How does one explain the presence of educated recruits in movements that were overwhelmingly working class in composition? How did intellectuals function within the movements? In the first in-depth exploration of this question, Stanley Pierson examines the rise, development, and ultimate failure of the German Social Democrats, the largest of the European socialist parties, from 1887 to 1912. Prominent figures, such as Karl Kautsky, August Bebel, Rosa Luxemburg, and Eduard Bernstein are discussed, but the book focuses primarily on the younger generation. These forgotten intellectuals—Max Schippel, Paul Kampffmeyer, Conrad Schmidt, Paul Ernst, and others—struggled most directly with the dilemmas arising out of the attempt to translate Marxist doctrines into practical and personal terms.
These young writers, speakers, and politicians set out to supplant old ways of thinking with a Marxist understanding of history and society. Pierson weaves together over thirty intellectual biographies to explore the relationship between ideology and politics in Germany. He examines the conflict within Social Democracy between the “revisionist” intellectuals, who sought to adapt Marxist theory to changing economic and social realities, and those “orthodox” and “radical” intellectuals who attempted to remain faithful to the Marxist vision. By examining the struggles of the socialist intellectuals in Germany, Pierson brings out the special features of German cultural, social, and political life before World War I. His study of this critical time in the development of the German Social Democratic party also illuminates the wider development of Marxism in Europe during the twentieth century.