World Wide Weber

‘Politics as a Vocation’, a speech made in 1919 by the German sociologist Max Weber, can lay claim to being one of the most influential political statements of the 20th century. Amid global crisis and uncertainty, it remains as relevant as ever.

Max Weber (in foreground), 1917.

Max Weber’s extraordinary lecture ‘Politics as a Vocation’ is one of the defining intellectual moments of the 20th century. It is best known today for Weber’s supposed description of the state as possessing ‘a monopoly of violence’, but its true importance runs much wider and deeper than that.

To give the lecture at all was itself no small act of heroism. It was delivered on 28 January 1919 in Munich, at a time of political crisis. The First World War had ended unexpectedly the previous November, not with a surrender but, inconclusively, with an armistice. There was huge conflict between nationalists, who wished to continue the fighting, and pacifists, who wished to end it. The question of Germany’s responsibility for starting the war was bitterly contested and violence frequently spilled out onto the streets. The Kingdom of Bavaria had been forcibly overthrown the previous November; just two weeks before the lecture, the radical Communists Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg had been executed after an abortive uprising; a month later, the Bavarian prime minister, Kurt Eisner, was assassinated.

Weber had long been acknowledged as one of Germany’s leading intellectuals. But he was also a man of known political commitments. Having begun the war as a strong civic nationalist, he had become disillusioned, later urging a major programme of constitutional reform, including universal suffrage. He had tried and failed to secure a parliamentary seat with the German Democratic Party. Yet, even so, his eclectic views and immense personal authority put him somewhat above and outside politics. His lecture would be a major public event: in those turbulent times the German people were looking above all for political leadership.

Tour de force

Leadership is what Weber gives them, but of thought rather than action. Fastidiously, he eschews political rhetoric in favour of a tour de force of historical and sociological analysis, ranging from the Italian Renaissance to the 19th-century Chinese mandarinate, from Roman law to the French Revolution. His reflections yield in turn a series of deep insights into the forces shaping political institutions and the practice of politics.

Weber’s chosen title, ‘Politics as a Vocation’, is an oblique one. The German word Beruf combines, as does its English counterpart ‘vocation’, the ideas both of a profession and of a personal calling. In a companion talk, ‘Science as a Vocation’, delivered 14 months before, Weber had noted how science and technology, including the social sciences, were being rapidly professionalised, indeed taken over by the demands and working practices of industrial capitalism. Yet, he argued, all too often this process yielded not understanding and purpose, but intellectual sterility and stagnation. Professionalisation meant institutional expansion, specialisation, bureaucracy and a focus on quantity at the expense of quality. What was missing was the idea of a vocation as a calling, a personal passion, an undertaking to which someone could give their whole soul in the heroic knowledge that the quest might fail. In effect, objective circumstance was drowning the human search for meaning.

Search for truth

Why should this be? For Weber, science, properly understood, has no external purpose or criterion: it must proceed by its own lights, as a communal inquiry moved by the search for truth and not by pecuniary, social or academic advantage. Indeed, scientific procedure has no meaning as such, since it involves the ceaseless replacement of one set of results, one view of the world, with another. Yet science as practice is very different, for the human search for truth carries with it ethical commitments, of honesty and transparency, of integrity and dedication, and those commitments are a crucial component of the value of the whole. They also carry responsibility with them: the willingness to engage with contrary evidence, for example, is as much a moral as an intellectual achievement.

‘Workers, Citizens, Farmers, Soldiers of all Classes of Germany, Unite in the National Assembly’, poster by Cesar Klein for the elections of January 1919.

These commitments stand at constant risk from the rationalising tendencies of industrial and individualist modernity. But Weber’s view is not merely a heartfelt cri de coeur: it has philosophical implications. In particular, it subtly sets the terms for politics; for, as an autonomous discipline, science cannot serve as the foundation for any other form of human action, including political action. Politics can be made more or less professional, more or less expert in its assumptions and use of evidence. But politics can never be reduced to a science and it cannot be properly understood in terms of causal laws. The two lectures, on science and politics as vocation, share a common viewpoint and a common intellectual commitment: to think through the nature and presuppositions of scientific and political practice in their own terms. Like that of the political philosopher Michael Oakeshott half a century later, Weber’s philosophical sensibility is historical and anti-positivist in spirit.

The unanswered question

In previous centuries the question of whether science formed the foundation of politics could hardly have been asked, let alone answered, for science had not attained the coherence, status or legitimacy required for it to be seen as a foundation for anything. Moreover, the general question of what fundamental body of knowledge grounded or authorised the practice of politics would have received a straightforward response: the law of God, mediated on Earth by the Pope as vicar acting through the Catholic church.

But, as Weber was well aware, in the 18th century the work of David Hume and Adam Smith in Scotland had highlighted the intellectual limitations of this response, hinting that divine authority was neither a necessary nor even perhaps a sufficient condition for an explanation of natural phenomena, including human behaviour, let alone for what Hume in his Treatise of Human Nature (1738) termed ‘a science of man’. In Germany – to tell a complex story briefly – Immanuel Kant responded with an astonishingly deep and ambitious counterattack, which sought to restore the idea of a transcendental realm inaccessible to human cognition. In so doing, Kant was not merely arguing for the valuable effect of such a realm in containing earthly human ambition; he claimed that its existence was a precondition for the possibility of any objective knowledge and moral action at all.

