This very interesting and well written book is a focused history of the great German Social Democratic Party in the years leading up to WWI. The narrative and analysis is based on a close analysis of party literature, writings of major party figures, contemporary scholarly and journalistic accounts, and voting patterns, all set against the background of German politics in the period. While this is a relatively short book, Schorske provides a detailed narrative, an excellent analysis of the major ideological currents, and a thoughtful perspective on how the party functioned in the complicated German political system of the time. An important aspect of the book is to reveal the features that led to the fission of the party in WWI.
A good deal of the book is devoted to the tension within the party between a relatively reformist wing and a smaller but important radical wing that was more faithful to Marxist ideals of revolutionary transformation. This radical wing, however, was not a Bolshevik type organization and was more interested in tactics such as general strikes and a general, perhaps vague, idea of worker based democracy. Schorske has a very nice narrative and analysis of the increasing moderation and reformism of the party. This was driven by its increasing electoral success at the national level, the ideological activities of the Revisionists led by Bernstein, the great growth of the trade unions associated with the party, and the general bureaucratization of the party. Schorske shows that in the first decades of the 20th century, the party became a relatively moderate, reformist force dedicated to participation in the Imperial political system. This was driven partly by electoral success, partly by relative success of trade unionism, and partly by the recognition that more aggressive tactics would be counter-productive.
Schorske shows as well that moderation and reformism came with a high price. While the party attempted to work within the existing system, the several authoritarian aspects of the Imperial political system and middle class fear of socialism obstructed even moderate reform efforts such as trying to achieve democratic voting at the state (Land) level. The party's commitment to the German political and economic system also to led to such politically expedient steps as de facto support for German participation in the European arms race and an aggressive but foolish foreign policy. This would culminate in the famous vote for war credits at the outbreak of WWI.
The party historically emphasized discipline and solidarity among its different elements but the strains imposed by WWI were simply too much. The left wing, including some of the most famous figures in the party, split off. Schorske describes the long term consequenes as deleterious with the post-war emergence of a more radical and authoritarian Communist Party and an excessively conservative Socialist Party.