In ‘Why Marxists oppose individual terrorism‘ (1911), Trotsky contrasted individual terrorism with industrial action: “The anarchist prophets of the ‘propaganda of the deed’ can argue all they want about the elevating and stimulating influence of terrorist acts on the mass… it belittles the role of the masses… A strike, even of modest size, has social consequences: strengthening of the workers’ self-confidence, growth of the trade union, and not infrequently even an improvement in productive technology.”
According to Hans Hautmann’s book on the Austrian workers’ council movement, Geschichte der Rätebewegung in Österreich 1918-24, however, this is what happened in Austria five years later:
“In addition to [the deteriorating material conditions], political events such the assassination of the minister-president Stürgkh by Friedrich Adler on 21 October 1916 – and, still more, Adler’s courageous defence speeches in front of the special court – as well as the long-distance effect of the February revolution in Russia pushed the struggles of the Austrian workers to a new, higher level.”
Hautmann, who argues from a solidly Leninist rather than Sorelian or ultra-left perspective, nonetheless observes that Adler’s action at least partly helped to reignite the class struggle after two years of relative passivity fostered by the social-patriotic SDAP and trade union bureaucracies. It is even implied that it heralded a qualitative break.
In ‘My Life‘ (1930) Trotsky commented on Adler’s personal motivation, but not on the effects his action had on the masses:
“On the very eve of the war, I published an article in the Kampf magazine, edited by [Victor] Adler’s son, showing the futility of individual terrorism. It is significant that the editor warmly approved the article. The terrorist act committed by Friedrich Adler was merely an outburst of opportunism in despair, nothing more. After he had vented his despair, he returned to his old rut.”
Adler, a prominent leader of the anti-war left wing of the SDAP, was held in high esteem by the Austrian working class; he was anything but a lone wolf or isolated anarchist conspirator. Given this background, can his action simply be dismissed as individual terrorism? Furthermore, much as it makes sense to reject the latter strategy as blatantly elitist, is the tactic to be condemned as a matter of principle, irrespective of the circumstances and effects it produces?
Lenin’s 1916 letter to the Austrian revolutionary Marxist Franz Koritschoner gives clues as to the reactions in the Russian Bolshevik, Austrian SDAP and German SPD press. Furthermore, Lenin correctly states that “killing is no murder”, i.e. Adler’s action should not be condemned morally, but evaluated from a tactical point of view. He expresses the Bolsheviks’ opposition to individual terrorism in characteristic terms:
“We are not at all opposed to political killing (in this sense the servile writings of the opportunists in Vorwärts and the Vienna Arbeiter Zeitung are simply revolting), but as revolutionary tactics individual attacks are inexpedient and harmful. Only the mass movement can be considered genuine political struggle. Only in direct, immediate connection with the mass movement can and must individual terrorist acts be of value.”
This still leaves questions open: given his standing in the Austrian workers’ movement – rivalled only by Otto Bauer at the time – was Adler really as “isolated from the masses” as Lenin makes him out to be? And even if that were the case, how does Lenin’s view of the assassination as being “inexpedient and harmful” square with the impact it supposedly had on the class struggle?