Leon Trotsky

Political Profiles

Austrian Social Democracy

Victor Adler

(July 1913)

AUSTRIA has given the workers’ movement two remarkable leaders who are at the same time very contrasted in the form of their thinking: Victor Adler and Karl Kautsky. This is no accident. It is no accident that this formless country, where not only the craft of the political prophet but also the task of political generalization is extremely arduous, has brought forward two socialists of whom one is unequalled in his ability to take into account empirical, temporary and particular combinations in political development and to produce from them resultant moments of political action, while the other knows no rival in his capacity to single out from the empirical chaos of history its general, fundamental tendencies. Kautsky is often accused of “dogmatism” and of the simplification of reality and Adler of the excessive worship of its details; the latter that at times he could not see the wood for the trees while the former from time to time failed to see the trees for the wood.

Making, as the German expression has it, a virtue out of necessity, Adler learnt how to draw political advantage from the unfavourable Austrian conditions: he developed his rich political intuition to perfection, cultivated an excellent political vision and made tactical improvization a principal guarantee of political success. “Whoever says A must say B” asserts the familiar formula of consistency. “There is nothing more mistaken than this idea in politics” objects Adler. A single and absolute tactic which can be determined theoretically does not exist. Politics is not a science but an art. It leaves one the freedom of choice between several possibilities, it demands a free seeking out of paths, inventiveness, flexibility and creativity.

In this Austria where politics have for so long revolved in an enchanted circle of recurrent national Controversies it is necessary in order to take a look into the future, to eliminate from one’s field of vision with an almost physical effort of thought everything particular, secondary, accidental and recurrent, everything which constitutes the nourishment for the today of politics, and it is necessary to hold one’s capacity for abstraction in a state of perpetual tension. Kautsky’s development took this path. And once again it is no accident that Adler let all his roots become knitted into Austria which he did not tire of cursing while the half-Czech, half-German Kautsky ended up by being forced to break from his motherland and move on to Germany with its powerful automatism of social development.

Adler started actively on the road of party politics in the first half of the eighties when the workers’ movement, crushed in the vice of the exceptional laws, was torn by the struggle between its two factions: the “radicals” and the “moderates”. This struggle reflected the difficulties of adapting the socially irreconcilable class to the political and legal norms of a pseudo-constitutional state. One faction, the “radicals” completely rejected “playing at parliamentarism”, the fight for reform and making use of “legal” methods for rallying support and action. Turning the class irreconcilability of the proletariat into a naked anarchistic phrase about the “great day” to come, the “radicals” lost their way in factory terrorism and expropriations in their “preparatory” work. The other group reflected the necessity for adjusting the as yet weak, advanced layers of workers to the conditions of the existing Austrian law or lack of law. The latter were legalists and reformists at all costs. Their fundamental trait was the opportunism of weakness. They aspired to find a support in any “benevolent” force: in national democracy as well as in the government of the “Social-Reformer”. Breaking from German [1] democracy within whose ranks he had first entered political life, Adler in 1886 set up the legal newspaper Gleichheit (Equality), the first social-democratic paper on Austrian soil. In spite of the reign of the exceptional laws, the paper at once took on a militant note. The “radical” workers treated it with distrust in the early days; it was legal, so it had the devil’s stamp on it. The government, sensing in Adler a great political operator and a highly dangerous enemy, shut its eyes to the paper, in this way seeking to roundly compromise both it and its editor in the eyes of the workers. Adler then adopted a still firmer note. The government bore it with a sly countenance. Using that resourcefulness which had always allowed Adler to weigh up all sides of the situation and to extract everything possible from it, he embarked upon a strikingly unique duel with the police: from one issue to the next he took on a firmer and firmer tone, consciously testing out the toleration of the Viennese Machiavellis and the extent of their stupidty. In the meantime the ice of the workers” distrust was broken. Instinct whispered to them that within this legal press binding a portion of their own soul was concealed. The fanatical mutual hostility of the radicals and the moderates was eradicated, the extremism of each tendency overcome and the soil prepared for their unification. At Christmas 1888 the party congress -met at 1-leinfeld and adopted the programme worked out by Adler and finally reconciled both wings. The prehistoric period of the Austrian workers” movement ended and its history began. In 1889 the government at last came to its senses and closed down Gleichheit. But by now it was too late—a workers” paper had succeeded in becoming a necessity. Adler founded Arbeiter-Zeitung which exists to this day. These two papers, let us note in passing, fully absorbed Adler’s very considerable private fortune.

