Max Weber’s enduring wisdom

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IN JANUARY 1919 Munich was in turmoil. Revolution in November of the previous year had swept away the King of Bavaria, installing a ramshackle regime headed by a messianic journalist of the radical left, Kurt Eisner. As in much of Germany in the aftermath of the first world war, rival factions of left and right battled for power on the streets. In Berlin the communist luminaries Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were murdered as Social Democrat party leaders used Freikorps paramilitaries to assert the authority of their fledgling government. Eisner himself would soon be shot dead by a reactionary nationalist.

The Weimar Republic was being born, as it would die, in blood. On January 28th, in this febrile atmosphere, Max Weber made one of the most important contributions to modern political theory, in a lecture titled “Politics as a Vocation” (“Politik als Beruf”). Eerily relevant in today’s age of demagoguery, it is as valuable a map to the contemporary political landscape as it was, 100 years ago, to Weber’s.

A towering figure of 20th-century German intellectual life—and a founder of the modern discipline of sociology—Weber gave his talk to an association of liberal-leaning students on the theme of political leadership and political life. Politics, he told them, is a distinct form of activity, with its own brute imperatives. It “means slow, strong drilling through hard boards”, a ceaseless struggle between leaders and party elites. Anyone who gets involved makes a pact with “diabolical powers”; there is no moral authority to guide them, and no option but to get their hands dirty, sometimes even bloody. Famously Weber defined the state as the body that claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. His audience could expect no comfort from this unyielding reality. Ahead lay “a polar night of icy darkness and hardness”.

The trouble with saints

Weber’s stern realism was not merely academic. He was contemptuous of Eisner, whom he numbered among the “literati”, and considered an exemplar of the type of leader guided solely by a determination to stay true to his principles, whatever the consequences. This “ethic of conviction”, Weber argued, was the hallmark of saints, pacifists and purist revolutionaries who could blame the world, the stupidity of others or God himself for the impact of their deeds, as long as they had done the right thing. He contrasted that with an “ethic of responsibility”, which demanded that politicians own the results of their actions, making moral compromises to achieve those results if necessary. Evil things can flow from good deeds, Weber knew, just as much as the other way round.

For Weber, the true political leader—one for whom politics is a vocation—is characterised by three qualities: passion, a feeling of responsibility and a sense of proportion. The leader has a cause; he or she is not a “parvenu-like braggart with power”, whose baseless policies lead nowhere. On the contrary, those marked out for political leadership have ethical backbones and an inner sense of purpose. But these are combined with sober judgment and a deep sense of responsibility. Together these qualities produce politicians who can place their “hand on the wheel of history”. It is “genuinely human and profoundly moving” when (like Martin Luther) such leaders say: “Here I stand, I can do no other.” Modern readers may wistfully agree.

Weber was a liberal nationalist who believed that the fate of Germany was the central raison d’être of politics. His preoccupation with the character and ethics of politicians reflected his belief that his country faced a moment of great peril and needed strong, capable leadership of the kind he celebrated in his Munich lecture. Germany had been badly led in the war and was threatened with subjugation by its victors. Weber was not above calling on his students to resist occupation by force; he gave succour to irredentist sentiments. But he was chiefly interested in how Germany could produce statesmen able to guide it out of the turmoil of defeat and civil conflict. It might have lost its place as a world power, but it still had its honour.

Appeals to the power of tradition would no longer work, however. The Kaiser had abdicated and the monarchy was gone. A modern nation following the democratic path, Weber argued, had two options: rule by bureaucrats and parliamentary cliques acting from self-interest and “living from” politics; or a “leadership democracy” in which a charismatic leader, “living for” politics, commands a party machine that can mobilise voters. Mass democracy, Weber knew, always meant rule by elites. But voters had a choice between responsible and irresponsible kinds. He admired William Gladstone’s ability to dominate both Parliament and the Liberal Party; but for Germany he advocated a directly elected president who would stand above the petty factions of parliamentary politics and the fiefs of the federal territories.

This was to become one of the most contentious of Weber’s legacies to German politics. He was active in public debates about the Weimar constitution and was recruited to an official commission given the task of framing it. His support for a “Caesarist” president, or “plebiscitary dictator of the masses”, would later draw criticism that it prefigured the overthrow of the Weimar Republic by the Nazis, despite the fact that Weber’s proposals mixed parliamentary and directly elected elements, and remained liberal, not authoritarian.

The iron cage

Weber died of Spanish flu in 1920, but “Politics as a Vocation”, and the newspaper articles he wrote at the same time, remained touchstones for German debates on democracy and constitutional law for the rest of the 20th century. In Anglo-American thought, his talk became a classic of political theory after it was translated into English and published in America after the second world war. It has commonly been read as a lecture in two parts: one a scientific study of modern parties and leaders, the other a meditation on the ethics of political leadership. It has been hugely influential in the realist tradition of political theory, which emphasises the role of states and interests over values and has experienced a revival in recent years.

A century on, Weber’s insights still help make sense of politics. In democracies governed by elites who struggle with each other for power, while paying lip service to equality or liberty—and who sometimes deploy violent means to pursue their goals—his arguments remain grimly compelling. His cool appraisal of demagoguery is useful for understanding the rise of charismatic authoritarians who command obedient party machines. The antics of Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orban or Recep Tayyip Erdogan would not have surprised him.

Nor would the recent fall from grace of “responsible” leaders of the centre ground, for whom pragmatism and technocratic management have proved unequal to the demands of a turbulent age. Weber, after all, insisted on the centrality of passion and the struggle for power in politics. Donald Trump, meanwhile, is a brittle composite of Weberian types—not obviously possessed of an ethic of conviction, but sustained in power by a Republican Party machine and his own peculiar charisma. He would doubtless have repulsed and fascinated Weber in equal measure.

“Politics as a Vocation” continues to inspire those who want to understand politics as it is, not as they might wish it to be. Yet realism like Weber’s can also seem like acquiescence in the status quo. His leftwing critics believed he was trapped in an iron cage of his own making, unable to see how the tides of history might open up possibilities of radical change.

One of the students who attended his lectures in Munich in 1919 was Max Horkheimer, a founder of the Frankfurt School of critical theory. Many years later he would remark of a Weber lecture: “Everything was so precise, so scientifically austere, so value-free, that we went home completely gloomy.” That charge has echoed down the years, and points to a dilemma that still faces all practitioners of democratic politics: can you be realistic and radical at the same time?

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