‘God is dead’

A century later, Kant’s view, too, was foundering. The continuing march of science in the 19th century seemed to render such a realm mystical and unnecessary, while Nietszche dismissed it altogether by declaring that ‘God is dead’: that the idea of the transcendental was at best a source of comforting illusion and that humans are condemned to find meaning – and, if they can, to seek to live morally – within the world as it is.  That might lead to an assertion of the primacy of the individual will, or to moral resignation and quiescence: what Nietzsche called the Superman or the Last Man. But that choice was the price of a world without illusion.

In ‘Politics as a Vocation’ Weber broadly accepted Nietzsche’s diagnosis, but rejected his conclusion. Yes, the human world is entzaubert, ‘disenchanted’, but while that idea sometimes gives his work a pessimistic feeling, it does not lead him to nihilism. On the contrary: in keeping with the Kantian critical tradition, he accepts the meaningfulness of politics, both to those within and outside it, and asks what has to be true for such meaning to exist at all. In particular, he focuses on a quasi-Kantian idea of duty: a commitment to action willed for itself, in keeping with a plurality of high (if not transcendental) ideals. For Kant, duties must be undertaken irrespective of their consequences. For Weber, however, political responsibility outstrips intention: it requires that consequences be faced and accepted.

Casting a cold eye

As with science, Weber analyses politics with a cold eye. A few dazzling brushstrokes set the scene. The state is defined as a ‘human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence within a given territory’. This frames modern politics as the struggle for temporal power, indeed domination, over a given geographical area between different factions, parties or groupings, which seek not merely success but legitimacy or authority. That legitimacy comes, for Weber, in one of three forms: from custom and tradition (what Edmund Burke would have called ‘prescriptive right’), from legal and constitutional due process and from ‘charisma’, or compelling personal leadership.

Yet for Weber the state and politics itself are, no less than science, subject to the forces of capitalistic development, bureaucracy and modernity. The end of history is not the triumph of democratic capitalism, but the triumph of bureaucracy. Most of ‘Politics as a Vocation’ is taken up by a careful analysis of the key components of modern politics in different countries, from mass political parties to electoral agents and to the civil service. Yet it is much more than an authoritative historical survey. On the contrary, it is studded with insights of great relevance: from the causes of educational culture wars to the often ambiguous relationship between politicians and the press, to what would now be called ‘meritocratic hubris’ and the irresistible human need for self-justification and public acclaim.

Towards the end, the lecture speaks directly to the nature of leadership itself. For Weber, great leadership – leadership as vocation – combines three qualities: passion, a sense of responsibility and a sense of proportion. The leader must recognise that ‘Politics means a slow, powerful drilling through hard boards … Our entire historical experience confirms … that what is possible could never have been achieved unless people had tried again and again to achieve the impossible in this world’. This needs heroic idealism, but also what he calls an ‘ethic of responsibility’: the coolness that marks a leader willing to make painful choices and to accept the blame whatever the result.

It is with the charismatic leader that matters come to a head. Such a leader is invariably a ‘conviction politician’, the force of whose belief combines with personal magnetism in an age of excitement to form an intoxicating brew for their supporters. Yet Weber is excoriating about inauthentic passion and the ‘ethic of conviction’, which insists on an unblemished purity of belief whatever its often disastrous effects, and which ‘feels “responsible” only for ensuring that … the flame of protest against the social order, should never be extinguished’.

One does not have to look far in the Brexit debate, or the ever more polarised bickering of American politics, to see this phenomenon at work today. Its interaction with the deep human need for self-justification is toxic. Weber sees people as moving from pluralism (a willingness to entertain multiple over-arching values) to polytheism (an insistence that there are multiple such values, their own included). But there is a further movement under way today to what I would call idiotheism (an insistence that their own personal values are the only ones that matter). It is a recipe for individual and collective social breakdown.

All too often the charismatic politician is like a child: impetuous, volatile, unwilling to accept rules, an ego longing for personal control and obedience from others. For Weber, however, statesmanship ultimately lies in adulthood, in maturity, in a self-conscious capacity to look at things as a whole and accept responsibility for the consequences of one’s actions, whether intended or not. To define the state in terms of a monopoly of the legitimate use of violence risks casting political power itself as tacit or embedded violence, potentially raising passions and even helping to legitimate violence as a response. So it is little wonder, perhaps, that Weber lays such emphasis in his statecraft on the responsible use of power.

Ancient and modern

In many ways Weber’s argument is a modern replaying of the classical ideals of dispassionate leadership and it is a tragedy that Germany lacked such leaders, as the Weimar Republic slipped from political chaos to economic depression and hyperinflation. But one misses the devilish realism of a Machiavelli and it is hard not to notice Weber’s ambivalence, his desire for strong, directly authorised – dare one say charismatic? – political leadership to drag his country out of crisis. This points to a deeper difficulty. It is easy to think of a Lincoln or a Mandela as the model of a Weberian statesman, but this understates their charismatic qualities. And what about Churchill? He was in many ways a political man-child: wilful, rude, domineering, warm and loving by turns. But if ever a politician believed in a mythical, even transcendental, realm of honour and glory and duty, it was he.

There are, then, no hard and fast rules. Politics always lies between the heroic and the humdrum. But as Weber puts it: ‘Anyone who wishes to engage in politics at all … is entering into relations with the Satanic powers that lurk in every act of violence.’ The trouble comes when every politician thinks they have to be a Churchill. What we need is more hard drilling.

Jesse Norman MP is Minister of State at the Department of Transport and the author of Adam Smith: What He Thought and Why it Matters (Allen Lane, 2018). He did his MPhil and PhD and lectured in philosophy at UCL.