Adler was a member of the Social Democratic Workers' Party (SDAP) and from 1907 was editor of the magazine Der Kampf. In 1911 he became secretary-general of the SDAP.
On 28th June, 1914, the heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated in Sarajevo. Emperor Franz Joseph accepted the advice given by his foreign minister, Leopold von Berchtold, that Austria-Hungary should declare war on Serbia.
On the outbreak of the First World War, Josef allowed the military to take over the running of the country. President Karl von Stürgkh imposed strict press censorship and restricted the right of assembly and showed his contempt for democracy by converting the Reichsrat into a hospital. Leon Trotsky explained the response by the socialists in Austria to the war: "What attitude toward the war did I find in the leading circles of Austrian Social Democrats? Some were quite obviously pleased with it... These were really nationalists, barely disguised under the veneer of a socialist culture which was now melting away as fast as it could.... Others, with Victor Adler at their head, regarded the war as an external catastrophe which they had to put up with. Their passive waiting, however, only served as a cover for the active nationalist wing."
Friedrich Adler, unlike his father, Victor Adler, the leader of the SDAP, did not support the war. On 21st October, 1916, Adler shot and killed President Karl von Stürgkh in the dining room of the Hotel Meißl und Schadn. Adler was sentenced to death, a sentence which was commuted to 18 years imprisonment by Emperor Karl.
According to Chris Harman, the author of The Lost Revolution (1982): "On 14 January the workers at the Daimler works in the Austrian town of Wiener Neustadt struck against a cut in the food ration... Within two days factories all over Austria were paralysed. The Austrian social democrats estimated that a quarter of a million workers were on strike in the Vienna region alone... In Vienna workers' councils were elected which demanded the abolition of censorship, the end of martial law, the eight hour working day and the release of the imprisoned anti-war socialist Friedrich Adler."
On 7th November, 1918, Kurt Eisner, leader of the Independent Socialist Party, declared Bavaria a Socialist Republic. Eisner made it clear that this revolution was different from the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and announced that all private property would be protected by the new government. The King of Bavaria, Ludwig III, decided to abdicate and Bavaria was declared a Council Republic. Their program was democracy, pacifism and anti-militarism.
On 9th November, 1918, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated and the Chancellor, Max von Baden, handed power over to Friedrich Ebert, the leader of the German Social Democrat Party. This became known as the German Revolution. Socialists in Austria called for the release of Adler. This was granted and he played a significant role as the leader of the Arbeiterräte (Workers' Councils) and as a member of the National Council of Austria.
Friedrich Ebert, Germany's new chancellor, called in the German Army and the Freikorps to bring an end to the rebellion. By 13th January, 1919 the rebellion had been crushed and most of its leaders were arrested. This included Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and Wilhelm Pieck on 16th January. Paul Frölich, the author of Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Work (1940) has explained what happened next: "A short while after Liebknecht had been taken away, Rosa Luxemburg was led out of the hotel by a First Lieutenant Vogel. Awaiting her before the door was Runge, who had received an order from First Lieutenants Vogel and Pflugk-Hartung to strike her to the ground. With two blows of his rifle-butt he smashed her skull. Her almost lifeless body was flung into a waiting car, and several officers jumped in. One of them struck Rosa on the head with a revolver-butt, and First Lieutenant Vogel finished her off with a shot in the head. The corpse was then driven to the Tiergarten and, on Vogel's orders, thrown from the Liechtenstein Bridge into the Landwehr Canal, where it was not washed up until 31 May 1919."
Friedrich Adler died in Zurich on 2nd January, 1960.
On June 24 it was sixty years since Victor Adler first saw the light. A strange coincidence gives this date a double significance for me. For almost on the same day I celebrate the 30th anniversary of the occasion when I came into that personal relationship with Adler which was destined to ripen into a bond of friendship for life.
Born in the same town – Prague; studying in the same town – Vienna; living in similar social circles, only separated by a slight difference in age, fired with the same revolutionary fervour, the same love for the proletariat, we had still required three decades to find each other. Both Austrians, we were both national enthusiasts to the same extent, but it was just this that led us into opposite camps: him into the German, me into the Czech. And from thence my road to Socialism was shorter than his, although interest in the Socialist movement began at an earlier age with Adler than with me, and he occupied himself sooner with social ideas...
The hard times during the first years of the Anti-Socialist law constituted the decisive moment in Adler’s life. When I made his acquaintance in 1882 he was not yet an active Social-Democrat though already full of theoretical interest in Social-Democracy.