From the end of the eighties onwards, Adler was the acknowledged and undisputed leader of Austrian Social Democracy. Leader is a word with a double meaning. Leaders not only “lead” the masses behind them but themselves follow the masses. “For a long time now,” said Adler at one of the congresses, “I have concentrated my attention not only upon the thoughts but also upon the moods of the masses.” To follow the masses is as difficult as to lead them. In the final count they are one and the same thing. One must not only master the art of turning an ear to the masses but also know how to translate their confused queries into the language of political consciousness and into distinct demands. A deep and all-sided tie with the masses is Adler’s principal strength and throughout his political life he held this moral link dearer than anything else. “I would sooner agree,” says Adler, “to make a mistake together with the workers, than to be right against them.”

The leader of a modern European workers” party is the nub of a powerful organizational apparatus. As with any mechanism this is in itself static and does not create energy only its purposeful application can provide it. At the same time it can frequently present obstacles. In all great historical actions the movement of the masses has above all to overcome the dead inertia of the social-democratic organization. Thus, the living force of steam has to overcome the inertia of the machine before it can set the flywheel in motion.

The apparatus links the leaders with the masses and at the same time it separates them from the masses. It refracts their moods, restrains their passions and yet it splits up the guiding ideas of the leaders. Within its structure side by side with living embodiments of the energy and idealism of the young class are a number of places occupied by elements who, on the one hand, stand too remote from the masses to feel their pulse directly and on the other are insufficiently rich in their historical grasp of thought to regard the movement in its totality. Within its structure along with splendid sons of the movement there are quite a few bureaucrats not only in the technical but also in the intellectual sense; quite a few philosophers and salon prodigies always ready to counterpose their little ideas to the “prejudices” of historical development.

In his art of overcoming centrifugal tendencies and of holding different opinions, sympathies, practices and temperaments in a living bond Adler knows no equal. He acts not only under the pressure of the masses but also by dint of his personal superiority, his resources of internal diplomacy and his psychological understanding of men. He uses not only tenderness but cruelty too; he not only admonishes and subdues with his charm but he also kills with his irony. Young Austrian politicians could tell many tales of this: especially from amongst those who had entered the party with the firm conviction that an approximate familiarity with Roman Law grants a man the inalienable right to guide the destiny of the working class.

Apart from being free from any fanaticism of forms and from fetishes for words Adler is also something far worse: he treats any principled resolution or motion with extreme disrespect. He considers that one and the same thought can be expressed in different ways and takes the view that one can waive one quarter of one’s own idea for the sake of unifying the party on the remaining three quarters. If this cannot be achieved he will settle for two thirds or even one third. “If I enter the history of the party as an incredible optimist, as a man to whom it is immaterial whether he puts it this way or that then this would in no way embarrass me.” He knows to perfection how to reach a compromise and how to force his party opponents to meet him half way. He plays a major role of this sort at both the Austrian congresses and also at the international congresses. More than once he has been reproached for having formed his opinion only after hearing all the other speakers. And there is a deal of truth in this. In every situation Adler looks tirelessly for conciliatory formulas not being in a least bit concerned whether “he puts it this way or that”.

Adler is not a theoretician either in the quality of his psychological skill or in the nature of his activity. He is a politician from head to foot. On various occasions he has proudly called himself an agitator. But the more the party grew and the more complex became its tasks, the more his time and energy was taken up by the work of the higher leadership. And this does involve a great deal: the pronouncement of the last word on immediate questions of tactics and the direction of the parliamentary work of the faction; the complicated administrative and financial undertakings (workers’ clubs, print shops and so on) and finally all the backstage wprk of negotiations, agreements, cajoling and reshuffling without which no human organization and least of all an Austrian one can live. Adler naturally and unnoticed abandoned journalism—though he was an excellent political publicist with his fine expressiveness and sharpness—and more and more was obliged to restrict the extent of his direct agitation amongst the masses and his opportunist degeneration ran parallel with this.

