freud had “students,” or, elsewhere, that Anna Freud worked alongside Wilhelm Reich, or that the Urania was the first of the Volkshochschule, the People’s Schools. Wasserman’s grasp of the primary material is so tenuous he can’t even make sense of the secondary, he’s one of those “tolerant” academics who are so thoroughly unable to conceive that anyone could have an opinion divergent from the one they’ve learned to parrot that they think they’re doing other scholars a favor by rewriting their opinions for them. Wasserman systematically references reliable scholars of Red Vienna, writers like Hacohen, Rabinbach or Danto; but he repeatedly substitutes his own unsourced interpretations for what he claims is theirs. This is true as well of his primary sources: the article by Karl Kraus referenced above has almost nothing to do with his topic, it's actually directed at sentimental nationalistic poetry. The whole thing feels like the ramblings of an eager graduate student recycling the backroom gossip of his advisors as if it were his own. This is how fake news travels in Academe.

And Wassermann’s rewrites serve his purpose all too well. Take, for instance, his claim that “Reich’s criticism of the bourgeois sexual politics of the Social Democrats, especially Julius Tandler, led to his expulsion from the party in January 1930.” That, again, is the opposite of what his source, Anson Rabinbach, has written: that Reich’s rejection by the Party was due to his increased political opposition, not his theoretical divergences. In fact, as Rabinbach points out, Reich, who had moved to Berlin, returned to Vienna to contest Tandler after his expulsion, not before. Likewise Wasserman approaches all his subjects (provided they supported the Socialists) with the assumption that their support was merely a matter of necessity, political or, for the most part financial—he has a hard time telling the two apart. To Wasserman the reason Art Historians like Fritz Novotny, Freudians like Friedjung, philosophers like Rose Rand “flocked” to the Volkshochschule wasn’t intellectual affinity or a commonality of struggle, let alone a commitment to the intellectual, moral and political improvement of the working class; they just needed the job. When you’re a hammer everything looks like a nail; when you’re a neo-liberal every motive boils down to the color of money; when you’re a young academic scrambling up that greasy pole everything looks like a career move, every allegiance is a matter of opportunity, not conviction; every piece of backstabbing is a moral act so long as you’re not among the stabbed. Fact is, intellectuals and proletarians—including Reich—distanced themselves from Party policies when they began to realize it was unwilling or unable to stand up to the onslaught of repression from the Right: in other terms, because the Party's actions failed to match its rhetoric, and not the other way around.

Another example of Wasserman’s purposive cluelessness is his take on the reception of Marienthal, a milestone in quantitative sociology that was based on a close study of a small town in Austria. Forty years later one of the authors, Paul F. Lazarsfeld, pointed out that “One of the main theses of the Marienthal study was that prolonged unemployment leads to a state of apathy,” taking to task those neo-liberal theories that blame the unemployed for their own condition. What’s Wasserman take? That the Marienthal study was a “startling revelation about the deleterious effects of poverty on political radicalism […] The findings undermined Marxist assumptions about the relationship between economic suffering and radicalism.” Translation: “Where others see suffering, Marxists see opportunity.” Wasserman’s fantasy that the Social-Democratic leadership put any trust or hope in worker spontaneism when for the past four years they’d been bitterly criticized by Reich and others for doing the reverse, is the kind of off-the-cuff incoherence you get when you’re channeling the Hegemon. The authors of Marienthal were well enough trained in social psychology to note that apathy was a form of inner-directed anger; if the Socialist leadership had ever considered channeling this anger it’s hard to see how they would have done so in Marienthal, which was outside Vienna and beyond their reach. Wasserman’s understanding of Marxist or Socialist theory and practice (and their mutual relationship) is typical of American and Austrian academics: since Marxist thought and thinkers have been banned from the classroom most “legitimate“ scholars haven’t got a clue what Marxism is or how praxis relates to historical contingencies, even assuming as Wasserman does, in typical Othmarian fashion, that it was those theories, not the very practical and desperate dynamics of the political situation, the escalating violence, political and psychic, that drove the intellectuals and proletariat to despair. What “The Jews brought it on themselves” was to the Nazis, “The Austro-Marxists brought it on themselves” is to historians of Red Vienna; the fact that many Social-Democrats and their supporters were Jewish only makes the innuendo slimier.