Our first meeting was only casual. After the publication of my book on the increase of population, I had been engaged at Zurich in 1880-1881, in the Hochberg undertakings and the “Soziall democrat.” The following year I conceived the plan of starting the “Neue Zeit,” and for this purpose stayed some time at Vienna. There I met Adler, and found him to be a clever man rich in knowledge, with great sympathy for our Cause, a man with whom it was a pleasure for me to associate. But I made no attempts to get him to throw in his lot altogether with us. I knew he would come of his own accord if he were really of the fighting nature suitable to our movement, as soon as his studies brought him to a clear conception of Socialism. And he did come. He would probably have entered our ranks even sooner than he did had Austrian Socialism in the early ‘eighties presented a more attractive picture. Until 1866 Austria, had been merely a part of Germany. The Austrian Labour movement remained intellectually a part of that of Germany till 1878. And when the Social-Democracy of Germany appeared to foreign observers to surrender without resistance to the tricks of the Anti-Socialist law in that Empire, the intellectual foundations of Austrian Social-Democracy broke down also. The mass of Austrian proletarians, especially in Vienna, lost confidence in their former pattern, therefore those who criticised it won all the more respect and applause the more scathing their criticism. They went further and further with Most and his emissaries in the direction of Anarchism. This development was accelerated by the rise of the agents-provocateurs, who had met with great success since the inauguration of the Anti-Socialist law in Germany. With the power of the police increased also, the police instigation of crime, at first political and afterwards also common crime .... Nowhere did this system find a more favourable breeding-ground than in Austria, – the officials as its promoters and the proletarians as its victims. An opposition to it did indeed arise in the Party, but it was only strong enough to cause a split in the ranks, not to constitute a defence against Anarchism and the agents-provocateurs. The “moderates” constituted a minority as against the “radicals.”
Under these conditions it would have been difficult for Adler to work fruitfully in our Party. He, therefore, first sought to help the proletariat not as a politician but as a doctor. In this capacity he used to write for the Party Press. When I brought out the “Neue Zeit,” in 1883, one of our first articles was by Adler on Industrial Diseases. ...”
The agents-provocateurs at last succeeded in finding excuses for the forcible destruction of the whole Labour movement. In consequence of the outrages of Kammerer, Stellmacher, and others, the Government, in 1884, laid Vienna under an exceptional law, and the Provinces, especially Bohemia, under Russian conditions, without any actual exceptional legislation. Some of the proletarian organisations were forcibly dissolved, others dissolved themselves voluntarily, to avoid the confiscation of their funds. Both “moderates” and “radicals” were hit hard. By 1885 there was actually no longer any Socialist organisation in Austria.
Not only were the organisations destroyed, but there disappeared with them all the illusions which had led to the split – the illusion that nothing but one forcible upheaval was required in order to throw capitalist society on to the rubbish-heap.
The Social-Democratic organisation had not only to be built up anew, but to be filled with a new spirit which should do away with the difference between “radicals” and “moderates.” But they were still divided by the memory of personal quarrels as yet hardly overcome, and to find and become masters of the new thought was a difficult task for the theoretically quite unschooled masses.
In this situation Victor Adler entered the field. It was at the time of the deepest depression of the Austrian proletariat that he took his place in their ranks as a neutral mediator who had taken no part in the internal quarrels, and whose name was, therefore, not connected with any bitter memories for either side; but also as a teacher. If I entered the Party ten years before him, I did so, as a seeker and learner. He had already gone through this stage, outside the Party, and – when he carne to it he was already equipped with the whole armoury of Marxianism. From the first day of his membership he was theoretically far ahead of his comrades.
As mediator and as teacher he soon acquired influence over both sections, all the more because he did not seek it, but only placed his strength at his comrades’ disposal. At the end of 1886 he had already got so far as to be able to publish a weekly paper Gleichheit (Equality), which both parties recognised as their organ. This recognition, indeed, would not, in view of the deplorable state of the Party at that tine, have sufficed to keep the paper going had not Adler given his fortune as well as his personal service for it.
Never before had the authorities been attacked with so much, boldness and vigour by our Party in Austria as now by Adler. Till then police and courts had arrogated to themselves the right to determine the boundaries beyond which the rights of the Press and public assembly might not go. Adler set himself and the Party the contrary task – namely, to educate the police and the courts, and see that they did not pass their limits. A difficult task. But his courage and persistence succeeded at last in giving the proletariat, who up till then were really without any rights whatever, a new actual right, which not only fulfilled th nominal right, but even extended it in practice on certain points.
