Max Weber: Political Ethics in a Disenchanted Era

A Political Ethic for a Disenchanted Era

By Robert Zaretsky

IN early 1919, Germany risked becoming a failed state. Total war had morphed into civil war that pitted revolutionaries against reactionaries, internationalists against nationalists, and civilians against soldiers. Munich was the bloodiest arena: over a few short months, the city was ruled by a Bavarian king, a socialist prime minister, and a Soviet republic. The first was overthrown, the second murdered, and supporters of the third slaughtered.

“Everything is wretched, and everything is bloody,” Victor Klemperer, a professor at the University of Munich, wrote in his diary, “and you always want to laugh and cry at once.”

These events framed the much-anticipated lecture “Politics as a Vocation” that Klemperer’s colleague Max Weber gave that same year. One hundred years later, there are few better texts to serve as a guide for the increasingly wretched and violent events unfolding in our own time and place. In particular, Weber’s discussion of the charismatic politician, as well as his distinction between the ethics of conviction and ethics of responsibility, has perhaps even greater relevance in our own era than in his.

A creative revolutionary force

When Weber arrived in Munich in 1918, he was known as “the myth of Heidelberg.” He had earned the moniker at the famed medieval university where, several years earlier, his promising teaching career abruptly ended when he suffered a nervous breakdown. As he slowly recovered, Weber returned to his research in law and history, shaping his path-breaking works, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and Economy and Society.

His professional rigour and personal rectitude deeply impressed both friends and critics. The economist Joseph Schumpeter marveled over Weber’s “profound influence”; the existential philosopher Karl Jaspers found in Weber “a man who devoted his thought to everything in the reach of human experience”; and the sociologist Robert Michels announced that Weber was “the up-and-coming man of Germany, the saviour in its hour of need.

That hour of need tolled in 1914. Fifty years old at the outbreak of war, Weber tried to enlist but was predictably turned away. He instead served at the home front, taking over the direction of several hospitals. In his usual meticulous manner, Weber dealt with matters as significant as staff budgets and as surreal as a cook with a penchant for washing her hair in a cooking pot.

As wounded soldiers filled the wards of his hospitals, Weber saw firsthand the appalling results of trench warfare. In addition to ministering to the stream of the maimed under his care, he absorbed the deaths of his youngest brother, brother-in-law, and several friends killed at the front.

At first, Weber believed that Germany was fighting a purely defensive war. But he soon grasped that his government was manned by fools and knaves. This conviction deepened when the government revealed that it sought to annex France, Belgium, and parts of the Russian empire and the Kaiser unleashed U-boats on Allied merchant and passenger ships.

Not only was this war policy a crime, Weber warned, it was also a mistake. The strategy would fail, and it would turn Germany into a global pariah. “If things go on like this,” he declared, “we are certain to be at war with the whole world.”

By 1918, Weber was himself at war on several fronts. The Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I included the explosive “war guilt clause,” declaring Germany at fault for the conflict and its ravages. While Weber acknowledged that his government had made many mistakes, he warned the Allies that the clause confused responsibility with guilt and would be ultimately destructive.

Guilt applied to an irreversible past, he noted, but responsibility entailed obligations toward an undetermined future. By loading guilt onto Germany for what had already taken place, the Allies shirked responsibility for what was still to come.

Weber took this position even as he lambasted pan-German nationalists, who blamed their country’s defeat on imaginary enemies—Jews figured high on the list—rather than on the “horde of lunatics governing us.” Allergic to the entwined strains of strident nationalism and anti-Semitism in German academic life, Weber denounced the state-imposed quota on Jewish professors, excoriating a system that “preferred the least intelligent ‘Aryan’ to the ablest Jew.”

In these years, Weber commanded a public presence that was nearly biblical. According to one student, the philosopher Karl Löwith, Weber’s face, “with a shaggy beard growing all around it, recalled the mournful glow of the prophets.” That he exercised a powerful hold on students and colleagues is fitting: in his landmark study, Economy and Society, Weber introduced the modern concept of charisma.

It is, he wrote, the essential element to successful Herrschaft, or political rule. We tend to think that one either has charisma or hasn’t. But for Weber, it is truer to say that others decide that one does or doesn’t have charisma. In effect, charisma is a momentary yet momentous quality. It is simultaneously an objective trait, owned by a certain kind of leader, and a subjective state, dependent on the gaze of others.

The charismatic person possessed “a creative revolutionary force in history” and in this sense was not far removed from the “overman” of one of Weber’s greatest influences, Friedrich Nietzsche. Not unlike the Übermensch, charismatic leaders are capable of transcending the confused and colliding ideological and intellectual forces of their era. They can master an era’s political passions and polarities. Yet just as these passions are evanescent, so too is the ascendancy of charismatic leaders.

A disenchanted world

There was little doubt among those who knew him that Weber was, as one friend averred, “the charismatic man he described.” In a 1919 letter, a student implored Weber to lead the nation: “It is now a question of whether we shall surrender to crowds and numbers … or instead channel the unleashed energies into paths where they will create valuable work.”

After attending a public speech Weber gave, a colleague exclaimed: “His words rang with force, a torrent flowing from all the pores of his being.” In the chaotic conditions of postwar Munich, these heightened expectations and exceptional qualities cast a willing Weber into a role that few academics ever experience.

Just a few years earlier, Weber had warned his fellow scholars against accepting just such a role. In 1917, he gave a speech titled “Science as a Vocation” to a student organization. The speech created a great stir and has since become a classic. In it Weber asks what it means to have a vocation for science—Wissenschaft in the original German also means “scholarship” or “learning.” But what understanding did such learning finally yield? All the answers offered, from ancient Greece to Enlightenment Europe, had been pulverised to dust under the pressure of the scientific method.

The march of science and technology had led to what Weber famously called “the disenchantment of the world”: through our discovery and use of the laws of nature, we have drained it of its mystery and majesty, the immanent or intrinsic meanings that our ancestors found residing within its folds.

When it comes to big questions, practicing academics have no big answers to offer.

What is one to do? For Weber, a scientist—or, indeed, any academic—is the last person qualified to answer that question. Science can tell us, of course, what will result by the combination of different elements or the comparative analysis of different texts. But it cannot tell us why any of this is worth knowing.

As a sociologist, Weber made it his business to pursue the sources and characteristics of certain social phenomena. Beyond that, however, his professional writ did not extend for a simple reason: he could not claim that these discoveries had intrinsic value beyond the cultural assumptions he shared with his readers and listeners.

Practicing academics thus make for poor guides. When it comes to big questions, they have no big answers to offer. They can, at most, provide the tools for analysis and help their students to better grasp the logic and consequences of their commitments. At day’s end, Weber concluded, the “prophet after whom so many in our youngest generation yearn is just not there.”