Adler, Victor

views updated


ADLER, VICTOR (1852–1918), Austrian socialist.

Victor Adler was born in Prague on 24 June 1852 and died in Vienna on 11 November 1918. He brought about the uniting of the socialist factions in Austria in the 1880s, and led the united movement from 1889. Adler was also foreign minister of the provisional government of German Austria in the last days of the Habsburg Monarchy, and hence a founding father of the First Austrian Republic.

Adler was the son of a Jewish merchant, Salomon Adler. As a believer in emancipation, Salomon supported the revolution of 1848, but he accepted the victory of the counterrevolutionary, neo-absolutist regime of Francis Joseph and, after escaping financial ruin by moving to Vienna in 1855, became a successful land speculator. Victor Adler attended the socially prestigious Schottengymnasium. Here he became a leading member of a circle of intellectually precocious and politically radical pupils, including Engelbert Pernerstorfer and Heinrich Friedjung, and later such figures as Siegfried Lipiner and Gustav Mahler, who became attracted to the irrationalist thought and culture of Richard Wagner and the young Friedrich Nietzsche.

This thought was linked to a radical, left-liberal critique of the accommodation of mainstream, "rationalistic" liberalism to both the Habsburg regime and laissez-faire economics. In Austria this critique, with its holistic stress on community, took on a strongly German nationalist, pan-German tinge. As a medical student at Vienna University Adler became a very active member of the radical, völkisch (populist), German nationalist student movement. Sigmund Freud and Theodor Herzl were also involved, to some extent. A major problem for such Jewish German nationalist sympathizers, however, was that anti-Semitism had been a major factor in the movement since almost its inception; and as early as 1875 a seminal speech by a prominent professor, Theodor Billroth, had set the "Jewish Problem" in bluntly racial terms.

Adler had great difficulty reconciling his Jewish descent with the movement's anti-Semitism (Adler's ambivalence about his Jewishness was to continue also in his socialist years). In 1878 he converted to Protestantism (shortly after having married Emma Braun in a Jewish ceremony), and in 1882 he was still a central figure in the creation of the Linz Program, which was a key ideological statement of Austrian German Nationalism. However, the stridency and increasingly vehement anti-Semitism of the movement, personified in its leader, Georg von Schönerer, eventually led in the 1880s to the alienation and exclusion of its erstwhile Jewish members, including Adler.

Adler had all along been more interested in social justice than national unity. Working after his student years as a physician in private practice, he came to see the crushing poverty in Vienna as due to an immense social injustice in the capitalist system. Alienated from the German nationalist movement, he turned, with the help of his brother-in-law, Heinrich Braun, and his acquaintance, Karl Kautsky, to another, more clearly antibourgeois form of political radicalism, Marxist socialism.

In 1886, the year of Austria's Anti-Socialist Law, Adler, with his own, inherited funds, set up a socialist journal, Gleichheit (Equality). This weekly reported on the deprivations visited on the Austrian working classes. A campaign on behalf of tramworkers in early 1889 led to the Habsburg authorities prohibiting the weekly and imprisoning Adler for four months. Adler's response was to use up much of his remaining wealth to start a new weekly, the Arbeiter Zeitung (Worker's paper), in July 1889. The "AZ" became a daily in 1895 and the main Austrian socialist mouthpiece.

Adler was central to the reuniting of the radical and moderate elements in Austrian socialism at the Hainburg Party Conference of 30 December 1888–1 January 1889. While Adler was initially mistrusted as a (Jewish) "bourgeois," his persecution by the authorities (Adler was to serve eighteen months in prison over his lifetime) greatly helped his acceptance by the working-class base as "one of us." Adler became the leader of the Austrian party, and remained such until his death in 1918.

The Austrian Social Democratic Party prospered under Adler. The Anti-Socialist Law lapsed in 1891, and the socialists soon became a major political force. Austria's restricted franchise kept them from gaining much representation, but the creation of a "fifth curia" in 1896 for the Reichsrat (Austria's parliament) enabled them to begin to show their potential electoral power. Unsurprisingly, one of Adler's major campaigns as party leader, and as a Reichsrat deputy from 1905, was for universal manhood suffrage. This was achieved for the Reichsrat in early 1907 (in an unlikely alliance with Emperor Francis Joseph). The Social Democrats emerged in the 1907 Reichsrat election as one of the two largest parties (along with their bitter rivals, the Catholic, populist, and anti-Semitic Christian Socials). The elections of 1911 saw further socialist gains, but this was tempered by the splitting off of the Czech Social Democrats in 1910 over national issues. Adler's residual German national bias has been seen as a factor in this split.

Adler helped formulate the famous Brünn Program of 1899. Yet he was not that interested in theory, leaving that to other "Austromarxists" such as Otto Bauer, Karl Renner, and Max Adler. Victor Adler's major contribution was as a strategist and an organizer. Under Adler the Austrian Social Democrats set up an impressive infrastructure of educational and social support that offered party members a "counter-culture" of their own, in some ways a socialist version of the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk with which Adler's boyhood circle had started.

Adler participated in the attempts of the Second International to secure peace before 1914, but when war came Adler backed the Austro-Hungarian war effort, seeing it as a defensive war against the aggression of the oppressive tsarist regime in Russia. His son, Friedrich, vehemently opposed the war, and in 1916 assassinated the Austrian prime minister, Count Karl Stürgkh, much to the horror of his father.

In 1918, with the collapse of the Habsburg Monarchy, Victor Adler played a major role in forming the new state of "German Austria" and, as foreign secretary in Karl Renner's provisional government, was a strong advocate of Anschluss with the new German Republic. He died on 11 November 1918, the eve of the founding of the First Austrian Republic.

See alsoAustria-Hungary; Francis Joseph; Freud, Sigmund; Herzl, Theodor; Jews and Judaism; Marx, Karl; Nietzsche, Friedrich; Vienna; Wagner, Richard.


Ardelt, Rudolf G. Friedrich Adler: Probleme einer Persönlichkeitsentwicklung um die Jahrhundertwende. Vienna, 1984.

Braunthal, Julius. Victor und Friedrich Adler: zwei Generationen Arbeiterbewegung. Vienna, 1965.

Jacobs, Jack. On Socialists and "the Jewish Question" after Marx. New York and London, 1992.

McGrath, William J. Dionysian Art and Populist Politics in Austria. New Haven, Conn., and London, 1974.

Steven Beller