Soon the confusion, the depression, the mutual mistrust among the members of the Party disappeared. With renewed strength they set to work to found a new party organisation. A Party Congress was convened, for which Adler drew up a programme which in every respect was excellent: the first Marxian Party programme in the German tongue. That is, strictly speaking; the first was that which I laid before the Brünner Conference, and which it accepted. But mine was not original. The convener of the Conference had, indeed, decided that I was to work out a programme, but had forgotten to tell me! I only heard of it at the Congress itself, just before I was to present it. What was to done? I saved the situation by translating the French program prepared, under Marx’s surveillance in 1880, which was familiar to me, making a few alterations to adapt it to Austrian condition This programme was certainly very Marxian, but not suitable for Germany. The first programme composed in the German language was that written by Adler, and accepted at Hainfeld in 1888 – three years before the Erfurt Programme.
The Hainfeld Conference was the starting-point of the new Social-Democracy of Austria, It laid the foundation on which it has developed so splendidly. No one took a greater part in the preparations and arrangements than Victor Adler.
But he was not satisfied with being a theoretical teacher, a theoretical fighter and organiser. He wanted to be at home with, and take part in, all branches of the proletarian movement. He not only studied them all theoretically, but also took an active part. He knew how to fit them all into their right connection with the whole social development of our time, and how to interest himself in all their details...
Adler’s activity was recognised with joy by the great majority of comrades from the beginning – recognised, took though on no account with joy, by our opponents. In their own way, of course. The tram-drivers’ strike gave them the first occasion. For incitement, abuse of the authorities, and praising illegal actions, Adler and Bretschneider, the responsible editor of “Gleichheit,” were prosecuted on May 7, 1880, and ordered before an exceptional court for Anarchistic aspirations. For, so said the court, all aspirations towards a violent upheaval are Anarchistic. The goals of Social-Democracy could not be reached without a violent upheaval, therefore their aspirations must be considered as synonymous with those of the Anarchists. It is clear that a court capable of such logic would not hesitate at any sentence. On June 27 1880 Adler was sentenced to four months’ severe arrest, intensified by one fast-day in every month – a measure which is only used in dealing with the most hardened criminals. It was the most futile revenge against Adler for having made use of the trial to denounce the Exceptional Court of Justice – one of the most rascally institutions that Austria has ever produced.
Adler’s appeal was rejected on December 7. Before he entered upon his imprisonment, he prepared the propaganda for the May-Day festival.
In July the Paris International Congress had been held, which Adler at once attracted general notice. From the time of this first meeting of the New International, he was numbered among its recognised leaders. The decision of the Congress most pregnant with results was that which fixed an international celebration for May 1 without going into details as to the form it should take. That was left to each country to decide for itself.
I well remember a conversation with Adler about what form the demonstration should take in Austria. He came to the conclusion that a general abstention from work should he aimed at, and in Vienna, a procession to the Prater. I shook my head sceptically at these plans; the proletariat of Vienna, enslaved by the exceptional law, and whose organisation was but in its preliminary stages, did not seem to me ready for this trial of strength. But at last I too became infected with the enthusiasm of Adler, who was usually so sober in his judgment. And he managed to fire the whole Party with this enthusiasm, and the success proved that this had been no mere intoxication. The Vienna May-Day turned out the most brilliant and imposing celebration among those of the whole world, ands it has remained so ever since. All at once the self-respect of the Austrian proletariat, and its reputation among its opponents, as well as among the comrades in other countries became immeasurably increased. The Social-Democracy of Austria, hitherto a pitiable dwarf, appeared from that time onwards as a feared and respected giant.
And how this giant has grown since then!
That is to be ascribed to a great extent to the comprehension which Austria showed in the early days for modern mass-action.
The example of the Belgian mass-strike of 1893 awakened the liveliest echo in Austria, then in the throes of the most violent suffrage campaign. The idea of the mass-strike caught on, and set the Party on fire. Victor Adler was one of the first to study the nature of this weapon, and determine the rules for its use. He did not belong to the older comrades, still numerous at that time who simply repudiated the mass-strike or even refused to discuss it; but he kept cool, and did not let himself be carried away by the easily excited hot-heads who, always ready for a fight, thought a weapon that had once been successfully used was equally good everywhere and under all circumstances.