In his urge to seize each historical moment by the throat and to drain to dryness all the possibilities of each political situation Adler comes close to Jaurès. But behind this similarity what an enormous difference! “We Germans“, said Adler at one of the commissions of the Stuttgart Congress,” “have no inclination towards decorative politics for which you French have a great weakness ... Yes, Vaillant,”, he answered a retort from the floor, “I know that you are a Frenchman with a German soul but you too are compelled to speak the language of your country.” An aversion to decorativeness constitutes an important feature of Adler’s psychological make-up. His mind is extremely concrete and mercilessly penetrating. Powerful analytic minds, as distinct from synthetic ones tend habitually towards scepticism from which they will defend themselves, if they are capable of it, by irony. Adler possessed this gift to the highest degree.

“The craft of the political prophet is a thankless one and especially so in Austria.” This is the continual chorus of Adler’s speeches. At the same Stuttgart Congress, a certain representative of the Australian trade unions who turned out to be a mystic (this happens with the Anglo-Saxons!) in concluding his speech reported to the audience that he had recently had a vision pertaining to the certain advent of the social revolution in 1910. When this speech was translated into the two other languages the French interpreter magnanimously left out this prophesy while the honest German openly stated that towards the end of the speech there was a lot of rubbish. This episode caused a great deal of laughter. “Anyhow”, Adler summed up his reactions in the lobby, “I personally prefer political forecasts made on the basis of the apocalypse than prophesies on the basis of a materialist understanding of history.” This was, of course, a joke. Nevertheless it was something more than just a joke: a whole scepticism on the question of the possibility of political prognosis in this country where all the cards are so chaotically shuffled by the play of the historical process and by the confusion of the rulers.

Adler, who was a psychiatric practitioner in his original profession and a good psychiatrist at that, more than once uttered in his expressive style: “Perhaps it is precisely the fact that I learnt in good time how to deal with the inmates of a psychiatric hospital that prepared me for dealing with Austrian political figures.” And here again when the political situation in “this” Austria begins to seem hopeless to him, Adler, in his own words, takes a tome of psychiatric research down off the shelf and dusting it with his acquaintance with the spiritual world of the lunatic puts the book on one side with relief: “No, not all is lost yet ...”

Adler, the orator, is quite distinctive. The listener who expects graphic images, a powerful voice, a variety of gestures and stormy passions should listen to Jaurès. The listener who demands of the orator a refined and perfected style and an equally perfected gesture should listen to Vandervelde. Adler gives neither the former nor the latter. He has an innately good voice but it is not strong and Adler moreover cannot take control of it: he squanders it wastefully and by the end of his speech he gets hoarse and coughs. His gestures are not rich though very expressive. One must add that Adler has quite a strong stammer particularly at the beginning of his speech. And yet he is one of the most remarkable orators in Europe. In his speeches as in his whole personality and activity the external decorative element is reduced to a minimum. A template or a stencil of even the most refined kind is completely out of place. Each speech of his is one apart. He never develops already prepared positions with regard to the given occasion but unfolds the inner logic of each occasion. He loves the personal characterization and the characterization of the peculiarity of the moment and as he speaks he ponders the question. He does not simply place a figure or a phenomenon within a known political category but he stands in front of his object like a scientific analyst (frequently like a psychiatrist) and slowly turns the object around on its axis and relates what he finds there. If this object is a living figure,

