Peoples Dispatch (PD) talks to Niklas Böck, chairman of the Communist Youth of Austria (KJO), on the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on students and youth in Austria and the KJO’s fight against war and neo-fascism. The KJO, along with the Communist Student Association (KSV), has opposed Austria’s membership in the European Union and the cuts in social welfare.
Peoples Dispatch(PD): How has the COVID-19 crisis impacted Austria and how effective has been the response from the government?
Niklas Böck(NB): Currently, there are more than 520,000 unemployed people in Austria and this number is set to rise. COVID-19 has led to the deterioration of the life and livelihood of the majority of the Austrian people and endangers their future, especially the younger people who are currently under great pressure. The Austrian government is not just acting passively but further worsening the condition of the youth. Major financial support goes only to corporations and monopolies and new reactionary laws like the neoliberal UG Novelle damage students’ interests even more.
PD: Could you tell us a bit more about the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the students and youth of Austria? What have been your interventions on this front?
NB: This crisis has resulted in many challenges for the youth. School students, for example, are exposed to much harder learning conditions and have been isolated in home schooling for months with poor supervision. Adding to the problem of an outdated education system which did not meet modern pedagogic standards even before the crisis, many pupils are now also exposed to psychological stress due to their private living conditions and/or any family struggles. Students at the university level are also being left on their own with almost no support from the government or from the Austrian Students’ Association (ÖH).
In our online campaigns and a few physical gatherings and mobilizations, we published and stressed on our demand to tax the richest section of the population (“Let the rich pay for COVID-19 crisis”). We have also demanded the expropriation of key industries in order to fight against the pandemic by ensuring free and universal vaccination.
PD: How do you view the rise in far-right activities in Austria, including the attacks on migrants and other progressive sections in different Austrian cities?
NB: Universities and campuses are currently empty, not only of students but also, therefore, ‘free’ from politics. Unfortunately, a movement that supports unscientific theories regarding vaccines and the virus is being joined by right-wing activists all over Europe. They are already building popularity in Austria and right-wing and anti-Semitic rallies are beginning to emerge. Also, the threat of Islamism to the Kurdish and left-wing-Turkish population in Austria is another conflict area in which we are fighting against reactionary ideology and fascism.
PD: Could you tell us about KJO’s involvement in the climate movement in Austria?
NB: As in most parts of Europe, the climate-movement in Austria is largely bourgeois and does not challenge the capitalist system in a meaningful way. Thus, while there have been a large number of demonstrations, the KJÖ and the KSV did not attend or were actively denied because of our communist orientation. Fortunately, there are factions within climate activism which are critical of the system and that’s where we put in our resources. We produce our own propaganda which clearly charges capitalism and its way of production for the devastation of our environment.
PD: In your opinion, how popular is the leftist ideology among the youth in Austria today? What have been the major campaigns of the KJO towards politicizing them?
NB: Austrian youth are in an ongoing process of identifying with critical politics. Matters like the shocking mistreatment of refugees by the European Union (EU) are raising skepticism among the students towards the EU. The youth is also outraged at the way the Austrian government is handling the current pandemic. They are joining our cause to overthrow a racist and imperialist system marred with incompetence and corruption. To further popularize our Marxist orientation among young people in Austria, our last campaign aimed to organize young workers and raise awareness on their current working conditions and the challenges they face like unemployment and capitalist crisis.