At the Vienna Conference of 1894 he introduced a resolution which laid down:-
“The Conference declares that it will fight for the suffrage with all the weapons at the disposal of the working class. To these belong, as well as the already used methods of propaganda and organisation, also the mass-strike. The Party representatives and the representatives of the organisation groups are instructed to make all arrangements, so that if the persistency of the Government and of the bourgeois parties should drive the proletariat to extremes, the mass-strike can be ordered at a suitable time, as the last means.”
Thus he formulated the basis on which the struggle for the suffrage has been carried on ever since. The idea of the mass-strike, the consciousness of not having to stand defenceless if the worst should come to the worst, but of being possessed of a sharp weapon, has vivified and strengthened the confidence and the fighting spirit of the masses to a high degree. But at the same time the leaders of the Party took care that this last and extremest weapon should not be used prematurely or at the wrong time, and hindered every agitation which might have the effect of binding the Party beforehand to use the weapon at any particular moment. They determined the goal and the tactical principles, but took care to reserve the fullest freedom to use in every situation such measures as are best suited to it.
By a wise and determined use of these tactics the Austrian Social-Democracy has attained its enormous triumphs in the suffrage-struggle, has become possessed, of general and equal suffrage for men in a fight which has increased its numbers by tenfold. This was not indeed taken by storm, as the hot-heads of 1894 hoped, but in a long, persistent struggle, lasting for over a decade.
This was not possible without Adler’s often being obliged to put on the brake, to impress upon those who were rushing forward the necessity for a sober investigation of the conditions. A hard and ungrateful task. In many cases Adler managed to solve the difficulty successfully without paying for it in love and respect. That was only possible because everyone in the Party knew that if he put on the brake it was not from timidity. In times of danger Victor Adler has ever been found in the front ranks. Everyone felt that it was only his thorough and sober knowledge of the strength of the various factors that determined Adler in some situations to play the part of a warning voice, instead of urging forward.
He, and, we with him, may now look back upon his work with satisfaction, and with joyful expectancy into the future, even though there falls across the day of his triumph the dark shadow of a phenomenon which inflicts severe wounds on our Party, which for a time seemed even to menace it at its roots, and threatened to destroy just what had always been the most precious thing to Victor Adler, for which he had specially cared and, worked – the unity of the Party.
The great danger was that of a national struggle between the Czech and German proletariat. That would have entirely ruined the Social-Democracy of Austria for years to come. This danger may now be considered as overcome. Never among the German proletariat has it come to a fight against Czech proletarians as such. Neither has the Czech proletariat in its totality taken up the fight against the German Social-Democracy... Thus Victor Adler may have good hope of seeing his greatest longing – for the unity of the proletarian army – again realised in a full measure.
This will be owing to a large extent to the fact that all the class-conscious, international-feeling proletarians of Austria see in him their leader, in whom they have the most trust – all proletarians, Czechs, Poles, Italians, no less than Germans.
There are few so able to adapt themselves to the peculiarities of foreign nations, and to understand them, as Victor Adler. A specially important quality for a politician of Austria, and not very common there, where every nation watches jealously over the preservation of its own peculiarities.
This international understanding of Adler’s is due to a quality which also in other ways greatly increases his usefulness in the. Party: his gift of understanding people and adapting himself to them. Few understand as he does how to work upon the soul of the masses, as of the individual. To this is largely due the special character of the influence.
He is just as much a master of the pen as of the spoken word, and his scientific knowledge would enable him to elaborate his ideas in learned books. But this way of reaching the world has never attracted him; so far he is one of the few thinkers in our paper age who have not published a book. He prefers the old Socratic method of direct personal influence on those who for one or the other reason appear to him to carry weight. This influence goes deeper than most books. And it is, as becomes Adler’s many-sided interests, of the most variegated kind. If one looks at any of the younger leaders of our Party in Austria, they have nearly, all been through Adler’s school : the theoreticians and the journalists, the parliamentarians and the trade unionists, as well as those at the head of the co-operatives. He has given himself to each of them, encouraged each, helped each to begin his work, and therefore he is bound to the mass of comrades who are active in’ the service of the Party, not only by a mutual goal and comradeship in arms, but also by the most affectionate personal friendship.,
This is clearly seen on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday. His life for decades has been spent for the life of the Party. The celebration of his work is at the same time a celebration of the conquests and triumphs of Social-Democracy. But it also bears the character of a family festival – a festival of the great family of the Austrian Party, whose patriarch Victor Adler has become; not by virtue of his years by a long way, but long since by virtue of the trust and the love which all those feel for him who have felt the breath of his spirit.