Friedrich Adler in old age

Leon Trotsky

Political Profiles

Victor and
Friedrich Adler

(April 1922)

EVENTS crowded in upon each other. A telegram reporting the murder of Jaurès arrived. There had been already so many vicious lies in the papers that there remained at least for a few hours the possibility for doubt and for hope. The more so when a telegram reporting the assassination of Poincaré and an uprising in Paris following. But the possibility of any doubt about the murder of Jaurès soon disappeared as did the hope that it had been avenged ... on August 2 Germany declared war on France. By this time the Russian exiles had already begun to leave Vienna. On the morning of August 3 I left for Arbeiter-Zeitung’s new offices on the Wienzeile, to find out from the socialist deputies there what the position was for us Russians.

In the secretariat I came across Friedrich Adler or “Doctor Fritz” as he was called in top party circles in distinction from his father Victor Adler who was called simply “Doctor” without further detail. Thin, of quite a good height, slightly stooping, with a fine brow over which his curly shining hair fell down and with the imprint of a perpetual thoughtfulness on his face, Fritz always stood as one apart amongst the quite numerous Vienna party intellectuals so ready for wisecracks and cheap anecdotes. He had spent a year and a half in Zurich as assistant professor of physics and as editor of the local party newspaper Volksrecht (People’s Right). During the war Swiss socialism experienced a deep-going internal degeneration, and its interests diverged abruptly; the old party mandarins who considered the essence of Marxism to be expressed by the proverb: “A still tongue makes a wise head”, shifted at once into the background. But during those pre-war years when Fritz Adler was living in Zurich the atmosphere of Swiss socialism was marked by a deeply provincial character. Adler could not stand it, went back to Vienna, entered the party secretariat and the editorial board of its theoretical monthly Der Kampf (The Struggle). In addition he took upon himself the publication of a weekly agitational news-sheet Das Volk (The People) which was printed in quite considerable quantities mainly for the provinces. In the last weeks before the war Fritz Adler was busy with the preparation of the international congress. On his desk lay the jubilee stamps printed specially for the congress and all sorts of other publications: the party had succeeded in laying out more than 20,000 crowns on preparatory work, so the treasurer complained.

It would be an exaggeration to say that in that building on the Wienzeile in those days one could already make out definite principled groupings; no, this was not yet so. But it was nevertheless clear that a deep divergence in the psychological attitude to the war found its reflection. Some seemed to exult in it, directed obscene language at the Serbs and the Russians not distinguishing very much between the governments and the peoples: these were the organic nationalists barely covered with a thin varnish of socialist culture which was then peeling off them not daily but hourly.

Others, and at their head stood Victor Adler, treated the war as an external catastrophe which had to be “got over”. The temporizing passivity of the most influential leader of the party formed, however, merely a cover for unbridled agitation by the actively nationalist wing. A fine and penetrating mind and an attractive figure, Victor Adler was as a personality higher than his politics which consisted entirely in the latter period of squandering itself in seeking out happy combinations in the hopeless turmoil of Austrian conditions so conducive to skepticism. Adler’s politics, in turn, being extremely personal in character, were immeasurably superior to those political collaborators whom these politics brought together around the leader. For them his skepticism became cynicism; with them Adler’s aversion to “decorativeness” in politics turned into an open mockery of the fundamental values of socialism. And this “natural selection” of collaborators provided the sharpest expression and condemnation of Father Adler’s system of politics.

His son, with his inimitable revolutionary temperament, stood in an organic hostility to this system. He directed his criticism, his distrust and his hate towards his own government above all. During our last meeting (August 3, 1914) the first thing he did was to point out to me the appeal by the authorities to the population which had just been published: to track down and hunt out suspicious foreigners. It was with concentrated abhorrence that he spoke of the rising orgy of chauvinism. But his outward restraint merely masked his profound moral shock. An hour and a half later the “Doctor” came into the secretariat. He suggested that I go with him immediately to the prefecture to see the chief of the political police Heyer to ascertain from him how the authorities intended to deal with the Russian exiles living in Vienna.

On the way to the prefecture in the motor car I drew Adler’s attention to the fact that in Vienna the war had brought to the surface a sort of festive mood. “Those who are celebrating are the ones who don’t have to go to war,” he answered, “and their joy seems to be patriotic now. What is more, at present all the unbalanced and all the insane are coming out on the streets: this is their day. But serious people are sitting at home in a state of alarm ... Jaurès’ assassination is just the beginning. War throws open the field to every Instinct and every type of lunacy ...”

A psychiatrist in his old field, medicine, Adler frequently approached political events, “especially in Austria”, he would say ironically, from a psychopathological viewpoint.

How far he was at that moment from the thought that his own son would carry out a political assassination ... I mention this here because after Fritz Adler’s act of assassination the Austrian yellow press and a series of social-patriotic publications attempted to present the self-sacrificing revolutionary as unbalanced and even insane, from the standpoint of their own base “sanity” that is. But the judicial medicine of the Habsburgs was forced to capitulate before the courageous tenacity of the terrorist. What cold contempt he would have treated the retorts of the eunuchs of socal-patriotism with if their voices had reached him in prison.

Heyer, the chief of the political police, suggested that an order might be made the following morning for the detention of Russians and Serbs under guard.

“Those whom we know we shall release later on but there could be complications. Besides we should not afterwards permit them to leave the country.”

“Consequently you would advise our departure?”

“Absolutely. And the sooner the better.”

“Good... Tomorrow I shall leave for Switzerland with my family.”

“Hm... I would prefer you to go today.”

This conversation took place at 3 o’clock in the afternoon and at ten past six I was already sitting in a railway carriage heading for Switzerland.

Novy Mir, No.903, February 5, 1917

P.S. Fritz Adler’s personal courage was not sufficiently matched by physical strength of thought. When freed from prison by the revolution Adler capitulated to the party which had previously brought him to despair and then had betrayed him. Now Adler acts as a leader of the 2nd International serving the cause against which he had attempted to stand up if only by staking his life ...

April 1922

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Last updated on: 10.4.2007