a political opponent, then the latter must during this operation have the feeling that he is on a spit being roasted on all sides. Adler’s most powerful weapon is his irony which is profound for it is filled with a moral content and yet commonly comprehensible and pointedly real. As a polemical speaker Adler is beyond comparison. He does not of course disdain the chance and secondary blunders of his opponent but his main task is always to uncover the fundamental capital stupidity in the conduct of the hostile party or the government. The stupidity and nothing more. Adler rarely takes the trouble of going openly into the objective historical contradictions which underlie the positions of parties and of politicians. He is too much of a politician himself and too subjective; he feels himself too little of a historian to do this. He takes politics as they are, as the living work of living people from whom he considers himself entitled to demand reason and courage and with an astonishing inventiveness he reveals to them that the mainspring of their action has been stupidity or even cowardice. And when he speaks and gathers together the most exact, persuasive and poignant words for his thoughts, accompanying his efforts with plays of expression which are lit up by flashes of irony even the organic defect in his speech seems to be essential: the short pauses are so arranged as to coincide with his stammers as if they might bring the listener closer to the creative work of the orator—as though the material is resisting and does not yield at once to the chisel.

Adler, a unique talker, listens in conversation not only to the words and thoughts but also to the latent force that moves a man to produce his thoughts and words frequently only in order to mask himself. On this inner keyboard Adler plays without equal. As a result a conversation with him was not only the highest pleasure but also a perpetual anxiety.

The first time I came to meet the “Doctor”—that was his familiar name—was in October 1902 when I was en route from a remote province in the east. I had only enough money for the fare as far as Vienna. After some thought I made for the Arbeiter-Zeitung offices. At that time they were still situated on the Mariahilferstrasse in rented premises (two years later the paper moved into a magnificent building of its own). It was a Sunday and there was no one about.

“May I see Adler?” I asked the man who came down the stairs.

“Today? Out of the question.”

“But I have an urgent matter.”

“Well you’ll have to put it off till Monday.”

“But I have a very urgent matter.”

“Even if you had brought news that the Russian Tsar had been killed in Petersburg this would not give you the right to interrupt the doctor’s Sunday rest ... We have the Landtag elections on. Adler was speaking at seven meetings yesterday. He was editing the paper until four o’clock this morning and now as you see it is nine o’clock.”

In the end I did find out the doctor’s address and made for his flat. A small round-shouldered, almost hunch-backed man came out to see me; his eyelids were swollen on his tired face which said with unusual expressiveness that this man was too clever to be simply good but that he was still too good for mitigating circumstances not to be found.

“Excuse me, Doctor, for interrupting your Sunday rest.”

“Go on, go on,” he said severely but with a chesty tone that encouraged rather than discouraged.

“I’m a Russian ...”

“Now you don’t have to make a point of telling me that, I’ve already had time to guess ...”

Growing embarrassed and fumbling through the German syntax, I explained what the matter was. At the same time I felt myself the object of quick, attentive and accurate observations.

“Is that so? Is that what they told you at the office? Don’t take that too seriously. If something like that really happens in Russia you can give me a ring even at night.”

The second time I saw Adler was in February 1905 when I was on my way to Petersburg. A stream of exiles was by then flooding back to Russia. Adler was entirely immersed in Russian matters: getting the exiles passports, money and so on.

“I have just received,” he told me, “a telegram from Axelrod saying that Gapon has arrived abroad and has declared himself a social-democrat. You know it would have been better for him not to come to the surface after January 9. Had he disappeared a beautiful legend would have been left in history. But in emigration he will be merely a comic figure. You know,” he added with that glint in his eye which softened the harshness of his irony, “it is better to have such people as martyrs of history than as party comrades.”

During my six-year stay in Vienna I not infrequently came to observe Adler from close-up, as a politician and as party leader, as parliamentarian, people’s orator and conversationalist. And out of all impressions one basic one stands out: the inexhaustible generosity of his nature which in giving itself unceasingly preserved in its inviolability a priceless fundamental capital: that of a human personality by the “grace of God”.

Kievskaya Mysl, No.191, July 13, 1913

P.S. A psychological characterization of Victor Adler must not be identified with a critique of his politics. One of the most attractive figures of the Second International, Victor Adler was however thoroughly steeped in those reformist and nationalist tendencies which destroyed the parties of the Second International at the moment of their decisive historical test.

April 1919


1. “German” here refers to the German-speaking peopie inside the Austrian Empire rather than the people of the German Empire.—Trans.

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Last updated on: 23.4.2007