Almost forgot: Wasserman’s book is titled “Black Vienna,” and the claim’s as misleading as “Red.” The term “Black” was and is a common designation in Austria. “Black” refers to a priest’s cassock, and it was applied (is applied, still) to any form of traditional, conservative, Catholic culture: Ignaz Seipel, Chancellor of Austria in the ‘twenties, was himself a priest and an authority on Catholicism and business ethics, or what Wasserman naively calls “anti-capitalism” and which in fact is little more than ritual recycling of Aquinian denunciations of “usury,” meaning Jewish usury of course; Wasserman is as thoroughly unfamiliar with the actual background for Spann’s rantings as he is with Marxism: Considering how anti-Semitism and authoritarianism were not a rare occurrence in Austria then, or now, Othmar et al. can hardly have been the bold molders of opinion fantasized by Wasserman.

Here’s an example: Wasserman is discussing the 1936 murder of Moritz Schlick, head of the Philosophy Department at the University of Vienna by one of his students, Hans Nelböck, and the infamous reaction of Die schönere Zukunft, one of those ultra-right periodicals whose legitimacy Wasserman is at pains to rehabilitate:

Sauter [the author of the diatribe and a student of Othmar] questioned whether Schlick was Nelböck’s victim or whether the roles were reversed… his madness arose only after exposure to Schlick’s corrosive philosophy…. [Sauter] castigated the features of Schlick’s worldview, […] especially “Jewishness.”

Curiously for someone who’s spent a whole book emphasizing the importance of Mind over low political scrambling in the works of Othmar and others, Wasserman argues that Sauter was an outlier, that Schlick’s right-wing colleagues were prompt to mourn his murder or, as they say back in the Faculty Lounge, to “praise his collegiality.” The point Wasserman avoids, is that Schlick ( von Schlick) was not Jewish to begin with, and it’s unlikely his murder would have caused any regrets if he had been; Sauter’s argument was that those who thought like Jews should be treated like Jews; that Schlick had brought it on himself. For obvious reasons his Gentile colleagues weren’t happy contemplating the consequences for themselves: by a common estimate 10% of the Austrian victims of Kristallnacht in Vienna weren’t Jews, merely verjudete or “jewified,” like Schlick.

Wasserman’s tolerance for intolerance is astounding. When he wants to persuade us of Spann’s intellectual brilliance he finds no more reliable a witness than Ernst von Salomon, one of the terrorists responsible for murdering Walther Rathenau, the German Foreign Minister and a Jew, of course:

I seated myself in Spann’s class… and I was from this moment on transfixed… Greeted by a deafening, thunderous stamping, he read… I cannot deny that it gave me indescribable pleasure.

Most likely Spann was also greeted with outstretched palms and thunderous shouts of “Sieg Heil!” The University of Vienna in the Interwar years was independent of the City, and it became a center of Nazi agitation not only among the faculty but among the students. Students rioted and beat up Jews, Socialists and non-Germans with the tacit blessing of the Rector, himself a Spannplant; even Americans studying abroad were roughed up. A secretive group known as the Bärenhöhle, the Bear Cave, conspired to drive out other faculty and to reject Jewish student’s theses. Julius Tandler’s classes were regularly disrupted; Hans Kelsen was weggemobbt, bullied into leaving. In a footnote Wasserman casually mentions Othenio Abel, Oswald Menghin and Heinrich Srbik, all of them members of the Bärenhöhle, as Spann’s “main allies;” yet never once does he mention the Bärenhöhle itself; Abel and Srbik aren’t even indexed.

And this is what Wasserman has to say about Edgar Zilsel, a student of Schlick:

Zilsel […] had his Habilitation Thesis rejected—it was a historical and sociological investigation (a Marxist Ideologiegeschichte) of the concept of genius. His activity in the Social Democratic Party and the Viennese adult education centers damaged his prospects.

That makes it all right, I guess. In actuality and according to Klaus Tauschwer, Zilsel was openly rejected as a kommunistische Jude; likewise Karl Horowitz of whom Abel said er hat sich so unkollegial verhalten daß er aus persönlicher Gründen nicht habilitiert werden. (“He has behaved with such a lack of collegiality that he could not be accepted on grounds of personal character..”) It’s the old Collegiality Play, beloved of racist, sexist, anti-Semitic and red-baiting academics everywhere. As the Italian prosecutor said of Gramsci: “We must stop this brain from functioning." By any means necessary.

Turning faculty lectures into frenzied mass meetings; rioting and beating up on Jews and foreigners; bullying “Jewish-Communist” teachers, openly sabotaging the careers of Jewish students: this is Wasserman’s idea of a “Struggle for the intellectual soul of Vienna?” Must be, because Wasserman’s main interest is the Austrian School of Economics, those folks who, he points out, constituted a core support group for Othmar’s line of thought. On a recent visit to Vienna Wasserman expressed his puzzlement that the Austrian School was better known in the US than in Austria. I could answer that question, Professor, but it’s not something you’re going to want to hear.


Atta Troll

June 28, 2017; last revised August 1, 2017.